There Goes The Neighbourhood…

Traveling in London (1)

I am not always comfortable around people.

I enjoy being with people, don’t get me wrong. I like spending time with people. People are great! I have a lovely time whether I’m out with friends or at home chatting over tea.

It drains me though, and it drains me fast. Fast like my Samsung S7 battery that runs down after a few hours of intense usage, not like ye olde Nokia 3210 battery that lasted five days if you played Snake on it constantly, and twenty-three days if you barely touched it at all. When I spend time with people, afterwards I need to retreat, relax, and recharge, and usually my recharging station is my home, where I work or study at the dining table next to the window.

This is how I first became aware of my neighbours.

My window overlooks their balcony, and every day out of the corner of my eye I would see a man and his dog – who we will call Frank for the purposes of this post – coming and going on their walks together.

I can’t fully explain my obsession with Frank. It started out as a pretty benign distraction from my day; I would see Frank (an English Bulldog) and Frankman (the name I gave his owner) exit the building, and then I would watch, amused, as Frank lay stubbornly down on the grass and refused to go anywhere.

Frankman would sigh, exasperated, and half-heartedly tug on the lead.

Frank would dig his barrel chest into the grass.

Frankman would grumble and pull with all his might.

Frank would duck his head and hunch his stocky shoulders, as immovable as a rock formation.

Frankman’s pleas would go from an exasperated, “Come on, Frank” to an increasingly desperate “FRANK! FRANK! COME ON! FRANK!”

Frank would stare implacably at his owner.

Frankman would yank on the lead in a sort of daily exercise in futility.

Frank would lie on the grass stoically refusing to go anywhere before he was ready. Then, as if he hadn’t just been making a scene for the past five minutes, he would calmly get up and trot off with a flustered Frankman in tow.

This would happen before almost every single walk. I would watch these scenes, and over time I grew fond of both Frank and Frankman. There was something really endearing about Frank, who made it clear that if he went anywhere at all it was only because he was allowing it, and there was also something endearing about Frankman, because he always looked so buttoned-up and serious but would lose all and any air of authority around Frank.

Frankman also has a wife (Frankwoman) and together the three of them were the Frankfamily. They brightened up my days considerably with their Frank-related antics. Even on his own, Frank would bring a smile to your face. Like a creep I would sometimes take photos of Frank’s more memorable moments. I have, for example, a video of Frank falling off a chair and quickly getting back up to look around and check if anybody witnessed it. He was a character.

And then one day, Frank was gone.

One week he was being his usual obstinate self, and the next there was no Frank, no walk, no tug-of-war happening in the garden. I barely saw Frankman or Frankwoman. Where was Frank? Considering I had never spoken to Frankfamily, there was nothing I could do but wonder. I rationalised it to myself coming up with a variety of reasons he wouldn’t be at home, but in three years Frank had never to my knowledge been apart from the Frankparents. If they were at home, so was Frank. The whole thing was worrying.

The following weekend, I watched as Frankman arrived home with a tiny bulldog puppy in his arms.

Frank was gone.

Since I never spoke to Frankman and Frankman never spoke to me, the mystery was unresolved until one day when my father dropped over for a visit. As I walked in with him, we met Frankman and the new addition walking out. Unaware of the delicate neighbourhood ecosystem in which nobody directly addressed anybody else, and instead only ever communicated through comments directed at each others’ pets, my father asked Frankman what had happened to “the big dog”. Frankman looked down at the ground and explained that Frank had had a heart attack while they were out for a walk. A congenital heart defect, undetectable until it was too late. He said it casually, scuffing the toe of his shoe into the grass as he spoke, but his voice was gruff with emotion.

The new addition was called (let’s just say) Ariadne.

Ariadne was adorable, but she wasn’t Frank. She was too small, too cute. She bounded out for her walks with great enthusiasm. She didn’t know Frank’s trick of standing up on the chair and placing both paws on the balcony railing to survey his domain. She didn’t bark as often. Her best moments came when she attacked Frankman’s shoes and when she waddled off with a leaf or a stick she’d found, proud as punch.

