Love Thy Neighbour
But what would it take, to turn
on your neighbour, with whom
you have leaned on the fence,
(shared the cost eight years ago)
and talked of pruning roses,
the perfect time to pick plums,
and treating yellow grass stains
from wandering dogs that
belonged to neither of you?
Whose permission, exactly,
do you need, to vault the fence,
or smash the treated lap panels,
to enter a no man's land
and walk on carpets, soft
and deep, of snow in summer,
cerastium, or sedum, succulent,
red flowers like
What if you saw, now
in the planting, motifs
of a belief not yours,
symbols carved in a bench,
every difference you stored
for years? And you accept,
yes, the truth has gone,
and you can do
'Under the skin, mam,we're all the same. A drop of their blood looks exactly the same as as drop of yours, after all.'
She called the couple next door 'Mr and Mrs Ravi,' but what she called them may not have been quite right, because her memory was no longer strong. 'Mr Ravi brings me my 'Mail,' indeed he knows I can't get out the house, but look now I must owe him... I'm not sure, Eamon, it's been a few weeks. Now, would you go and sort it out with Mr Ravi...'
Eamon knocked on the door, which was painted a lovely, glossy blue. When Mr Ravi opened the door, Eamon introduced himself as Mrs G's son who'd come to settle up for the newspapers. Mr Ravi took Eamon's hand and shook it warmly, cupping it in fact in both hands, and told him what a sweet woman his mam was. He used that word 'mam.' Eamon thumbed through his wallet and drew out 50 euros, but Mr Ravi shook his head in amused horror and put up his two hands. 'No. It's a privilege to be able to help out your mam.'
Later, Eamon left a potted orchid on the front step with a card, with more flowers on the front. He liked the way the petals looked, set down there by the blue door, and when a black cat came and brushed sensuously against the shiny pot, he took out his phone and snapped, and he tweeted the shot, with the words 'Thank you, Mr Ravi.'
And then, he tweeted 'Love thy neighbour' which even if no-one at all noticed, he thought would make some kind of small difference.
I had one bag of shopping. I’d reached the third floor and a woman on the stairs, forty five-ish, asked me for money for phone credit. Concealing my polished accent I shrugged like I didn't have any and walked down the corridor. I don't mind giving the odd quid to someone but with some people, where would it stop? They ask you for a cigarette, then some money for the meter, then this, then that. But me being me I didn’t go indoors and carry on with my day. I had to process things. If there's one thing I hate, it's saying ‘No, sorry’ (or shrugging) when someone asks if I have money. These people seem to know the law of guilt tripping someone though; you can imagine the conversation if you tried being honest?
“Excuse me mate, can you spare us a couple of quid?”
“You haven't got just a quid have yer?”
“I do as it happens, but I would prefer to keep it.”
“You _______ stingy ____.”
I’m afraid you’ll have to fill in the blanks. (Clue: they're swear words).
“Thank you. Look, it's not the money. It's that I'd rather give it to charity or drop it down a drain.”
That’s what I want so say to someone I suspect isn’t generous themselves and possibly won’t use what you give them for something worthwhile, like a packet of fresh vegetables. I imagine they just think if you happen to be carrying change, they have a right to it. More right, say, than The Red Cross- who I occasionally donate to and who pay me back in free calendars, christmas cards, pens and other stationary I don’t ask for.
Anyway a day or two later I come out the corridor onto the landing as she was walking down the stairs from the top floor above. I had my back to her and was going down the stairs when she said a very faint hello. I didn’t answer. I was hurrying and it wasn’t natural to break my flow. Besides, I sensed the hello had strings-attached. I sensed trouble the first snapshot I took of her.
Again the incident played on my mind and seemed echoed in a conversation I had with my mother on the phone. She said she and her partner weren't speaking because she called him a _______ liar after he denied having seen her blood pressure monitor.
“He's giving me the silent treatment. It's very cruel when someone does that.”
“Yes it is,” I said.
I don't know if this lady hangs around the stairwell a lot but I saw her the following day. I'd come out, realised I'd forgotten my library books (unread, as usual) and gone back. I opened the downstairs door, which I’d just closed because someone had left it open; and saw her coming towards me, about to exit. So I left the door open for her and walked past. I'd walked up a few stairs when I heard her call after me,“Can you close the door next time, you _______ weirdo!”
If I’d closed the door I would have experienced similar abuse, I'm sure. Something like, “Why did you shut the door in my face, you _______ ____!”
I knew that this wasn't about closing or not closing doors. I was the best door closer in the building, hands down. Her grievance was me not giving her money and/or saying hello to her.
The rest of the day I was nervy and couldn't think myself into an emotionally stable place. Then I checked my email and there was a 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' story in my inbox called “The neighbour from hell”. Nice synchronicity but Chicken Soup stories seem to have a theme, which is, ‘Aggressive people are just lonely.’ In the story a hateful neighbour turns into a best friend who makes cakes when she’s invited over.
But that's just the point. I didn’t want this woman to see inside my flat with its books and electronics so she could tell her mates about them and they could come and steal them. The electronics, that is. I didn't think an invitation would result in her bringing over a nice flan.
