Monday, 16 September 2019

THE IMPORTANCE OF GOOD NEIGHBOURS





I'M ABOUT to lay my cards on the table: brace yourselves.

I have always had mixed feelings about neighbours. They're a bit like family: you can't always choose them. It might be taboo to admit it, but you don't always get on with the people on the other side of the garden hedge.

I was lucky growing up. Our neighbours were generally kind and tolerant, turning a blind eye as we scrambled over garden walls to retrieve lost balls, and later, minding spare keys and turning a deaf ear as we partied. My parents' neighbours were also friends.


It was when I spent my first Summer working abroad as a student, that I was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers: neighbours I'd never met.

I was 20 when I arrived in Paris to crash in my aunt's apartment. It was my first time away from home and my aunt was away much of the time. My adventure started a few days in, when I locked myself out.

I'd stepped briefly into the hall, to throw a bag of rubbish down the chute, when the door slammed behind me. Not only were my keys inside, but so was handbag with my money, bus pass and work swipe. And I had to get to work. Arriving late, or not at all, was not an option.

I considered my choices. I was eight floors up and there was only one other apartment on the floor, rented by an elderly couple I'd never met. Until now.

I rang their doorbell. After a few minutes, the door opened on the latch. A puzzled, wrinkled face peered out.
'Bonjour,' I said, in my best school French. 'Je reste avec ma tante.' I pointed to the door behind me. 'Jai oublié mon key.'

The elderly Parisian woman looked completely bewildered. But by some miracle, she realised I wasn't a threat and unlatched the door to let me in. After I shook hands with her equally baffled husband, I pointed to their balcony doors: identical to the ones in my aunt's apartment across the hall.


They nodded, having established there was no point trying to talk to me: I
wouldn't understand them. I stepped out onto the tiny balcony. Between there and my aunt's balcony, with its open doors, was an L-shaped ledge. Eight floors up.  


I slipped off my shoes and threw them over to the balcony, then tucked my long, summer skirt into my knickers, and swung one leg, then the other, onto the stone ledge. As I began to inch my way along, I risked a downward glance and saw that a small crowd was gathering in the street below.

I reached the other balcony, climbed over and waved to the neighbours.
'Merci beaucoup,' I shouted. I thought they both looked a bit older now, but it could have been the distance. From the ground below, my audience applauded. I hastily reassembled my skirt, and gave a small bow.

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself wrong-footed yet again. Newly wed and with a small baby, I realised the walls of our lovely new townhouse were fairly thin. We didn't know our new neighbour, except that she seemed to come attached with very musical friends.

I finally met her. The small girl was six weeks old and hadn't slept for about three nights in a row. Neither had I. At some stage on the third afternoon, she finally succumbed. Still in my pyjamas, I crawled back into bed and closed my eyes. Then the noise began on the other side of the wall.

I sat up in bed. Clearly, my neighbour had dismantled a door so they could all dance on it in hob-nailed boots. Door dancing: it was a thing. Just not in modern suburban town houses, as far as I knew. The small girl stirred and threatened to wake.

I struggled into a dressing gown, grabbed my keys and ran next door. I knocked loudly. Nobody heard. The door dancing continued, accompanied now by lots of jiggy Irish music and enthusiastic hups. I glued my finger to the doorbell.

Finally, a young woman appeared: boho style, long blonde hair, warm smile.
'Hi, can I help you?'
'Stop making noise.' Sheer exhaustion and baby hormones had reduced me to short sentences. A tear may have slid down my cheek. 'I live next door. I have a new baby. I just got her to sleep.'

She looked stricken.
'I'm so sorry. And congratulations on your baby, that's lovely news.' I felt like the most unreasonable neighbour on the planet. 'Leave it with me,' she said. Moments later, there was total silence. The small girl and I slept.

Our neighbours moved some time later, their building work on their new house apparently complete. And within a few short months, I was back at work, writing features at a national newspaper.

'That singer, what's her name, has just moved into a new house in Rathmines,' my editor announced one morning. 'They've a new album coming out: see if you can get an interview. The house is fabulous.' It was all about the photos, I knew.

I secured an interview at the house, and read up a couple of recent articles on them, which included some grainy, black and white photos of the band.

Arriving ten minutes ahead of the photographer, the following week, I rang the doorbell and waited. A young woman answered: boho style, long, blonde hair, warm smile. Shock rendered me speechless as recognition flashed in her eyes. Then she stuck out her hand and widened her smile.
'Pleasure to meet you,' she said, as if our previous encounter had never happened. Gratefully, I grasped her hand and played along.

By the time our second girl was born, we had moved to a slightly bigger but much older home. Then we had The Boy. And having good neighbours became more important than ever. No more so, than the hot Summer day I struggled up the road with my then very lively, five year old son.


After I dumped two bags of groceries in the porch, I decided that a half hour of
TV for him and a shower for me, was essential. I was half way up the stairs, and half way out of my clothes, when I remembered that the groceries were still in the porch.

I ran back downstairs, just as the boy ran out of the TV room. I was in the porch when he closed the front door, locking me out of the house in my underwear.

Quickly, I scanned the road: nobody around. Then I peeked through the letter box. The boy was giggling at his joke.
'You got me,' I shouted. 'Let me in, now.'
In fairness, he tried. The problem was, in our old house, the doorknob was too high and too tricky for a five year old.

'Get a kitchen chair,' I encouraged. 'and after you let me in, I'll give you some chocolate from the corner press.'
Even standing on the kitchen chair, he couldn't manage the front door. He did, however, find the extra-large bar of chocolate. As I peered through the letter box, I could see him, sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, steadily munching his way to vomit-ville.

Despite the warm day, I was feeling quite cold now. What I needed was a spare key, and the nearest neighbour with my spare key lived across the road and three houses up.

On a normal day, I might have risked the dash across the quiet cul-de-sac, less than fully dressed. But there were builders gutting one of the other old houses: it was out of the question.

I emptied the grocery bags, wondering if I could tie them together and wear them like a sort of plastic dress. I viewed the umbrella stand. And then I spotted it. Right at the bottom, underneath a dozen battered brollies: a neatly-folded picnic blanket.

I wrapped it, sarong-style around me, and hot-footed it across the road. My neighbour wasn't in. But her Swedish au pair was. She didn't even blink when she opened the door to see me barefoot and wearing a blanket. Maybe she'd been tipped off.

I'd like to say I never locked myself out again after that. But it would be a lie. Thankfully, it's never again, been quite so dramatic.

I can only imagine my neighbours are grateful for small mercies.

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Hugs,
Sharon. xx