Neighbourliness

While we’ve all been staying in our flats and houses during the past ten weeks of lockdown, I have been getting to know my neighbours.

This is an unusual pastime for me. During the day I’m normally at work, and in the evenings – even warm, outdoorsy sort of summer evenings – I’m either working or keeping to myself.

Lockdown has changed this, and I have been brought into neighbourliness. Though I still haven’t been in much contact with my neighbours, working from home, having all three meals in my handkerchief-sized garden each day, and looking out of my study window while I’m thinking, have all helped me to be part of my street’s communal rhythm.

At least twice a day, Euan the Toddler makes a break for it and runs down the loke between my house and the students’. Each time, his mummy runs after him, sometimes chasing him with her tickle guns, sometimes shouting for him to stop before he makes it to the road. I’ve never met them, and don’t know their faces, but still I know that Euan has a vocation as an escape artist, and that his other hobbies include sitting off-limits in his mum’s prized flowerbed. As I eat my lunch outside, I quietly cheer Euan on or will him to stop, as the situation demands.

Dusky-blue butterflies dance and then are gone. I fail to photograph the tiniest butterfly I’ve ever seen, its wingspan only a centimetre and decorated with an elegant pattern of yellow eyes.

Most weekdays the Senegalese man a couple of doors down runs his personal training sessions outside in his garden. I hear him demonstrating leg-lifts, squats, press-ups, how to use garden furniture as a home gym. I hear him helping his children with their homework – “ah, bey, sey, dey, euh, eff, zhey…” – and his Skype sessions with relatives. Sometimes it sounds like he’s training his mum, too: “Maman, en devant. Non, en devant le genou.” I know that he is quickly irritated, but quicker to laugh. His laugh is infectious, his voice a higher pitch than when he gives instructions. In the evenings he goes indoors, and his children come out to play pirates.

I track the progress of the houseplants in the window facing mine. The young professionals who live there do a great job of stopping their dog, a small, reddish-gold little gremlin with tufted ears, from knocking the plants off the windowsill whenever the low-bellied long-haired black cat mooches past.

The little girl who lives opposite resolutely keeps hold of her My Little Pony while going through her karate routines. I haven’t yet seen her dad persuade her to put the pony down.

The cats scheme under the cars.

The students next door are exuberant as they reach the end of term. They have all their doors and windows open, so I hear every shriek of laughter, every wobbly rendition of Unchained Melody, every argument about how much to water the basil. One night, one of the boys admits how frightened he is about job prospects after graduation. This is one of the few times that his housemates don’t have a smart rejoinder. For just a few minutes, that is, until they resume competitive belching.

My garden thrums with bees who are visiting next door’s Ceanothus, which overhangs the fence, and my Knautia macedonica and foxgloves “Sutton’s Apricot”. I can sit for hours watching them. I note their difference species: the tens of great big bumblebees with white bottoms; the fewer but no less charming smaller bumbles with peachy orange bottoms; the raised yellow abdomen of a solitary miner bee, and Apis mellifera mellifera in all her modest beauty. Locating them by their insistent buzzing, I am a voyeur as Narcissus bulb flies mate. I admire bright hoverflies, the pale blue damsel fly who comes to visit – someone nearby must have a pond – and am outraged by some sort of scavenger fly, who tries (unsuccessfully) to bully the bumblebees into dropping their forage.

The family whose garden backs onto mine dine al fresco long into the night. They sound less worried now when talking about friends and family back in Italy than they did a few weeks ago. They laugh more.

Clusters of pearly snails’ eggs are too pretty to destroy, casting the light like miniature crystal balls. Under the luminous purple of a rogue orach leaf, I find tiny lime green eggs. The colour combination almost tricks my eyes, so closely does it verge on fluorescence. A close second to these colours is the honeywort, which glows with a glaucous power, demanding attention even as it recedes into the shade. I’m amazed again and again at how nature knows just which colours go together.

I hear the woman with the slight drawl to her voice check in on her elderly neighbour through the window, twice a day and without fail. Each evening they spend a long time chatting as the woman’s little girl rides up and down, up and down, on her bicycle with stabilisers. Her bicycle has the same sort of handlebar tassles that I coveted as a child. The old lady shows a gruff kindness to the little girl, and I like her for addressing the girl directly. I can hear that she knows that children too are people.  

Mr and Mrs Blackbird’s children have now left the nest. They’ve yet to learn to be scared of me, or perhaps they just take after Mr Blackbird more than they do their mother. Mr Blackbird will fly down and look for worms or drink from the birdbath even when I’m in the garden, if I stay very still. Mrs Blackbird however watches from afar, and then flies off with her disapproving clucking sound. Mr Blackbird flies after her, calling “Come on, dear, don’t be like that!” I hope the fledglings learn to be more scared for their own safety, but I enjoy their company as they watch me from the top of the fence.

