Friday, October 21, 2011


I recently posted a photo of my next-door neighbours' two cats. They're very affectionate and playful, and their owners seem like nice, low-key people. They're in their mid-30's, moved here from Camberwell, watch chat shows and relax in their garden on sunny days.

I have no particular reason to talk about them.

My next-door neighbour on the other side, however, is a woman I've never met, a woman I've only seen twice in the nearly two years we've shared a wall. I believe she's somewhere between 30 and 60 and is Polish, but as I can't actually speak Polish I could be mistaken. I do not know her name, but for the purpose of this narrative I've decided to call her Doloreta.

See, I've gone so long with Doloreta as my anonymous neighbour that I feel like I know her, even though I know nothing about her, can't understand a word she says, and couldn't pick her or any of her visitors out of a line-up. From years of hearing bumps and murmurs, ringing and hammering, laughter and shouting I've crafted a picture of a very interesting woman who is almost certainly nothing like my actual neighbour.

Doloreta spends most of her time alone, and keeps a variable schedule. Some mornings her alarm goes off at 5am, other mornings at eleven--but most mornings it doesn't go off at all. I've decided this means she's a freelance journalist. I believe she sleeps in the back bedroom and leaves the front for guests, as I occasionally hear mobile phone alarms through the wall early in the morning but sounds of stirring more often come from down the hall.

Her garden is professionally landscaped, with a beige flagstone patio surrounded by spiny, pointy plants like pampas grass and bamboo that don't need tending but look discretely tasteful. It has a feel not unlike that of a spec house--generic shrubs around a reasonably-priced picnic table that no one has ever sat around and no one ever will. Nice, but impersonal.

I rarely hear her when she's alone, but when I do she's out in this garden, enjoying a cigarette and talking on the phone. She doesn't smoke often--I've decided she smoked regularly when she was younger but has gradually weaned herself off, particularly since she successfully separated from her husband.*

Every few weeks an angry man (let's call him Jakub) arrives to argue with her and drill holes in the walls. When the bickering starts I know to close my windows, because while the insulation between our houses is quite good they almost always take it outside. The reasons for their divorce or separation are many and complex, but as some part of their settlement he's agreed to fix up her house, possibly because they have a mind to sell it. Jakub is not particularly happy about this, and he's not much of a DIY guy, but he does it, sometimes for an entire weekend. He oddly never seems to be around when Doloreta's sister comes by, but the situation with him is frequently inquired after.

Doloreta's sister, a compassionate woman I've dubbed Sabina, has a jovial husband and young daughter, and the three of them drop round to visit every other weekend or so. Her niece is well-behaved, but Doloreta is inexpert and uncomfortable around children. She speaks to her the way I speak to cats, with an excited, half-whispered "oh boy! Look at you! Wow!" despite the fact that the girl is at least five and clearly doesn't appreciate that. Every half-hour or so Sabina's husband will usher the child inside and let the two women talk. On days when Jakub has been drilling holes in the walls the talk comes fast and bitter, and I imagine he's been pressuring her to sell the house and split the sale value with him. Then Roza will grow bored with her father and bound outside again for more of Doloreta's awkward praise.

Recently a stocky, middle-aged builder has come to share Doloreta's life on more pleasant terms than Jakub. His name, as I learned when I signed for a package for him from a flustered delivery man, is Piotr. A few weeks ago he spent an afternoon cutting down and destroying most of the bamboo grove that had been rapidly overgrowing Doloreta's garden. Piotr seems quiet but not unkind, and Doloreta's angry outbursts have reduced. I have decided Piotr is a Good Thing. 

One day Boy happened to espy Piotr skipping rope out in the garden, looking like a short Polish Mohammed Ali training for a fight. Whatever he does for a living, the man likes to keep fit.

I have never understood a word of what has gone on next door, so absolutely everything I've said or decided about Doloreta is of my own invention. She may be lovely. She may be vile. She's probably just a person with her own concerns. But as long as she remains a mystery to me she will remain intriguing and exciting.


*Last summer I was feeding my tomato plants in the garden when three women came into Doloreta's garden and began to talk. I didn't listen closely to what was being said, and wouldn't have noticed at all except that the conversation had a funny meter to it. One woman would speak in English, one in Polish, one in Polish, one in English, one in English...and round and round and round they went. At the time I figured it was Doloreta herself facilitating a conversation for someone in the community, but it only really dawned on me recently that this was going on in Doloreta's garden, not in an office or public park. Why on earth would she bring strangers into her home to translate for them? My neighbour was talking to a lawyer.

A few months after this Jakub started coming around--sporadically at first, but with gradually increasing frequency. His first work visits were quiet and short, but as they got longer and more involved so too did the arguments. The Sunday morning 5am shelving installation event, complete with shouting, hammer-drilling, banging, door slams, and books on my side of the wall crashing to the floor nearly landed them a visit from a police constable, but it subsided. Things have been quieter since then.

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