Yasmin and Josef lived on Laburnum Avenue, an unremarkable suburban street where the bins were emptied on time. Yasmin and Josef felt at home but when the form from the Be a Better Neighbour! campaign arrived, Yasmin didn’t quite know how to respond.
She read the form as she sat in the front room drinking tea. She had made it, as usual, with a cardamom pod. ‘I’m not sure about this,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ said Josef.
‘It says here we’ve got to fill it in so we can vote and have access to healthcare.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘We can already vote and we already have access to healthcare. Besides, the questions are a bit strange. Look – here’s one about how often we clean our windows: ‘a) Every day b) Every week or c) Other (please explain).’ And here’s one about how many pairs of deck shoes we own. What are deck shoes?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Josef, ‘but I think Derek might have a pair. Do you want me to ask him?’
Derek lived across the road and as Yasmin considered her reply, she looked out of the window and caught sight of him in the front room of his house. She waved and he waved back. ‘If you think it will help,’ she said.
A week later, as Yasmin drank her first tea of the morning, Josef asked if she’d thought any more about filling in the form, ‘because Derek told me if we don’t we’ll be liable to a fine.’
Yasmin frowned. Over the course of the week Josef had resisted her attempts to discuss the form with him and she found his insistence that they should fill it in puzzling. It suggested a passivity that was at odds with his usual gumption: why, just last year he had taken to task an assistant at The National Heritage Museum when he’d objected to Yasmin’s choice of hat. She also struggled to see what their predicament had to do with Derek. She and Josef had lived on Laburnum Avenue for ten years and it was only since the start of the Be A Better Neighbour! campaign that he had taken the slightest notice of either of them.
Yasmin shook her head. ‘I’d have thought that was all the more reason not to,’ she said.
‘Why? It’s not as if we have anything to hide.’
‘Maybe. But don’t you remember what happened to your grandparents after they filled in a form like this?’
‘Oh please. It’s not the same thing at all. That was years ago. I really do think you’re overreacting.’
Yasmin’s puzzlement deepened. Could Josef mean what he was saying? She hoped not. Turning away from her partner, she glanced out of the window. Standing outside his house, looking at her from across the road, was Derek. She waved and, after hesitating for a moment, he waved back.
A week later, Josef interrupted Yasmin’s tea drinking to tell her that they had wasted enough time and should fill in the form without further delay. ‘I spoke to Derek and he said everyone on the avenue felt very strongly about it. If we don’t, it will look as though we’re not part of the community.’
‘But we are part of the community. I wave at him all the time.’
‘That’s as maybe. But we have some fences to mend, some bridges to build.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He knows, Yasmin.’
‘How you make your tea.’
‘How does he know that?’
‘I’m not sure. Although his windows are very clean. But either way I think he’s right. I mean we like it here don’t we? Why put all that at risk?’
‘How are we going to put that at risk by not filling in the form?’
‘Didn’t you see? It was in the last Better Neighbour News! Some people up the road who drink tea like yours didn’t fill the form in. And they were… Well. It wasn’t very nice, that’s all.’
Aha! So that was it! All along and after all! Yasmin tried to catch Josef’s eye but he had turned away and bowed his head. At that moment, her attention was taken by someone peering in through their front room window. It was Derek. She hesitated and then waved, as he ducked out of sight.
Charlie Hill is a critically-acclaimed writer of novels, short stories and memoir. Website: charliehill.org.uk