THE DISARMING URGENCY OF FIRE ALARM DIPLOMACY

I don’t know if I have mentioned it (I have) but we live in a flat, well actually to be accurate an apartment, as it is on two floors and not flat, like a flat. We have always got on with our neighbours in a typically English kind of way, polite nods when passing on the stairs, names remembered when sorting the mail and then promptly forgotten, studiously hiding from each other if spotted outside of the building. The neighbours below us were Trevor and Sally (made up names) and their two children. Libby and I didn’t really know them and had no reason to have an opinion of them, so quiet were they, so when they moved away we didn’t miss them but we wondered who might rent the place and hoped for someone else with kids. The apartment was empty for almost six months and the first we knew of it being occupied was when someone unknown was ringing our bell to complain about the outrageous level of noise we were making. This was news to us, no one had ever complained before, not in seven years, admittedly there is a certain cacophonous potential to having three sons but surely if we were that bad someone would have told us before. Unless of course our old neighbours had moved because of the noise, perhaps that was why Trevor called Joa, my youngest, Speedbump. Nah, the new neighbours were just being unreasonable. I took umbrage but still did my best to curtail the boys by initiating the ninja protocol; see the ninja, be the the ninja, fear the ninja but don’t hear the ninja. Despite this and under threat of death to maintain the peace my boys managed to incur three more complaints in as many days and I was beginning to feel a little picked upon. Relations with the new neighbours were less than neighbourly and for a moment I considered letting the boys off the leash. Then I remembered Simon.

Many years before when I lived in Australia I had a friend called Simon, he is a real person, this is not a story about me using a pseudonym, although I must concede it sounds like it might be. Simon was quite hard work but I was fond of him not least because he was one of the funniest people I have ever met, also probably the most neurotic and possibly borderline crazy. But he was kind all the same unless of course you upset him in which case he wasn’t, kind. Simon was unhappy with his neighbours, he was the jam in a three story block of flats and didn’t get on with the slices above or below him. The reason for this was for a while unclear but the extent of Simon’s enmity was such that he willfully and secretly became their neighbour from hell despite having to torture himself in the process. Simon was always and in everything inventive, this extended to the persecution of his hapless neighbours and as he regaled me with his sneaky methods I would sit in quiet awe of him, never quite sure whether I was impressed or appalled. He told me how whenever he went out he would leave the vacuum cleaner going in his bedroom, how he would put uneven loads in the washing machine on the longest cycle, how he stuck a small loudspeaker up the lounge chimney and played Gregorian chants all night and how he often left a pot of cabbage cooking on the stove the smell of which permeated every flat. In the midst of summer he would turn his heat on full to broil the people upstairs and every now and then on sunday he would deliberately burn his morning toast, setting off the fire alarm and forcing everyone in the building to assemble outside in their pajamas. He would never join them of course he knew there wasn’t a fire, he would stay in his hot, smelly, noisy, smokey flat wandering around in his clogs for slippers savouring yet another pyrrhic victory. It was during one of these false alarms that there was a knock on his door and he opened it to find his above and below neighbours, not outside but standing in the hall, worried that he hadn’t evacuated the building. They had a chat, their first and as a result Simon immediately ceased his clandestine campaigns against them. I asked him what they had said that had changed his mind. ‘Oh, he replied. ‘It turns out they were nothing like my parents after all.’

About two years after we moved into our flat we were invited to a birthday party upstairs. It was an older couple, Jethro and Sylvia (made up names) who were long term residents, friendlier than most and whose birthdays were only days apart. Every year they shared a rowdy bash, something we could attest to, as although we hadn’t been invited to the previous one we had experienced it from below. On the night Libby was feeling a little poorly and so declined the offer of alcohol and scallops and by doing so unknowingly gave the game away to our hosts that she was in a state of pregnancy. Except she wasn’t. This led to Libby having curious encounters on the stairs in which mostly Jethro would ask odd questions or make oblique statements such as ‘How are you both doing? Don’t you look radiant!’ And, ‘At least your ankles aren’t swollen.’ This went on for months and by the time Libby realised that they thought she was pregnant it was too late to say anything and so she decided to let time disabuse them of the notion. Six months after the bash Libby falls pregnant with Jo and is clearly showing when we attend Jethro and Sylvia’s next annual party. She still doesn’t say anything about not being pregnant before though, and by the time Jo is born it must appear to the neighbours that Libby has been pregnant for fifteen months. A few weeks later and I am making toast for breakfast and as we have an old Dualit toaster there are always considerable bread cremation opportunities. On this particular day I am distracted and return to the toaster to find two thick columns of black smoke rising from it as if it were a factory in a Lowry painting. Cue fire alarm. At the assembly point downstairs Libby is holding Jo and talking with Sylvia and I join them with the earlier sons and a confession that Dualit is responsible. Libby laughingly informs me that our neighbours aren’t daft after all and knew for quite a while that she wasn’t pregnant, before she was, but like her were too embarrassed to say anything. It was amazing how the smallest of misunderstandings had seemed like an insurmountable obstacle and how that obstacle was quickly overcome by the disarming urgency of fire alarm diplomacy. A week later on the stairs Jethro hands me a small gift-wrapped parcel, it is a birthday present for Joa, a small set of cutlery with his birthdate engraved in the handles.

Joa is now five and eating lasagne with his special knife and fork and I am watching him whilst considering how to deal with the noise complaints from downstairs. I can feel my indignation bristle and a slight sense of siege, imagining that beneath us the new neighbours are gazing up at the ceiling, microphones at the ready, ears pinned back for the slightest evidence of the transit of Speedbump. I understand of course that they have a right to a quiet life and that for most of us complaining is never easy. I want to resolve our differences but a conversation based on conflict is always difficult to have without throwing sticks and rocks and bombs. I struggled with a way to initiate it, to find some common ground but could think of nothing, so I asked Libby if she had any ideas. She looked at me and thought for a moment. ‘Burn some toast.’ She said.

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