Ashleigh Young on the importance of being distant from the neighbours
Sometimes a man in my neighbourhood sings loudly. The sound is strangely aggressive, as if the singer has spotted an interloper on his property and is trying to warn it away. He likes songs by Sam Smith and Zayn Malik. As his voice carries around the neighbourhood, it feels to me like this is just how things are going to be now. The singing will go on forever. It will haunt our dreams. Our children and our children's children will grow up never having known a time before the singing. A few minutes later, when the singing finally stops, an extraordinary peace descends upon the neighbourhood. We feel blessed. The singing has shown us that we should never again take for granted the peaceful time when no one is singing. Then someone starts up a chainsaw.
I don't know what it is I want from my neighbours. Despite the stories you sometimes hear about wonderful, generous neighbours who become like family and despite the knowledge that humans have lived in tribes for almost all of our evolutionary history and that a major cause of our current malaise is a lack of community – well, maybe, in the end, I want to know nothing about my neighbours. The less I know about them, the more I am able to like them: the greater the potential to imagine that we could be friends. But the more I find out about them, the more limited this potential becomes. For instance, I know that my upstairs neighbour has a heavy, urgent walk, like there is an emergency at all times. As my ceiling and walls shake, some small, petty, primal part of me decides: I could never be friends with someone who walks around like this.
But each of us has different sensitivities and no neighbourhood can ever accommodate all of them. And none of us will ever fully understand how our own actions irritate or impinge on our neighbours. It's likely that when I do yoga in the backyard, lunging around earnestly on the lawn, my upstairs neighbours look down from their window and think, "We could never be friends with someone who carries on like that."
A while ago my parents' neighbours parked a van on the road outside. The van was rusty and had little mesh curtains. My parents could see the van from their living room. For a few weeks I heard a lot about the van. The van was an eyesore. It emitted an aura of inertia, like a houseguest sleeping on a couch at midday, covered in crumbs. The van stayed and stayed. I wondered if this was the beginning of an Alan Bennett-like story: my parents would befriend the eccentric occupant of the van, social barriers would fall away, and later a heart-warming film would be made. Finally, after weeks, the van vanished and there was peace. My parents were happy again. Maybe what we want from our neighbours is for them to act up every so often, so that we can compare our own behaviour and morals with theirs. The rest of the time, we want neighbours hidden. We want them never to play Classic Hits FM or to rev their chainsaws; preferably they should emerge only under cover of darkness.
I have been looking for somewhere new to live for many months, not only because of the emergency walking upstairs but because my neighbours run a creche and every morning tiny feet gallop into the room above my head and suddenly balls are bouncing and miniature vehicles are trundling about and people are yelling. At first the noise is interesting, like something Radiohead would sample at the beginning of a song but then it becomes oppressive, also like a Radiohead song. I wonder if I'm being over-sensitive: if this is just what it is to be a neighbour. That maybe I should be grateful to have anywhere to live at all in the cut-throat rental market, that maybe it's all in my head, that maybe my irritation speaks of some failure of humanity within me, that maybe writing about my neighbours in a national newspaper is a mistake. Who can say?
My brother told me that, once, he got so annoyed by the stomping upstairs from his London flat that he went up and knocked on the door to complain. A little old lady opened the door. "There seems to be quite a lot of noise happening," my brother said. "But, my dear," said the little old lady, peering at him, "there's no one here." This is the heart of the difficulty. Even though we are jammed in together so closely, our perceptions – filtered through walls, ceilings, floors, eardrums – are so far apart that we may as well be living on different planets.