Saturday, 21 July 2007

The people next-door

Our neighbors of four years moved out last week. “How very DARE you!”* We feel left-behind. Not because Florent and Michael progressed to a brand-new 3-story house facing the woods, but because they don’t live next-door anymore. We miss the clacking sounds from their posh kitchen, the coffee grinder late Sunday mornings, regular karaoke nights which crescendoed into the wee hours of the morning — a comical lullaby one wall away from the old show tunes. “New York! New Yo-o-o-o-ork!” Exuberance was the key. As the evening progressed, intoxicated notes and increased decibels rarely matched the actual melody. No worries.

Neighborliness comes with special requirements. Sounds and sights in every bedraggled state are expected and, one hopes, tolerated. This, perhaps, is what Flor and Michael had enough of. Too much bed-head on our back patio plucking dead pansies out of blooming pots. Not a welcome view from their back-yard botanical arboretum.

The end of the Flor-and-Michael era planted a new marker on the memorial path of neighbors past.

Neighbor training

My first neighbors were my sisters. We lived not next-door to each other, but next to each other. Madeleine and Sylvia shared a huge platform bed, while I, the eldest, was entitled to a single trundle in the same bedroom. Not an optimal arrangement and perhaps why we all have great respect now for our own personal space.

Newbold College, Berkshire, England. On the second floor of the Victorian manor house Moor Close, six females shared the largest, draftiest room in the women’s dorm. Huge bay windows faced the quaint and beautiful Sylvia’s Garden, while inside two Iraqis, an American, a Finn, a Dane and myself — an Armenian Cypriot — shivered in rudimentary accommodation. With limited wardrobe space, we tucked suitcases under our beds to store the few clothes we owned, in my case insufficient winter apparel. Recently dislocated from my sunny island, completely disoriented, I catapulted into real cold; this was the year of numb feet. Mette, my next-bed neighbor, was a Dane with a 10-word English vocabulary. She worked the 4 a.m. shift on the Newbold farm (language skills not required), and set an alarm sure to wake up the cows and stand them in line before Mette arrived to milk. Those crazy Danes with loud, terrorist, blaring-old alarm clocks...

Columbia Union College, Maryland, USA.
Here I progressed to the one-roommate room, an improvement over every year since childhood. I shared a bunk bed with Southern gals, Sharon first, and the next year, Jeanette.

Graduation. Marriage. Suddenly my space issues were modified to include someone not only in the same room but the same bed. Fortunately I could ease into this while Ben worked night-shift for some months, offering me the luxury of one BIG bed, all mine. (No doubt this contributed to my need to capture all available bed space even to this day.)

My calculations show that I’ve endured privacy deficiency since my sister was born just before my fourth birthday.

Next-door neighbors

East Spruce Street, Winter Park, Florida, USA

In the duplex adjoining our first married residence lived a gruff old lady with an elderly bulldog. The dog howled all day while she engaged in long conversations with it, culminating into heated arguments while her pet moaned undogly sounds in contorted, wrinkled misery. In contrast, the house to our left contained the quiet Herman and Mary, New York snowbirds** who bore concentration camp numbers tattooed in Nazi Germany. Herman made delicious (if we used our imagination) chocolate chip cookies infused with Mary’s cigarette smoke.

Summertree Court, Longwood, Florida, USA

First house we owned, and, for various reasons, not one we wish to remember fondly. Greeks on our right, lesbians on our left — our neighbors were fine and had nothing to do with our distaste for this address.

Willow Springs Court, Apopka, Florida, USA

As houses go, our favorite residence of all time. Retired snowbirds** Carl and Betty on our right. Covert cryptic photographer on our left. Behavior noted over 4-year period: drives into garage and shuts automatic door from inside vehicle to avoid all contact with neighborhood. Years later we learned the police arrived by night and took him away. No one’s seen him since.

Thackery Court, Plant City, Florida, USA
Italian New Yorkers Mike and Kathy, and their beloved yellow lab, Rambler. Deliverers of exquisite pastries driven from their New York Italian bakery all the way to Florida. Years later, during a visit to Rome, we searched for the same with great anticipation. We discovered that the New York Italian recipes were a masterful improvement on the Old Country’s. (I also expected exceptional pizza and pasta in Italy, both of which were consistently disappointing.)

Crossways, St. Marks Road, Berkshire, UK
An old Victorian house segmented into five tiny flats, Crossways was “exclusively” reserved for married couples attending Newbold College (where Ben completed his MA in Biblical Studies, New Testament). While we lived there, the building housed Swiss, Croatians, Jamaicans, Ukranians, and us — American-Armenian-Cypriots. We found the following reality shocking in 2001 A.D: One of the five flats contained no toilet. Anne Laure, and later Ivo and Angelica, had to exit their front door, climb up the “common” stairs, and use the loo and shower in the landing. Don’t ask. Suffice it to say that we were offered, but kindly declined the opportunity to live there.

