Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours

Click to follow
The Independent Online

August is the most neighbourly month, I think. That may seem perverse, since everyone is away on holiday - but it's actually the absences that make it the case. That golden age when everyone was in and out of one another's houses without so much as a by-your-leave returns in holiday season, when keys and complicated maintenance instructions are exchanged.

August is the most neighbourly month, I think. That may seem perverse, since everyone is away on holiday - but it's actually the absences that make it the case. That golden age when everyone was in and out of one another's houses without so much as a by-your-leave returns in holiday season, when keys and complicated maintenance instructions are exchanged.

I currently have access to three local properties - standing as alarm supervisor for one, pet-feeder for another and fail-safe mechanism for an arrangement in which Mary (or Margaret or Millie) from round the corner may get in touch if there's a problem with the pipes, but I'm not to worry about it because it almost certainly won't happen, but here's the keys just in case. And naturally the back-and-forward through one another's doors erases the sharp distinctions between one personal space and another.

Shortly before I left for my holiday, I heard the rattle of keys in our front door and opened it to find my neighbour with our spare set in one hand and a giant bowl of Coronation chicken in the other, headed for our notionally under-employed cold-storage. She was a bit embarrassed to find us still in residence, I think, fridge annexation not being a standard element of the "keeping an eye on things" contract, but I rather liked the idea that our utilities wouldn't be neglected while we were dallying with French refrigeration.

Now, it's my turn, though since I'm often too idle to move food the few inches from counter-top to fridge in my own kitchen, I'm unlikely to be carting my perishables next door. In any case, I've got too much low-level animal maintenance to perform.

None of the tasks is very onerous - though I have to say that the tropical fish strike me as dangerously delicate creatures to entrust to someone with no emotional investment in their continued wellbeing (beyond a vague fear of having to explain why there are now only three cardinal tetras left and one of the cobra guppies is floating upside down). The instructions for their sustenance cover a page of close type and involve complex combinations of oxygenator pump and neon lighting. What's more, their food - a kind of pungent confetti - has to be dispensed with an exactitude that could easily seem unimportant to a novice.

In truth, though, I've been pretty diligent about proxy pet-ownership since the scalding occasion when I was walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and suddenly remembered that I hadn't fed a neighbour's cat (inconveniently a couple of hundred miles away, in London) for the past three days. The succeeding 15 minutes, spent in a phone box while I waited for my wife to check whether the beast had actually expired over its empty bowl, remain a personal benchmark for queasy dread. It hadn't, but there was then an even longer vigil before we could be sure that it hadn't given up in disgust and taken up residence with a more reliable can-opener down the road.

When its owner finally returned, he seemed genuinely touched by the animal's expressions of relief, so I settled my conscience by concluding that I'd strengthened their relationship rather than ending it.

Naturally, these are duties without emolument - unless you count the jars of lavender-scented fudge or marinated goat's cheese with which the artisanal smallholders of France supply the Little Something for Next Door Market. But that's as it should be, since reciprocation, not payment, is the real point of the thing - an exchange of favours that draws the vestigial bonds of community a little tauter and, rather literally, opens closed doors.

Neighbours are fine when they're at home - if you're lucky - but you don't really appreciate them until they, or you, aren't.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

Comments