Remember Pam and Bob, our troubled next-door neighbours? Pam rang me!!! I found a message on the answerphone saying hello, this is Pam from next door, thank you for the card and the flowers, please could you let me have the phone number for your window cleaner? I had to psych myself up to ring back, but ring back I did. And we had a cordial chat lasting 6 minutes and 18 seconds, which I reckon more than doubles the amount of time she and I have spent exchanging words in the last seven years.
She asked after my operation and I told her about it, turns out she had the same one 20 years ago so she was suitably sympathetic. Then I asked after Bob. She told me he was only diagnosed with mesothelioma two months ago and their lives have been turned upside-down. When he was in hospital, he couldn't go to our nearest one (25 minutes' drive away) because he needed specialist care in a hospital that is more like an hour's drive from here, depending on traffic. Now he's at home, he has a bed downstairs in the living room and nurses coming in twice a day.
It must be very stressful for you, I suggested gently. Pam agreed that it was, and said in some ways the worst thing is that Bob can't remember ever being exposed to asbestos - which is, in theory, the only way people get his particular type of cancer.
She sounded sober, so I guess maybe his illness is having a positive effect in some ways. It was as good a conversation as it could have been. She knows, now, that if she rings for something we will respond. I don't feel right about ringing her just to chat, but if I was concerned I could pick up the phone (we never knew her number before). And now, if I meet her in the street, I can say 'how are you and Bob doing?' and be ready for a real answer. So I think that's progress.