Do you know your neighbours?
One of the strangest paradoxes about living in a city is that you're surrounded by millions of people and yet quite often the folks who live on either side of your house are pretty much complete strangers. This isn't true for everybody, of course. I know people who are best friends with their neighbours, who share open green spaces at the back of their block in which whole rows of maisonettes assemble, enjoying barbecues in the summer, their kids frolicking about in the sunshine. A lot of the time though, the diverse and busy inhabitants of London are limited to merely flashing their neighbours quick smiles, exchanging small talk and parcels outside front doors. It's a shame, really, because in London everybody has a story to tell, and if people opened up more, who knows what we might learn?
I live in a terraced house with a decent-sized garden. As an adult, it's easy to step out onto the gravel and look over the fence into my neighbour's garden (as a kid it was much more difficult to do this and so the level of mystery was always heightened.) I can see the bedroom window that overlooks this garden, and I can hear the rumblings of activity through the walls quite often, the music that has recently started to play. A new couple has moved in to the left of our house, at number 9, and this is what I know about them thus far:
- Their names are Nick and Lauren.
- They may or may not be a couple (they could be gay best friends?! Or brother and sister?! Lauren had a completely different skin tone to Nick, but maybe she's adopted? Or he's adopted? Or they're both adopted?! Maybe they met whilst travelling in Cambodia in 2007. We'll never know. Or will we?)
- Lauren had an accent that suggested she has ties to America, or perhaps Canada. Then again, maybe she comes from a family that travelled around a lot, and Lauren went to various international schools, hence the twang...again, speculation.
- They seem friendly.
- They like to work out in the garden when it's dark.
- They are fairly young - maybe in their late twenties or early thirties.
And there you have it.
It's all quite exciting, really. Instead of knocking on their front door and talking to them like actual humans, I try to piece together what they're like by listening, watching and making sure I'm present whenever any small interactions between them and my parents take place. What a world we live in.
We've had couples in that same house before. There was a slightly older couple who resided there for about a year, and during that time Sam had a baby; the whole duration of their stay in this house, to me, can be epitomised by the progression of said baby's development. I'd hear her whimpering on the other side of my bedroom wall like a little kitten, and every time I went over to deliver a package to them (the classic indicator of a neighbourly relationship) the baby would look different, and I'd ogle at the wonders of life and say this to Sam, and then they moved to Northern Ireland.
I liked them, though. I was actually quite sad about them leaving - I felt as if we had the beginnings of something really pleasant and wholesome, and then Covid hit and we lost the chance to invite them over to dinner. They were a soft-spoken couple with good jobs and a very neat house, despite the chaos of the new baby.
Funnily enough, the further back I go in time, the better my relationships with the people who lived at number 9. I think this is because they stayed in the house for much longer - for years and years, and there was time to nurture these relationships. It seems as if these days people tend to come and go like the seasons - house prices fluctuate, new jobs pop up and people's lives are more fast-paced. A house is just an empty vessel, or a temporary place to rest your head whilst you figure out what the hell to do next.
