MY NEIGHBOUR fell out of the window a few nights ago, and was horribly impaled on the railing spears below. It seems likely that she was pushed, and the police are investigating. The whole street watched from their windows as ambulance and police arrived, flashing lights illuminating the usual quiet darkness. It took hours to cut through the railings to rescue her, and she is still in intensive care.

She was my neighbour, but of course we had never met, never spoken. That is what life is mostly like in a city street.

I was, however, convinced that I had heard her; she was a young Asian woman sharing council accommodation with her boyfriend and others. I sometimes heard terrible night-time arguments from a neighbouring block of flats, a woman crying and protesting as her boyfriend screamed abuse at her. I used to hope he was only shouting and not actually hitting her. Indeed, I spent about an hour one night pacing up and down listening to the fight, wondering if I should do anything about it. Should I call the police? But they never interfere in domestic violence, right? They don't want to know. And, I persuaded myself, I couldn't be sure where the noise was coming from.

This kind of intimacy is one of the strangest aspects of city life. You sleep right next to a wall, but have no idea who is a few feet away on the other side. You may hear your neighbour snoring or singing in the bath, but never see what they look like. Sometimes such anonymity creates peculiar pleasures. Every night at around 8.15 there is a pop of a wine cork somewhere up above. It is an immensely civilised sound, curiously comforting in its regularity.

Sadly, however, overheard arguments and over-loud stereos tend to impinge more frequently. And usually neighbours only interfere when the problems inconvenience them. I used often to have to phone upstairs to remonstrate with a teenager who insisted on playing loud music very late at night, waking the baby.

The shouting I overheard from my neighbour's flat the night of the impaling did disturb me, but eventually there was a lull and I went to bed. Was it really any of my business? People do not appreciate interference, and did I really want to get involved? So I did nothing.

Now, of course, I can't help wondering. If I had done something then perhaps the tragedy might have been averted, although I can never be absolutely sure that the screaming I overheard was the girl on the railings.

There is quite a lot of screaming in my street. I have heard a baby crying incessantly in a nearby building. Again, I cannot be sure where the sound is coming from, so what can I do? But I am a mother myself and I find the sobbing, occasionally for as long as an hour or more, very distressing. Sometimes it even wakes my own baby.

But I, too, had a few days when I left my baby to cry for quite a long time, a last desperate attempt to get him to sleep through the night. I warned my immediate neighbours, but I could hardly leaflet the entire street. So there may well have been somebody out there listening to my son, and wondering what on earth the parents were thinking of, letting him cry like that.

After the incident of the railings, though, I felt that I had to do something about the baby. I walked up and down the street and eventually felt I had identified the source of the crying.

I wondered whether I should try and talk to the parents dir-

ectly, but I felt extremely doubtful that they would appreciate my


Instead I compromised and contacted my health visitor, who I presumed would also be responsible for this baby. In fact, she had no idea there was another young baby in the street, and was most concerned. She explained that she only has knowledge of babies if she is notified by hospitals immediately after the birth, or by a GP. So if a family moves with a child and does not register with a doctor, there is no way anyone can know about the child or how he or she is being treated.

I explained how reluctant I had felt to call her, in case she thought I was just gossiping. She exclaimed that she wished more people would tell health visitors the gossip, so they, too, knew what was going on.

Eventually, I also decided to talk to the police about the girl next door, and told them what I had heard, although I felt nervous about potential repercussions, wishing I had nothing to do with it. Contrary to my assumptions about police policy on 'domestics' they assured me that they always investigated such reports. I also talked to them about the baby, and they came round immediately to try and locate it. I don't know what has happened, but at least the baby seems to have stopped crying.