When Mr. Chan came back from a long weekend with Mrs. Chan, he discovered his garden had been vandalized. The hooligans that had been frequenting the neighborhood at night had hopped the fence and ruined in an evening what had taken him a year to create. His prize rose bush had been uprooted, the porcelain garden Buddha smashed, the fence slats shredded, and the goldfish in the pond massacred.
So Mr. Chan had done what anyone would do under threat of siege and built himself a wall. He stood back to survey the new fence that ran clear around the small patch of terrace and what was left of his lawn. Mickey the Chippy – as he was known to his mates – was looking at him as though he was crazy. But Mr. Chan knew that half measures don't work when you're dealing with hoodlums. He'd had the carpenter build an eight-foot fence with concrete footings and steel rebar.
Not one to mess about, he hadn't bothered to ask for his neighbors' involvement. You couldn't rely on anybody to follow through, and he knew the people next door were too tight to help pay for it. So he'd built the fence to the left of the house on the inside of theirs, continued it along the end of the garden where the vandals had breached the old one, and around to the right where the back alley turned down the side of his property to the road, creating a double fence on all three sides.
He glanced once more at the concrete pond he had refilled, with its single surviving goldfish, handed the carpenter a wad of bills, carefully removed his shoes, and placed white silk slippers on his feet before stepping through the French doors onto the cream living room carpet. There was a pause, then the vacuum started up again as Mrs. Chan continued to clean, and the glass doors snapped shut.
Mickey the Chippy stared at the bereft fish hovering in its bowl of cement, then stooped to pick up his tools. Before he left, he peed in the alleyway that separated the string of small back gardens from the woodland beyond, just out of view of the upstairs windows of the identical English row houses. He had only asked once to use the toilet before realizing the house was out of bounds. When he'd interrupted Mrs. Chan's vacuuming one day when Mr. Chan was out, she had seemed afraid to come to the door. Although she'd only opened it a few inches, he had seen the swath of spotless cream carpet that ran up the stairs and saw a white pair of gloves laid folded next to Mr. Chan's white slippers. He had been sent away feeling as if he'd asked her for a quickie, not to use the lavatory.
He felt resentful at being shamed for his muddy boots, so while urinating in the back alley, out of sight, he was careless enough to splash a little on Mr. Chan's new fence. I'll bet he puts on those white gloves when he comes home, he thought. And runs his fingers along the baseboards. Just to make sure she's been cleaning.
Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker next door were targeted the following weekend, and Mr. Chan looked out of the bedroom window and regarded their ruined garden with satisfaction. Mr. Whitaker was shouting at Mrs. Whitaker, who was shouting at him for shouting at her. They'd only been gone overnight, but somehow the vandals knew and had scaled the low hedge in the early morning. Mr. Chan had been vaguely aware of the smashing of a pot, but had hardly stirred from his slumber in his complacence. Mrs. Chan had lain awake through the whole thing, wishing her husband wasn't there so she could go to the window and watch.
The damage had been done, and the neighbors were picking up the pieces. Mrs. Whitaker was attempting to drag the single remaining intact pot to the side, and it had split in two, spilling dirt onto the area her husband was sweeping clean. Mr. Chan disdained Mr. Whitaker for his work as a clerk for the diocese, and thought his neighbors shabby, with their airs and graces and pretenses, and their scarcely veiled prejudices and their filthy yapping collie that chased cars down the street because there were no sheep to herd. Stupid people. He surveyed the cleanup scene and wondered why they bothered. The garden was such a mess before the vandals came, you could hardly tell the difference. Maybe they'd replace the lawn now and do a bit of clean up. Those plastic pots were offensive to the eye, and now they were useless. Good.
When Mickey's phone trilled, it was the Whitakers.
"They came in the night!" Mrs. Whitaker removed her apron at the front door. "To us, of all people!" She eyed his muddy boots. "You'll have to go around the back way." The carpenter asked if he could use the bathroom before he got started.
"No, you'll have to go somewhere else. I'll be late for bible study." She slammed the door, so he navigated the brambles that had invaded the alleyway behind the houses and peed on the compost heap that the vandals had mounted to drop into their garden.
