Mavis wrapped her cable knit mustard yellow scarf twice around her scrawny neck, attempting to close the gaps where a chilling wind penetrated.
Loose thinning curls covered by an Alaskan-rated beanie, she wished balaclavas weren’t associated with crime. Her cheeks ached with cold and she hadn’t left her house.
With power bills so high, she rarely switched on her electric heater so it wasn’t much warmer inside unless she was in bed and under the covers.
Sheepskin gloves and an enormous wool coat covering shabby trousers and sweater completed her ensemble.
Petey was already dressed in a striking rainbow dog coat Mavis’s granddaughter Poppy had knitted. He bore a resemblance to a cosied teapot, but Mavis would never dream of embarrassing him by mentioning it.
“Come on, Petey, off we go,” she said, opening the front door and looking into the gloomy two o’clock nightscape of her gentrified Melbourne suburb.
For the first four years of their partnership, Mavis and the fluffy white Shitzu had walked in the proper morning, in daylight, never before 8am.
Then her advancing years had delivered an unwanted gift – insomnia.
In the restless logic of the sleepless Mavis had one night roused Petey for an early walk.
They returned with fresh knowledge of the neighbourhood and a habit was born.
In her childhood Mavis developed skills helping her father in his business and she realised they could be applied to their nocturnal walks.
For instance her powers of observation alerted her to the slightly raised window in Mrs Jackson’s lounge room, probably airing out the aroma of her incontinent poodle.
And the doggy door the Smiths had installed for their Rottweiler and forgotten to close when he died.
Stan Pearson never locked the door of his shed despite the presence of a built-in lockbox rumoured to contain family gems his mother had left to him.
Living in a safe neighbourhood, where everyone knew each other, was wonderful but it did breed complacency easily exploited by a trusted insider.
For the past six months Mavis had been silently trespassing in her neighbours’ homes, pilfering bits and pieces she thought they wouldn’t miss.
During the daytime she napped when she could or caught the bus to visit pawnbrokers in far-flung suburbs to cash in her treasures.
She also practised the blank look that could save her if she was ever caught. Age had so many benefits: invisibility, the easy assumption of dementia, automatic trust.
Baking biscuits and cakes, Mavis took them as gifts to her neighbours and their invitations to come inside for a cuppa gave her the opportunity for reconnaissance. There were so many treasures in these newer homes, so many things nobody seemed to miss.
The money she raised was minimal but it was enough to bolster her pension and help pay the bills she couldn’t avoid.
But Mavis had a problem her early-morning forays couldn’t solve.
Despite her father’s dubious occupation her mother raised her to be honest. The prods from her conscience had been growing until they were overwhelming.
When the secrets became too much and the financial burdens too many Mavis put a For Sale sign on the lawn in front of her home. There was an immediate response from her neighbours who took down the sign and invited themselves to her house for Sunday afternoon tea, bringing cakes and sandwiches.
“Why do you want to leave?” John from Number 3 asked.
“I don’t want to, I have to,” Mavis said. “And before I do, there’s something you should know … ”
“Mavis, we know,” John interrupted, while the other neighbours nodded in agreement.
“But how?” she asked.
“Remember when we first arrived?” Stella asked. “Our old house kept coming up with new ways to drive us mad. When the water heater broke you let us all shower at your house for a week. Then, when the power had to be re-wired, you invited us over for dinner three nights in a row.
“And you taught me how to make your grandma’s choc-chip biscuits which were a school favourite and helped me meet and connect with other mums.”
Wendy, from three doors down on the south side of the cul-de-sac chimed in then reminding Mavis of how wild her garden had been and how Mavis had helped her plan beds and decide what should be kept and what discarded.
“You looked after the kids when I was stuck in traffic after work,” Kate added, the relief still evident in her voice.
“You brought round food for a fortnight after my Caesar with Suzie,” Sarah added.
“And you finished distributing our flyers when I sprained my ankle,” Matt said.
The unofficial spokesperson for the cul-de-sac, John stepped forward again and took Mavis’s hands in his.
“You’ve helped all of us at one time or another,” he said.
“But you kept missing the hints and offers we made about helping you.
“When Stan saw you opening his lockbox, we realised there was a way we could help without imposing, so we took it. We started leaving little things out, things that didn’t matter to us but might net you a few dollars. We never meant to embarrass or hurt you – I hope you can forgive us?”
“Forgive you?” Mavis queried, in shock that she’d been so thoroughly unaware. “But, I’ve been stealing from you – I should be asking your forgiveness.”
“Actually, the way we see it, you’ve been looking after us and accepting a few small trinkets in return,” John said. “It hasn’t escaped our notice that you could have taken larger, precious pieces, yet you’ve only ever taken bits and bobs. Think of it as helping us declutter.
“We all love you Mavis. You have to stay!”
“Thank you,” she said.
Mavis looked at her neighbours, thinking back over the years. Of the children growing up here, of her involvement with all the friends and families around her. If they could forgive her, surely she could forgive herself.
And John’s ‘declutter’ comment had given her an idea for a business which would allow her to stay for as long as she was able.
“I’m going to stay.”
© Danielle Berryman 2021