Lesson Two: Kindness – Of Neighbours

  “Katrina! Katrina!” Dorothy’s shrill voice rang out from the bottom of the flats and I sat on my couch wondering whether she was calling out to me.  Surely not.  She wouldn’t call to me from down there.  She must be calling out something to someone else. 

  The next time I bumped into her, which was inevitable, as she always made sure she would bump into everybody, she mentioned the incident. 

“I was calling out for you the other day but you didn’t come out to talk to me,” she said. 

“Is she insane?” I thought to myself.  I had left home only to find that I had another mother elsewhere.  Did Dorothy truly think I would come running when she called for me?  I wasn’t entitled to, she absolutely wasn’t my mother.

“Oh, I’m sorry”, I replied, “I didn’t hear you”.

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My boyfriend and I had moved into the block of flats in September after getting engaged in January.  We were only renting.  Part of me thought it would be a good idea to move into together before we got married.  I was ninety nine percent sure it would all be fine but I thought it best to find out what I was in for before the wedding.  You could never know what it would be like.  Well, we couldn’t get any closer.  The flat was tiny.  I liked to call it The Shoebox.  It was long and rectangular.  The building was ageing, red-brick.  My mum asked if it was built in the seventies but what would I know?  She was probably right, she usually was.

Our flat was on the second floor, above Dorothy’s.  As you opened the door you looked down the narrow hallway which extended to the tiny bathroom/toilet/laundry at the back of the flat.  The bathroom was so compact we had to buy the tiniest washing machine we could find to fit in the small space on the left as you walked in.  Next to that was a laundry tub and behind that, the sink and mirror on the wall.  The whole of the right-hand side of the bathroom was the toilet and a shower above a bath.  It was all in a lovely dusty pink colour.  I use the word ‘lovely’ very loosely. Seventies, indeed.

  On the right hand side of the flat, there was a pokey kitchen, a small lounge and behind that, two very small bedrooms.  We had no outside area, not for ourselves.   I think that was what killed me the most.  I missed the open air and our own little bit of ground.  It was all quite suffocating after being there for a year.  We had one car park at the rear of the building and a communal clothes line.  That was it.  Its saving grace was the location in Ascot Vale and the rent was very reasonable.  We could walk to the local pub, we were a short drive from the local shopping hub and there was a whole main road of beautiful cafes at the end of our street.  Life was bliss.

I wanted to be the good housewife.  I made Andrew his sandwiches to take to work every day.  I kept everything clean and tidy-it was somehow very fun when it was all your “own”.  Apparently Andrew thought it was very cute how I put our matching towels and handtowels in the bathroom.  I didn’t find it very cute how he disposed of his towel every morning on the floor of the bathroom, sopping wet.  That was the first thing that had to change.  Living with a man was a very frustrating thing to get used to, despite my living with my father and brother for most of my life.

Unfortunately, Andrew was the least of my problems when I moved out.  Dorothy, the nosy neighbour extraordianaire, was the biggest.  She can’t have been too old, perhaps sixty or so.  She had that wispy, old-person hair that seemed to have no colour, and she was neither thin nor fat.  She obviously didn’t work, as she was always at home, and I believe she was the facilitator for the Body Corporate for our block of flats.   I suppose that gave her an incentive to be nosy, if anything. 

 Dorothy was the only person I ever saw from our building.  I thought it a bit peculiar that she knew everyone and everyone knew her but none of the rest of us saw each other.  I think perhaps it was because we were trying to avoid Dorothy and slipping inside our apartments as quickly as possible.  Often when I would come back from doing the grocery shopping or clothes shopping, Dorothy would accost me in front of the stairwell.

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“Oh, where have you been?  What have you bought yourself?”

I would be standing there for ten minutes answering all her questions.   Don’t get me wrong, I understand that she was probably lonely and just wanted some conversation.  I could handle that to an extent but sometimes it went beyond interference.

One day Dorothy remarked that my car was dirty.  I had an old 1984 yellow Laser which I loved but it didn’t get washed very often.  I honestly wasn’t too fussed about the fact but apparently it was too frustrating for Dorothy.  My car park was the last one against the wall of the carport.  About a week or so after Dorothy had made her comment, something looked a little odd about my car.  On one side it looked as though someone had moved the dirt around on the passenger side door with a sponge.  There was a lovely muddy circle there.

Dorothy came out of her doorway.

“Oh, I washed your car for you Katrina,” she said.  She washed my car??  Are you kidding me?  What was wrong with this woman? 

“But I didn’t have enough room to clean on that side near the wall,” she continued.

“Uh, thank you. . .” I managed through gritted teeth.  My mind ran through all the things I had in the back seat and boot of my car that all would have been in full view for Dorothy while she was scrubbing away.  Not that there was anything scandalous but, surely someone’s car is their own private space, both the interior and exterior for that matter!

I tried to think positive thoughts.  Truly, she was trying to do something nice here but what a breach of privacy!  Who washes someone else’s car anyway?

When I relayed these stories to my mother, she commented, “Well, there’s one good thing about having a neighbour like that, you’ll always know what’s going on and you’ll never get robbed”.

I suppose that was all true.

Another time Dorothy told me she liked my bed sheets I had drying on the line.  Suffice to say, I tried to dry as much as I could inside from then on.  Nothing seemed to be beyond her to comment on.  My friend at work joked that we should have sex really loudly to get back at her for being so annoying and nosy.  Yes, I’m sure that would have gone down really well.

From the information I gathered on Dorothy (and believe me, after bumping into her nearly every day and having a ten minute conversation every time, I gathered a lot!), I understood that she didn’t have family close by and was very much on her own.  She really was a nice lady but I think she needed to step back a bit, both in the physical and metaphorical senses.  I’m all for “Love thy neighbour” but she took it just a bit too far. 

She knew everyone’s stories and didn’t have any qualms passing that information on to anyone else in the building.  After a full year of living in the Shoebox, after all the Dorothy dramas, as well as getting married, we moved out to the country and got our little (or rather, big in comparison) piece of earth, and house to live in. 

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“The nice people always leave,” was the last thing Dorothy said to me sadly before we drove off in our jam-packed cars.  At least I knew with the ongoing turnover of residents that Dorothy would surely never run out of people to talk to, or rather, accost at the bottom of the stairwell.  I think I do miss her playing John Farnham loudly on Sunday mornings though.

Lesson learned:  People float in and out of your life.  Some will drive you crazy but I have found that ultimately even these people mean well.  Maybe the ten minutes you dread speaking with them is the highlight of their day, so be kind and remember, we may be in their situation one day.

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