This short story, though fictional, briefly touches on an incident which I encountered whilst I was training for the ministry, and which has remained with me ever since. I am the man with the Co-op bag.
Though it happened in a particular place and at a particular time, it could be a sad facet of urban life in any part of our land. It begs the question, “Who is my neighbour?”
It was raining. It had been raining for days and today looked like being no different. It was one of those dull, wet, cold, end-of-January days which reminded you that the expectations of last Christmas had once again been an illusion and that next Christmas was a very long way away.
Mrs Jones didn’t bother to look up at the sky as she left the church porch. She carefully put up her umbrella and set off down the path towards the street. She wasn’t as steady on her pins as she used to be and she carefully picked her way around the cracked paving stones which held large puddles of water. She noticed how the rain seemed to make the graffiti on the old gravestones stand out even more than usual.
Mrs Jones enjoyed going to the ten o’clock Communion Service on a Wednesday morning. It was a lovely service. Not many people went, but the vicar said that it was worth it even if only one person turned up. Mrs Jones knew everybody who went and felt comfortable there. Occasionally, though, some rough-looking types from the local hostel would come in. That always spoiled it for Mrs Jones.
‘I don’t know why you encourage them’ she had told the vicar, on several occasions. The previous vicar wouldn’t have allowed it, she felt sure. And if he had, her Frank would have sorted him out. Frank had been a Churchwarden, a pillar of the church, until he had died of a massive stroke, one rainy day just after Christmas, ten years ago.
Mrs Jones turned the corner into Trinity Road where she lived. The gutter at the edge of the road was blocked up and water was flowing over the pavement, forming a great muddy pool. The cause of the blockage appeared to be a dead bird lying on the edge of the grid and preventing the water from draining away. It looked like a pigeon, or it might have been one of those collared doves; but it had white feathers, or at least it used to have white feathers. Now, like everything else that day, it was a filthy grey.
‘Wish the Council would do something about these streets,’ thought Mrs Jones as she walked out into the road to circumnavigate the pool of water. If Frank had been alive he would have phoned up the Council and given them a piece of his mind. He was not afraid of doing that.
A dog barked in a garden, and for some reason her mind went back to the church service. Oh yes! She remembered now: the Bible reading. ‘It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,’ Jesus had said. ‘Even the dogs get to eat what the children leave,’ the woman had replied – or something like it. Funny reading. Strange.
‘Her next door’ had had a dog, briefly. Her husband had brought it home one day – that’s if he was her husband. Mrs Jones wasn’t sure.
When they’d first moved in, Mrs Jones had gone round just to say hello, but ‘her next door’ wouldn’t let her in. She’d been quite polite and everything but she stood on the doorstep and talked. Mrs Jones thought she knew why. She had just happened to glance over her shoulder and seen into the living room. She’d noticed that there was no carpet on the floor and the furniture was really . . . well, tatty.
Mrs Jones had a nice house, Very smart inside and not a speck on the windows. Not like ‘her next door’. Mind you, it was difficult to keep the windows clean with all this rain.
Mrs Jones kept herself to herself as far as ‘her next door’ was concerned. She would always be civil, but she didn’t believe in being in and out of each other’s kitchens. ‘Good fences make for good neighbours,’ Frank had always said.
‘Her next door’ was a bit of a funny woman anyway. Well, she wasn’t much more than a girl, really. She had told Mrs Jones that they had just got married when they moved in. But she already had two kids and was expecting another. It wasn’t decent!
And what about her husband? He had been at home a lot in the beginning. Mrs Jones thought he had probably been too idle to get a job. She hardly saw him these days though. He turned up once in a blue moon – and when he did, the rows and the shouting that went on! The babies would be crying and she would be shouting and screaming, and he would be ‘effing and blinding’ at the top of his voice. And then he’d go out and slam the door and you wouldn’t see him for weeks.
After one such occasion Mrs Jones had gone round next door the following day and complained about the noise. ‘Her next door’ came out looking like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. Her eyes were all red and her hair was a proper mess, and her hands were shaking! And she had a cough like she smoked sixty a day. Goodness only-knows what she’d been up to. Mrs Jones dreaded to think. And with kids in the house, too!
‘Her next door’ did say she was sorry about the noise and it wouldn’t happen again, but Mrs Jones wasn’t born yesterday. She’d heard it all before. Frank would have done more than complain about the noise if he’d been alive. He’d have got onto the Council and had them sorted out. He wouldn’t stand for any messing about.
All these comings and goings made Mrs Jones’ life a proper misery. She had enough troubles of her own, thank you very much, without having to worry about what ‘her next door’ was up to.
And to cap it all, a couple of nights ago she had been getting ready for bed when she had looked out of the window and seen two men going down ‘her next door’s’ path. One looked like he was carrying a Co-op bag full of groceries. What a time for men to go calling at a woman’s house when her husband wasn’t there! It’s not right. This neighbourhood is going to the dogs.
Mrs Jones reached the gate of her house in Trinity Road. As she turned to walk down the path to the front door, she thought she saw the face of a young woman through the dirty window of the house next door. Then the face disappeared.
‘Typical!’ thought Mrs Jones. ‘Nothing better to do with her time. That reminds me if this rain ever stops, I must wash my net curtains and hang them out to dry.’