Terraced houses allow for a lot of different residents. They're big enough to become house shares, but are ideal enough for families and couples. Heck, number 7 was was occupied by just one person for years and years, as was number 5. These two individuals never married, and were, of course, middle-aged, because who on earth could afford to buy a terraced house in London in the current economic climate? No, these two individuals had secured these properties long ago, maybe even before we were there, and we've been at the same place for around 20 years. We had some of the most interesting lads living at number 9 around 10 years ago. I say lads because they were actually lads; they were young and cool and used to smoke weed upstairs out the windows, wearing baseball caps back to front and blasting out music. But we never minded, because they were super nice, and my teenage self had a massive crush on one of them. His name was Josh. All of the guys were good-looking, but my heart used to do a somersault whenever I saw Josh step out the front door. I'd be there looking all gawky in my school uniform, prone to blushing. I didn't have much to say to them (I mean, what on earth did we really have in common?) but one day I ended up inside their house, and it was the most random encounter I've had with a neighbour. I was locked out. I had just gotten home from school and realised I had left my keys at home. My parents were working, and I wasn't really sure what to do next, so I made the daring move to knock on Josh's door. He opened it with his relaxed demeanour and beckoned me in, saying things like "no worries, Rhiannon" and "do you want a fry-up?" I was baffled that the boys were eating breakfast in the afternoon, but agreed to some scrambled eggs on toast which, I remember, were pretty delicious, although maybe I just thought they were delicious because everything in that house was delightful (Josh included.) Next thing I knew, I was in the living-room where, it transpired, Josh and his housemates kept a bunch of snakes in terrariums, including several fat pythons which, Josh explained, he had tamed. Looking back, I don't think he really had tamed them at all (I mean, they're snakes...they measure themselves up against you to see how easy it would be to swallow you whole) but at the time I was impressed, and was even more impressed when Josh said that he used to go onto television talk shows in places like Germany and show these snakes off to the general public. God knows what his actual job entailed. He let me hold a little snake, a jerky thing which made me squeal. A few weeks later there was a shedded snake skin outside on the pavement, and people walked past in utter bewilderment, but I knew the truth, and felt somewhat smug about it. The boys moved on some time later, and I always wondered what became of them and their strange pets. I liked the boys a lot, but my favourite neighbour from number 9 was a girl my age called Judy. She lived there with her Mum for a long time, and we became really close friends. Our adventures never stretched very far; we were limited to the boundaries of our estate. We used to go to the corner shop and buy as many sweets as we could for a pound, then make up stories on our way back home, stopping at the park to test our prowess at the monkey bars. Judy had this sort of cackling laugh, and she used to speak German to her Mum; her voice was always really loud and often squeaky, vibrant. It was perfect for the multitudes of amateur films we used to produce on my clunky video camera. We used anything and everything as props. We made up dances in my garden, caught frogs that had escaped from the pond next door at number 7. One time (or maybe a couple of times) I clambered over the fence into Judy's garden, feeling like James Bond, imagining the surprise on my Mum's face when I turned up at our front door with Judy in tow. That clambering hurt like a mother, lemme tell you (I'm pretty sure I damaged all the fragile parts of my body in the process) but it was worth it to feel like a fugitive. When Judy moved to Hertfordshire I was pretty devastated, but I don't think it really hit me at the time just how much fun we had and how much I truly appreciated her as a neighbour. I thought it was so cool that we literally lived next door to one another. The fact that we could knock our fists against the bedroom walls and make a sort of amateur code was, in my mind, exhilarating. Even though we had our own friends and went to different schools and had different families, we always had a secure and stable relationship because we were neighbours. I didn't need to think about whether or not to invite her to my birthday party because her attending was a given - there was no question about it. In hindsight, it was a bit like having a sister. If we argued - which, I think we did, quite a lot - we could just stalk back to our respective houses and simmer, but we knew eventually that we'd have to make up eventually...because we were neighbours.
I'm sometimes jealous of people who live in remote parts of the country, who grow up with their neighbours and have a shared insight into the local community, but often I'm not, because I don't know if I'd really like to know everyone's business, or have everyone know my business. The dynamics of small-town life are vastly different to those in the city, in which you can parade about, gloriously ambiguous, and come across people of all walks of life. There is something exciting about not knowing, about possibility.
One of my neighbours died years ago; he was quite old, lived alone, and was a man of few words. I don't quite know what he did, and I was never interested, because to my teenage self he was just another person drifting about whilst I navigated my way through an ever-changing juvenile landscape (and also one time he took the piss out of my friend - kind of unintentionally, but she still remembers it.) Anyway, my Mum told me that he died, and it was a bit of a shock, but more surprising that he had always been there and I'd never talked to him and then he'd gone, and he was never coming back. Other neighbours had floated away, and I kind of knew I'd never see them again, but I also knew that they'd be out there in the wider world, living by other people, forming other connections, sort of like bubbles. This bubble had popped, and it just so happened to be one that I'd never really noticed. But Bill had lived two or three doors down - he had taken his last breath in the house on my street.
Our neighbours aren't just bubbles floating about in the background - they're real-life humans living real lives on the other side of our bedroom walls, living parallel lives to the ones we're living. It's all just a cosmic coincidence that we ended up living at number 11, instead of number 9 or number 7.
It's also a very intimate existence. We're living in an age in which we don't just watch people over the fence, but we can find out their whole life stories if we put in enough effort. In just a few clicks I could probably find out a lot more information about Nick and Lauren via Facebook, but where's the fun in that?
Maybe I should just talk to them.