May we all be so lucky with the people who live next door
The kindness of neighbours: Fuel for the fire and a hundred chats over the wall
Good Neighbours: ‘When I came out of the house later that day, there was an offering of fuel at my back door’
This will be my seventh Christmas in my house, and the first without my next door neighbour. I live a short bike-ride away from Dublin’s city centre, and while we hear a lot about the disappearance of community and neighbourliness in urban areas, my experience has been exactly the opposite.
I moved into my house a few days before Christmas in the winter of the Big Freeze in 2010. The house (of course) was unfinished. It still didn’t have heating, which might not have mattered too much except for the fact that December the temperature was regularly dropping to minus 10 and below.
“Will you be using your fire?” my next door neighbour inquired, as I was lugging the last of my belongings into my new, very cold house. He was at our shared back wall, and had just introduced himself. He had grown up there, and it had become his own family home when his parents died and he married. He was a man with many decades behind him, his hair white as the snow that was falling on us both. It was almost the first thing he said to me. I told him I would be; that at present, my fire would be my only source of heat.
I soon discovered I had bought into a rare kind of neighbourhood community
When I came out of the house later that day, there was an offering of fuel at my back door. A bale of briquettes, a bag of coal and a bag of sticks. I discovered it was from my next door neighbour. “We don’t light our fire anymore. We find it too much of an effort,” he said to me.
The house I had bought, is, as a friend once described it, a house with two fronts. The actual front looks onto a busy narrow avenue, and is part of a long stretch of houses of different periods. The back looks onto a cul de sac, which has a different name to the avenue; a lovely ad-hoc horseshoe of some 16 houses. I didn’t know it when I bought the house, but along with bricks and mortar, I soon discovered I had bought into a rare kind of neighbourhood community in this little cul de sac.
While coming and going from the house before moving in, I had received an invitation. The women of the cul de sac had established an occasional seasonal tradition of taking it in turns to host dinner for the other women in one of their houses: Nollaig na mBan before Christmas, if you like. As the newest neighbour, I was invited too. The dinner was the very first night I moved in; a glorious, generous evening where I met all my wonderful female neighbours and was made to feel amazingly welcome.
I came home to my freezing house that evening and lit a volcanic fire with my donated fuel. I know, I know. It all sounds like an unlikely urban fairytale, but this is all true.
I got to know the rest of my neighbours gradually. A man whose name I didn’t even know yet that December saw me struggling one morning to get my car out from the compacted snow and ice it was frozen into. He disappeared into his house, and came back with a bucket of ashes, which gave the tyres enough traction for a grip. Another gave me his old kennel for my new puppy. Four others came together one afternoon to share tools and labour to attach a bolt to my back wall to lock my bike to.
All that winter, I regularly came home from work to discover logs, or briquettes, or coal at my back door, left there by next door neighbour. I didn’t have to buy fuel once that winter. It was the ultimate housewarming gift, if you like. I offered to pay for it, but he just laughed and said he was glad the house next door wasn’t empty any more.
Since that Christmas, we have had occasional street parties in the summer, and New Year’s Eve midnight gatherings, all out in the cul de sac; organised by the lovely, proactive community I live among. There have several births, including two sets of twins, and some particularly sad deaths. Over all those years, my next door neighbour was a constant.
He always had the news on everyone in our neighbourhood, and yet he was never a gossip
We had hundreds of short chats at the back wall, and the front door. I learned a lot about cricket: he was a long-standing member of the local club, and knew every national and international score. In the spring, I gave him purple lilac from my garden, and in the summer, he gave me yellow roses. I sometimes came home to find he had mowed my lawn for me. He was the perfect neighbour; kind, thoughtful, and never intrusive. He always had the news on everyone in our neighbourhood, and yet he was never a gossip. He was a genuinely good man, whom I never heard say anything unkind about anyone.
Whenever my visiting family or friends got locked out, as they did more often than you might think, they went next door to get the keys and always ended up being invited in. On summer evenings, when I was sitting out the back with friends, he’d always wave if he was coming in from the garage, and I’d always go over to say hello and catch up.
When his wife fell ill some years ago, he was selfless in caring for her at home. When she died last year, I was out of the country. I sent flowers, and hesitated over what to write on the card. “From your friend and neighbour,” I wrote eventually. It was true.
The last time I saw my next door neighbour, he was, typically, looking out for me. I had come back from a three-day reporting assignment out of Dublin and he told me someone had been parking in my space. He had, he said, been keeping an eye out for the person, so he could scold them on my behalf, and had not managed to catch them, but did have the registration number. I told him where I had been. He mentioned how well his geraniums were still doing, and I duly looked over the wall and admired them. It began to rain, and we said our goodbyes and made for our respective back doors.
A few days later, I had a call at work from another neighbour with the news. The word was he had died suddenly the previous afternoon. I was stunned. It couldn’t be true. Then I had a text from his son, to tell me himself.
At his funeral on a bitterly cold November morning last month, the cricket club of which he had been a member for 76 years made a guard of honour for him on the steps of the local church. His neighbours were among the congregation, and I found myself unexpectedly inconsolable. Those dozens of small kindnesses over the years had added up, unbeknownst to me, to a depth of feeling; to the extent that I was undone by the knowledge I would never see my next door neighbour again.
This will be my first Christmas without him next door. We’re not having the pre-Christmas dinner this year, when the women of our cul-de-sac occasionally get together in one of our houses to celebrate community and neighbourhood. The neighbour who’s hosting this year lived on the other side of our shared next door neighbour, and for the year of loss that’s been in it, suggested we do something different this time. So instead, we’ll meet in her house the weekend of Nollaig na mBan, and start the new year of 2018 with celebration of a new year, rather than sadness for the one just gone.
Someone else will move in next door eventually, and start a new life there. We neighbours will keep on going about our business; opening and closing our front and back doors, because what else can you do, except keep going? This Christmas, I’ll light my fire, and take the time to remember the person who gave me the fuel to light the first fire in my new home with. May we all be so lucky with our neighbours.