I have always lived in houses or flats joined to other houses or flats. What I mean to say is, I have never lived in a home wholly detached from another. And so, the everyday sounds of others have formed the backdrop of my life.
Growing up in Leicester, where nearly everyone knew everyone else in the street, and with elderly neighbours either side there wasn’t much to hear. I suspect back then we were the ones making the noise: squawks from my clarinet; fights with my brother; my dad turning up the bass on the hi-fi to blast out Chaka Demus & Pliers before my mum’s just as loud pleas to turn it down. Always with the same phrase — Shhhhh, Dolly!! becoming the refrain whenever anyone made too much noise, even long after Dolly had moved to a care home.
Whereas my university dorms were punctuated with the staccato sounds of music, sex and one hated neighbour who only seemed able to find their drumsticks at 4am. In second-year, I moved into a Leeds terrace with paper-thin walls. I still remember the moment I finally realised what the odd clunk noise I would hear every now and then was through the adjoining wall: the sound of a plug being jammed into the socket. Almost close enough to touch.
In our current flat, I can hear our next-door neighbour, Pete, when he’s sneezes or Elwira’s quiet entreaties to her yelling child in the flat below. I can hear the thump thump of dance music through the floor and the thunder of feet down a hallway. At the start of lockdown, I would hear the neighbours on the other side having screaming matches but which has now been replaced by the sporadic high-pitched whirring of drilling and renovations.
It’s easy to see these noises as nuances. Usually, I do. But today, as I write this sat atop the bed in a rare moment of Sunday winter sunshine, once again back in lockdown, unable to see friends or family inside of our home, distanced from everyone else around us, suddenly those noises aren’t so unwelcome. I’ve always found it astounding that all around you outside the thin divide of home (a front door is a feeble barrier really) is the evidence of entire lives being lived around you. Ones that you may know a little about or nothing at all. Each person a whole person with so much happening to them we can hardly see it for all that we are simultaneously going through ourselves.
These little islands of home that we make, that in lockdown we have been forced to retreat into, remain insufficient to block out others. No matter how much we close our windows and doors and curtains. And so, for today at least, I do not mind the pop music filtering up from below, the mumbled voices from across the way, the cough that echoes from next door. Instead, they are a comforting reminder that while our lives and homes are separated by walls, we remain, in some ways, attached.
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