“WHAT ARE YOU up to, you sneaky old bat?”
I was stood at my living room window, half concealed by the curtain, as I watched Doris from No. 34 handing out a tray of drinks to the removal men. They took them gratefully, then smiled and nodded politely as she seemed to witter on endlessly at them. I knew what she was doing, the nosy old cow. Probing them with questions. Trying to find out what she could about the people moving into the house next door to mine. I shook my head with disapproval and cursed myself for not having beaten her to it.
It was 10 minutes since I’d heard the truck arrive. I’d been in the garden, making the most of a fresh, sunny day, when the peace was broken by the loud, growling rumble of a diesel engine.
Instantly, I knew what it was. New neighbours.
It was a few weeks since the previous owners had moved out, and the rumour mill of the street had already been spinning into overdrive as to who might replace them. They must finally be moving in.
I put down my trowel, abandoned my half-planted rose bush and walked through the back door to investigate. My planting would have to wait, and the bottle of Peroni I had chilling in the fridge would have to continue chilling for a while.
“Catherine?” I called out into the quiet recesses of the house. “I think that’s a removal truck. Catherine?”
I walked through the kitchen, into the living room. “Catherine?”
Still no reply. Of course not. She’d said something about going to yoga with her annoying sister and I’d tuned out when she’d mentioned the name Karen.
“Jack? Holly?” I shouted up the stairs. Again, no reply.
I walked into the living room, picking up dirty football socks from the sofa. Bloody kids. The cat looked up at me from the armchair, squinting and meowing in annoyance at being disturbed. I know cats can’t actually express anything more than a simple meow, but I’m sure she was telling me to fuck off.
The cat and I have a fairly simple relationship. I tolerate her and she hates me. We’ve never got along since we got her, and the first thing she did upon arriving in her new house was to take a shit in my shoe. I knew I couldn’t really blame her. She was only a kitten. But there was something in her eye that suggested she knew exactly what she was doing.
Since then, she’s taken every opportunity to undermine and upset me: sitting on top of the bookcase and swiping at my head when I walk past; leaping out from behind chairs and digging her claws into my bare feet; nipping the backs of my ankles; scratching chair legs and bannisters while looking me directly in the eye; and repeatedly shitting in my shoes. Nobody else’s; just mine.
I swore back at the cat, kicking the armchair to make her jump. Then I moved to the large bay window, pulling the curtain to hide myself, and peered out at the enormous removal truck parked outside the house. The rumbling, coughing engine halted. Tiny electric shocks of curiosity tingled across my scalp.
Who were the new people moving in next door? The people who, like it or not, were about to become an inextricable part of my life. Would they be kind, generous people who quickly turn into life-long friends? Or irritating loudmouths who ruin my sleep and bring out my feuding tendencies? Or, like too many streets, in too many towns, neighbours that completely fail to communicate, save for the odd uncomfortable smile or nod across the lawn.
What would they be like? A sudden rush of fear prickled my skin.
Oh God, I thought, please let them be all right. No noisy louts. Or drum kits. Or late-night partiers. Or 7 a.m. bloody lawnmowers. And please don’t give me another Nigel.
Nigel, the last-but-one owner of the house next door, had been the most insufferable bore I’ve ever met. In the 18 months he lived there, I never once heard him say anything of any interest whatsoever. Seriously. And I know what you’re thinking: that can’t be possible. Surely, even the most boring of people must have the odd off day every now and again, inadvertently saying something interesting. Not Nigel. I actually longed for the day the old sod would surprise me and stumble over a topic of mutually engaging conversation. But it never happened. In 18 long months.
Despite his complete inability to tell interesting stories, Nigel could drone on for hours about the most inconsequential subjects. And the saddest thing was, he had no idea how boring he was. He was completely oblivious to the glazed-over eyes and stifled yawns people threw back in his direction when he discussed potholes, temporary traffic lights, or the fat content of different types of nut.
