Friday, February 26, 2010

Street walker

Off to the pet shop.

Got to get my rabbit some treats because I ran out of tasty snacks and he's not happy. He's stamping like a metal press because he's had his diet restricted to hay, grass, carrots, apples, celery, lettuce, my wife's Crocs, the skirting boards and some books.

You wouldn't think an angry bunny would be capable of waking up an entire house, but they can occasionally find a resonating sweet spot and stamp so hard you'd think you were being raided by the Lagomorph Anti-Deprivation League, smashing their way into your home with a carrot-shaped battering ram and demanding you reinstate yoghurt drops as a staple of your rabbit's diet.

Not wishing to anger the floppy eared extremists (rabbit feet aren't so lucky if they're kicking your head in en masse), off I go to town.

I recently had a discussion with a friend about the decline in some ethereal quality called community spirit, or neighbourliness, because these days people have very little to do with each other where they live. Rather than chat over the garden fence like in the old days (whenever they were), people stay inside and communicate over vast distances.

Apparently, this is seen as a bad thing.

I agreed, at least superficially, but it got me thinking. You're forced to communicate with neighbours because of geographical necessity, whether or not they're Nobel prize winners for surf science or Pitt Bull breeders with mattresses on the lawn. You have no choice. In contrast, technology has enabled us to strike up conversations with people of similar interests to you, all around the world, which must make for more stimulating interactions surely?

I've lived and worked round here for about 12 years now, and am slowly getting to know the eccentricities and stories that are probably typical of small towns up and down the country and beyond. All of human life is here.

Do I know my neighbours?

Almost outside the gate, I see June drive past in her elderly but much loved Golf. We wave at each other. Half my kids outdoor toys, like his sandpit and scooter, were donated by June, and she even re-upholstered a tiny armchair for him as a present. It looks like a professional seamstress has done it and has pride of place in our living room, where my boy practises his lounging.

One house down, I meet Edna, a 78 year-old who lives in our street and appears like a wraith at her gate, usually clad in the longest padded jacket I've ever seen. It's got a huge hood, is brown and goes right down to the ground (the whole coat, not just the hood) like a sleeping bag cut open at the feet so she can walk. It looks like it might have been discarded from the costume department of Star Wars for being too mad.

Pettily, I try to pretend I haven't seen her, but only because she's ever so, ever so dull. I mean, really quite monotonously boring. And she mumbles like she's got a mouth full of Ferrero Rochers and wants to savour them.

Fascinating coat or not, I have no desire to enter into prolonged intercourse with her, and for this I am a little ashamed. The problem is, after I've made the mental effort to translate her strong, mumbly welsh . . er . . . brogue (why do the Irish get a brogue and everyone else just gets an accent) it turns out she hasn't actually said anything interesting. She will talk about a stick of rock she once had for days. I find myself smiling and inserting "Well, nice to see you . . ." into every sentence to facilitate my escape.

Bill rescues me. He's a similar age to Edna and waves his stick at us, crossing the road to say hello.

I say rescue but actually I would rather avoid talking to him as well.

Crivens I sound grumpy.

But everything is a source of complaint to Bill. The weather? "Terrible. Can't wait for summer, but that won't last." His heart? "The doc says it's angina, but I think it''s really about to stop." His family? "My son's moved back in with me. It's very annoying." His car? "A Toyota. Went out on it's own yesterday and never came back."

The first crocuses of spring that have stoically battled the inconsistent weather to raise their delicate, seahorse-like heads above the half-frozen ground begin to wilt in the gardens around us as Bill saps their positivity with his complaints. Edna mumbles agreement. Possibly.

I've come to realise that it's not because of an inherent ageism that I don't like talking to this pair, but just that I don't like talking to this pair.

In contrast, 93 year old Les then yomps past us, the only impression that he's nearing his century is a small limp he didn't have last year. He's always immaculately dressed and can be found tipping his trilby to ladies two thirds of a century his junior and making them swoon a bit, my wife included. I see my escape route and say "Oh, Les, I was after a word." and leave Bill and Edna complaining and negating respectively. I imagine they're moaning about having to pretend to take an interest in me.

