Neighbourliness matters

Recently, my son broke the next door neighbours’ plate-glass front window, by sending a skateboard skittering into it. Our neighbours, a psychologist and writer, have always been kind, especially to our son. The writer played a lot of sport when young and gives tips – “If someone punches you on the field, you should really tell the ref… although it’s more satisfying to just punch back.” The psychologist is artistic and she and our son do projects together, sketching, knitting, making. Our neighbours hadn’t minded our son using their driveway to practise his tricks, but when he was teaching himself how to go down stairs, stopping before the window proved more difficult than he’d thought. He came home and told us what had happened, and I worried we’d stretched neighbourliness too far. Would it snap?

Neighbours matter. They matter a lot. Most of us live in very big cities, and while I know we’re all part of a global village, increasingly an online one, we also live in a real village, our neighbourhood and its face-to-face relationships. Many of us are separated from those we love – family live in other places, friends move away – and our real neighbours, the people we live physically close to, may be the people we see most.

When my son was small, we lived in a rented house near a main road. One night, my husband away, I drove home late after a trip to see friends on the coast. By the time we arrived at the house, the tiniest Tsar, as our friends had christened our son, was already asleep in his capsule. I pulled into our drive intending to open the house and then carry him up. But when I got to the top of the stairs, I saw that the front door was wide open. Worried that someone had broken in, I went to the car, backed out the driveway and parked outside the house next to us. I didn’t know the neighbours well, a middle-aged couple, he a public servant, she a jewellery maker, but they had a light on so I went up their front stairs and knocked on the door. She answered. I told her what I’d seen, and the baby was in the car, fear in my voice.

Her husband was in their front room watching tele. He stood up immediately, said, “Righto then,” put on a shirt, grabbed a heavy metal torch from a cupboard, and came with me. He told me to wait at the bottom of our stairs and then went up on his own, through every room of the house – I watched as he turned on lights. He came down and said it was safe, and wrote down his phone number before he left. I realised we must have left the door open when we’d departed in the morning, but he didn’t tell me I was an idiot for calling him out. He just said, any time. It was such a relief to have him there and to know he’d be just next door through that night.

Of course, neighbourliness has an opposite. A friend of mine came home recently to an anonymous note in her letterbox, complaining that her family’s dog was barking too much. It ended with a threat, that if she didn’t do something to stop the dog the writer of the note would take whatever action was necessary “without any regard for your family’s feelings.” It worried my friend who’s often alone with young children, that a neighbour would write something like this, unsigned, and leave it for her, or a child, to find. Not only that, the barking dog was from another house.

So what struck me most powerfully about our son’s breaking our current neighbours’ window was the way they responded. He went and apologised and he’s since paid for the repair. But when he first told them what happened, feeling very bad, they said it was an accident and not to worry. Later in the week when he hadn’t been skateboarding, they called to say he was welcome to keep skating in their drive, helping him rig up a new way to practise the trick without going near the window. Like many things my neighbours have done, it left me feeling good about the village I live in.


Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 21 September 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!