Photo by Russell Yarwood (ryarwood; Flickr CC)
The neighbour sometimes comes up to complain about our being too loud. Usually, it's Rico's fault – those Star Wars training academy programs can get pretty noisy, you know – but yesterday, it wasn't, I don't think. He slept in – for a 7-year-old, I mean, so, like, until 8:30am – and then I did the sluttiest mummy thing possible, i.e. plonked him in front of the computer and lay on the sofa, drifting in and out of sleep. We didn't properly get up until almost 11:00am.
But the thing is, after lunch I started cleaning. Like, proper cleaning. I was moving tables and everything. I'm always thinking about the neighbour, I'm always thinking about her – basically, every second sentence I utter to my child is “Don't be so loud, the lady from downstairs will come up and complain!”
But, fuck, I never do any cleaning. I mean, I never do moving tables-style cleaning. What am I saying? I never do any cleaning, and I never fucking ever do any moving tables-style cleaning. It's really boring. I get a really bored headache in a very specific part of my brain. I hate it. So, the thing is, when I do actually do some cleaning, I just forget about the lady downstairs. Because I think she should just be grateful that I'm not hoovering underneath cupboards on a weekly basis.
She came upstairs, of course. It was about 3pm in the afternoon by this point.
“Is your little one in?” she asked. “He's been running around all day long.”
“Oh,” I said. “Actually, it was me. I've been cleaning.”
“He's been running and back and forth all morning.”
“I've been cleaning. I mean, when should I clean?”
“But it's always like this. The past few weeks. I can't sleep, I can't relax. It wakes me up and then it keeps on going, all day long. I only have the weekend for relaxing. I'm at work all week.”
Rico came running out at this point. He was barefoot.
She gasped: “Put slippers on him!”
“You complained all the time when he used to wear his slippers,” I pointed out.
“You need to buy him some slippers with soft soles,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“It's really anti-social,” she said. “I'm forced to come up and complain, like I'm the anti-social one. I don't want to do this. Can't you walk quietly? I always think about my neighbours, and I walk quietly and carefully through my apartment. I have shoes with soft soles. And I don't press down on the ball of my foot. You need to teach him how to walk normally! I don't want to be anti-social! Because I know what it's like, how you suffer, when you can't relax in your own flat. So I think about my neighbours.”
“Well, you're not thinking about us,” said Rico politely, “or you wouldn't come and complain so much. I was just looking for my ninjano warrior.”
“Go and put socks on, Rico,” I said to him.
I looked at the lady. I say lady, but she's a girl, really. She's really brown and sexy for a German girl. I guess I watch too much porn but whenever I see her sleepy brown eyes I think about sex and sloppy blowjobs and stuff like that.
“Okay,” I said. “What can we do? We'll try and be quieter.”
I didn't really believe it. I mean, there is a limit to how quiet we can be and I reckon we've reached it already. Secretly I think she should just buy some earplugs or move house. I mean, we live in a four-room apartment and there's only three of us and Rico spends every other weekend at his dad's. Secretly I think she should just be grateful there's not 17 Palestinians up here and shut the fuck up.
“It's really anti-social,” she shouted, and stormed off. I realized she'd come up for a fight and then I was just so useless and British and konfliktscheu about it that she was more pissed off than if I'd called her a cunt and told her to go phone a lawyer.
So then I phoned my mum. I told her all about it.
“Hmmmmmm,” said my mum thoughtfully. “Well, what you do not want to be doing is getting confrontational with this woman, who it sounds like – I mean, this isn't a medical diagnosis or anything – but it sounds like she's a person who could have severe mental health issues. So confrontation is not the way forward, that's what all the mental health experts will tell you – avoid confrontation, really. Now, what you need to do is to ask her where these special soft shoes that she wears are sold. And say to her: 'Next time you're out, and about, and you see some of these special soft shoes, please buy me a pair, I'll reimburse you the money, of course.' And then you pop those special soft shoes on Rico, and just let him jump about and dance about, if he wants to, because he'll have the special shoes on, with their magically soft soles– and then the next time, she comes round to have a little whinge, you just show her his shoes and you say: 'But he's wearing the special soft shoes you recommended! So the noises must be in your head, to be quite honest. Have you ever thought about getting psychiatric help?' Because, Jacinta, you do not want to be confrontational in a situation like this.”
“Erm. I'm not gonna do that, Mum.”
“What's her name?”
“I don't know.”
My mum gasped.
“You don't know her name? How long has she been living there?”
“Two years! And you don't know her name! No wonder she's all narky with you. It's not really about the banging noises, it's the emotional rejection. I'm really shocked at you, Cint.”
“Nobody in Germany knows their neighbours' names,” I said, sulkily.
“What? So what do you say if you see each other in the shop?”
“Well, sometimes we nod and say hello and sometimes we just say nothing.”
“I'm really shocked. How can you not know a person's name? A person without a name isn't a human being at all. How can you not know her name?”
“It's normal in Germany. Everybody finds it normal in Germany. You don't talk to your neighbours. And even if you do, you don't know their names. It's totally normal.”
“Well, just because you go to live in a country where they find something which is blatantly wrong, objectively wrong, totally normal, that doesn't mean you have to join in. When you get off the phone from me, you can go round your flats and knock on the doors and say 'Hi, my name's Jacinta, what's your name? I'm your neighbour.' And the next time you see them in the supermarket you can say 'Hi, Mark.' Or: 'Hi, Ryan.' Oh, they probably have more German names, right. So: 'Hi, Wolfgang!' And then they'll notice how nice it is when neighbours know each other’s names and it'll catch on. It'll catch on in no time.”
“Erm, Mum. I'm probably not gonna do that, actually.”
“I know what you're thinking, Jacinta. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. But that only applies to things that aren't fundamentally wrong. It doesn't mean you have to start, you know, massacring Christians, like. That poor girl who lives downstairs from you, she must be dead lonely. I wonder what her name is. She's obviously a very lonely person; Rico is an incredibly light-footed child. I mean, what does she want, him to start sliding gracefully into the room like the Dalai Llama or a bloody butler or something? I expect her parents are dead, poor thing. Try to deal with her compassionately, Jacinta. She's got a lot on her plate, you know, severe mental health problems, loneliness, depression – and she may be infertile. Deal with her compassionately. Did I tell you the woman at the laundrette's got cancer? The diabetic one. Cancer. It can strike any of us, you know, that's what I always say, no amount of money can protect you from death striking when it wants to strike but of course private health insurance can be fairly useful. So, Jacinta, that lonely girl with mental health issues who lives downstairs from you, right, the next time you see her, just ask her what her name is, and where she bought those amazing soft-soled slippers of hers. It'll be a real ice-breaker.”