An elderly couple lived next door to my parents when I was growing up, at least I think that they were elderly. Looking back through the eyes of a childhood memory it is hard to know what age the adults around me were when I was young. My parents were old, their neighbours were old, but this couple really did seem elderly.
They had a grown up son so, unlike just about all the other neighbours, no children lived in their house. As a result I never saw inside it. When I grew tall enough to clamber onto our garage roof I caught my first glimpse of their back garden. They had surrounded it with tall hedges and trees for privacy. If they saw me as I surveyed their realm from my hard won vantage point then I don’t suppose they appreciated the curiosity of their neighbour’s young child.
They were, however, friendly towards me. If I was playing in our driveway when they returned home from work each evening then we would greet each other. Sometimes the gentleman offered me a stick of chewing gum, a treat that did not impress my mother. I was interested in them because they ran a shop. It was located near to an aunt’s house and my mother had pointed it out to me when we went to visit this relative. I enjoyed playing shop with my toy cash register and was fascinated by this unknown domain.
I do not remember how it came about. Perhaps I asked outright, maybe they offered following my insistent questioning, but I was invited to join them at their work one day. It was not the highly exciting few hours that I had anticipated. Perhaps I was not even there for that long.
Being alone with a couple that I barely knew felt strange. Once I had inspected the drawer where they kept the money (they did not use a cash register) and looked around at the bikes, repair kits, spares and random toys that they sold, I was at a loss as to how to amuse myself. I suspect that they were at a loss as to what to do with this young child and regretted agreeing to have me there.
I wanted to touch too much inside so was allowed to play on the street so long as I did not stray from view at the front. It was hard to amuse myself alone though. I wondered why I had thought that this would be such an exciting treat.
At midday the lady cooked a hot meal in a little kitchen out the back. With my father at work and we children at school each weekday, our hot meal was cooked in the evening. I thought that this was how everyone lived. I was not invited to join them so hung around aimlessly as they ate. The smell of the food was not appealing and I was pleased when my mother appeared to collect me soon after.
My mother felt obliged to make a purchase now that she had entered her neighbours territory; perhaps this was why she had never taken me in before when I had asked. I had spotted many toys that I coveted on the shelves but she did not wish to spend much on the overpriced goods. The cheapest item on offer, a puncture repair kit, would have provided limited play value, so it was suggested that I accept a small doll. Even though I did not often play with dolls I was pleased to be given something new.
This visit to the shop satisfied my curiosity and taught me that the unknown is not necessarily fun. I had been bored and nervous of these virtual strangers who had seemed so different outside the brief encounters at our homes. I knew that they had done me a favour and was grateful for their kindness, but I had not enjoyed my day.
I continued to greet these neighbours as they came and went but I watched their habits with less interest as I grew older. I found them odd in so many ways, although I suspect they were merely of a different generation. My parents would choose to go out on an enjoyable walk whereas this couple took a purposeful, evening constitutional. The only visitor they ever seemed to have to their house was their son.
I remember when the gentleman died his wife decided to learn to drive. She had bought herself a licence before tests were required but had never been behind the wheel of a car. I watched as her son showed her how to use the controls of the little automatic mini that she purchased. When she drove it was wise to stay well away. Although she could make the car move forwards she struggled with reverse. Eventually she damaged her little car trying to back it out of her narrow driveway. She gave up on her attempts to drive soon after this.
As my life moved forwards I lost interest in my parent’s neighbours. When my sister and I were little we had seemed to know so many of them as they had children our age with whom we played in the street. By the time I reached my teenage years I was socialising with others who lived beyond.
I do not remember what happened to the shop. It was on a road that has now become quite fashionable with boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. My parents still live in the same house in another part of town, but most of those they knew have moved away.
The first job I took, while still at school, was at a checkout in a local petrol station. I learned how to use a cash register and that I hated such work. I could cope with the stress of deadlines as all that was needed was my time and effort. Queues of impatient people were beyond my control.
It is only now, looking back, that I wonder about these people I lived amongst yet knew so little about. The media likes to suggest that we are less neighbourly these days. Back in the day I lived next to a house for more than twenty years yet never saw inside.