The seclusion of the suburbs can be freeing but there are downsides

What do you do when you find a stranger passed out in your neighbourhood?

Laura Kennedy: Our new area has an old-fashioned community feel

Laura Kennedy: Our new area has an old-fashioned community feel

 

We now live at the end of a cul-de-sac, on a street that was still lined with pumpkins from Halloween, their faux menace and silent screams gurning at us in the gloom of street lamps. The area has an old-fashioned community feel.

An older man across the road has an elderly, stiff-hipped bull terrier with a velvety nose and warm, papery ears. They look comically similar, as dogs and owners often do, and they take easy walks in the mornings, greeting everyone they pass. He – the man, not the dog – decorated the outside of his house in wonderfully garish coloured lights and dangling skeletons for Halloween.

The street also features a lot of excellent cats. There is one with a medical condition which makes his waist and back legs bald, so he always looks as though he’s wearing a particularly heavy jumper or posing stony-faced for a Soviet-era portrait. Another – a white cat – is very friendly, but sports a curt black block of a moustache which has an unfortunate Hitlerian overtone. People tend not to speak of it out of politeness.

When himself exclaimed as we were walking home on a beautifully crisp November night, seconds from our front door, I presumed he’d seen one of the street cats – baldy backside or cat-Hitler or the long-haired one who bellows at you until you scratch its cheeks. I was shocked when he said “No. It’s a woman!”

We shuffled over, and there was indeed a human woman curled up on the pavement directly outside a house on our street. It wasn’t a body position you’d fall into – it was deliberate. Her chestnut hair covered her face and at the sight of her stiff form out in the cold, all the levity of the evening oozed out of us and drifted away.

The person on the phone, who was calm, told us we had to turn her over onto her back

You wonder sometimes what you’d do in these moments; when someone needs help or you encounter something unexpected. Now I know. I was useless. I didn’t know the woman, whose face was obscured, but we had only been living here a few weeks. The hair that cascaded over her mouth and nose wasn’t moving with her breath, if there was any, and she looked a pale bluish hue, though the neighbour’s house lights made everything blue. She was dressed neatly in everyday clothes and her stillness was frightening. She looked so out of place and seemed so alone in the world.

I didn’t want to touch her except to jostle her shoulder gently – should you touch people you find on the street? Nothing. We called an ambulance – I felt sure she was dead. The person on the phone, who was calm, told us we had to turn her over onto her back. Himself tried to move her, but her arm stayed stiffly, grotesquely folded under her head. We looked at one another. After several attempts, he turned her over while I stood by on the phone like an idiot, and at that moment her eyes jerked open. We helped her up, asked if she knew where she was.

She was very drunk, but there was more to it than that. After a lot of conversation and the help of a neighbour out walking the dog, it turned out she lived in the house she had passed out in front of. Eventually, she found her way back inside and we stood, looking at one another, wondering what had happened to make her lie down in the street. Her manner was abrupt, as though our concern was annoying. She didn’t want the ambulance. She wanted us to go away.

This was probably due to embarrassment, but the situation was so hard to read. I didn’t know whether to respect her firmly expressed wishes or try to protect her, maybe from herself; whether it was acceptable to ask her how she came to be there, if her home (it turned out her boyfriend had been inside all along) was safe to go back into; if she is an addict and he couldn’t take any more; if he was dangerous or cruel; if she needed help.

The incident has haunted me since. The silence and seclusion of the suburbs can be freeing, but it can also conceal a woman unconscious in the street.

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