When I look out of my rear window I see a tree that is as large as the house I live in. I live in a block of apartments with four floors, on each floor there are two doors, each leads to an apartment. Some of these doors represent a mystery to me, I don’t know, or am not sure who lives behind them. Mystery always excites intrigue and curiosity.
About half of the doors in the apartment building are known to me; I have at least seen, or met the occupants, talked with them, and either immediately warmed to their way of relating, or quickly turned cold and said “goodbye”.
When a new couple moved in a two years ago we thought it would be nice to have new neighbours. Inevitably, we would meet at some point on the stairs or at the house door, then greet each other with the normal politeness of strangers.
One day there was a knock at my apartment door. It was my new neighbour. I noticed for the first time that she was pregnant with several months behind her, yet she was chirpy and smily. She introduced herself and suggested a cup of tea together, just to say hello.
It’s a simple and straightforward way to break the ice. I invited her inside, and we went to the kitchen, I noticed a rolled up bath towel under her arm — I didn’t ask about it, but after a while I noticed that she kept it neatly tucked under her arm, and as we chatted in the front room and drank the tea, she wouldn’t lay the towel down. It stayed under her arm as if it was a part of her normal attire.
Occasionally, as we talked about the neighbourhood, I tried to peek at the rolled towelling. I wanted to see if there might be a pair of swim-goggles or a rubber pool-hat in there. I was sure she must be going swimming later.
She seemed to be an outspoken person, there was an edge to her that I wasn’t sure about. She talked only of things external, only about the streets, the shops close to the apartments, and told me that she hadn’t met anyone else in the house. I was the first one.
She seemed to have an opinion about everything in the house, how things were done, the rules concerning the backyard where we throw away rubbish. Dividing plastics, metals, and papers into different containers. She didn’t like that, we should suggest changes — make it all easier for the people in the house.
She said nothing of her husband or her pregnancy, and I was left wondering about what I should ask and not ask; I asked her how long till the baby is due, and hoped it wasn’t too personal.
Three months if all goes well, was the answer. The conversation stopped, we looked around the room, my bookshelves might offer a good conversation, the sound of traffic outside wasn’t interesting enough to talk about.
A shout from the street, the hoarse voice of a man rattled against the windows. We looked at each other and laughed for a moment. We speculated about the fuss outside. A man ranting on a street corner, spit filled words, anger, swearing, and another voice replying, “Okay, okay, take it easy. Don’t get upset about everything”. It then went quiet, a slammed car door, the sound of a motor revved high for a moment, and it was over.
We finished the tea, and I asked if she would like more. She said no. Too much tea, and she will have to visit the bathroom every five minutes. It was bad enough already — due to the pregnancy.
I was about to mention the neighbour opposite my apartment. A man around my age, born in the house and living with his father. The mother died a few days after I moved in. I don’t know what was happening, but each morning when I went out, I couldn’t help feeling sad as I passed the redundant wheelchair in the hallway.
The son is a dealer. He’s okay though, he only deals in the various strains of weed that people use to relax after work. Cannabis, marijuana, grass. All those, and not the other. His clientele is a respectable lot. They come to the door, often professional couples, suits and polished shoes, pressed clothes, not the rag-tag-trade of the street. He does them a good service, and does no harm.
He and I get on well, we always stop and chat a few minutes, talk about what we’re up to these days. One night around four in the morning, we bumped into each other on the stairs. He was high as kite. The enormous smile on his face told me everything as he wrapped his arms around me and greeted me like an old friend. He told me how he felt, and that he was glad to know me and that we were neighbours. I think he’s a little embarrassed by it these days, but I think it was an honest moment.
I picked up the tea cups and walked to the kitchen, my new neighbour followed. I made body language signs that it was time to say goodbye, I had work to get on with, the cats needed feeding, or I need to go shopping. Just things that people understand as polite gestures of, I also have a life to get on with.
I mentioned the towel, now. Feeling more relaxed about pointing towards it, “going swimming?”.
“Oh, no. I want to take a shower,” She said this easily, without any implications.
“A shower? So, you bring a towel with you for tea, then go home and take the shower?” I asked.
“No, I need to use your shower. Mine’s broken — there’s no hot water in my apartment. I’m sick of cold showers.” She pointed towards the bathroom door, and raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, that’s my shower.”
It seemed a little odd. I showed a confused expression and nodded to her, against my own consent. A neighbour, a stranger, using my personal facilities before we even get to know each other.
She went into the bathroom, I had to show her how to get the right temperature, and told her to watch out for the slippery surface. I offered her a towel, then she held up the one she had brought with her. I was being overly polite.
While she showered I thought of what might happen if my partner returned home. How would I explain the woman in our shower, the cups of tea, ruffled cushions on the settee? And what if my neighbour across the way saw her leave the apartment after showering, her rosy cheeks and thanking me for my warm welcome?
As soon as she had finished showering, she walked into the apartment, stopped and nodded at me, “That was great!”, is all she said.
She was dressed and the towel was now wrapped around her long dark hair. I didn’t say anything as she opened the door for herself and went down to the second floor, door on the right. I listened as the keys slid into the lock, the twist and jingle of metal, and the door closed behind her.