I always wondered about this business of taking up space. One person feels he is entitled to all the space in the world. Another, like a wild cat unwillingly rescued, spends her life continually try to squeeze herself into the smallest possible space, longing for invisibility. I suppose I’d be one of those – a wild cat unwillingly rescued by human society.
It used to be OK, when I had Ex. Ex was pugnacious enough for both of us. Sometimes this was embarrassing, like the time he chased a man in a potato lorry who was driving too fast, and the enormous man in the potato lorry unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and got out, marched back and threatened to “cream him over the bumper”. Other times I can only be grateful for, like the time he drove me to the eye hospital after weeks of misdiagnosis and ineffectual treatment by our local doctor, and demanded that a specialist see me at once. He made a loud, almighty, alpha male-type fuss in a room full of people who probably all had referral letters and had no doubt been waiting patiently for hours. That saved my sight.
Since I have been on my own – longer now than I was with him – I have had to learn to stand my ground, sometimes. I am so not good at it. I have to be very angry to confront someone, which means, basically, that I have no control over what comes out of my mouth. It always horrifies me and there will always a be disproportionately huge cost attached.
When the new people moved in next door I made friendly conversation over the fence. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I resigned myself to the thundering feet up the stairs, the loud Disney-type music from the child’s bedroom, the hammering, the… whatever. Families are different, I told myself. You can’t expect them to be as unobtrusive as old folk. You can’t move, so get used to it.
I tried not to hear their loud, silly conversations out on the decking. When they lit the barbeque next to my garden fence and the smell of half-cooked pork sausages began to drift across my vegetarian garden I closed the windows, discreetly, hoping they wouldn’t notice and take umbrage.
When they had a party, which they did warn me about, sort of, I plugged in the old earpieces and tried to distract myself from a garden full of football-kicking little boys with soothing music. “Don’t kick that ball on the decking,” I couldn’t help discerning over Thomas Tallis. “You know what happened last time!”
What had happened last time? Had they by any chance been snuffling around my garden while I was out, looking for a lost football?
I tried not to hear ever-increasing volume of cackling and mindless laughter that seems to go with alcohol. I tried not to wonder what the loud, screechy row just the other side of my living room wall was all about. I tried – and of course failed – to resist peering round the curtain when the woman started running round in the front garden and banging on the front windows bellowing “They’re my fam’ly, they’re my fam’ly!” Who are? Not being able to work out exactly what was going on was almost as bad as psychic exposure to other people’s second-hand upset and aggression, like being given a single torn-out page from a library book.
I tried not to be horrified as the woman and a man manhandled a bellowing boy-child out to the car, he holding an arm and she a leg, and tossed the boy unceremoniously inside, where he continued to bellow, more loudly than before.
But when the next day someone from next door parked a white van – nay, the Mother of All White Vans, in front of my driveway and blocking me in I just sort of – found myself out in the garden, demanding to see him and asking him to remove it. It didn’t sound like me. It didn’t feel like me. It felt as if “me” was away on holiday and some storybook character was confronting her neighbour, and I was writing it.
“I will in a minute,” he said.
“No,” this storybook me was heard to say. “I want you to move it now.”
He did, but remarked that I could always have come round and asked him to move it if and when I needed to go out.
Since then, although he moved the car and has not blocked me in again, it falls silent every time I go out into the garden. If one of their loud conversations is going on there is a pause, and then laughter. Since then I cannot go out into my garden, basically, until after dark or until they all happen to go out in one of their many cars and vans. Since then I tiptoe about feeding my stray cats in the dusk. I pile up rubbish bags in the corner of kitchen by the door, only creeping out with them to the dustbins when the moon has risen because I cannot stand being seen and being listened to by hostile, mocking presences.
Now, the point of this is twofold:
Not everyone is like you. Not everyone can temporarily forget about/shut off from a blocked-in car. For some of us, neurotics maybe, it means having to ‘stew’ all night, unable to sleep for worrying about the blocked-in car and wondering if it’s gone yet. Some of us are claustrophobic and instantly feel that their only escape, whether needed or not, has now been cut off.
Not everyone is a thirty-something male souped-up on testosterone and self-regard. Not all of us can stride round to a stranger’s house at 7 on a Sunday morning and chortle “Mind moving your car now, mate?” Some of us are old, some of us are female, some of us are timid and some of us are shy. We don’t all have a grim-faced and grumpy husband in the background who might possibly decide to “cream you” if you don’t get on and move the thing.
I related the story to Canadian sister over the phone. “You did the right thing,” she said. “It’s the same over here – you just don’t block people in. It’s rude.”
The thing to do, surely, is pause for a moment, engage your imagination and try to anticipate the effect your actions may have on people who are not you, and not like you. Isn’t that what all those undrawn boundaries and unspoken social rules are all about?
It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find that you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you.
Anita Brookner: Look At Me
Featured Image: Boxed In: Denice Goldschmidt