Eleanor Ainge Roy reflects on life in and around a block
of Dunedin terrace homes.
Five months ago I moved into a block of terrace houses on the
edge of South Dunedin. There are six of them sloping down the
street, and they are all exactly the same, but for the number
of steps leading to their front door.
We started out in No 42, "the flashest of the bunch",
according to the neighbours, with carpets upstairs and a
On our first night, about 7pm, a beautiful, ethereal piano
tune filled the room. Bach, Mozart, Schubert?
We sat spellbound, silent, for half an hour.
In the depths of winter in a strange new house it filled us
with warmth and cheer. Who was this talent at No 44?
Or was it a very well-worn CD?
A few nights later the piano player knocked on our door. Grey
haired and dressed entirely in black, he was someone we felt
we already - the sweetly melancholic tunes he favoured, the
sound of his shower running in the morning and the guttural
growl of his beat-up black Mercedes.
We shared a pot of tea, and he shrugged off his talent, and
the way it had kindled our evenings in those early days.
"I have coffee every afternoon at 2pm. Come around whenever
The six terrace houses share a garden, a quaint sanctuary
with an artist's studio, shared compost and view of the sea.
In August we moved three houses up to No 48, the only terrace
house to have the wall between the kitchen and lounge knocked
down. The radical internal architecture was a matter of great
interest to our terrace neighbours, none of whom are allowed
to knock down their walls. We couldn't hear the piano anymore
but on the first night No 38 appeared with a lamb bone for
our dog, and No 46 stepped from her porch to ours for a glass
During the Olympics, around dinner time, No 42 - a very old
friend - would let himself in the back door. His wife was
away, and so he brought a bottle of wine and whatever was on
hand in his fridge. Clams. Leeks. A ripe piece of cheese. I
became inattentive and lazy with our grocery shopping,
because whatever I forgot could be foraged from No 42,
quietly slipping through the soggy garden in my dressing gown
to lift butter, jam, milk and bread.
Working from home, I occasionally knocked on the piano man's
door at 2pm for coffee. I invariably turned up slightly
frustrated and in need of conversation. Piano man worked from
home too, and was often in the same state. While he ground
the coffee by hand I entertained him with the terrace gossip.
Did he know that No 42 heard someone trying to break into our
car last night?
He heard the distinctive slide of the people mover's door,
and then a young male voice exclaiming "I'm not getting in
there, there's a dog in there!" And had No 44 spotted some
Because they have disappeared from the communal washing line
and it is an absolute mystery.
The piano man's eye lit up hopefully, and he put the coffee
"I am very absent-minded but I have lost some brown sheets.
Could they have gone the same place as your white ones?"
A few days later I pulled out from No 48 and steered our
ancient people mover down the hill. I had driven only two
blocks when a red, unmarked police car flashed at me to pull
over. A policeman in uniform and a bulletproof vest
"What did I do?" I said by way of introduction.
"Do you live in the terrace houses ma'am?"
"Yes, I do."
"Who do you live with?" he asked challengingly, his chin
jutting out like a high schooler's.
"My dad and my brother."
The policeman's brow crumpled in confusion, and his tone
" Um ... exactly which terrace house do you live in?"
A few hours later I returned to the house and spotted the
undercover police car a block up the road, pointing away from
the terraces, but our front doors clearly visible in their
side mirrors. For a number of weeks following my meeting with
them, I observed the car parked in the same spot, at
different times of the day and night. It was intriguing.
I shared this new information with 42 and 44. Which house was
under surveillance, and why?
Did it have anything to do with our missing washing - or the
Theories were hashed out, argued over and dismissed. The
mystery remains unsolved.
Yesterday, we moved to No 46, traipsing our many possessions
10 steps next door.
Its interior is best described as a mixture of 42 and 48 and
we feel instantly at home. With summer upon us the terrace
residents are spending more time in the garden, their voices
trickling into our home at dusk.
The communal washing line has since been removed, but I
suspect we shall find other things to talk of.
• Eleanor Ainge Roy is a Dunedin journalist.