My Paramour and I used to live in a small terrace with a culture of neighbourly chat. People weren't in and out of each other's houses all day, but would always swap gossip in the street. We now live in a semi-detached house with Pam and Bob next door - I guess they are in their early 60s. My Paramour pointed out Pam in town a few days before we moved, so I knew her by sight. The day we moved in, we were unloading a van and she came up the road, walking unsteadily, eating chips from greasy paper. I went towards her, smiling, hand outstretched, ready to say hello.
'Don't talk to me,' she said, 'I'm pissed.'
I was speechless. I watched her go into the house. It didn't feel like a good start.
A few months later I came out of my front door and Bob was standing by their garden gate. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms, a loose brushed cotton shirt, and bedroom slippers. His hands were gnarled with arthritis and his smile was welcoming. I stopped to chat, and he was friendly. I can't remember what we talked about but I do remember that when we said goodbye, he walked away slowly and seemed to be in pain.
As time went by we found out a few things about them. Pam is a chronic alcoholic and spends most of her time in the pub. Bob is a retired policeman who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and rarely goes out. They have at least one son, possibly two.
The house looked dilapidated when we moved in, and we haven't seen any evidence of work being done since we've been here. They are quiet, and generally tolerant of our noise; we've had a couple of parties over the years, and have always gone round to tell them we're planning one and ask if they mind, and Bob has always said 'no problem'. Pam did come and complain about the noise one day when we were having some building work done, and my Paramour and I realised each of us thought the other had been round to speak to them about it. I went round the next day with a bunch of flowers, a bottle of wine and a card saying sorry, which seemed to go down well.
They had a dog which we occasionally saw but never heard. Then one day, about three years ago, we heard it howling. This worried us; we thought perhaps Pam was in the pub as usual and Bob had come to grief. We went round and knocked and peered through the windows, but there was no answer and we couldn't see anything, so we put a note through the door saying we were worried and asking them to let us know they were OK. Pam came round the next morning and told us they had had a new dog some time earlier because their old dog had died (they both looked identical to us!) and this was the first time they had left the new dog alone in the house. She said they wouldn't leave it alone again.
Bob and I chat occasionally when he's at the gate in warm weather. Pam will say 'hello' when I meet her on the street, if I say 'hello' first. We exchange cards at Christmas, and that's pretty much the sum total of seven years' neighbourliness. A friend who knows Pam slightly told us recently that Pam wanted to move to a bungalow, and I began to hope they might leave and perhaps we could have some more congenial neighbours.
The dog has been howling a lot in the last few weeks, and it's been driving us nuts. Some days it's howled all day. We couldn't think how they could stand the noise. Yesterday Pam appeared at my kitchen door in an agitated state. Part of the fence between our gardens had come adrift, and the dog was trying to escape. She asked whether my Paramour could fix it. I said he was out, but I was sure he could when he came back, in an hour or so. I explained that I couldn't do it myself because I'm still recovering from surgery. She said she was sorry to hear that. Then she told me that Bob has mesothelioma and is dying. She said he's just come home from hospital (which explains the howling; I guess Pam was out visiting Bob) and that she's finding it very stressful to care for him at home. I said if she needed any help, please to ask, as we're only next door.
After she left, I sat and thought about what might be happening on the other side of the dividing wall. It was a shock, really; Pam has never been pleasant to us, but Bob always has, and anyway, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I told my Paramour as soon as he came home. We took a bag round again today with a nice flower arrangement and a card. This time we put our landline phone number in the card, and wrote that they should get in touch if they need any help. I don't know what will happen. There are many walls between us and them. It's not just the brickwork. But if they do need help, we'll do our best.