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Notes From the Lawn

Magic Step

One person’s porch is another’s stomping ground; one person’s garden is another’s view. This week: How to share the world with your neighbors or, failing that, how to suffer their existence.

For a few years in London, we lived in a tiny house on a cobblestoned mews in Notting Hill. It was the first time in 10 years—after nearly a dozen dorm rooms and city apartments—that my front door led straight outside. No hallway, no lobby, no elevators or doormen. The difference between having neighbors everywhere—above, below, all around—and having them only on the left and right might be akin to the difference between wearing a corset and going skinny-dipping. Fantastic. Our front step was not parallel to the street and the cement peeled as if sunburned, but I loved it.

Through an arrangement with our landlord and the previous tenant of our house, the children who attended the nursery school behind us entered and exited the school property through our garage, a detail we missed when we signed the lease. (It said we would not have use of the garage, but so what, we thought: We didn’t have a car!) Several of the mothers often arrived early, and until the headmistress opened the garage door, they sat on our front step with their children, a noisy crew of three- and four-year-old girls and boys and their many younger siblings.

They drove me crazy. The children’s voices penetrated the otherwise quiet street, and I was offended by the mothers’ blatant disregard for personal space. That was my front step, my trash cans they used for their empty Starbucks cups, my clover and buttercup the children picked for their little bouquets. (True, it was a clump of weeds, but I’d encouraged it to flower between the cobblestones—then my greatest gardening effort to date.)

I thought the answer might be simple: The mothers didn’t know that someone was trying to work inside. Fair enough. (My study was on the second floor overlooking the street.) So for a number of mornings I left the house before they arrived and timed my return—accompanied by a large cup of coffee and an industrious load of books—during their morning assembly. The first day they were singing as I approached. The mothers cleared the children relatively quickly, saying, “Up, up. The lady wants to go inside. Off Magic Step, everyone.”

Magic Step.

By the third day I heard one of them say, “I’m not sure she likes us sitting here.” I huffed as I closed the door, but they were undeterred.

I began to avert my face when they looked up, as if studying something at the side of my desk, but who were we kidding? My English friends suggested I spend a week clipping articles about child abductions, American gun ownership, and schoolyard shootings, paste them to construction paper, and post them in my front windows. That ought to do it, they said.

My husband suggested I might have ambivalent feelings about motherhood.

For a time I tried to block out the mothers and concentrate instead on the lovely view from my desk. I could see down into a garden across the street and beyond the garden the green and gold sign of our pub, the Ladbroke Arms, and beyond that, the spire of St. John’s Church at the top of Notting Hill. Garden, pub, church—a stimulating prospect for a writer and one I treasured in the afternoons, when it was quiet.

But then I began to sense that my neighbors across the street, the owners of the garden, two elderly gentlemen, were not particularly pleased with my bird’s eye view of their property. We had never officially met, so I’d invented names for them. Thomas, in his 70s, spent a good deal of time searching for the cat in the flower beds. Nigel, close to 90, tended the roses when he was able. From the vantage point of my desk I couldn’t avoid observing them, and the two would look up, frown, turn their backs and whisper. The previous tenant had used this room as a spare bedroom, so I guessed Thomas and Nigel, in all their cardiganed coziness, were not accustomed to such a constant presence. I began to avert my face when they looked up, as if studying something at the side of my desk, but who were we kidding?

Once I bumped into Nigel in front of the grocery store. It was odd to see him outside the confines of his garden, and I was tempted to tell him that the peonies were not getting enough sun. It was clear he recognized me, and I thought for a moment he might speak, perhaps explain that he loved his garden, that it was the peace of his old age. Couldn’t we find a neighborly compromise?

But he didn’t say a word, just sort of grumpily cleared his throat and moved along.

What a lovely triangle of dislike and resentment we make, I thought, the mothers, Nigel, and I. And that is where things stood until I went downstairs one morning after the Magic Step sing-along had concluded for the day and opened my front door at precisely the same moment Nigel opened his garden door, an event without precedent. Nigel spoke first.

“We’re planning a trellis for the top of the wall.”

“Oh?”

He nodded once, emphatically, and popped back into his garden.

I sighed and checked my bins: three Starbucks cups and the remnants of a blueberry muffin.

Nigel was a frail man, fond of baggy blue trousers and white sneakers, but his trellis plan was clever: It would take away my view. No more garden, pub, church for me; no more amusing antics of my elderly gay neighbors. I admired his gumption. Most of us live quietly with our miseries, convinced that our demands are not so unreasonable: I wanted the children to be quiet as they entered and exited their school, the mothers to deposit their coffee cups and breakfast snacks at their own homes, not mine. Nigel no doubt wanted me to close my curtains or move my desk to another room. But what is fair to ask of our neighbors?

Rather than answer that question, I went inside and looked up the number for the local authority. After the Easter holiday, I decided, I would secretly call about the mothers’ parking violations. Technically, it was only lawful for them to park on the other side of the street, beneath Nigel’s wall. There, my trash cans wouldn’t be so accessible, and I was betting their collective mothers’ instinct would force them to complain about the high trellis. Instead of singing on Magic Step, the children would surely invent ball games to play against the tottering rampart, worrying the mothers and annoying my elderly neighbors.

I looked up from my desk to see Nigel digging ferociously in his garden. He seemed to have a new plan for the yellow rose. What a lovely triangle of dislike and resentment we make, I thought, the mothers, Nigel, and I. The city closeness, the lack of a comfortable middle distance, drives all of us, it would seem, to extremes.

I wrote the phone number in my calendar, and then, not to take any chances, went out to buy some construction paper.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane