It’s a quiet neighbourhood where I live. A little haven in a busy metropolis. Surrounded by beautiful greenery, my home is nested in a cosy nook with little passing traffic. There has not been much change in the street over the many decades I have lived here. All the neighbours are well settled baby boomers whose children have grown and moved on to their own homes and lives. Not that they don’t visit mind you. They do. Often. There have been no divorces, separations or family feuds in any of the homes. That in itself is strange given the state of the world today. We all know each other well. Not so well though that we feel stifled or put upon. It’s an easy and comfortable friendship between us all.
One year, however, there was a big change in the street when the house next door to me was sold. It’s owners were quite reclusive. Friendly enough, but kept to themselves. They never really became a part of the community at all. Life revolved around them and seemed to settle back into its usual groove after they had moved in. It was so long ago no-one could quite recall a time when they hadn’t been there. Then they up and sold. Just like that. One day everything was normal. The next day a large FOR SALE sign had appeared on their fence without so much as a word of warning. Created quite a stir that did. Everyone was a little unsettled, wondering what would happen to our peaceful little community. It was almost like a rude slap in the face, reminding us all that perhaps our neighbourhood was not so safe and cosy after all. Change would come whether we wanted it or not.
The house sold very quickly. Not even your usual open for inspection days seemed to happen. Just like the sign going up, one day it was there, the next day it had a great big red SOLD sign over it. All very mysterious it was. None of us could work out how the owners managed to move without any of us noticing. Like the selling, the moving happened without notice or commotion. One day it was occupied, the next day it was empty. How did they do that?! Someone suggested tongue-in-cheek they were aliens and had teleported in and out in the middle of the night when everyone else was sleeping. Seemed as good an explanation as any to me. But I daren’t say so out loud.
Now what, everyone wondered. It certainly got us all talking. In huddles. Over the fence chats. During afternoon cups of tea or coffee in each other’s homes. Never before in the history of the street did I recall such a kafuffle. If nothing else, the neighbours who had always kept to themselves had managed to unite the community in a way never experienced before. There was an air of uneasy excitement and expectation, wondering and conjecture, curiosity and assumption. Discombobulation even. Some thought it would be bulldozed down and several units or townhouses erected. That was happening everywhere else, so why not here too. Someone else thought our neighbourhood would be inundated by foreigners. People who spoke foreign languages and dressed differently. Totally forgetting that we already had a mix of nationalities in the street. Every house had at least one person living in it who had been born somewhere else. It would become student accommodation was another thought. What a disaster that would be with drunken parties at all hours of the day and night, drugs and police raids. Oh dear Lord, perhaps we should all sell now and move before it was too late! Or a rental property with tenants coming and going, or hoarders who would trash the place. Didn’t that happen all the time. You saw it on the news. Or squatters who refused to move. They too would wreck the place and the peaceful serenity of our street. There was no end to the thoughts that ran around about the vacant house and what the future could hold. The theories seemed to get more ludicrous and outrageous by the day. Most of it, it seemed to me, was based on worst case scenarios and fear of change.
No-one wanted to listen to a voice of reason, so in disgust I stopped trying and refused to take part in any of the discussions any more. I’d had my say. Everyone knew what I thought. That we should wait and see. That it would all work out well and life would settle down again. That we would have nice new neighbours who would be friendly and respectable. That they would fit in to the culture of our street. But they didn’t want to listen to that. The nay-sayers started to avoid me. When they saw me, they would stop talking, shake their heads, shrug their shoulders and look away. I pretended not to notice and waved, smiled and called out a greeting. Others still remained civil and polite. I felt sad and wondered if indeed this was the beginning of the end of a street that had been an idyllic place to live.
The house seemed to remain vacant for a very long time. In reality it was only two weeks. On a bright sunny day in the middle of the week a moving van drove slowly down the street and stopped in front of the vacant house. I could almost feel the entire neighbourhood take a deep breath and hold it. The curtains at several windows fluttered as their owners surreptitiously tried to sneak a peek. I was already out in plain sight in the front garden weeding. I stood up, wiped my hands and sat on the front veranda watching events unfold as I sipped a cool drink.
The moving van had been followed by a people mover. Out climbed a young woman, long black hair neatly tied back in a ponytail. Wearing jeans, boots and an oversize shirt tied at the waist in a knot she approached the driver of the van. Pointing at the house she nodded her head vigorously and laughed. The driver climbed back into his van and reversed the large truck into the driveway. In the meantime the woman had returned to her car, opened the driver’s door, and spoke to whoever was inside. I could hear children’s voices but could not make out any words. Car windows and doors opened. Clearly they had been instructed to stay put for a while. As the young mum approached the front gate, she noticed me watching. Smiling and waving she called me over. Introducing herself, she explained she was moving in today. It was an exciting day for the family. Their first proper home, she said. They were looking forward to settling in and getting to know their neighbours and the local community. The previous owners had talked so highly of it all, telling them how friendly, safe and welcoming the street and neighbours were. They were just the loveliest elderly couple who were so sad to leave. Infirm, they had no choice but to sell and move into care. How sad, I thought, that we had not known any of that at all.