Les is a local legend. He bought his house round the corner as it was being built in 1939, knows everything about the immediate area, and has even had his memoirs published. I would buy it but I don't want to look like I'm a sycophant or anything. And he's probably made half of it up anyway, because I'm only 38 and can barely remember what day my birthday is, so I'd just get jealous of his recall.

Maybe I ought to write a memoir as well?

Possibly not. It'd be full of half-remembered facts like the time the Dalai Llama phoned to see of I could take out some crack Chinese assassins because I was the most qualified camo ninja for the job, and as a westerner in an eastern country I wouldn't get noticed as much.

And as to whether I succeeded?

Well, the Dalai still Llamas, doesn't he?

Les and I avoid eye contact with Mr Tourette's, the Colourful Alcoholic and his intermittent beard. The beard is either fully hirsute or clean shaven, never any stage in between. Fruity language erupts from him like a foul-mouthed volcano, along with energetic V-signs to passing cars and pedestrians. He doesn't do it so much to me anymore because I growled at him when he swore in front of my son.

This shows some semblance of control, and because I don't think Tourette's is a respecter of self-preservation I don't actually reckon he's got it. He just fucking loves swearing.

Les tells me he expects sponsorship for his next abseil down the Eagle Star building in Cheltenham*. I check the slight limp he has now, work out the odds of him doing another one and heartily agree to a tenner. I would chat more with him, but I can't keep up.

We live in an area which is predominantly inhabited by older people, like Jo, who waves through her window at me. I do my usual miming routine to see if she wants anything from the shops, which involves me moving my arms about randomly and mouthing "Do you want anything from the shops?" She gets the message and shakes her head. I wander off, happy that I'm not going to be loaded down with Ribena and packets of Tena Lady.

Anne is walking heavily into the road, around the corner from the canal. She's only in her early sixties and, last year, lost her husband unexpectedly, leaving her absolutely devastated. They were a couple of few words, but always, always together. Without wanting to give the impression that Anne is not her own person, she seems permanently out of context on her own.

The air of desolation about her makes it seem difficult to talk to her at first, until you realise she's not after words of comfort, because they don't exist, but just words. I have plenty of those. We exchange subdued pleasantries for a few minutes, and walk off in opposite directions.

I get to the end of the road and turn left, across the canal, to get my bunny treats.

Do I know my neighbours?

Impossible not to really.

Blimey, I've only just got out of my road. I'm going to be ages at this rate.

*I haven't made that up. He really did!


  1. Sounds like you live in a retirement community. I have always known my neighbors when I lived in a house. But share a wall with anyone and I never know them. I can't remember ever knowing neighbors in my apartment living days. Weird.

  2. Ahhhh indeed.. a take on humanity so wonderfully woven around a mish-mash of everyday folk and their lives.

    You need to post at least three pieces a day to keep my appetite for amusing literature satisfied.

  3. *blushing and swooning over Les*

    I love a jaunty old man.

    And, I just can't ignore the word ver below this comment box right now: terdlics

  4. First, we have something for those rabbits. Several somethings, actually, somewhere in the thousands. They're called Burmese Pythons and you can have all you can catch. They are very friendly and much into hugs. Seems people release them into the swamps here in Florida where they merrily go on their way eating any wildlife and eggs they can find since they seem to have no enemies. I suppose the fire ants leave them alone out of professional courtesy, as do the local lawyers.

    And the Irish are special which is why they get a brogue rather than an accent. Well, that and they tend to brandish shillelaghs at those who dislike their manner of speech. I can say this because my grandfather was thrown out of Ireland some many decades ago and ended up here causing my grandmother (of Irish descent herself) no end of troubles with his drinking and flirting with barmaids all over New York and Florida.

    I like your neighborhood. Mine is dull.

  5. Your neighborhood sounds quite interesting, mine pales in comparison. And your explanation of the little quirks of all of them is wonderful, you have a true gift of words!

  6. My greyhound Guinness would LOVE to have a playdate with your rabbit..he probably would honestly want to play with him though..a sissy my dog is, he doesnt understand why the squirrels, cats and bunnies don't want to play with him....

  7. Well be on your guard, sometimes the elderly neighbors are the ones you least expect.

    I mean, a grandmother assassin? No one would ever see that coming.

