Love Thy Neighbour

Entry by: macdonald

24th June 2016
Love Thy Neighbour

Morag organised the hunting and our last visit one night, five miles into the Derbyshire countryside, was a mystery. She’d told me nothing about the house.
We parked in a village I’d never heard of and walked along a narrow lane in a wooded valley, which climbed uphill. Morag casually mentioned the asking price for the property we were about to see.
‘You know we can’t afford that,’ I said. ‘And I’d need to get special permission to live out here, so far from the hospital.’
‘There it is,’ she said, pointing to a large house a hundred yards distant.
‘It’s enormous,’ I said. ‘How many bedrooms?’ just as a huge black Dobermann, launched itself frenziedly at the mercifully padlocked gate of the house next door.
Morag shouted in fright and ran off ahead, with me following, before turning into a long driveway. The dog was still barking as we were welcomed inside.
As the Mr and Mrs of the house showed us around, I tried to keep count of all the rooms, before Mr produced a diagram of his house and garden. A stream running to the valley floor was the natural divide with next door, but thick red ink lines emphasised the actual border was on his neighbour’s side of the stream.
‘We own the stream,’ he repeated in his garden later. Through a hedge on the far side, I could see a middle aged couple sitting amidst a lot of shrubbery beside a pond.
Morag and I tiptoed past the neighbour’s gate on the way back to the car, but the Dobermann appeared again, trying to vault the high iron gate to get at us.
‘Isn’t it perfect?’ Morag said back in the safety of our car.
‘Absolutely perfect,’ I replied, ‘Except it costs far too much, is too big, too far away from my workplace and there’s a border dispute with the neighbours which we’ll inherit and they own a dog that will tear us and our children apart the first opportunity it gets.’
‘Apart from that,’ she said, ‘do you like it?’
We bought the house and three months later attended a leaving party for Mr and Mrs to say goodbye to all the people on the road. Everybody seemed very friendly but our soon to be immediate neighbours, didn’t come.
‘Oh, Sylvie and Arthur next door,’ said Mrs when I asked. ‘They’ve always kept themselves to themselves. Never socialised much.’
The Dobermann greeted Bobby and Kate with another menacing growl on the Friday we moved in.
‘We need a proper fence between us,’ I said to Morag. ‘It’s not safe to let the children out until I’ve built one.’ After the removals van left we nipped out to the local DIY where I bought some wooden stakes and several long rolls of chicken wire. When we got back there was a cake on a plate in the porch.
“From Sylvie and Arthur Boardman,” Morag read from the accomanying card, “welcome to your new home.”
She rang the number on the card and next morning we went round for morning coffee, phoning again before we left to check their dog wouldn’t be waiting in ambush.
‘Don’t worry about Bruno,’ said Sylvie in a soft German accent. ‘He’s a big softie.’ And he was. As soon as we’d been introduced and welcomed into his pack he was a different dog and I abandoned the fence idea.
Sylvie was over sixty then; small, dark and dynamic. Arthur was a few years older, a bit stooped, but still at least a foot taller than his wife. We sat outside in sunshine, admiring their wildlife pond with its chairs arranged to watch the sun rising on the east of the valley in the morning, then setting in the west in the evening. We chatted together for hours, going inside later for a lunch of chicken noodle soup, smoked trout and salad.
A mix of drawings and photographs were hung on the kitchen walls.
‘Is that your wedding?’ Morag asked, pointing to a small black and white photo in a silver frame. The young Arthur was a tall upright figure in uniform, a smiling Sylvie leaning into his chest. Below greased and swept back dark hair, Arthur had a look of fierce pride in his eyes as he stretched his left arm around his bride’s shoulders, the other hand clasping an army cap to his chest. A camera rarely captures the love between two people, so obvious when they are encountered in the flesh, but this photograph did.
‘Yes,’ said Sylvie. ‘We married in Cyprus. I was nineteen.’
Alongside the pair stood a white pole, to which a piece of cloth, perhaps a canopy to shield the couple from the Cypriot sun, was attached.

‘Did you notice her tattoo?’ said Morag after the chidren had gone to bed.
‘Tattoo? Sylvie? you’re kidding.’
‘Faded blue numbers on the left forearm. I saw them when she poured the tea.’
‘Probably just somebody’s telephone number she’d forgotten to wipe away.’
‘No Brian. She’s Jewish. I’m not sure about Arthur though.’
‘How do you know she’s Jewish?’
‘Come on Brian!’ she said. ‘The apple cake, that lunch, the chuppah..’
‘The what?’
‘The chuppah. In the photograph. They were standing under a chuppah at their wedding. It’s a Jewish custom. And they got married in Cyprus in 1947. He was a British army officer, but what was a German teenager doing in Cyprus then?’
‘You tell me.’
‘The Jews were only tattooed at Auschwitz, so she must have been there. When she survived and tried to get to Israel, the Brits must have turned her away and she ended up in a displaced person’s camp in Cyprus. That’s where Arthur would have met her.’
She was right of course and Sylvie told us the details of her story piecemeal over the following years. With no children of their own, and our children’s only surviving grandparents retired to Spain, Sylvie and Arthur became surrogate grandparents and doting babysitters.
‘Tell us stories from your head, Sylvie’ our children would plead as we went out early on a Friday or Saturday night. Sylvie would tell them long and complex middle european versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Snow White. She taught all our children (we had five eventually) piano and Arthur often took them fishing or to see the badger setts and old miner’s caves on the hillside.
Three weeks after 9/11 Arthur died suddenly and a few months later on a Sunday lunchtime Morag said:
‘That’s funny. Sylvie’s not answering the phone.’ She’d started driving Sylvie to the supermarket for her weekly shop on Sundays.
I went round and standing at the side of her house, saw she was sitting in her morning position by the pool. I called to her, but received no response, so started toward her, my eyes fixed on her, my heart beating faster. I stopped beside her and whispered her name. A cup of tea and the photograph of her Wedding day was on the table, her chin resting on her breast as if she might have been asleep, but I knew she was dead. I rang Morag, then 999 and then sat in Arthur’s seat and placed my arm around her thin shoulders, my warm cheek against her cold one and thanked her for all her kindness. Knowing she would now be with Arthur again, I thanked him also.
A few months later a new couple moved in to Sylvie and Arthur’s house. They had one little boy with another child on the way.
Baking a cake was the least we could do. Our children did many nights babysitting and now they have all flown the nest, Morag, sometimes with me in tow, has taken over.
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