Neighbours at no 17

My lovely neighbours have moved away. In fact, they moved away two years ago, but nobody has moved in and somehow this has enabled me to imagine that they are still living at number 17.

When we moved into this 1930s terraced house, the first thing my two toddlers did was knocking next door. When the door opened, they shouted excitedly: ‘’Hi! We live there!’’ pointing to our house and looking daringly into their eyes.  Thankfully, the neighbours met our children with open arms albeit slightly amused by their fearless enthusiasm and I am proud to say it was the start of a successful neighbourly relationship. They became my children’s British grandparents. Robert hid Easter eggs for us, while my children found them with lightening speed. When their grandchildren came to visit, Robert and Mary would take my children along to the zoo, the cinema or the park. Occasionally, they had our children over for sleepovers, often they told them stories of the olden days and sporadically they reminded our children to stay on the straight and narrow. Nothing was too much, and we felt always welcome.

My children’s first job was looking after the neighbours’ cats when they went away. They got paid handsomely for sitting in their house, watching TV, eating chocolate and stroking the cats. If you can give this job to your neighbours’ kids, I think it is your duty to allow them to experience this: it is a gentle introduction to the world of responsibilities, work and earning some money at an early age while secretly eating sweets in quantities they would not be allowed at home.

Mary taught my kids how to sew on a button and how to knit. She made Yasemin’s school kilt shorter if she promised never to roll up her skirt. Surprisingly, most days Yasemin obliged happily and we had fewer arguments about the length of her school skirt than many other parents. One of my best presents was a birthday cake made by the children in Mary’s kitchen. And so, over the many years we lived next to them they became a huge part of our life. Although we knew that sooner or later, they would move nearer to their daughter, it still came as a shock when they told us the house was on the market ready to be sold. When such good neighbours move away a bit of yourself moves with them and a block of fear sits in your stomach: fear of the unknown.

When such good neighbours move away a bit of yourself moves with them and a block of fear sits in your stomach: fear of the unknown.

It is more than two years later now and their house is still empty, so a little bit of that fear is still sitting in a silent corner of my stomach ready to jump out when needed.

Suddenly, there will be a flurry of activity next door: walls are being knocked down, floors and ceilings are being lifted and one day the staircase collapsed with a thundering noise. The latest activity has been cutting down all trees and bushes from the lovely overgrown garden. Birds, cats and foxes are all equally confused about what is happening to their little garden of Eden. On such days that little bundle of fear is stirring itself in my stomach and with genuine curiosity as well as dread I peep through the window to see whether I can make any sense of what is going on. Nevertheless, after a few days it will always return to a silent house again and I can keep on pretending that my neighbours might still be living there.

A lot of us in our terrace are speculating what is happening at number 17. People are whispering that the new owners are property developers or that they surely will be renting it out to students or even worse to foreigners! Foreigners in this part of town are anyone who speak with a different accent, so if you’d move down from Scotland or move up from Kent, you’d still be an alien in our road. Fear of the unknown is a debilitating illness.

And so, we hobble along dreading of what may come yet at the same time looking for any sign that new life may establish itself in ‘the house at number 17’. It feels like we have lost two valuable years to guessing what is going on and alienation is kicking in. A nagging feeling that we are starting to care a little bit less and becoming a little bit more insolate because of it. Nonetheless, one day someone will move in again and I hope it will be someone as fearless as my two children were fifteen years ago, because whichever alien decides to make it their home, they are always welcome to knock on the door to tell us with much anticipation that they have moved in. 

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