Neighbourhood Watching

In the bright morning sun, birdsong is the sound that wakes me, living in my 60’s terraced house on a pedestrian way in a London suburb.
Suburbia though, as we know, has dark undercurrents. Here is no exception, not sinister perhaps but odd. Over the years I have absorbed compelling details of my neighbour’s lives and habits.

The couple at 41, in their early 40’s are assassins, they live here only about a third of the time and they each have matching strabismus in one eye. They never draw their curtains and they do “Projects” in their back garden which involve earth moving, gravel and big chunks of wood. They cycle a lot and leave at odd hours of the night with large full suitcases.

The man at number 20 also lives at the adjoining number 22 connected via a single door between the third bedroom of number 20 and the main bedroom of number 22. He lives alone, with two of everything. He has a wife who wears a lot of purple and turquoise but she lives somewhere else. He is trying to kill the listed tree in his back garden.

Number 45 is the rented home of the Stomper who is addicted to stair-walking, he cannot resist going up and down, fast, furiously and noisily multiple times in a row, I’ve lost count at eleven times in a continuous session. He likes also to save empty bottles to throw casually into the recycling box adjacent to my bedroom window at three a.m. Incidentally his landlady, who mercifully visits rarely, is quite the rudest and most offensive person I have met.

A “widow” in inverted commas because her husband is still alive, lives alone at number 49, he lives in a home, having mislaid his mind somewhere, almost 10 years ago. She has to visit him every single afternoon, where she must watch him sleep for 3 hours before returning to her solitary marital home. If she misses a visit he becomes violent. She is frail and pale but has a steely look in her eye and a laugh like a peal of bells, but we don’t get to hear it often enough.

The Shouters are less noisy since he retired from being a pub manager, he used his lump-sum to double-glaze the windows so now they only disturb me in the summer when the windows are open. She emits loud rants about immigrants taking our jobs, and writes horoscopes, he only ever shouts the one word “Candy!”. He doesn’t know that she is 13 years older than he thinks she is, he likes to go fishing in the early morning, leaving at the same time as the assassins who then don’t know which way to look.

At the corner, there lives a short man with a very big shiny car. He won’t cut his hedge so now that summer’s new growth is here, the path has narrowed to a mere 18 inches. I think the problem may be that he is simply too short, he forgot all one summer and then it was too high and now he’s embarrassed to be seen next to a hedge nearly twice as tall as he.

Further to the hedge issue, the new couple opposite bought the house from an old Burmese lady  who had never cut her hedge either. I had high hopes when they moved in as he started slashing away at undergrowth in the garden which brought him good luck and bad, she gave birth to twins but a week later he broke his shoulder and three fingers in a cycling accident. The listed tree in their back garden is now 90% dead as the local ‘‘tree surgeons” employed earlier by the previous owner, were actually butchers and did a very good job.

Candy’s husband cuts my front lawn as I have a back problem and in return I make cakes for him, which I like to make but can’t eat as I am trying to regain my girlish slimness and Candy can’t eat because she is diabetic. Always chocolate, prune and almond polenta cake, I gave some to the new parents opposite too. The grass in my back garden is now more than 2ft tall and lurking within in it, like sunbathing lions, are an old basin and bidet which the plumber refused to take away with him two months ago when he worked on my bathroom. I don’t own a car and can’t take them to the dump on the bus as it doesn’t go that way.

At the opposite end live another new family, a girl born 6 months after they moved in is now the charming thief of the little inedible fruits  on my weeping ornamental cherry tree, she speaks Spanish and English and calls out “Bolas, bolas” in chirpy excitement as her tiny fingers force them from their twigs.

The Stomper is due to move out, the landlady wants to sell, so I am eager to discover who my new neighbours will be, the previous occupant was from a Gospel Church and held prayer-meetings there three times a week,  worshippers came and went like a tide, twenty or so at a time,  streaming across my lawn with a flurry of bell-ringings, greetings and door-slammings.

The much missed previous occupants of the Assassin’s house were renting; a shy Scottish architect who painted portraits of his house-mate in bright shades of green and orange and the sitter, a lithe young man from Brazil who liked to dance pirouettes in the living room but suffered from migraines. He was an I.C. nurse at St Thomas hospital. I met him again by chance last year and he told me of how his migraines had been caused by a tumour from which he almost died soon after they had moved from here.

Their landlord had been a young man who wanted to change the world, he left to sail around the oceans on the Raleigh International Project,  helping young people to learn about the world and themselves. He left 26 small Cyprus trees in his garden and returned eight years later when they were 26ft tall, with his New Zealand wife and baby. My garden had been in darkness for years, on that first day, I asked him tentatively “could you maybe cut back your trees a bit ? “ He smiled and nodded. Early next morning I looked out of the window, a scattering of cut greenery and an abandoned machete was all that was left. Sunlight has bathed my house and garden ever since, though the energetic young seafarer has long gone, he’s building a paradise above the clouds in Costa Rica.

