Before what I have since called the ‘Hose Pipe Affair’, I had at best a one-up-from-stranger relationship with my neighbour.
For instance I knew his first name, or had it narrowed down to two possibilities. I practically forgot it immediately after he introduced himself on the day he moved in. I never had the courage to ask him again. I know it was Tim or Tom; names that seem strangely apologetic for a man with those shoes. Annoyingly, even some of his mail that had occasionally, accidentally landed on my door mat only ever had the initial T. I was so focused on discovering the first name - trying to buckle the envelopes so as I could gain an oblique view through the little plastic window in the hope of reading more of the letters and maybe catch his full identity - that I subsequently forgot his surname. One wrongly delivered item, a water bill I think, was addressed to a Mr Fredericks and it had his address, but without the initial I could never be certain that it was for him.
Even right up to what I have since called the ‘Return of the Pepper Mill’ we displayed a level of civility in passing. That upward nod men of a certain class do along with a barely audible “alright” was the minimum though most frequent communication: albeit one which I had to learn. If either one of us passed the other slightly inebriated – me returning home from a post commute pint, him leaving home for the bookmakers – then it was positively warm enough for a “good weather/ shit (his words) weather we’ve been having, eh” call and response. I once fantasised what we would have said if the planets had aligned and our orbits had crossed with both of us stumbling and slurring. Who knows, after the usual acknowledgements we may have felt compelled to stop, talk about some match - I have a rudimentary knowledge of the Premier League just in case I need to use that plumber again - share an appropriately inappropriate joke and wish each other well. I may have even had the bravery to tell him that I had almost forgotten his name. We would have laughed about it.
So, one could safely say that any Laylandii-style neighbour dispute never really felt on the cards. The nearest we came to ‘blows’ (‘The nearest’ disappeared after what I have since called the ‘Incident with the Dog’) was when he parked his dilapidated Volkswagen pick-up outside my front garden, even though there was a parking space in front of his. Luckily he had parked it on a Saturday, which meant that I was not at work and therefore had time to hang about outside my front garden on the Sunday in my dressing gown and wait for him to appear in the corner of my eye. Once he did, I made it look like I had only just got up and on collecting the newspaper from the porch had noticed this van and was upset by it enough to wander out and wonder aloud about the offending vehicle. He overheard and came to apologise, muttering something about parking it absentmindedly before actually moving it into his dining room line of vision. All embarrassment that a direct complaint would have engendered was thus avoided. Though, he may have wondered why I was wearing a dressing gown at 5pm in the evening over a shirt and tie and Cotton Traders Wrinkle Free Pleat Front Chinos.
If it hadn’t been such a seemingly inconsequential event, I would have remembered the day more clearly. It was a Saturday. I had just finished washing the car, even though the weather didn’t merit it. I liked that car. It was a 2003 Ford Mondeo Ghia black hatchback diesel with power steering. It had a small scratch on the front left wheel arch where, in a supermarket car park, a shopping trolley with a stuck wheel had inadvertently rolled into it as if it were on a prior mission. I had meant to get the scratch seen to but ended up just colouring it in with a permanent black marker pen. If you caught it at the wrong angle in bright light you could see how much the matt covering of the pen stood out. With this in mind I tended to park the car with the left side towards any shade. The car would eventually become embroiled in what I have since called the ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’.
The door bell should have rung but it didn’t and that perturbed me at the time. Instead there was a too informal rap on the window. The kind of thing that your best friend might do knowing that your door is actually unlocked and they are just alerting you to the fact that they are going to enter the house; having recently telephoned you about their imminent arrival. Though my best friend never did that, due to only scoring a modest 6 (10 being the highest) on the scale of friendship. This effectively meant we only organised a social get together if we bumped into each other at the newsagents or other local shop, because we had nothing else to talk about. Though, I did buy the Mondeo from him. Funnily enough, after all that has happened, I can’t remember if he was my level 6 best friend before or because of that financial transaction. The black marker pen was separate to this entire relationship; being a purchase originally intended as the final component of a comprehensive stationery store.
Luckily, as it turned out, because I didn’t have a level 9-10 best friend, the front door was locked. This gave me time to adjust myself to the shocking manner in which I had been alerted to a caller. Even if someone had followed the usual procedure, thus not necessarily putting me into a state of wariness, I valued the minutes spent locating my keys (this was another ruse designed to create time: they were always on the sideboard or in one of my jacket pockets) and unlocking, then unbolting the front door. It gave me a moment to gather my thoughts and present a man at ease with fellow man, and ready for any dialogue.
“Hi ‘mate’ (my inverted commas), sorry to trouble you, like. But I don’t suppose I could borrow your hose?”
“I…er…” My carefully crafted preparation time had been a waste of time. The rap on the window had been more unsettling than I imagined.
“I noticed you using one on your Mondeo. Mine seems to have sprung a leak and I’d like to hose down the patio this evening. You’d be doing me a favour.”