Mr. Whitaker didn't want to build a new fence, he said, and it hadn't been very charitable of Mr. Ching to put one up without telling him. It blocked the sun and now those ruffians were targeting him, a God-fearing Christian, instead. He asked Mickey to move the compost heap to the woodland side of the alleyway and run a strand of barbed wire along the top of the ivy-strangled hedge.
"That should keep 'em out," he said. "And, besides, the Lord will protect us." He glanced up at Mr. Chan's towering fence. "Some of us have faith, you know..."
Mickey the Chippy shoveled the dirt and scratched himself on the wire. Fat lot of good that'll do.
His mood wasn't lifted until Mrs. Mahmoud from the next house down called out and offered him a mug of sweet tea that hinted faintly of coriander. She eyed the devastation nervously as she approached the newly-wired hedge, but kept a smile on her face.
"It is terrible…they have no respect at all for people's property." She handed the tea over the barbed wire. "Do you think they will come to us next?"
The carpenter looked over at the flimsy barrier that separated the neat garden, with its square of grass and carefully tended herbs in blue-glazed ceramic pots, from the alleyway and the woods beyond. Prime target, he thought, but said, "Oh, I'm sure they'll get bored and move on." He scratched himself again on the barbed wire because the dog kept wrapping itself around his legs as he worked, trying in vain to herd him toward the back door.
The sun was setting through the trees in the woodland when he called over the fence to return the mug and saw Mr. Mahmoud standing at his French doors, staring at the neat row of pots that bordered the lawn. He hastily went around to the road and left it on the front porch.
Mr. Whitaker haggled over the price they'd already agreed upon, and when Mickey again asked if he might use the lavatory, he looked as if he was about to say no, but seemed to be aware that it might appear un-Christian to say no to a carpenter. So the workman wiped his boots on the already filthy doormat and stepped onto the tired carpet.
"Mind the coats!" Mr. Whitaker called from the kitchen, and the carpenter half ducked, half crawled under the mass of coats that hung from a rail in the tiny bathroom.
Mickey the Chippy sat on the toilet, head sandwiched between old overcoats that smelled like mothballs. He hadn't really minded Mr. Chan with his white gloves, even if the house was off limits to dirty boots. At least you knew where you were with him. The dog was scratching at the bathroom door.
He'd thrown the tools in his van and driven a block and a half from the house before he saw the head of a yipping dog bouncing alongside, attracted by the rattling hubcaps and trying to herd him home, and thought for a moment about running it over by mistake. But turned around and ran the dog back home instead.
Mrs. Mahmoud called a week later. Could he please come round? The vandals have struck!
She was thrilled to see him, and disregarding his muddy boots insisted on inviting him into a home that smelled of curry. She didn't mind him using the loo at all, she said, and thrust a mug of tea in his hand and pointed through the glass doors.
They came in the night, she said. It was terrifying for her husband and son, but she herself had not been afraid. Those hooligans had flung the pots clear across the garden, and tipped the tubs of herbs she used for cooking over the lawn. Everything she had planted and tended so carefully had been lost. She had asked her husband to call the police, she said, but he had insisted that they wouldn't come. They wouldn't think it was important enough. Besides, their son had been so upset when those nasty Whitaker people next door had called the police on them last summer for vandalizing their rosebush.
The carpenter shook his head. "They're protected by law, Mr. Mahmoud, sir. You can't just kill 'em. They got kicked out of their homes. And as far as they're concerned, they're just havin' a bit of fun."
"Protected? The terrorists that are bouncing off my fence for fun?"
"They're hungry, Mr. Mahmoud. You can't really blame 'em." Mickey the Chippy twisted an empty tea mug in grimy fingers. "Couldn't Mrs. Mahmoud just throw your dinner scraps over the fence? Till the building of the tram line through the wood's finished and they can go back?" A chunk of dirt fell to the carpet. He stooped to pick it up. The Mahmouds pretended not to notice.
"That is an excellent idea!" Mrs. Mahmoud nodded eagerly and swept past, disappearing down the steep stairs in a rustle of colorful silks. There was a clatter of pans from the kitchen as her voice wafted up with the scent of ginger and cinnamon.
"Mr. Chippy! Can you please tell me, do you think those badgers would like curry?"