No doubt Nigel thought of himself as loquacious. The rest of us just thought him a bore.
During one Saturday afternoon barbecue, Nigel had worked his way through nearly every resident of the street, droning on unaware of the pained expressions on his victim’s faces. I eventually found 26 people crammed into the kitchen, hiding and whispering, desperate to stay away from him.
I also found Mark from No. 31 and Clare from No. 46 hiding together in the downstairs loo, but the less said about that the better. Two months later, they left their respective partners and ran away to Aberystwyth. Whether they were already having an affair, or whether it came about as a result of trying to avoid the most boring man in the street, I’ll never know.
For some reason, I was his favourite. I don’t know why. I just seem to attract these sad sacks. And I couldn’t help taking pity on him. I mean, it wasn’t his fault he was boring. Not really. But that meant I was always the one stuck talking to him. And everybody else was more than happy to let me suffer.
The fact that we lived right next door to each other made things worse. It wasn’t only at parties that I had to be on the lookout for a Nigel ambush. Honestly, the number of times I’d pull into the driveway after work, and he’d be stood there waiting for me, desperate to catch me for ‘a quick word’. He must have been sat by the window, waiting for me. How else could he come belting out his front door so quickly?
One time – no word of a lie – it took me a full 43 minutes and 22 seconds to make it from the car to the front door. No matter what I did, I couldn’t cut him off. He just kept talking about the poor attendance at the last Neighbourhood Watch meeting and the tardiness of that week’s bin collections… until I completely stopped listening. I turned around and Catherine was stood there in the window, laughing her head off with a stopwatch in her hand. She was actually timing it.
I reorganised my work calendar to avoid him. I moved appointments and meetings so I could vary when I left the office in the evening. I took different routes home from work, so I could vary which end of the close I’d enter from. I hoped it might be enough to throw him off. And every now and then, it worked. But more often than not, I’d pull into the driveway, open the door and Nigel would be there waiting, keen to discuss the events of the day. Or some other mundane crap I’d pretend to listen to.
In the end, Nigel and his wife moved away, relocating to another office for his job as a… I want to say accountant. Or maybe auditor? Or something in risk management – whatever the hell that is. I know Nigel told me plenty of times. But I never paid attention.
A large man with short, dark hair and a purple t-shirt stood nodding as Doris continued to interrogate him. Three other men, all wearing identical t-shirts, stood a few feet away, sipping their mugs of tea and giggling like schoolchildren at their boss’s misfortune. Doris had been grilling the man for a good five minutes now, and every time he tried to walk to the rear of the van, or to collect something from the cabin, she followed him, continuing her barrage of questions.
I had to hand it to her, it was a pretty clever ruse. And she was certainly not giving up. I couldn’t help but wonder what juicy nuggets of information she was uncovering about the people whose furniture they were hauling. Were they nice? Friendly? Rich? Foreign? One-eyed monsters with snakes for tongues who’d come to take over the neighbourhood?
I felt a sudden rush of guilt, standing there gawping at the goings-on. I was a Peeping Tom, sneaking a glance at unsuspecting people. It was thrilling and sickening all at the same time.
I should head outside and introduce myself, I thought. Two can play at that game, Doris. But who would I talk to? The new neighbours were yet to arrive, so I couldn’t go and welcome them. The removal men certainly didn’t look interested in any more conversation. And, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t particularly want to talk to them. I sometimes find it hard talking to people like that. It sounds pretentious, I know. But I’m just not like them. I’m not a very handy, practical, manly sort of person, and I always feel they can tell. Like when you take your car to the garage and you know they’re going to rip you off, because they can tell you don’t know the first thing about cars. They’ll say there’s something wrong with the ‘secondary flange inducer valve’ and you just have to take their word for it, because, seriously, what the fuck is that?
Finally, the man in charge downed the last of his drink, handed the mug back to Doris and signalled for his men to all do the same. She walked away slowly, disappointment etched on her face, and the men walked round to the back of the truck.