He must have sensed my unease, so tried some humour. “Tell you what, I’ll even return the water!” He must have sensed my unease, so tried reassurance. “Only joking, mate, I’ve got my own tap…” He trailed off, perhaps seeing in me for the first time a man who was able to stand his ground, defend his castle. In those split seconds I had formed an answer.
“No” I thought, “I’d rather just keep it. Cheerio!” No explanation was needed. I just wasn’t the lending type. I was just about to say these words aloud when.
“Look, if it’s too much bother.” It was then I noticed the menacing replica football shirt, the aggressive paint splattered track suit bottoms, the gold Onyx eagle medallion ring. This wasn’t the time to find out his true feelings under the bemused façade.
“Sorry, of course, of course” I mumbled as courageously as was possible. Gathering myself, I sensed his unease, so tried some humour. “I misheard you. I thought you asked if you could borrow my ‘hoe’. Imagine me using that on the Mondeo!” It worked. I’m sure I noticed a curious expression glance across his face as he imagined that very scene.
From the advantage of my living room I could hear him wash his patio. He was humming an inconsequential tune picked up from some service station. I drowned it out with my own nagging thrum. With all my might, I had acted with such triumphant casualness when handing him the hose pipe (including saying ‘mate’ in an ironic gesture), that I completely forgot to negotiate the timescale; instead opting for the regretful “whenever” riposte. It was reasonable to assume I’d get the hose back on completion of his job, but it would look unreasonable to actually, verbally demand it forthwith as soon as he had wound it in. This was my first mistake in the whole sorry saga. Hearing him compress the hose nozzle - allowing the remaining in limbo water to splutter pathetically to a halt - I drew the curtains across the French windows and turned off the light in the room and perched silently in the darkness. For all I cared he could think that I was out for the evening.
He didn’t think I was out for the evening. The door bell rang. At last he had learned something.
I systematically made my way round the rest of the house drawing all the other curtains and turning of all the other lights including the one in the fridge to further illustrate that I wasn’t bothered about getting my property back immediately. I heard him cough into the approaching chill and retreat. Now I had the night to hatch a plan which would ensure the speedy, safe return of my hose pipe without it appearing as such.
The theme tune of The Archers omnibus had just faded into thin air by the time I had brought out my last spoonful of water. Surrounding my Mondeo was a motley collection of different sized vessels all full to the brim. Earlier, knowing that my energy levels would ultimately dwindle I started with the largest non fixed containers. I had toyed with the idea of ripping out the bath, but the plumber was unavailable and I lacked the passion. After the buckets, saucepans and thermos flask the work got more tedious as I made countless trips carrying port glasses, egg cups and camera film cases, carefully ensuring no water was spilled either in the house or down the front garden path. Meanwhile the car, smeared from the soaping I had given it hours previously, stood parked and parched.
I was drinking tea from a hollowed out potato (having not left aside a spare cup for the purpose) gazing forlornly at the front left wheel arch, when my curtain twitch of a neighbour finally put in an appearance. I braced myself for my master stroke.
“Are you okay mate?”
“Hmm?” I said, as if waking from a day dream.
“Can I call someone for you?” Peering in too close, furrowing his brow and squinting, he was looking at me as if I was an intricate user’s manual. I imagine I had the same expression when I first tried out my Sat Nav. This led me to finally give him a name.
“TomTom” I thought to myself, inwardly chuckling at the idea of a nick name possibly being his real name, only childishly doubled.
“TomTom?” he said coincidentally, softly, in a questioning tone.
Over the road, Janet, Anne or whatever her name was, had just walked out of her front door carrying a refuse sack to her wheelie bin. I sensed her unease as she looked over at this surreal tableau. I, assuredly playing the part of the puppet master, whilst TomTom floundered, waiting for me to pull a string, provide direction.
“This isn’t about the hose pipe is it?” String tugged. “I tried to return it last night, but I think you must have been going to bed or something.” Pull the strings! Pull the strings! “You know you could’ve just popped round this morning to get it back.”
“Oh, not to worry,” I said casually, though it sounded almost robotic, “I didn’t want to bother you. I just assumed that you would hand it back when you had finished with it. You know me,” I lied, “I don’t like to let a small inconvenience put me off the task in hand.” Take that Pinocchio!
After an uncomfortable silence (guess who for!) we surveyed the scene. Janet/ Anne had been joined by some other onlookers who hadn’t even the courtesy to carry refuse sacks. “No, it’s alright,” I said rubbing TomTom patronisingly on the shoulder, answering his question, “give me the hose pipe back tomorrow. I’ve planned the job this way, so I may as well continue: Time to rinse!” I picked up a thimble, a gift from me to my mother. It had a tiny drawing of Chichester Cathedral on it. I threw the water towards the car. What little amount there was ineffectually came up short. Unconcerned, chirpily, I went in to finish him off. The permanent black marker pen line that had once been mere cover for a scratch became a kill mark under the cockpit of a fighter plane. “You can help me if you like.”
He sullenly tramped off, muttering random words such as “idiot”, “weirdo”, “loser” and “twat”. Like so much in life they were tossed asides: without meaning.
Nick McMaster © 2008