Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Good Neighbours

Living back in London after more than a decade is great for English Pubs and wonderful theatre but, for someone accustomed to sunshine living in Australia and Tuscany, it’s not all roses. The rain in London, incessant since I arrived at Easter despite our collective hopes for Spring, has nearly driven me crazy. And don’t tell me they were April showers! I know the song and Judy Garland definitely pictured sun-showers.

Anyway I was content to move a little further out of London recently, to stay for a while in St Margaret’s, Twickenham, surrounded by jogging tracks in beautiful parks and along the Thames. I was hopeful a good fitness regime would help me acclimatise, as well as lessen my tendency to scoff at the radio for going on about droughts when most of us are wishing we had flippers instead of feet.

Enthusiastic about returning to my old stomping ground, I offered to drive my friend to Gatwick. She gave me a couple of opportunities to back out but with my usual energy I insisted. We set off before lunch for what I thought would be a two hour round-trip. WRONG. All went well until Sunbury and the M25 flowed smoothly. But on the M23 we came to a standstill for forty-five excruciatingly long minutes. For another fifteen we limped forward, starting and stopping, but our only sustenance, a bag of cashew nuts, did little to help our physical progress. We were still about three miles from Gatwick; my friend convinced she’d miss her plane. Minutes before check-in was scheduled to close, we saw two airport mini-buses race down the left hard shoulder. As car after car followed in their wake, the temptation to do the same got too much. I’m not generally conformist – coming from convict stock of which I’m proud - and had been patient long enough. I pulled to the left and a rush of good feeling flooded my body as we gained speed and the motorway exit came into view. We were home free. My friend was going to Capri after all. Then the traffic slowed and two policemen stepped out – stopping the last two cars in the break-away contingent. It didn’t matter at least fifty drivers had gotten away with it; this was not my lucky day. And the polite, but inflexible, policeman explained I was to lose sixty quid and three points. Damn. Now I know why Londoners don’t offer to take you to the airport. Oh well, at least Sue was to arrive in Italy in time for aperitivo.

I headed back to London avoiding the M25 which by then boasted multiple accidents and delays. Yet every 2nd bus was intent on whipping me off the face of the earth, and the aggression in the pre-long-weekend moving masses was palpable and unnerving. I limped and groaned through a three hour traffic nightmare which made driving in Rome seem like a tiptoe through the tulips. I arrived back in Twickenham, angry, exhausted and desperate for a drink. The round-trip had taken almost six hours. Thankfully a lovely couple joined me in the local pub for a pint which gave me a much needed opportunity to download. The beer went straight to my head so I went home and drank another in front of the telly, before falling asleep on the sofa.

All day Saturday I put off leaving the house for exercise, because every time I opened the front door I was chilled to the bone. Finally at 3pm I dragged myself out the door ready to put in a solid hour’s effort. But a flooded Thames Path, and muscles which simply could not warm up in the bitter wind, had me returning home in thirty minutes. I showered, changed and jumped back into Sue’s Peugeot for a delightfully calm and uncluttered drive to Wimbledon to have dinner with a musician friend.

After a sirloin steak and a few glasses of red, just enough to take the edge off the cold, I approached St Margarets ready to tuck myself into bed. I drove around and around the block, but there was nowhere to park. How do people do this every night, I wondered? After twenty minutes I got grumpy. I drove in a different direction, killing time by passing old apartments, visiting haunts and memories, even the lady’s house to whom I’d sold my piano when I last packed up my life in London to return to Australia to do a Masters. By the time I parked and walked back to the house I was smiling again, familiar faces and scenes coming into focus as if the previous decade were shrinking.

I turned both keys in the lock, nothing. I turned again and again, NOTHING. The door would not budge, and the problem seemed to be the bottom third of the door to which there was no key. Could someone be inside and using the bolt? But who? Why? And wasn’t the bottom lock decommissioned? I performed the kama sutra of key adjustments until my hand landed on the door buzzer. Nothing. Eventually loud sighs and hip-pumps against the door attracted the attention of a neighbour who, thankfully, didn’t have his curtains drawn. I introduced myself and Henry tried pretty much everything I had. Near midnight his wife emerged from the bath and found a can of WD40, to no avail. I called my girlfriend in north-east London, waking her up. Also a friend of Sue’s and familiar with the house, Petronella made various suggestions, until such time as it was clear I wasn’t going to get in the house that night. The good neighbours stepped up and invited the Australian stranger to spend the night in their daughter’s bedroom. It was cold, it was raining, and I couldn’t face the prospect of navigating across Londonto wake another friend. It’s a big enough deal to change countries without losing all your security. I accepted their generosity gratefully. Snuggling into the unknown Emma’s bed, I barely resisted the urge to cuddle her black and white stuffed dog.

Sunday morning a locksmith and Sue’s daughter, Kate, got me into the house and I had just enough time to get organised to go out again for 10.30am Mass. I had been a part of a warm community when I lived in St Margarets in the late 90s, and as I wandered up the road I hoped to meet some friendly faces; lovely people with whom I’d shamefully lost contact. I opened the door to the church foyer and locked eyes with Kathy. Disbelieving, she did a double-take and screamed. As her arms flew around me, her daughter Andrea tugged at my sleeve, and her father Adrian embraced me in the enveloping way the Irish do. Person after person welcomed me back, forgotten names didn’t matter. I moved into the church and took a seat in a pew, it was so familiar, so much a part of me, how could I have been away so long? Between prayers I caught people’s eye, we waved, winked, and later hugged. I even met my old boyfriend’s wife and three children, and soon we were in the church hall after Mass swapping stories and drinking wine. I teased that the quality of the establishment had deteriorated since they’d stopped serving beer on tap, but the grin on my face and tear in my eye told the real story: I was deeply touched to be so warmly welcomed after so many years.

“Good neighbours” don’t always“become good friends” but sometimes they do - and we sure as hell need them to help us out now and again; to allow us to feel connected and cared about. And neighbours don’t need to live next door, they can be anyone who crosses our path and to whom we show kindness or consideration. So, on balance from the May long-weekend, it’s definitely my turn to be neighbourly. And I'll try to exercise it over the June Jubilee Long Weekend.

Ah but when you wake up to a little sunshine, as thankfully I did today, it seems so much easier…