TOAfter two years, people finally moved in next door. I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, not to move the curtain, but you know how it is. I got overly excited last week spending 20 minutes on a bench with my stepfather comparing the crumb-finding techniques of two pigeons, so you will understand that I have not received this development with serene indifference. My husband and I started to stand by the back door, just casually. We have not seen the new neighbors, but we have registered a bicycle, a car and some new blinds (it has been quite a week). I hope they didn’t see us: two pale-faced ghouls, fogging the window with our heavy breathing. One day our son came home and caught us looking; Since returning to school, he seems more upset than ever about our strange little lives, understandably.
“Maybe we should go and introduce ourselves?” my husband wonders. “Do not!” Hiss. “We are not Americans. Should I put a note on the door about the neighborhood WhatsApp? “
My curiosity masks an overriding concern at the idea of living alongside people again. My past relationships with neighbors have been plagued primarily with unspoken resentments. Did it start with the guy who improvised the jazz saxophone over Dido’s tracks, yelling his appreciation for the particularly chosen “beats”? Or with the large and elegant family, each of whom played a different wind instrument? No, I remember buying earplugs when I was 19, supposedly carefree, in college to attenuate the stereo sexual noises of my landing partners. I’m a fan of racing noise – my desire for a life of monastic silence and pathological curiosity for other people are basically irreconcilable.
But everyone I know is going crazy for their neighbors right now. One friend even had a festive Advent-style countdown for her hated to move in. We live in a time and country of high density of life, more intimately familiar than we would like with the habits of our neighbors at best, and the past year has definitely not been the best of times. Fully appreciating, for the first time, the thinness of our walls, or the depth of our neighbors’ commitment to vacuuming or karaoke, DIYing, or Joe Wicks, successive closings have brought previously cordial relationships to a breaking point. Of course, there have been beautiful acts of local solidarity and kindness, a strengthened sense of community, but mediators have also reported a dramatic increase in the number of neighbor-related cases. We are social animals, but in our own burrows we would prefer not to remember the mating, food, excretion and play of the other animals around us.
The pandemic aside, it is neither a new nor a particularly British phenomenon. I felt a deep sense of companionship as I read that in Japan, a Collaborative guide for neighbors and their noise violations. has exploded in popularity recently (“Terribly talkative and loud,” is a prominent comment in the New York Times report on the site. “I looked at them for a long time, but they didn’t stop”). It is the same feeling I had when reading Proust’s Letters to his neighbor, Mrs. Williams. They are full of noise complaints, exquisitely courteous and with delicate phrases, but complaints nonetheless. “A series of light taps on the parquet above me”, carpet hits made with “extreme violence” and painters starting work at 7 am penetrated the peace of Proust’s cork-lined room.
Nobody is touching the parquet next door. Until now, our new neighbors have been perfectly quiet, like barefoot Carthusians. Over the past week, however, I have watched with growing unease my son’s 6.30am departure with a bone-shaking door slam and the fact that our confused elderly dog spends a good proportion of most days barking to nothing. I’ve noticed how noisily our robot vacuum cleaner wobbles, bumping into things like a messy drunkard, and realized that the high notes that I have no right to attempt during online choir practice resonate horribly. We have even tripped the fire alarm twice. Are we, in fact, the bad neighbors? Sometimes you think you are Proust, but it turns out that you are actually Mrs. Williams.
• Emma Beddington is a columnist for The Guardian
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism