Today is a good friend’s birthday, so Happy Birthday to her. When we lived in Queenstown, she lived ‘over the fence’. She put carriage steps against the fence so that we could pop over to each other’s house for a cup of tea (or, more usually a bottle of wine) and a chinwag.
We shared jigsaw puzzles and personal problems in equal measure, and many laughs were had at parties or just lonely evenings that weren’t lonely anymore. Noise police were frequently called and I think we managed to get rid of all the other neighbours in our radius several times over.
They had a spa pool where we used to while away long winter hours under the stars. We had a huge gum tree that I loved but it blocked their sun. I agreed to have it cut down, although I cried (I know; sentimental tree-hugger) and they made it into a garden seat so I could sit and read in the shade.
I missed them very much when they moved to Auckland. I missed the sound of the dice rattling in the Yahtzee cup. I missed the ‘pointless’ food we used to eat with our gin and bourbon. Her husband makes the most amazing platters of nibbles (those are far from pointless) and loves to barbecue things he has shot or fished himself – the day I found the dead deer hanging in the shower is not one I’ll forget in a hurry.
I began to think about neighbours and the ones I’ve had over the years. When I was a kid, my neighbour was a barmaid in my local pub – which was a nightmare until I actually turned 18. My best friend (Our Gracious Hostess from the American trip) lived over the road and we used to ride around on our bikes ‘cackling and terrorizing the neighbourhood’ – I have this on good authority from another great friend who lived just up the road.
When we lived in Poughkeepsie, NY, our neighbour was a retired policeman. He was a lovely gentleman and yet, as a teenager, I was slightly afraid of him. He was always inviting us round to play in his pool, but he was a cop – and a New York cop at that! He must have dealt with guns and villains every day of his working life and I knew he would see right through my adolescent sassiness.
In Manchester in the early 90s I lived on an estate in Hulme. It could be rough and you wouldn't go out alone after dark. Him Outdoors and I were courting then, and when he came to call there would be young ruffians swinging on the gate. They grew to recognise him and his car – they nicked the badge off the bonnet but told him when he had left his windows open and it started to rain.
One day after he had knocked at the door with no answer, he was going to leave when they told him that no, I was in, and just to knock louder. They were right; I was in the bath with the stereo on. It was a weird feeling to know they watched the door and knew the comings and goings of me and my flatmates. I also knew that nothing bad would happen to me on their patch – I was their neighbour after all.
Now I live next door to a hairdressing salon. The hairdressers are often sitting on the back steps having a cigarette and I stop to chat about the weather, how busy they are, and my cat – who wanders up and down the counters in front of the mirrors like he’s on a catwalk. Once an apprentice stroked his beautiful little head but she had hair dye on her hands and Chester sported a funky pink rinse for a while until it grew out. She was made to apologise to me and she felt dreadful, but Chester didn’t seem to mind, so I didn’t either.
Our neighbours do make a difference to the way we feel about a place. I have made great friends with some of mine and have fortunately never had any of those ones from hell that feature on reality TV programmes. Relationships with those who live next-door or over the fence make up a community. There’s lots of stuff in the bible about being a good neighbour – everybody needs them apparently. Australians even make soap operas about them. So do we, but we call them Coronation Street, Eastenders, or even Brookside, although they buried each other under the patio.
Him Outdoors told me that at Leeds University lectures were rescheduled around Neighbours because so many people were opting for the intrigues of Ramsay Street rather than electrical circuit theory. We loved Neighbours in the 1980s. We couldn’t get enough of Charlene, Scott and Plain Jane the Super Brain. When Harold got swept out to sea and Madge did whatever she did, they came to England to tour the pantomime circuit.
Our love affair didn’t quite stretch to Home and Away. Although it looked more alluring at first glance (it had a surf club, which we thought was terribly exotic) the appeal was superficial and soon wore off – it was the Dannii to Kylie’s Minogue. We just didn’t really see her as the desirable girl next door.
Neighbours aren’t meant to be glamorous but they are meant to ‘be there for one another’, sharing fortunes both good and bad as well as cups of sugar. Actually, I’ve never borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbour, but I have borrowed eggs and jump-leads, although not at the same time. And if you’re lucky, ‘good neighbours become good friends.’