Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

The mystery of the imaginary baby and the (nearly) gentrified neighbourhood
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In its own modest way, our road in Shepherd's Bush is becoming gentrified. Not gentrified as in St John's Wood or Belgravia or Richard Curtis's Notting Hill, but gentrified in the sense that there hasn't been a single drive-by shooting involving drug warlords for nine months now. Also our neighbourhood junkie, Chris, has left after burning his flat to the ground.

The reason for his rage was the departure of an even more worrying neighbour who has been taken either by social workers to a mental institution or by death. Hilda, an octogenarian with a gift for original swearing, was convinced that her wartime beau Tony, or "my officer" as she called him, was imprisoned in our house. She would knock on the door every day to call me a cow whore and threaten us with her Kalashnikov, and she would always leave a carrier bag for her officer. The contents of the bag varied; her pension book, false teeth, an enema. Invariably there would be a packet of teacakes in there too that Chris would later pilfer. Now they've both moved on, and so have the noisy Special Brew-drinking residents of the two bail hostels that closed down. Everyone's moved on, it seems, except me.

The golden age

I mentioned this loss of the old village atmosphere to Matthew this morning. "Oh yes, it used to be just like Ambridge here," he said, dousing his toast in Tabasco. "Nip down to the pub for a crystal of finest crack, chat over the gate with a drug baron while another points an Uzi at you. A golden age it was in Shepherds Bush." He is, as always, exaggerating. But only slightly - and actually I do miss the psychotic atmosphere.

"There's always the mystery of the imaginary baby," said Matthew. "That should keep you busy, Linda Snell, and get your curtains twitching."

The imaginary baby

The imaginary baby (and I am quite sure it is imaginary) belongs to Raoul, who lives four doors down. A fortnight ago he knocked on my car window as I arrived home, and announced the birth of a son. "My girlfriend had a baby boy last night," he said, his mouth twitching in a Miss World smile. "Five pounds, 11 ounces."

"How wonderful," I said, as you do, and "please send my congratulations to your girlfriend". I have never actually met this woman, never even seen her, didn't even know, come to think of it, that Raoul had a girlfriend.

A week later, because I wanted to get something for the baby, I bought some sheepskin bootees from Oliver Bonas in the Shepherd's Bush Road. It did occur to me, however, that while I had seen Raoul as usual, coming and going, to the pub and back from the pub, there is still no sign of a baby or its mother, or a single carrier bag from Mothercare or a box containing a Britax car seat, or indeed a car seat out of its box. Then I bumped into the highly strung woman who lives above Raoul, who must surely have heard the baby by now. "A baby!" she said. "No, I haven't heard a baby. What can they have done to the baby. You think they've murdered the baby?"

"You'd better get on to Esther Rantzen," said Matthew when I told him. "Tell her a baby's larynx has been removed."

Bootee call

This afternoon I took the bootees round. Raoul answered the door, dripping wet, in an all-too-revealing shortie dressing gown, so I was quite glad, if a bit miffed, that I wasn't invited in. I handed him the wrapped bootees. "Thank you, thank you," he said.

"And how is the baby?" I asked.

"He is very well," he said.

"And your wife?"

"She is well too." he said.

Later, I told Matthew I was going to write to social services and he said I was turning into an Alan Bennett monologue; someone who gets sent to prison for writing poisonous letters to the authorities about the neighbours. I seem to remember that this particular Bennett female was played by Patricia Routledge, and she was happier inside than she'd ever been before. She found prison life to be much like village life.

The wrong bin

Then I encountered Raoul late at night by his dustbin as he was coming home from the pub. Or, rather, he encountered me. I was wearing rubber gloves and I explained that the binmen had put the wrong bin outside the wrong house and I was desperately searching for a letter I had inadvertently thrown away.

I don't know whether he believed me or not but the main thing was that there was no baby evidence to be found.

In the morning Matthew gave me a lecture. "Now listen," he said, "maybe you are right and there is no baby next door. Maybe Raoul is Shepherd's Bush's answer to Norman Bates, and he sits in a rocking chair cradling a Tiny Tears doll. But there is not a shred of evidence - so leave him alone."

Mystery solved

Raoul was getting out of his car when I saw him this evening. He smiled as he glanced over his shoulder at his dustbin.

"I say," I said (I appeared, in my nervousness to be talking like Hyacinth Bucket), "your baby is certainly quiet. Not a peep out of him, or so the woman who lives above you says."

"No, well she wouldn't necessarily know," said Raoul, "because actually the baby is living in Acton with his mother." He then explained that he too is going to be living in Acton because in Acton you get a better class of neighbour.

Tiny tears

I went inside after that and started interrogating Matthew about his knowledge of Tiny Tears dolls.

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