Which brings us full circle to County Durham, UK

Photo taken late April when the (gorgeous but evil) rape fields were in full bloom dispensing pollen like there’s no tomorrow. We live in the brick homes beyond the allotments.

...Neighborless and alone. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Directly behind us is an amusement park situation entirely unamusing to us: the loud family. Two children under 6 are encouraged to scream while playing on their swing set, by example of boisterous, high-pitched grandparents. Very unEnglish. On our left lives a constable (policewoman) and across the street a female police commander. Three houses down there’s a teenage autistic boy who jumps on his trampoline for hours, letting out a deep unrestrained bellow with every bounce. A few houses away, a yelping dog is home alone crying for someone, anyone. Finally, across the way and to the right is Wayne with the loud car. He’s moved in with his girlfriend. The girlfriend, 16, lives with her mum and stepfather. Wayne, 22, says his parents don’t want him. He has no job, he drinks and has a mean temper.

Space available for next neighbors. (No howling pets, noisy cars or screaming kids. Please.)

* Derrick on the Catherine Tate Show
**Snowbirds: Retirees who spend summers in their home States (usually Northern), and migrate to winter in Florida.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The bonnie lass, Benny, and a birthday wish

Her name was Catherine. Her mother died when she was a baby. She had a brother, a father, but neither were eager to mind an infant. So newlyweds Benny and Annie Brown, the baby’s aunt and uncle, started a family, unplanned. “She was a bonnie lass,” says Benny, “She lived with us, and spent weekends with her father.”
. . .
Catherine loved to dance. After months of saving and a trip to Durham Market, Benny surprised his fair-haired angel with a pair of red leather dancing shoes. “She was over the moon,” says Benny, remembering his budding ballerina. “She skipped and twirled every chance she could.”

It was 1952; Catherine was 8. Her brother got off the bus first, and Catherine followed, golden curls dancing in the sun. She stepped off gently, hands cupped, sheltering a ladybird* to show her aunt Nann (Annie). It crawled from one hand to the other and up her arm...

Carefully guarding her precious cargo, Catherine skipped in front of the bus and into the street. The car in the next lane didn't have time to stop.

“Everybody said she was too bonnie to live,” says Benny.

Catherine died when Benny was 30. Last Friday Benny turned 85. His beloved Catherine would have been 63.

He still can’t bear to say her name. He refers to her as “the bairn.”

The birthday, the x-ray, and the hearing aid

The week of Benny’s birthday, his hearing aid broke. And Ben (the younger) needed his head examined (are we surprised?) — an x-ray to investigate a sinus infection that hasn’t cleared for two years. So on the morning of Benny’s birthday, with Ben’s x-ray order in hand, we piled Benny, his hearing aid, and his wheelchair into the car and drove to the hospital (still with me?) where we’d accomplish all of the above. Our reward was waiting in Barney (Barnard Castle): Lunch at Maggie’s Plaice, Benny’s favorite fish & chip shop about 20 miles South.

Benny waited his turn in Audiology while Ben went to x-ray. In less than 10 minutes, Ben returned. He’d been dismissed with no diagnostic imaging. “We no longer x-ray sinuses; your doctor should have known that.” The x-ray order was confiscated to reprimand his physician.

Benny was called into the audiologist who mended his hearing aid, fitted it to his ear and said, “How’s that?” “You can stop shouting now,” Benny said looking up from his wheelchair with a sly grin.

With our morning tasks finished in a flash, we got to Barney early. We ate in the car out of yellowed newsprint that wrapped our fish and chips with salt and vinegar. Benny and I think it tastes better from the paper; Ben prefers a square polystyrene** container and brings his own version of ketchup, the excellent English “HP Fruity Sauce.”

As I collected our leftovers to scatter for the birds, I saw some fish crumbs on Benny’s shirt. “You lost some fish, Benny,” I said. “That’s because I have a small mouth, you see,” he smirked. Benny was happy. We noticed he was able to swing his own legs in and out of the car, something he had been unable to do without assistance. He announced he had already received seven birthday cards. “I usually get ten,” he said, “but this year I won’t get one from Vera; so maybe nine.” Vera loved Maggie’s Plaice where we had a moment of silence in her memory (see May 7 entry for more about Benny and Vera).

(caption) Weirdo. No, the sheep hasn’t been to the groomer, nor does he think he’s a poodle... If they don’t get sheared by early summer, they rub their fur off on fences. This oddity had done just that with extra-good success. (Others looked too scary to show.)

We drove over the moors toward home, stopped to take pictures of sheep and rabbits on rolling hills of heather, in sunshine, clouds, and even a little sprinkle.

Back at Benny’s we read all his cards and brought out the birthday cake. Since 85 candles would have required more than one cake and resulted in a small but adequate fire, for our party of three we opted for a single cake and a single flame. “Remember to make a wish,” I instructed. We sang. He paused.

He blew out his candle. “Did you make a wish?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m content. I’m content.”

Here’s to contentment.

*Ladybird = Ladybug
**Polystyrene = Styrofoam