  8. Quite the opposite here abouts..not a single retiree in the street. All young like you with kids playing footie in the street, riding bikes/skatboards. When theres a knock on my door it's usually some kid with a flat tyre or footie or something that needs some air. (I own the neighbourhood compressor)
    You paint a nice picture of your neighbourhood...

  9. Fascinating, and rather charming. I also live in a road with many old people; luckily there is nobody quite as bad as Edna or Bill, but I do at least have the possiblity of being an incomprehending foreigner when confronted with Erzi, the gypsy lady who often wants to borrow a fiver.

  10. You describe these people so well and so touchingly. Our street is also rather dominated by older retired people, so even at 43, we're the young couple. But they are just as much of a mixed bag as yours. Ray from number 7 would be twin for Len. Love it. One of your best.

  11. I am so glad you're back. "rabbit feet aren't so lucky if they're kicking your head in en masse" was a particular joy in a post absolutely full of beautiful sentences. And yes, this one is strangely touching.

    Mind you, nothing you said about Edna made me want to have prolonged intercourse with her either, let alone any other kind.

  12. Such great comments. Thanks everyone.

    Wow, twa - That is odd, and I agree. Got to know one single other person in a block of 12 flats I used to live in, and she legged it in the middle of the night with the bailiffs on her tail.

    Jimmy - Ta! I may, as I so often do, come up rather short of that target.

    Steamy - Heh. Terdlics. Heh. Also, Les has a dapper tiny moustache.

    Douglas - Hmm, the snakes left the Old Country, and your grandfather left the Old country, so does that mean your grandfather was St Paddy himself?

    Skylersdad - Aw shucks, ta. Perhaps YOU'RE the eccentric character in your nieghbourhood? Eh? Eh? How would you know?

    Mr Mischief - sounds like a play date. My rabbit has been know to get a little . . . affectionate with other cirtters, even the odd dog, if you get my drift. Very embarrassing.

    Eric - Hmm, OAPs? Old Assassin Pensioners? Scary thought.

    Tempo - Your neighbourhood sounds like a socialist utopia!

    Gadjo - "Me no speaky neighbourese! Sorry!"

    Mdme DeF - Glad you liked it, thank you. They make me feel young. Except for Les, who makes me feel like I should do more exercise.

  13. MLS - Hello. Missed you in the tubes there. You do find yourself trying to withdraw from Edna, quite quickly.

  14. what a lovely neighborhood, sugar! i felt as if i was walking with y'all. xoxoxo

  15. I so want to live where you are. I was so excited when we bought our house 14 years ago. I tried to know our neighbors but over the years you would think our fences were 100 ft. tall with moats around them. No one speaks to each other, matter of fact I'm not sure they even go outside! If I get a second chance at life I'm putting in a change of address to your neighborhood.

  16. Sounds suspiciously like parts of my own neighborhood.

    I love coming here. Your take on the everyday-ness makes me feel like I'm there.


    p.s. I must say, too, that I enjoy the interwebs neighbors I've discovered as well. It's a rich, beautiful world out there!

  17. Savvy - You'd be welcome to accompany me. We could take a turn around the park before going for a pint in the woolpack.

    Mama Wheaton - I am one of those annoying folk who says hello to people I don't know in the streets, so maybe I've brought it on myself. And there is a house for sale in our road, if you're interested!

    Pearl - It really is, isn't it! It's nice to find people of similar interests. Would you like to join my online Hentai and S&M appreciation society?

  18. How long have you lived there? I knew everyone in my home town and they knew me - to an annoying extent. Where I am now its more a vague friendliness, which I wholeheartedly prefer.

    No idea about the brogue thing either. Especially as the word means 'shoe' in Irish.

  19. Re: your "[my] grandpa may have been St Paddy himself" query...

    I dunno, did St Paddy chase teenage cashiers at the local supermarkets and slip off to pubs on a regular basis?

  20. Awww this is such a sweet little vignette! I wish my neighbors were more like Les!

  21. Judearoo - About 12 years, give or take. Do you have an Ozzie shoe?

    Douglas - Well, he WAS Irish . . .

    Soda and Candy - Ta. He's a good geezer, is Mr les.


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