So I resolved to make sure I only needed to go out once a day to minimise the chance of seeing her again and for a while things were quiet but all the time this problem with my neighbour was playing dark chords in my mind.
In fairness, my initial fear- a negative response- had gotten me into this mess and I needed to change tack because scurrying around didn't sit right with me. Some might say she was wrong to do as she did but then I provoked her by not speaking to her the first time. I believe stalkers call it 'invalidation'. So what to do? The first thing was to stop acting fearfully. If trouble must come then let it.
And I was- quite honestly- behaving in a weird way. All right, it was occasioned by my reaction to her- I was a kind of mirror- but that's not the point and anyway, she wouldn’t know that. She’d most likely be less of a brooder than me.
And another thing. So she was trigger happy with her unpleasant remarks, but I’d said worse to my own mother? Yes, in the heat of a horrible moment. "So go on," I said to myself. "Live dangerously. Fortune favours the brave."
Eventually, perhaps. Well it was something to think about. I did just fear that one incident might lead to another until the whole house of cards came tottering down. You can have the best of intentions but I remembered the bullies at school. They just hate everything about you. The more you give of yourself- the more you talk- the more you simply exist- the more they hate you until... you start to pretend you like them? For that was the problem all along. That you didn't love them, in spite of how hard they were making it to love you. Bullies need love, give it to them. They'll want to borrow your money- spend time with you- ask for favours and generally spoil your day, maybe even your life. But the irony is- the harder it is for you to love them- the less lovely you are. A bully is a challenge which, should you choose to accept it, will deepen your understanding of life, help you grow as a person.
In the New Testament the parable of the Good Samaritan has almost lost its meaning. These days, it seems like helping a waylaid traveller is a no brainer but the victim now is the asylum seeker we fear will repay our kindness by not integrating into our culture and telling his children that we are infidels; or the homeless person in the high street who spins you some bullshit story so he can buy drugs.
That night I went to see Dave in my dreams, the bravest and best person I’ve known. The dream wasn't about her, the troublemaker upstairs. It was just spending time with Dave and, as I might have expected, he was enroute to somewhere else, with others making demands on his time. But it seemed to have done the trick because I woke up feeling better. The fear had gone and I felt that David might have said, 'Don't let her problem become part of you'. And yet David would have made friends with her, there's no doubt. Somehow, when love is the prism through which we see, things work out. So it is that saving lives now is perhaps more important than what we fear may happen to our country when we’re all dead anyway.
I didn't see her for the next few days, which is hardly surprising, because I was still limiting my trips outside to one a day. One day I noted that somebody had spilt tomato soup on the stairs and the wall and not cleared it up. I would have made a go of it myself but I saw a finger being pointed squarely at me if I was seen doing it. (That and the fact that I couldn't be bothered). Another day, I noted that the bottom stair outside had a pool of fresh human blood on it, as well as some wiped on the wall. Then I went to Morrisons. A man who hangs round the charity shop asking for money came up to me.
“Excuse me…” I walked away.
A few days later she was on the second floor, rapping someone's door with a rapid, impatient, knock. I nodded at her- that was about as much as I could manage- she went 'eh'. I don't even know if she recognised me. My presence seemed incidental to her.
Weeks later I was walking towards the town centre. I glanced to my right and saw her crossing the road with a beefy looking man. She had a wild look in her eyes, like the world had stolen her entire fortune and shared the spoils amongst themselves. Those eyes said, ‘Which person am I going to get next?’
Another week passed and then I came down the stairs one day two women were coming up. They were groaning, like each one of those stairs was exacting a terrible toll. (They do have a deeper tread than modern ones, that's for sure). Although it was only 1.45 in the afternoon one had a can of beer in her hand, the other was my nemesis but was so drunk she was totally oblivious to my presence. Her head was down and she appeared to be about ready to collapse. That said, I didn't stand and stare at her.
Many weeks went by, then one day I walked down the stairs and there she was, she standing to one side at the bottom. I said, "Cheers" and she said something which I know was benevolent, even though I don't know what word it was.
I went outside, it was a beautiful day. My enemy had been nice to me! Everything was okay. The squashed dog poo on the pavement smiled at me. I felt bad about having had thoughts about chopping her head off and playing football with it; she was my friend now. Category Z, I hasten to add. Someone you're polite to on the stairs, but border checks and visa regulations are in place if any further intimacy is required.
But still, I couldn’t help feeling everything is relative. Doubtless, I’d trespassed on the goodwill of many better than me. And I'd finally begun to realise that they could never really tell me this. They just hoped I would come round. If they were nice, patient, caring, suffering and sacrificing maybe one day I'd remember and so it might be with this woman. Pay it forward, as they say.
For wasn't I- in my dream- a clinger on, waylaying David as he tried to make his way through life? Don't I also live upstairs? And in my own very large way- I am a troublemaker.
I went shopping to Morrisons and heard a voice.
“Excuse me mate, excuse me mate, excuse me mate.”
I turned around. A man about 30 approached. Tattoos on his face, eyes like Al Pacino’s.
“Excuse me, can you do me a favour?”
“No? Ok, fair enough,” he said, and his eyes did a quick sweep of the precinct.