The next incident of note in those early days occurred during Neil’s barbecue – it was during that evening that I was confronted with the unpleasant reality of the woman I had the misfortune to call my neighbour. It was early June – I remember because I’d only been in the house three weeks – and the weather was bright and warm, for once, and just right for a barbecue.
I smiled as I heard his friends arrive. My windows were open and I heard laughter, cheeks being kissed, wine unwrapped from crinkling paper. A barbecue with my neighbours would be a perfect start to a friendship, and I’d been on my own in the house for long enough. They probably assumed a last-minute knock on the door would suffice, as I was so near to them an official invitation was unnecessary – it goes without saying.
When I smelled the meat cooking I brushed my hair and hesitated behind my front door for their knock. It wasn’t forthcoming so I slipped off my shoes and went into the kitchen to wait in a spot where I could hear them in the back. It was warm enough to leave the kitchen door ajar: all the smoke and cooking smells were drifting right in over their garden fence. It made me hungry and I put the cooker on to grill some sausages for myself. Perhaps they’d decided on a more formal meal, and I’d be invited round for drinks afterwards. It would be better to eat now, I thought, rather than go hungry and demolish a plate of nibbles on my own. Mr Tips coiled around my legs as I cooked, and, indulgently, I dropped one of the sausages into his bowl and listened to him purr as I stood at the cooker.
I took my plate and glass out into the garden and sat on the back step to eat. The sounds of people chatting came over the high fence and I tapped my foot gently to the music. I’d burned the sausages a little, and didn’t have anything like salad in the fridge, so I’d put a dollop of mayonnaise on the side, a couple of slices of buttered bread, and, because I like to be healthy, some broccoli I had in the freezer. It was lovely. Something told me Neil wouldn’t mind me sharing the music and I was pleased the afternoon had presented me with an opportunity to get to know him a little better. For a while I sat like that, listening to the music and losing myself in my thoughts, tracing my finger around and around the Greek Key pattern that circled the edge of my plate.
After the incident with the milkman I’d given serious thought to my goals in life and so had renewed my membership at the library. I availed myself fully of the facilities on offer, using the internet, borrowing inspirational DVDs and in particular, had started reading certain books on the subject of personal development. I’d grown in confidence and was certain that my behaviour where the milkman was concerned was an isolated mishap. From my books I’d learned that the best way to form new friendships was to develop an attitude of willingness, to fit in and be flexible; in other words, to try things you ordinarily wouldn’t. I remember thinking, as I finished my own food and put the plate down beside me on the step, what a good idea a barbecue was. Maybe the idea of throwing my own party was forming in my mind that afternoon. I sat admiring the clink of the wine bottle against the glasses as drink was generously poured, imagining how nice it would be if I had a house full of people too.
At first I couldn’t hear much of what was said, but as the guests drank more they started to get louder and I felt more confident getting nearer to the fence, knowing that I wouldn’t disturb them. I hovered there for quite some time, feeling happy hearing them laugh and imagining myself as a kind of guardian angel to ward off accidents while they could relax and have fun. They talked about their jobs a lot, and people they knew. It sounds silly, but even though I wasn’t joining in, I liked the company. It wasn’t that I’d been lonely: apart from the milkman I’d had two or three chats with library assistants and a woman who worked behind the counter in the cream-cake shop.
When it got cooler I realised evening was coming and I probably wasn’t going to be asked for drinks. Dejected, I fetched a cardigan and went back to my lookout post. It was better than nothing. Eventually I heard them talking about me.
‘Have you met your new neighbour yet?’ someone asked.
‘No. Neil has, but she’s only been here a couple of weeks,’ replied a female voice, high-pitched and happy sounding. I’d heard Lucy’s voice before; out shrieking at spiders in the garden or yelling commands up the stairs to Neil.
‘We should go round, really, and take her something for the house,’ Neil said. Someone else asked a question, but the words were indistinct.
‘No, I don’t know what she does. I thought she was coming with a family too, but she says Charlotte must have had her wires crossed. You don’t like to ask too much, do you? She hangs around the place a lot during the week. Doesn’t work, by the looks of it,’ Neil said, and I was touched that he’d been feeling the connection growing, assisted by nothing more than proximity. I was looking forward to us becoming friends and I wracked my brains. Where had I heard his voice before? If he’d played some part in my past I wanted to know about it and be prepared before I got any friendlier with him.