Neighbours. Good ones are a Godsend – they’ll water your plants when you’re away, keep a spare set of keys for when you lock yourself out, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll become friends. Bad neighbours, on the other hand, can ruin everything. From holding wild parties when you’re trying to sleep to blocking your drive with their cars, inconsiderate neighbours can cause untold stress.
We’re blessed with lovely neighbours, both in our street in Inverness and in our tenement in Edinburgh, but I wasn’t prepared for the deep discomfort I felt when we unexpectedly acquired a new neighbour in the capital. A ‘Gentleman of The Great Outdoors’ decided to set up camp on our tiny front path and garden. And with his 17 suitcases, it looked like he had settled in for the long haul.
It’s probably my fault that he chose our tenement. I recently heard that one of the worst things homeless people say about their situation is that they feel invisible. People hurry past them in the street without making eye contact and refusing or ignoring their pleas for help. With this in mind, I have made it my mission to always try and at least meet the gaze of the people who are living on our streets. I say hello. I occasionally hand over my change or a packet of biscuits from my shopping.
“I tried to show a little kindness.”
So when I was approached at the recycling bins, I didn’t ignore this man; I was polite. I answered his questions. I asked him how he was managing to keep warm. I listened to his story about a broken suitcase and sympathised with his difficulty in transporting his considerable belongings around the city. I explained that no, I didn’t have a van. I tried to show a little kindness, when all I wanted to do was hurry out of the rain back to my cosy flat.
Naively, perhaps, I didn’t imagine that he would follow me home then spend the next couple of hours carrying his many cases, two by two, into the front garden of our tenement. I didn’t imagine he would block our path for the next week, firing up his primus stove to cook his meals, forcing us all to have to step over him, and causing the postie to complain. The whole thing left me feeling responsible and…I hesitate to write this…desperately uncomfortable and royally conflicted. But I didn’t feel I could ask him to move.
We have a secure entry to the close but with Mr Marr away on business I was on my own and felt vulnerable. I imagined being attacked as I was unlocking the door, at the same time as wondering if I should buy him an extra blanket in case he died of the cold. I worried he might set something on fire with his stove and was concerned for my downstairs neighbour whose bedroom window he was living outside.
“I spent too long watching him from behind a curtain.”
I overheard all his conversations, and realised his story changed every time he told it. I spent too long watching him from behind a curtain. His radio woke me at 6.30 each morning when Chris Evans came on air. Through the double glazing I could hear every word of Moira Stewarts’ news bulletins, and his tuneless, but cheery voice singing along with the songs. I wondered how many batteries his radio went through in a week and if he had to choose between buying batteries and buying food.
Everyone has to sleep somewhere, but I wished it wasn’t our garden he had chosen. I wanted to help but didn’t want to encourage him to linger longer. I wanted him to move on but didn’t know how to make that happen. On one of my (now less frequent) trips out I popped into the Shelter shop – surely, they’d be able to give me advice?
‘That’s not really our area of expertise’, they said. If they couldn’t help – who could?
As a fully paid-up member of the ‘something must be done’ brigade, I realised I didn’t have the first idea of what that ‘something’ might be. He was still there when I caught the train north to Inverness one morning. When I returned a week later he was gone. One of his cases still lay beside the recycling bins, but within another few days that was gone too.
While I’d like to know that this fella is ok, I don’t want him to come back. The problem of homelessness in society is an uncomfortable one, and bigger than any of us, as individuals, can solve.