The mission: Borrowing sugar from your scary urban neighbours is even more frightening if they agree. By Maggie O'Farrell
Saturday 10 October 1998
her neighbours very much. I tend to think they're drug dealers and pimps unless proved otherwise. I also hate a great number of them. I live in an ex-local authority block in north London where the walls are so thin you could spit through them - and I am often tempted to do so. But now I have accepted a new mission, to meet my neighbours and borrow a cup of sugar in the process.
But what's a cup of sucrose crystals between drug dealers? Armed with my best china cup, given to me by an ex-boyfriend I no longer talk to, I decide to start with the man above. I have never actually seen him, but I hear him all the time - he randomly plays Bob Dylan at volume 10 in the middle of the night, has spectacularly loud screaming rows with his girlfriend, and when his girlfriend is away, has spectacularly loud, screaming rows with an Italian woman who can't pronounce the word "two-timer". It always comes out as "twymer".
He opens the door so quickly I am convinced he must have been standing behind it. And I am surprised: I was expecting a dark-eyed Lothario with a waxed moustache, but he's small, beardy with mustard-coloured hair. "Hello," I say brightly, "I'm your neighbour from downstairs. I was wondering if I could borrow a cup of sugar?" He reacts as if I've said, "Is it all right if I come in and shit on your sofa?" "Huh?" he barks. "Is this a joke?" I shake my head, proffer my cup and wonder if I should threaten him with telling his girlfriend about the speech-impeded Italian. But he slams the door in my face.
I try the door next to his, thinking we could bond over Mr Beardy who clearly has small-man-complex. No sooner have I let the knocker drop than there is a cacophony of hysterical barking and snarling. I start backing away and nearly fall down the stairs in fright when the door opens and another very small man appears, restraining a large, hairy dog by holding a vacuum nozzle against its throat. "Hi," he shouts over the noise. I show him the cup and explain my request. He also reacts in what I consider to be an unnaturally shocked manner. The Hound of the Baskervilles is by now devouring the end of the nozzle. I feel duty bound to point this out to the man. He says he has to go and I can see his point. He'll never get into those awkward corners if he lets the animal carry on like that.
On the ground-floor, a middle-aged woman with frightening hair opens the door. When I ask her, she smiles and steps back to let me in. "It's lucky you came today," she says from the kitchen, "because I've just got some new sugar tongs." This makes me hesitate on the doorstep. I think I've been out-weirded. "Do you like them?" she asks. The only thing I am able to notice is that they have very sharp, claw-like feet.
She begins filling my cup with sugar lumps at an agonisingly slow pace: one lump per minute, in between which she tells me about her sugar-tong collection. My nerve fails me halfway through. I seize the cup and make for the door (thanking her profusely). "Any time," she says, as she reveals her tea-stained dentures in a smile. As I bolt back up the stairs I make myself a promise that I'll buy my sugar in bags at Tesco's from now on
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