The back door banged and creaked as it swung open. Three of the men climbed up and disappeared inside. The man in charge then leaned back against the truck, sighed heavily, pulled a small green pouch from his pocket and started rolling a cigarette.
I walked through to the kitchen and opened the fridge door. Gazed vacantly inside. The kids had been at it, decimating its contents. Barely anything left to eat. Again, they’d failed to put the open packets of ham and cheese into the small plastic bags to keep them fresh, so the food had gone all curly at the edges. I mean, if I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a thousand…
My mind raced to what might be happening out in the street. I rushed straight back into the living room and gazed out the window again.
As a general rule, I don’t spy on neighbours. It’s a nasty, intrusive way to live. And I certainly don’t like the idea of people keeping tabs on me. But standing there, hidden behind my curtain, I felt an overwhelming illicit thrill. I just couldn’t take my eyes off the scene.
20 minutes later, all four of the men were back out of the van, shuffling aimlessly as they smoked and glanced intermittently at their watches. The boss was nodding patiently, clearly exasperated, and trying to politely send Doris away after she arrived with a second tray of drinks. I laughed at the bold-faced cheek of it. The old girl certainly had perseverance.
I heard the distant rumble of a car engine. A brand new, jet-black BMW 7-Series turned into the close and pulled up behind the van. Seconds later, the street echoed with the even louder roar of a sparkling red Porsche that parked in next door’s driveway.
“Here we go, then,” I whispered to myself.
Curtains twitched all along the row of houses opposite, as eager faces sneaked furtive glances at the new arrivals. I was so curious now, I didn’t even bother to hide myself. I stood right up against the window, openly staring out.
They’ve got a few quid, then, I thought. I’ve always wanted a BMW. Or something new and expensive. Anything better than the elderly, green Ford Focus parked in my driveway.
The door of the BMW swung open and a tall man with short, dark hair stepped out. He wore blue jeans, an expensive-looking white shirt, and even more expensive shiny shoes. He looked to be in his mid-40s. A large, silver watch glistened on his wrist as the sun hit it.
The two rear doors of the car opened simultaneously as two teenagers – a boy and a girl – climbed out. They were roughly the same age as Jack and Holly. Both kids scanned the street, taking in their new surroundings, then lazily strolled up the path to the house.
The driver of the car walked over to the removal team, said something that made them stub out their cigarettes and stand to attention. Then he strode purposefully up to the house, unlocked the front door and stepped inside. The kids scurried in after him.
My eyes flicked back to the Porsche as the door opened. Out popped a long, slender leg, the foot sheathed in a shiny, stilettoed shoe. The other leg followed, and seconds later one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen stepped out of the small car.
She was stunning. Her blonde hair blew gently in the breeze, then settled around her perfectly tanned shoulders. Her legs were tight and toned, all the way up to a petite, round bottom, wrapped in impossibly tight jeans. She had a tiny waist and a very ample chest, showcased by a small white vest top. She was every bit beautiful enough to be a model.
My mouth went dry. My heart beat strangely fast. My eyes scanned right to see old Doris gazing right at me, a look of disapproval on her face, as I openly gawped at this stunning new neighbour. I jolted back in shock at being caught, catching my heel against the leather pouffe, and tumbled back onto the sofa.
Damn. I must have looked like an actual Peeping Tom. My face burned red. I knew I should retreat and stop being so nosy. But still I couldn’t help it. I had to see what was going on. And I had to catch another glimpse of this woman.
I clambered back to the window, concealing myself furtively behind the curtain, and saw her flash a brilliant white smile to the removals men, who had all stopped to watch her arrival. They gushed in response, before practically tripping over each other as they clamoured to try and lift the heaviest piece of furniture. With a flick of her hair, the woman spun round and walked majestically up the drive and into the house.
I watched her enter, then looked back at the truck. The men continued ferrying items up the path and into the house. I watched for a few minutes, trying to guess what might be packed in the various nondescript brown, cardboard boxes. Then I got bored and hungry and went back through to the kitchen.
