The Listeners: Why I’m scared of my neighbours
I, somewhat surprisingly to many of you, am a pretty private person. I really value the sacred space of my own home, where I can slip out of my shoes and enjoy the sanctuary of silence. Being so extroverted in public, I really enjoy a few hours where I can wipe away the warpaint, strip down and be Madelaine Hanson. Is that so bad?
Oh yes, that wonderful click in the lock when you know no one will talk to you for another ten hours. When you can rip away your tights and your jumpers and slouch around in a huge t-shirt or a ripped dressing gown. When you can sing to bad indie music, sing in the bath while you wash your hair, and then eat a whole packet of crisps, and no one will judge you. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that precious? Isn’t that a luxury?
One I seem to have lost, sadly. Having moved further north from my London-Cambridge bubble, I have encountered perhaps one of the most middle class, privileged problems on the planet: Actual Neighbours.
No, not the people who live across the road from you and sometimes smile when you pop out to the supermarket. The horror story that is neighbours who want a community. Who actually want to know you. Who insist on watching out of lace curtains, knowing who parks where, when, where you are going on your holiday and what newspaper you are expecting to be delivered. The kind who come over to check on you when you haven’t grinned at them in the street for a few days. A weird, stalinist informant circle made up of beady eyed old ladies and creepy ex-policemen.
Not sounding bad to you? Oh, it is. It really is. I might as well have the North Korean embassy next door. My boyfriend refuses to have the lights on when he is by the windows in case “They see him”.
I laughed at him at first, until I understood why. A few days after arriving, as I was washing the plates by the window, something made my blood run cold. The bedroom window opposite had thick lace curtains that were moving, ever so slightly. With a jolt, I realised that a hand was attached claw-like to the centre, a shadow watching from behind. They were watching me. In a moment of panic, I hit the lights. Darkness. Safe, unseeing darkness. For now.
Then They came calling. I was alone in the house, for the first time, my boyfriend out at work. I got on with some research, minding my own business, not feeling too frightened. As long as you stayed away from the windows, and made sure the windows were shut, no one could really tell you were there. No one could see. A lot of UKIP councillors were patrolling the district, eager to convince a few racist old biddies to vote in the next election. I made a point of not answering the door. Big mistake.
At dusk, an old woman knocked on the door, sharply. I had been in the shower, so I ran down in my towel. Maybe she needed the phone or something? Either way, I couldn’t ignore her.
“Hello dear, are you Madelaine?”
I stopped, trying not to move my facial muscles in shock. No, it was fine, my boyfriend must have told her my name. It wasn’t like she actually could hear inside the house. Right? I nodded.
“Well, you didn’t answer the door for someone today, so I was worried.”
How did you know I was in
I smiled, trying to not look frightened. How long had she been watching? Waiting for me? She smiled, a smile that told me I wasn’t playing by the rules.
“This is for you I think. The postman left it at mine.” She handed over a package for me, just some medication I’d ordered from the pharmacist. I smiled gratefully, thanked her, and hurriedly shut the door, still only protected by my towel.
They were always watching. Always. I felt cold.
I think I know why this is so creepy for me. I grew up in the middle of the countryside down south, where you had a field or at least a huge hedge between you and the world outside. If you wanted to go and meet the village kids or talk to another human in the area, you’d go to the village fete or the local church or pub.
Your home was private, sacred. No one would watch you, know your routine, know what you sang in the shower or what time you left the house. You didn’t have to shut every window to play music and you didn’t have to get dressed up at 8am in case a neighbour popped round. You couldn’t see a shadow of a figure by a window when you washed the plates.
Dear God, can’t we just go back to the good old mean-spirited misanthropy of my childhood?