Though I don’t join in with the clapping, I hear it each Thursday night at 8pm, just as I settle down to video call far-off friends. Next door’s children are quite musical – even when we’re not locked down, I hear the Star Wars theme tune on cello through the walls at 8am fairly regularly – and it turns out that they are also talented saucepan beaters.

Once a week I check on the wormery. I put a handful of wilted, diced leaves in the corner, and give a sprinkle of the watering can. The worms mostly hide, but a small scratch at the surface of the compost shows that they’re still there. The slugs haven’t taken over, thankfully. Everyone seems to have found an accord, or at least an equilibrium.

I track each new addition to the neighbourhood scarecrow trail. A few doors down a rather lumpy Spiderman started the week with two smart, Velcro-fastening school shoes on his feet. He has since become a double amputee, his trousers tied off just below the knee. 

The swifts play above the garden during the day, and move down to the bottom of the hill in the evening, where the insects congregate in greater number. Each rzeeee, rzeeee lifts my heart.

I eavesdrop on people shouting greetings, where to buy flour, how to treat rose blackspot to each other from a safe distance.

Each moment spent observing and listening brings me more into the neighbourly web of this place. There are nuisances, there were burglaries earlier in the year, there are noises and smells, there are rats, cats shit in my flowers, people spend their energy arguing about whose wheelie bin is whose. We are very different. We live cheek by jowl. We must love each other anyway. Even without meeting, talking, physical closeness, I am part of this neighbourhood. We look out for each other.

Copyright (C) Flo Reynolds, 2020.

NCW Book Club: A Line Made by Walking

It’s been a pleasure to curate and produce the second NCW Book Club. This time our chosen book is A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume. Through a combination of podcasts, Zoom discussions and a Discord community, we’ve been discussing the book with readers from around the world and hearing from Sara herself about her practice as a writer and artist.

To compliment the Book Club, I’ve curated two lists for the NCW blog: questions and activities for readers and recommended reads for fans of Sara Baume.

There’s still time to get involved with the Book Club – find out how you can join in here – and in July we’ll announce our next selected book.

NCW The Writing Life podcast: launching the NCW Book Club

I spoke on the NCW The Writing Life podcast last week as we launch the first digital Book Club. For May and June 2020 we’ll be reading and discussing Sara Baume’s second novel, A Line Made by Walking. Listen to the podcast, and find out how to get your hands on a copy of the book and join the discussion here.

NCW The Writing Life podcast: the responsibility of the writer with Kendel Hippolyte

Back in October I had the pleasure of speaking to poet Kendel Hippolyte during his UK tour for the release of his latest collection, Wordplanting. We spoke about writing across different forms and the responsibilities that writers have towards their art and their reader. Click here to hear more.

Adventures in Reading #3: The Library of Aimless Yet Meaningful Pursuits to the writing of containment

Adventures in Reading #3

My latest tinyletter is now available to read here. This time I take in bad ontology jokes (sorry), children’s secret codes, a fantastic essay by Khairani Barokka that I can’t stop reading, and how the communicative potential for writing and reading feels more important than ever in these days of isolation and distancing. You can subscribe and/or read it here.

NCW The Writing Life podcast: exploring themes through characters with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

A while ago I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down with Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ and talk to her about her award-winning debut novel Stay With Me, particularly looking at how she uses character to allow her to explore bigger themes of women’s lives, chronic illness, and family life in turbulent times. Our conversation is now available on the NCW The Writing Life podcast, and you can listen here.

Adventures in Reading: 111.0 to the Library of Aimless Yet Meaningful Pursuits

The second of my Adventures in Reading is available now. This one takes in the possibility of different library cataloguing systems from the Dewey Decimal Classification to S. R. Ranganathan’s Laws of Library Science, through to “The Library of Aimless Yes Meaningful Pursuits”, a speculative essay by the OOMK Collective in their book The Library Was. There’s also a fair bit about why I just love libraries so much. Read it here.

Adventures in Reading #2

NCW The Writing Life podcast: from teacher to writer with Ashley Hickson-Lovence

The Writing Life with Ashley Hickson-Lovence

In the autumn I had the pleasure of talking to poet and novelist Ashley Hickson-Lovence for the National Centre for Writing’s The Writing Life podcast. We talked about writing around the day job, committing to one’s writing practice through further study, and the joys of indie publishing. Listen to the end for Ashley’s top tips for fellow writers; his method of having a few stated aims for each project really resonated with me because you’re then writing by design, and it informs the writing on a technical level, too – it all comes back to the effect you want to create in the reader. Listen here.

NCW The Writing Life podcast: taking yourself seriously with Cat Woodward

Cat Woodward on the NCW podcast

I really enjoyed the chance to interview Cat Woodward for NCW’s The Writing Life podcast a few months ago, and the episode has gone live today. Cat was in Norwich to read at UEA Live just before the launch of her latest collection Blood. Flower. Joy! (Knives Forks & Spoons, 2019) so we caught up about treating your writing as a defined project, the editing process, and how Cat articulates her concerns and interests as a writer in everything she does. Listen now.