Writer Michelle Fincke speaks of the man, the generosity, the humanity and the dog that lie behind the sparkling proclamations of the real estate sign.

The Real State of Ray’s Real Estate

‘Tis the season for real estate hyperbole; the sales board for the scrubbed and renovated little weatherboard across the road – featuring an elegant living room with gleaming floorboards – declares it “The best it’s ever been”.

But before the stainless steel appliances and the stunning, fully tiled bathroom, the house belonged to Ray. Ray and Nelly. Nelly was Ray’s dog, a warm-hearted shaggy mongrel with a perpetual grin, fleas and a prodigious stink. Sometimes, Ray would head up the bush to shoot with a mate and Nelly would swim in the cool river before rolling in manure and rotting corpses for the drive home.

Ray adored Nelly. He used a bit of old rope for a lead and she was never registered. His neighbours formed an anxious coalition, guarding against the ranger. Ray himself looked out for other people’s dogs, popping them safely into his backyard with a huge, straggly lemon tree and a bird in a cage until he could gleefully reunite owner and stray.

When we moved into Ray’s neighbourhood, he was in his early 80s and had lived in the same street, in various dwellings, for much of his life. One day he showed me a crumpled picture he’d found of my house, taken in the 1950s, a stranger peeking out from under a coquettish hedge. If he bore a grudge about the gentrification of his working-class suburb, he never let on.

His last home was opposite but, really, he lived on the nature strip. Clad in year-round uniform of shorts and baggy blue singlet, he bent the ears of tradies, exchanged g’days with passers-by and watched us come and go, strapping toddlers into car seats, hauling in groceries, racing off to work. “Geez, you’ve been busy, love!” he’d marvel, the only person to notice.

He’d walk Nelly and, now and then, drive wonkily to the shops. He loved the local footy and a beer at the club. An ex-serviceman, he’d go to the RSL and by taxi to the doctor.

On sunny afternoons he’d limp across the road to lean on the fence and admire our cat, who’d strike various adorable poses for his benefit. “Handsome cat, that,” he’d exclaim gruffly. He’d put on silly voices and make the kids squeal with laughter.

Ray declined all but a couple of invitations for a cuppa; when cornered, he perched awkwardly, a Stubbies-clad buttock hanging off the chair ready for a quick escape. He’d gulp his hot, milky tea and, after a little strained conversation, bolt for the front fence, happy to yarn for hours on neutral territory.

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Image credit: PublicDomainArchive

Neighbourly kindness had to be repaid. Had to be. Mow his nature strip, bottles of beer would appear on your mat. Give him mince pies on a paper plate, he’d fire back with chocolate Santas for the kids. Hearing that our son loved aeroplanes, Ray shyly gifted an old book about military aircraft. I tried to thank him, but he was already sprinting home.

Once, I took him a meal. He reluctantly invited me to bring the lasagne into his careworn, gloomy kitchen and we both stood, awkwardly silent, staring at the floor. Trespassing, I felt I had trodden on his shadow.

Pain from various ailments caused insomnia, and he prowled the dark street like a battle-scarred tom cat, foiling robberies. He bellowed and fiercely brandished his walking stick at thieves trying to lift Navmans from dashboards and builders’ tools from vans, earning him local superhero status.

He was a widower, cared for by three feisty female neighbours. Ray drove them crazy: “won’t take his medicine … doesn’t eat properly … never listens”. They exasperated him with their constant interfering! When one, his near-neighbour Glenys, succumbed to cancer at home, he stood a sombre vigil on his patch of turf, barrel-chest balanced on spindly legs, dignified grief laid bare.

Early one morning the ambulance came and took Ray to hospital after his last fall, and, as we sadly watched him driven away, we knew he wouldn’t return to our street.

Life stalked mercilessly on; Nelly was adopted, registered and washed frequently.

Ray didn’t last long in the nursing home. No one thought he would.

At the funeral we, his neighbours, realised we barely knew Ray. In his little house across the road there were whole rooms unseen, hints of dark corners. All these years we’d just been peering through the dusty windows, catching glimpses. Which was fair enough.

But still we sobbed for Ray: animal-lover, footy fan, fearless neighbourhood watcher. His house was sold and filled with tenants, thumping music and pizza boxes. Then they too were gone and the tradies laboured all through the dreary winter.

It’s a nice little house. Every element conveys contemporary quality behind a classical image. That’s what the board says, but I still can’t bring myself to inspect Ray’s house, to tread on his shadow.

I know real estate speak is necessarily extravagant and that houses, like men, in their time play many parts. But the best it’s ever been? Not even close.

(First published in The Age, 2013)

Michelle Fincke

Michelle Fincke has worked for The Herald, The Sun and the ABC, was the Melbourne editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, and wrote for The Age. Michelle currently teaches non-fiction writing at Victoria Polytechnic.