We switched Frankwoman’s name to Ariadnewoman, but Frankman remained Frankman.

You know, in memory of Frank.

A year on, Ariadne is almost Frank-size. Oscar and Maya are fascinated by the way her stocky little body romps around the garden. She’s a fan favourite. She still doesn’t know the trick of standing up on the chair to look out over the garden, but she has been starting to show sure signs of stubbornness. The other day I had to retreat to the back of the apartment laughing because she wriggled under a bush, sat down, and no amount of begging, shouting, pleading, threats, offers of treats or cajoling would coax her out. Ariadnewoman eventually sat, defeated, on a bench to wait out this episode of hard-headedness.

And now, Frankfamily are moving away.

Naturally, I didn’t get this information from the source – I still have never had an actual conversation with the couple – but the information is legitimate. They are leaving. When I first heard this, I was more upset than anybody should be about strangers moving house.

“They should have warned us,” I muttered darkly to Scrubs.

“Don’t be weird.” He said.

“Do you think we could start a petition for them to change their minds?”

“Definitely not.”

“We should be able to lodge an objection. Do they not know Ariadne is essential to neighbourhood morale?*”

Scrubs sighed and eyed me with considerable alarm. “Please hide your obsession with their dog for just a little while longer.”

Of course, I couldn’t do that. How could I let Frankfam move without letting them know they would be missed? I decided to buy a card. I went into town and bought a card that said, “Sorry You’re Leaving” on the front and, “Wishing you all the best” on the inside. Perfect, I thought… But then the overthinking started.

 Ariadne can’t read, I reasoned. A card won’t make her happy. I bought a dog toy – a white, fluffy alpaca – and a gift bag to put it in. I nodded, satisfied with myself.

Maybe I should add a dog treat, I thought.

I grabbed a pack of chicken twists from the shelf.

Maybe two, just to be sure she’ll like one of them.

I grabbed a Jumbone.

I turned towards the till, but it was too late.

I had lost the run of myself.

I can’t just address the whole thing to Ariadne… My brow furrowed. What about the humans? What about Frankman and Ariadnewoman? Is it rude to exclude them?

A couple of lollipops, a bag of fizzy sweets, a couple of chewy bars and a box of maltesers got swept into the basket.

When I got home, I wrote the card to Ariadne and her humans. I thanked Ariadne for brightening up the block, told them we (the humans and the cats) would miss seeing them around and good luck with the move. I threw everything into the gift bag, took the maltesers back out because they seemed like overkill, and left it on their balcony.

Then I went home, sat down, and realised that:

  1. Having never had a conversation with them ever in my life, it might not have been the most reasonable thing to go so overboard with the goodbye present.
  2. They probably wonder a) who I am and b) how on earth I even know they are moving.
  3. I now have no choice but to avoid them until they leave because I am so embarrassed.

When I told Scrubs he groaned and asked why – WHY – I would have done such a thing without consulting with him first. He is naturally mortified by association, but at least he can claim ignorance since I am obviously the nutter who wrote the card.

So.

I am still sad that they’re leaving our neighbourhood. They just seem so lovely and I like to think in another life they would have stayed another four years and eventually we might have worked up to greeting each other with actual words and eye contact. Who knows. Dream big!

On the other hand, at least once they leave I can stop feeling myself turn red with embarrassment every time I see them, now that they know without a shadow of a doubt that I am their number one fan.

Swings and roundabouts.

Processed with VSCO with v7 preset
Maya and Oscar watching Ariadne; people’s heads have been cropped out to protect the innocent (Frankman)

*Not complete hyperbole; for about a year somebody in our apartment block named their wifi ‘CAN WE PLAY WITH ARIADNE PLS”

 

 

“Irish People, Am I Right?”

