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One of my neighbours now despises me – and that has taught me something important

Zoe Williams
·5-min read

As our world shrinks down to one daily spell of fake exercise, the universe of decisions gets smaller and smaller. Should the dog be allowed to wear his coat indoors, or won’t he feel the benefit? Shall I start doing dry January on the 28th or 29th? The doorbell has gone; should I answer it? I am always a hard yes on that last question. Wet hair, in a dressing gown, midway through fine dining, I always go to the door because the alternative is having some perfectly good leg warmers stolen off the doorstep, or a world of redelivery pain I won’t get round to.

So let’s say it wasn’t out of character that I answered the door while I was live on air, over the phone, explaining to LBC’s listeners why Boris Johnson shouldn’t have cycled seven miles to the Olympic Park. In a lockdown, this is the closest I can get to my happy place (arguing with strangers in a pub). I was trying to express the prime minister’s responsibilities in a relatable analogy: “Nick Ferrari, my friend, imagine you’re a headmistress, with a very strict uniform code, and skirts have to come exactly to the knee, and all the girls are constantly trying to wear them shorter.”

(This is when the doorbell went).

“You cannot, as the head, then wear your own skirt just above the knee. It doesn’t matter if you have a great set of pins. You have to go to mid-calf.”

(This is when I opened the door).

The man on the step wasn’t a delivery driver but a neighbour, who lived at the same house number on a different street. This much I gathered, so I can’t, unfortunately, relate what Nick Ferrari thought of my skirts, or even whether he knows what mid-calf looks like. I can multitask at almost anything; I can put mascara on while driving and also eating ham, but I can’t listen to two people at the same time.

I was wearing black athleisure, so looked like the kind of jerk who has time to run but doesn’t have time to say thanks

The other thing I couldn’t do was say “thank you” to the neighbour for bringing the package round. I tried to do a complicated mime of “thank you”, but what came across, I think, was just a face of generalised panic, and who knows how he interpreted it, let’s just say it fell below my standards of everyday courtesy. Also, his standards. “Fucking hell, woman!” he exclaimed, as he stalked off, which I think is roughly what the assorted listenership of LBC was thinking.

Afterwards, I felt terrible. It didn’t help that I was wearing black athleisure, so looked like the kind of jerk who always has time to go for a run but doesn’t have time to say “thank you” to a fellow human being. I’m probably the kind of person who ploughs straight into you on the pavement and forces you into the road, possessed by their own righteousness – in his eyes, I mean. Obviously, I know that I never go running, and I dress like this because I spill things on myself. I resolved to stop what I was doing, which by this time was nothing, and take round a card of apology to the corresponding house number of a different street, and since I was dressed for it and hadn’t done any sort of exercise that day, I decided to run there, which is how my keys bounced out of my pocket. Karma is a bitch, kids.

I couldn’t remember the street, so I roamed around all the possible contenders and still couldn’t find it. I interrogated the inhabitant of number 255, who claimed that 253 didn’t exist. I think she thought I was from the council. Soon enough, I was looking for a house, an offended man and a set of keys. I was out for hours, not finding any of them. Then I couldn’t get back in, because the children think having to walk downstairs is a breach of their human rights, and I’m the only sucker who ever answers the door.

Related: Quiz: how well do you understand England's latest lockdown rules?

For the next few days, therefore, there was an envelope sitting on the table addressed to “the man I was just rude to on the doorstep”, the embodiment of my horrible manners. Such a small envelope, yet such a mountain of unfinishable admin. Finally, H, the 11-year-old, picked it up. After a spirited critique of my handwriting, she deciphered its contents and shook her head. “Not everybody has to like you.”

There’s this peculiar thing that happens, right before your child gets certifiably taller than you. Maybe they’re standing one stair up, or wearing big trainers, and for the first time in your life, you find yourself looking upwards into their eyes, and it’s the most bizarre experience – you see them as a baby, and as a small child, then catapult forward and see them as an adult, their form morphing through time as their eyes remain the same, as though in a dream, or an annoying Christopher Nolan film. This was like that, except with character. My daughter has a taller character than me. Hopefully, one day, she’ll be able to explain how I’m not that bad to the guy round the corner.