Piano man next door fills our new home with cheer

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 renovated kitchen.

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 you like."

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 of wine.

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 white sheets?

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 grounder aside.

"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 approached.

"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 softened.

" 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 attempted break-in?

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.