-Irish People, Am I Right--

I daydreamed as I stood in line for the till, cradling my carton of milk and loaf of bread like precious cargo. The shop is usually pretty quiet mid-morning, with only freelancers and frazzled parents usually stopping in for essentials. The man in front of me was taking his time, and slowly my attention drifted back down to earth and settled on his lanky figure. His clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. His hair hadn’t been washed in any version of the recent past, and his cheeks were hollow. He was buying cigarettes and a six-pack of beer.

“I just lost a hundred on a horse,” he said to the young guy working the till. He sounded both apologetic and desperate, as if this grocery shop employee could hear his confession and grant him forgiveness as part of the transaction. “I lost a hundred on a horse,” he muttered again, his eyes wide and panicked. “That was me last hundred, you know?”

The guy on the till – a good-looking twenty year old with West Asian features – raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded in the universal expression for ‘Ooookay then!’

He rang up the beer in silence.

“I just need a drink to take the edge off, you know. Like, that was me last hundred.” The man gulped and his fingers fluttered nervously on the edge of the conveyer belt. “It was a good tip. It was a good tip I got about the horse, but it just… These things happen, you know.”

The words just poured out of him. He kept repeating himself. He was fixated on the horse and how it had run the race and what had happened to keep him from winning. The conditions weren’t favourable. The horse started wrong. The jockey didn’t make the right calls. All the time he was talking his fingers danced along the metal edge of the till and his eyes darted nervously across the back wall.

“That was me last hundred. I can’t believe it, you know?”

I watched him, and my heart hurt for him. I’ve been there. Maybe I haven’t been buying-a-six-pack-and-a-carton-of-smokes-at-11am-after-losing-my-last-hundred-on-a-horse kind of there, but I’ve definitely experienced that feeling of having Messed Up that hits like an avalanche and robs you of reason. I’ve felt that horrible, unrelenting anxiety close over me. I’ve had moments that made me want to vomit because in the panic of the moment I feared I’d dug myself a hole that felt like it might be a grave.

The man’s gaze flicked blindly over his cans and his packet of cigarettes. It bounced across the plants stacked next to the door, ricocheted off the bottles of Jack Daniels behind the till, and finally came to rest on the cashier, who stared at him with ill-concealed disdain.

“That’ll be €21.90,” the twenty-year old said cooly. His eyes met mine for a moment and the faintest flash of a smirk crossed his face.

There was a strained silence as the man nodded to himself and pulled change out of his pockets, counting out the exact amount. He handed it to the boy, and picked up his things. He stood for a moment, as if waiting for something more – help, maybe, or absolution – then nodded once last time and dragged himself out of the shop. The cashier and I watched him leave in silence, then I placed my items on the belt and gave the guy a small smile.

He started to scan my items and shook his head. “Not even 12pm,” he said to me in a half-amused, half-disgusted tone of voice.

“Irish people, huh?”

He caught me so off-guard that I simply stared at him. I tapped my card against the machine, picked up my stuff and walked out without saying a word.

Afterwards, I kicked myself for not having said anything, but I was so surprised at the number of assumptions he made in that moment that I was struck mute. Consider for a moment that to make that throwaway comment he had to have thought:

  • That all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I am not Irish
  • That I agree that all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
  • That I feel justified in judging strangers based on two-minute interactions

I mean… None of those things are true.

I’ve touched on the fact that I don’t look Irish before, but I think that’s the first time somebody has felt comfortable enough assigning me a background that they’ve dragged me into a conspiratorial bit of casual racism against Irish people. It would be more understandable if this had happened abroad, but we’re in Ireland! Not a huge leap to think I might be Irish despite not looking the part.

Anyway.

I haven’t seen the gambler since.

The cashier still smiles conspiratorially at me anytime I go to the shop.

How should I have handled this? Have you ever had anything like this happen? I’d like to somehow slip my Irishness into conversation next time I get caught at his till, but I now actively avoid him if I see him working. The whole thing just makes my skin crawl.

I hope the gambler is okay. I hope his panic passed. I hope he’s backed off from backing horses.