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 leafcutter 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.

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