The Saturday before last I came back from chauffeuring Boo to her dance classes and settled down to some laziness in the lounge.
‘Can you hear that beeping?’ I ask Husband.
‘Yeah. Annoying isn’t it? I think it’s coming from outside.’
I try to blank it out. But, later:
‘It is really annoying. Are you sure it’s outside? It sounds like it’s coming from the toy box.’
(It wouldn’t be the first time the toy box has made weird sounds at random.)
‘No, I’m sure it’s outside.’
I go outside to check. The beeping can be heard outside. But it’s definitely clearer by the toy box.
‘Actually, I think it’s coming from next-door,’ Husband points out. ‘It sounds like a fire alarm.’
‘It’s been going on for hours though. I think we’d have noticed if it was on fire. They can’t be in though. It is really annoying.’
‘Maybe it’s a carbon monoxide alarm.’
An image of my neighbours lying dead in their beds implants itself in my mind.
‘D’you reckon we should at least check?’
Because, obviously someone’s going to answer the door but not turn off a blaring alarm.
Oddly enough there’s no answer. They’re either away or dead.
I debate calling the police. The alarm has been going off for a very long time though. If it is poisonous gas and they are dead, there’s not going to be anything we can do. But it might get the noise to stop. If they’re just out though, would they be pleased or pissed off if they came back to find the door smashed in?
Then the noise stops. Out of sound, out of mind, right? Except I keep walking past the Good Neighbour plate in the hallway.
The plate was given to us by the neighbours opposite when they moved a couple of months ago after living in the street for 40-odd years. It had been given to them on the departure of the previous longest-serving resident, Kit, when she moved into a nursing home years before. She’d lived her entire life on the street. We would give her the first snowdrops from our front garden when she couldn’t get out any more. When vandals destroyed her brick wall a mob of neighbours gave chase. Everyone knew Kit. Her home is now used to house care-in-the-community patients. I still think of her when our snowdrops bloom.
We’ve now lived in the street the longest – 23 years, or thereabouts. We are the keepers of the plate. Shouldn’t we be guardians of our neighbours too?
The trouble is, I don’t actually know who that many if our neighbours are. Not any more.
It used to be Angus and Julie next-door at number 19. Then Claire (who had a very noisy sex life!) and then Tim (who then lent us his camera to show us work we needed to do on our roof – I couldn’t stop myself from flicking through his photos…although I do rather wish I hadn’t. I couldn’t quite look him in the eye after that). Number 21 used to be John and Gail (who I still see around and speak to). Then over the road was Kit and a few doors down John and Marianne (the ones who passed on the plate) and David at the solicitors, who would always send us a Christmas card with race horses on it. They’ve all moved on, which isn’t so rare. But they’ve been replaced by strangers, people renting short-term, rather than people buying and putting down roots.
Now we only really know John and Diane next-door at number 15. And how lucky we are that we do. They are everything that neighbours should be. They have us over for Christmas lunch, even though we outnumber them, we helped when pigeons got into their bedroom whilst they were away for a weekend. We get to go to their annual barbecue, we invite them over for film nights. John rebuilt our garden wall and repaired our hall ceiling. I specifically make peanut butter cups for Diane whenever there’s a birthday party (they’re both very good at looking after the drinks at a party and we’re happy that they’re the ones who linger long after the other guests have gone home).
There are some others who I can wave at with confidence. But most are strangers. I wouldn’t be able to pick out the people from number 19 from a police line-up. Or at the morgue.
And so we don’t call the police. We keep to our little boxes, knowing nothing of the neighbours next-door, least of all whether they’re alive or not.
But it’s still with relief that I noticed the lights on and hear their comings and goings through the wall. Because I may not know my neighbours, but I wouldn’t want them to be dead.