Some more familiar things

A little model of the “Flying Scotsman” train, it is made of steel and had been silver-plated, though much of that has worn away now. I ‘d like to know where this came from or why my father was so fond of it.

We had several books from the Little Golden Book series, we must have been pretty rough with them, lots of torn pages and scribblings.  These images are from the story of Pantaloon – a poodle who wants to work as a pastry chef. My favourite was title was The Colour Kittens, they had such fun with paint and colour.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Familiar things

Staying with family for the weekend and seeing partly forgotton objects from my childhood made me think about their origins, their usefullness or their own places in design history.

The little ivory tea boy we think may have come back from China with our paternal grandfather who was a merchant seaman.

The fish slice – a common enough utensil in the ’50’s kitchen but still in use 60 years laeter, simply because it works so well and seems almost indestructible.

The eggcup with a bear peering round at you – with a crack and a chip now.

and the biscuit tin, the pattern wearing thin but still the place to look for a biscuit.

Writing Week

I have signed up for a residential writing week in May – taught by William Fiennes (The Snow Geese) and Mark Haddon  (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) in the gorgeous, extremely rural setting of Sheepwash in Devon under the auspices (love that word) of the Arvon Foundation. I have attended a couple of writing workshops before and I’m really looking forward to this one “Adventures in Imagination”. I am definitely not a poet and in writing memoir I tend to become somewhat mawkish (best avoided), whereas I admit to loving the feeling of telling a true story with plenty of lies/embroideries chucked in for fun.

Here are a couple of pieces I wrote a while ago

Urgashay – Memoir

The smell of apples, a little bruised, takes me back to Urgashay and memories of my family Somerset home in those peaceful post war years.
Arranging autumn’s crop in the barn loft, placing them in rows on makeshift tables bowing under their weight. “Give me the brown spotted ones for the kitchen” reminds Auntie Dot, making room for another crop, “not one must touch another or they’ll all rot” warns Ernie.
The weekly ritual of cleaning seven pairs of shoes, that was my job, to clean everybody’s shoes, brushes clearly marked Brown On, Black Off and their counterparts.
Learning to jump – leaping from outside steps, out and down to the bouncy safety of the old mattress lying in the yard. Timidly at first and then at last – with a push on the back from brother one – jumping from the top with fearless exhilaration.
The sticky smell of hot Stokholm tar applied with sticks to the bottoms of the hundred deep litter chickens, to stop them pecking at each ther, the clenching of their rectal muscles and their deafening, affronted squawking.
Secret asparagus – the thrill of finding hidden spears in the long grass, squeezed into a little patch of earth by the electric fence of the top field and the row of swishing pines.
Breakfasting on cold-milk cornflakes in the hot summer Sunday sun at the long split oak-log table made with my dad’s endeavours.
Daring to copy my brothers crawling climb along the concrete topped wall wide as a yard but feeling narrow as a knife, then the steep upward curving corner all in one go, “don’t stop” to the top, way above my tall mother’s head.
My brothers and I all in our measles uniform of old-stockinged arms, safety pinned to pyjama shoulders, an invention of my attentive mother to stop us scratching.
Dancing in the dark of the panelled dining room in my daddy’s arms to ballet music, always Delibes’ Coppélia.
The four adults and three of us, three generations in three pairs and then me the youngest child, we all had our jobs, all had our place.
Then brother one sent away to school and brother two, with polio, taken away too.
“Tell me when are they coming home?”

And below – a perfect example of mawkish, poor poetry – I am determined not to write like this anymore, mind you – I don’t feel like that anymore, thankfully.

My Well of Sadness

My well of sadness overwhelms me
fed from sources lying deep below the surface.
Like water, it seeps and flows and finds its own level.
It belongs not only to me, it is all the world’s supply
Everyone’s sadness is there for me to feel
I have no option than to haul it up bucket by bucket
Perhaps to nourish and give succour to living things
Or lie in pools to evaporate in the sun.
To empty it of sadness and fill it up with joy

Tiredness makes me want to quit, to hold it at bay with
A granite boulder that’s fits so snugly
That I can’t hear the damp dripping echoes
Or see the beauty of the moon flickering on the surface

And so the days go by, in hope that my well will run dry
but it is ever deeper and the sun seems weak and watery
I am awash in cold damp despair and long for a time
when my well was filled with hope.

And to end on a cheery note – for a recent birthday I made spongecake ducks on an alumnium foil pond with huge candles – the ducks cooked in a little vintage French chocolate mould I found in a shop in Paris.