Now that the new family had arrived, I decided I should go and introduce myself. I felt a sense of responsibility to welcome them to the neighbourhood and ensure they settled in okay. When Catherine and I moved into our first home together, we were quite naïve about the ins and outs of introducing ourselves to neighbours. Knock on people’s doors or wait for them to greet us? In the end, we opted for the latter.
And we lived there for a full nine months before a power cut throughout the whole street (caused by me, but that’s another story) forced us into our first actual conversation. We got chatting and it soon came out that we both felt equally snubbed, as they were waiting for us to come and say hello. We laughed it off as ‘one of those things’. But there was always a certain animosity between us.
Since then, I’ve always taken it upon myself to make the first move. It’s simpler that way. And, of course, I wanted to check them out close up. Make sure they were the kind of people I was happy living next door to.
Of course, you don’t want to make a bad first impression. Go over too early and you’ll look too keen – the nosy neighbour who can’t wait to start poking about in everybody else’s business. Wait too long and you risk making your new arrivals feel unwelcome, leading to hurt feelings and subsequent years of sneers over the back garden fence.
Obviously, I couldn’t go marching over there straight away. That would look utterly mental. So, I managed to find enough in the fridge to make a sandwich, then returned to my rose bush in the back garden to carry on with my work. When I heard the doors of the removal truck slam shut and the noisy diesel engine roar into life, I decided sufficient time had passed. I could nip over and introduce myself.
I would usually have waited for Catherine, but she still wasn’t home. So, I changed into slightly smarter clothes and prepared to go and say hello. However, as I reached for the handle of the front door, I was interrupted by the sudden, sharp sound of knocking. It caught me so off guard that it took me a few seconds to realise it was coming from my own front door. I tentatively pulled it open to find the man with the expensive shirt stood there.
“Hi,” he said, in a loud, confident voice.
“Erm, hello,” I said, slightly bemused. He flashed me a quizzical smile, like he was expecting me to say something else. I realised that was probably because I had my mouth wide open, looking like I was going to say something. I promptly closed it.
“Hi,” he said again, through a perfect, pearly-white smile. “You probably noticed the big van outside.” I said nothing. “Anyway, looks like we’re going to be neighbours, so I thought I’d pop over and say hello.”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Van. Neighbours. Next door.”
He squinted, like he was trying to decide whether I had some kind of learning disability.
“Anyway, my name’s Dave,” he said, extending his hand. “Dave Brookman.”
My mouth dropped open again. I stood there even more confused, my brain trying to calculate something. Like when you see something out the corner of your eye, and you know it’s not right, but when you look back to check what was wrong you can’t find it again.
A long pause filled the space between us. Finally, I coughed out a fake laugh. “Ha ha, good one!” I said. For some reason, I was also now pointing at him. I don’t remember telling my finger to do that, it just leapt up there of its own accord.
Another long pause as I stood there grinning and my new next-door neighbour stared back at me, like I was completely deranged. “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t follow.”
“Good joke,” I said, forcing another laugh. In truth, I didn’t think it was a good joke at all. It wasn’t even a joke. It certainly wasn’t funny. Weird at best. “Go on, who put you up to it? Scott from No. 22?” For some reason, I was still pointing at him.
“I’m not sure I understand.” His expression had changed from confusion to one of genuine concern. “What joke? And I don’t know Scott. Yours is the first door I’ve knocked on.”
The smile slid from my face. My brain was starting to hurt. “I’m sorry, but I could have sworn you said your name was Dave Brookman.”
“Yes, that’s right. Dave Brookman. Pleased to meet you.” He thrust his hand towards me again. The look on his face suggested he wasn’t actually pleased to meet me at all.
“But you can’t be,” I said, outraged, my finger now pointing with threatening accusation. “You can’t be Dave Brookman. I’m Dave Brookman.”