She said she was just sorry they had not had time to come around and meet their new neighbours beforehand. Everything had happened in such a hurry. Her husband’s transfer to the firm’s local office had prompted them to see if they could find a home to buy instead of rent. Their very first. The sale had all been arranged on the internet as they lived too far away to be able to come personally. They had engaged a local firm to find suitable houses for them to consider. Once they had settled on the one they liked the best, the firm inspected the property and neighbourhood on their behalf and reported back to them. It had been a thorough inspection and told them all they needed to know. It was lovely to actually see the house in real life. They had fallen in love with it on sight of course and knew it was just the right place for them to live. If it was alright, she said, she would love to have me over just as soon as the moving van had left. She was just dying for a cuppa and if I didn’t mind perching on the steps she would welcome some adult company right now. Her husband was on an overseas business trip and would be coming home next week. I said I would be honoured and delighted to be the first neighbour to welcome her to her new home and our neighbourhood.
A couple of hours later there was a knock on the door. My new neighbour stood there smiling broadly. She was ready for that drink, she said. As we sat companionably side by side in the shade on her front steps she told me a bit about herself and her family. You see, they were moving to our street from a neighbourhood where they could not let the children outside to play as it was so rough and unsafe. Her husband’s job took him away from home frequently and he was keen to see his family settle into a home where he knew they would be safe. A place where the neighbours were friendly, people who would be there for his family if the need arose.
They had no relatives at all. She was orphaned at birth, her parents dying in a horrific accident. Her adoptive parents did not care for her and had had no contact with her since throwing her out of their home as a young teenager. He had been abandoned as a young child and raised in foster homes. Despite their childhood experiences both had excelled at school. Resilience and strength of character had enabled them to also excel in careers dealing with people. She as a social worker with homeless youth. He in social services where he eventually was promoted to a management position. They had met through mutual friends and been together ever since. Married now, they had three young children under five. She had chosen to stay at home to raise her family. Stability, nurturing and a loving home were so important for children. They had discussed all of this of course, she said. Although it might seem on the outside that theirs was a traditional family with traditional values, they had come to that position through tough life lessons and their personal hardships.
We exchanged stories and histories for hours on that front step. The children played and ran around inside and out, inspecting their new home and squealing in delight at each new discovery which they dutifully and in great detail described to their mother. She listened enchanted, then sent them firmly on their way to find the next new thing. I told her it was a delight to have a young family bring new life into the street and that I looked forward to spending many more leisurely hours with them all. Bidding her and the children a good night’s sleep in their new home, I made my way back to mine.
I quietly closed my front door only to be greeted by the shrill ring of the telephone. It was the neighbour across the road. She wanted to know what I thought I was doing worming my way into the new people’s home before they even had time to unpack! And not just that but I had been there for hours and hours. Just what did I tell her anyway? Put ideas into her head about the other neighbours, how bad they were, and to keep away from them? So I could keep her all to myself apparently. Then she hung up.
Just as I was putting the phone back on the hook, the front door bell rang. It was the neighbour on my other side. She thought she would just pop in for a brief chat to see how the new people next door were settling in. She and her husband had noticed I had spent a long time chatting to her and had heard the laughter and chatter. They wondered if perhaps we should get a neighbourhood welcoming committee together and have a morning tea to formally welcome them. What did I think?
Before I had time to answer there was another ring at the door. It was a neighbour from down the road. He had heard that the new neighbour had moved in and wanted to know if everything would be alright or was there cause for concern?
Soon my lounge was filled with neighbours from every house, including the woman from across the road. They wanted to hear every last detail about our new neighbour. So I told them this – she was a young mum with three young children whose husband worked away a lot. They wanted a safe and friendly neighbourhood to live in and had chosen to come here because the previous owners had told them that it was. And that the previous owners had not wanted to move. They were forced to go because they were too ill to look after themselves anymore. I said I was deeply ashamed to have only just learnt this fact. I personally intended to see if I could find out where they went and visit them. Often. And from today to be a better neighbour.
There was a long silence. Ashamed faces. The woman from across the road asked if she could come and visit with me when I found them. Someone else said they would go too. Another said they would host a welcome morning tea for the new family when the husband came home. Yet another said they would offer to help the young mum with settling in – perhaps cook a meal, or baby sit. Soon everyone was busy chatting and planning on how best to make our new neighbours feel welcome and safe. I sat back, listened and smiled. Our street had gone full circle and come to rest in a brighter and better place than before.
© Raili Tanska – November 2014