The story I’m about to tell doesn’t really have an ending. There’s no moral or message – I write it to bear witness to the terror and pity of war, when brother turns on brother, when neighbour falls upon neighbour. Or, actually, perhaps there is a moral: when two limping buffalo clash, it is the grass that suffers.
My house is the second in a row of four Victorian terrace houses, and my neighbor on the left is a retired and retiring English gentleman named John who spent his working life in a bank. In the English summer he lives in a small apartment in London, and at this time of year he flies south like a somewhat portly swallow.
John is a quiet man of dignified mien and exquisite politeness. When we meet in the street he’s always most anxious to make sure that he isn’t disturbing us, that when he plays his opera it isn’t too loud. I assure him we can’t hear a thing, which is true, but I’d say so anyway for we are kindred spirits, John and I. I consider myself African but in this I’m very English: whatever crimes or historical atrocities or shameful secrets roil in our hypocritical hidden hearts, nothing would quite so mortify either John or me as the thought of inadvertently bothering the neighbours.
Then last Saturday, around 6am, I woke to the sound of BBC World. John must have returned, his senses disorganized from the long flight, and turned up his TV too loud so that he could hear it in the kitchen while he made a nice cup of tea.
“What the hell’s that?” growled my wife from beneath a pillow.
“Sounds like there’s more trouble in Syria,” I tutted sympathetically.
My wife was not feeling sympathetic to the Syrians. She enjoys her sleep, especially on a Saturday, and she’d worked late the night before and in a few short hours her parents would be arriving to stay.
“John!” she bellowed. “John!”
“Sssh!” I said. “He’ll hear you!”
She marched downstairs and I listened in horror as she dragged a chair out into the courtyard and clambered up and yelled over the wall: “John! John!”
BBC World abruptly stopped and I pictured the poor man in his lounge, wide-eyed, biting his knuckles, frozen in a rictus of embarrassment. That’s what I’d be doing.
But when my wife’s dander is up, she’s not always sensitive to changes in circumstances. She didn’t notice the noise had stopped. “John!” she bellowed. “JOHN!”
It sounded as though she was trying to call him out for a fight. Show your face, John, and take the beating you deserve!
I scurried to the window and called down hoarsely. “Ssshhh! He’s turned it off!”
“John!” she bellowed. “Joooohhnnnn!”
Then at last she paused to listen. I listened as she dragged the chair indoors and came stalking up the stairs.
“He’s turned it off,” she declared, like Barack Obama announcing the satisfactory conclusion of the Bin Laden mission.
“I lay there wondering how I was going to spend the rest of the summer and the rest of my life making sure that I never ever bumped into John in the street again.
Then her parents arrived. Her father’s a splendid old Irishman but these days perhaps just a little hard of hearing. He is given to afternoon naps, which means he stays up later into the night than is entirely desirable, catching up on entirely worthless TV shows. That night my wife and I lay in bed, listening to the sounds of bad dialogue booming through the house.
“He has to turn it down,” I said.
“So tell him,” she said.
“He’s your father, you tell him.”
“The show’s nearly finished.”
“How can you tell it’s nearly finished?”
“Their voices are getting all shouty.”
“They’re not getting shouty, he’s turned the volume up. Oh god, now he’s turning it up some more.”
“Maybe if we close the window?”
I jumped out of bed and went to the window and I froze – there across the way, at his window, was John, in his pyjamas, an expression like Winston Churchill.
Oh no. Oh no!
He thinks we’re retaliating.
“No, John, we’re not doing it on purpose!” I cried, and I can only imagine how I looked to him, eyes popping, face contorted, yelling soundlessly through two panes of glass.
“John, wait, I’m not –”
Too late. The bulldog spirit had come over him. Eyes narrowed, jowls clenched, he swished the curtains shut.
Right now it’s all quiet on the western front of my property, but how long can it last? I’ve laid in stocks of bully-beef and gin, enough to last a siege. If I had children, I would evacuate them. I think we’re going to need a bigger wall.
Times, 27 October 2016