Crystal Warren

The New Neighbour

I lie awake listening to the traffic. No matter what time of day or night, someone is driving past. Where are they going to so late, or rather so early? Anglers embarking on a fishing trip? Travelers leaving town? Revelers returning from parties? I guess I should be glad that the parties in my block of flats do not end so late. Or lovers returning briefly to their own beds. Like the new boyfriend of my neighbour, who leaves most nights between midnight and morning. I hear her door open, the bang of the security door downstairs, footsteps on the stairs. She seems to wait at her door until he disappears down the stairwell, because he always stops and calls back “I love you”. This would be sweet if it weren’t outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night.

I know more about my neighbours than I would like. They live at high volume, coming and going, talking and laughing in the passage, on their balconies. They seem to know each other well, I often see them visiting other flats, or talking together in the parking lot. Sometimes it makes me lonely, and I long to be part of the group. But only sometimes. And not for long. I like my solitary life – no clutter, no complications.  If we meet on the stairs we greet, then go our separate ways. I wonder what they think of me. No loud music, no visitors, no balcony parties or braais in the communal garden which I never use. I have few friends, and my son lives far away.

No, my life is quiet. I do not inflict it on others, forcing the whole block to listen to me. Not like some of them. Not that they are bad, they all seem pleasant enough. Lately there is less loud music late at night, I suspect out of consideration for the family upstairs with their new baby. I just wish the child had the same consideration. I’m not blaming it, or the parents. Babies cry. But this one does it all the time. At night I hear its shrill outraged voice, soothing tones of the mother, footsteps as she walks above me. I remember those long walks, willing a child to stop crying and sleep. But I didn’t live in a flat. I didn’t bother anyone else. I never do.

But now I am tempted. The constant crying is driving me crazy; it has been going on for days. Or rather nights. None of the neighbours sleep. We all lie awake listening, willing it to stop. In the evenings it is masked as people put on their televisions or play music, loud enough to drown out the cries. My flat is right in the middle, so I hear all eight different sets of sounds. I can’t take it much longer. No, it is time to talk to the mother. I am going upstairs now.

“I am sorry to disturb you but … Yes the baby is disturbing me… Please don’t cry … I didn’t come to complain but to see if I could help.  Don’t cry, give it to me. There there, everything will be alright.”

Finally they are both asleep. I had been walking the baby while the mother, barely more than a child herself, told me her story. The husband working shifts, the mother too far to visit often, and the flat too small for her to stay. The baby who doesn’t want to sleep and cries all the time. Her constant tiredness and increasing desperation. Slowly the tears stopped, and then the voice. Now she  is fast asleep on the couch. I don’t want to intrude by wandering the flat looking for the baby’s bed, and besides, if I move she might wake up.

So I sit and listen to the sounds of the flats waking up. The birds have started their morning chorus, the traffic has increased, although it is softer from up here. I can hear geysers groaning as baths are run, early risers are already leaving home, banging doors, revving cars. I should go soon, I like to be at work early, before anyone else gets there. But today I sit in this strange flat listening to the soft breathing of a mother and child.

I had better get used to it. I still can’t believe I offered to babysit. Not all the time, but occasionally when they want to go out together, or when things are bad and she just needs a break. What have I done? All my fiercely protected privacy will now be invaded and at my own invitation. Now I face the prospect of children, conversations, clutter, complications. Of visitors – did I really offer my spare room for her mother to use? What was I thinking? All because of this wretched child, who lies sleeping in my arms. Still. Perfect. Whole. She wakes up, stretches small arms and smiles at me, welcoming the stranger into her life, her community.