Reader Fiction: Good Neighbours

Good neighbours

By May Swanow

I know they feel the same way about us – about things, I mean, that madden them they have to keep stumm about. When they think no one’s around they sometimes complain in low voices the other side of the fence. That’s how I got to know about the seeds blown across by the wind.

 ‘Weeds’, they called them. What I say is one man’s weed is another man’s orchid – not that I’d dream of saying that to her face to face. Beth’s a neighbour, after all. We all have them, all 99.9 per cent of us who don’t live on landed estates. We all are them. Tens of millions of double lives. What we say and what we think are two different things.

Take Beth and Tim. Polite isn’t the word. Friendly, kind, helpful – they’re all of these and more. But if they’re anything like me they’re bitching on behind that wall about how impossible we are. I know for a fact they can’t stand Monty’s whistling. I can’t stand it either.

Heaven knows in what other ways we get their goat. How would I ever know? That’s the point I’m making. It’s all smiles and ‘Lovely weather isn’t it?’ on the surface, but we’d be the last ones to find out what they really think. Don’t get me wrong: I’m the same myself.

At first I didn’t realise she was there. When she called out, I couldn’t see through the bushes to enthuse over how tanned she was. A week in Cliftonville they had when we first moved in. This year, half of July and most of August in Peru.

‘Thank you so very much,’ I heard. ‘It looks a picture. Helped by all the rain you’ve had, no doubt.’

I hope Beth couldn’t see my scowl. It had been dry all four weeks we watered. That was before Paddy took over for the last few days. He had the luck of the Irish, never had to do it once.

So she thinks we had it easy? Us, untwisting that impossible hose, making sure we didn’t miss a single one of her thousand pots? And in all that heat for an hour and a half a day? All that time she and her lot with their pina coladas ooing and aahing over Andean sunsets.

‘It was no trouble. Really. Glad to be of help. It’s the least we can do after all you do for us. …So you had a good time?’

In spades they did. Rope walkways over chasms. A week living with a jungle tribe. Swaying on llamas round dead volcanoes. Ten days relaxing at a Pacific spa hotel. ‘Gracious,’ said Beth. ‘Was it only yesterday we left?’

‘It sounds amazing. Lucky you!’

Beyond the hedge, unabated desire to share.

‘I must tell you. You know we’ve always sought out the local cuisine?’

Of course I know. I know in depth about your borscht and kasha in villages round Lake Baikal. About your soft-boiled eggs with embryos in Wuhan. How could I forget?

This time, though, they ditched the Peruvians’ beans with sweet potato and went upmarket.

‘But the prices,’ said Beth. ‘You’d never believe. Even in jungle hotels in the back and beyond…. Sixty pounds for a main course! We got through four thou on food alone…’

More fools them. They shouldn’t have let whatever dodgy company it was con them. Not that four thousand means anything to them these days.

‘Golly,’ I said. ‘That’s really steep. You don’t expect that in that part of the world, do you? Or indeed anywhere else. Goodness me! That must have been a shock.’

‘Is that the time?’ she said, looking at an unseen watch. ‘Thank you again for everything you’ve done. We’ve brought a little something for you and Monty to show our gratitude. I’ll drop it in.’

Beth’s little somethings. Mustard from Uzbekistan in its horse-shaped pot. Green tea from Xian, still unopened in the cellar. A dashed-off oil colour of a Rumanian maiden we have to hang somewhere in case they miss it when they come in.

God knows what we’ll have to hide or junk this time. When we used to go away and our garden was still a garden and needed their help, we’d spend whole days choosing things we knew they really liked. Why can’t they bring us back things like that halva from Bodrum?

Who needs five weeks away, anyhow? Even one? Mont and me have given up on holidays. When we had the kids, it was deckchairs on Bexhill beach while they dug canals to the sea. It seems a long time ago.

Who’d want to go away now? Cab down to Gatwick, trucks backed up this side of the bridge, me praying the driver keeps his eyes on the road while going on about the shambles of his sixtieth – choosing all his favourite music and that b*****d of a DJ going his own sweet way....Three hour delay on the Valencia flight, knees to chin all the way.

Never again! No more international tussles for a deckchair in the shade. No stony walks past the donkey sanctuary to and from the village. Who needs any of this now? We get up when we like, sit in the sun if it’s out, go down to the Turkish chippie for lunch, watch Stath lets Flats on catch-up if it’s wet… The money we’ve saved!

But credit where credit’s due. The good thing about their being away was the peace. They’d put Billy in kennels – five blissful weeks with no howling at night… No flashes through our windows from their security system. It only takes a hedgehog and off it goes again. Five weeks without R and B at full pitch shaking the wall between us.

Or endless drumming from their prodigy of a son. Thank Christ he’s doing A levels next year. …Not that it’ll make much difference on second thoughts.

Their being in Peru gave us time, too, for a snoop. Since those months of noise I’ve been wetting myself to see the new loft. It’s big enough, believe me – emperor-plus bed – wet room – dry room – sauna.

Good luck to them! Whatever line Beth’s in – shady or not, Mont’s always so mistrustful – it’s all come good. It’s hard to remember the Moskvich they had when we first moved in. It was like a tank. Ideal for trackless wildernesses in the tundra. They’d had it since the seventies – their first car and cheapest on the market.

Tim kept it going God knows how.  Always off to the Soviet Trade Centre the other side of London for a condenser bracket or whatever that had busted or rusted away. It was only when STC moved to Plymouth he decided enough was enough.

And now! An orange BMW M4 for Beth. A silver merc, number plate TIM1 OOH, for him. And a modern Mini with a pink roof and L plates for wonder drummer.

Not that I’m envious, not a bit. Who needs a car except to take one or the other of us up to the surgery? Our old Vauxhall Viva suits us fine.

Where was I? The loft, yes the new loft. On the desk I saw a flyer from Anstey’s about a house in Hefton Wood. New-build, but looks eighteenth century. Porticoed entrance, six bedrooms, hot tub, squash court. Treble garage made to look like stable block. Mont may be right about Beth’s job. Where do people from round here get that money?

Itchy feet. Is that what it’s about? A semi in a street of semis not good enough for them? That’s fine: I’m shedding no tears.

Next to the flyer was a file of architect’s drawings. I knew they’d had their cellar done – done properly I mean, not cleared of coal dust and used as a dumping ground like ours. Beth had told me all about Tim’s office there. I’d no idea about the plan for a plunge pool in its place.

And they want to go up as well as down. Two more storeys on top of the loft! Ensuites on each. How many grannies have they got, for Christ’s sake? Six floors I make it so far and counting. This must be how some sad Dutch fishing village turned into Manhattan.

So what will they go for: move or stay put? Are they planning to sell up and swan off to Hefton Wood? Or have we got them for ever?

Sunday morning. A shape approaching the front door. Through the glazed window I see it’s Beth.  

‘Do please come in. Let’s go through to the lounge. How tanned you look! You must tell me more about Peru. It sounds the adventure of a lifetime.’

‘Thank you again for your help,’ she said. ‘It’s not much, but I wanted to give you both this…’ And she handed me a small canvas bag with a picture of jagged peaks on it.

‘How intriguing!’ I said, carefully unwrapping a box of garlic coffee.

‘They say it’s good for the digestion,’ she said.

‘Just what we both need. ‘That’s so wonderful. I’ll try some after lunch. Thank you enormously.’

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Tim and I are so lucky. We’ve all been neighbours so long and we couldn’t have wished for anyone as nice as yourselves. What we both really appreciate is that you keep yourselves to yourselves. You hear these awful stories of families at loggerheads, complaining about broken fences, taking advantage of people being away next door so they can poke around their property. I mustn’t go on. Tim and I want you to be the first to know. We’re moving house in September. We’re going to miss you so much …’

‘So that’s the way you jumped!’ I said, punching the air.

The look she gave me.