I’m not one to complain…

SEPTEMBER 10 04

I have a couple of professional orchestra musicians living next door, upper flat, their kitchen window looks down into my kitchen window in the well between the houses. He plays double bass and she plays violin. Well it's a supposition on my part that he plays double bass, I've never heard it, he may just like carrying a double bass case around looking serious. When they have their friends round for dinner, all the chatter through the open windows is about orchestras and recitals. It's the same when I hear him on the phone. All the music they play on their hifi is classical. Their bookshelves are crammed full of sheet music and scores, which I see walking down the road when the light is on in their front room and they haven't lowered the blinds.

As for other interests, it appears sparse. I gathered once from an overheard conversation while I was chopping mint that he can do things with a chicken breast and a dab of garlic butter, but that generally theirs is a household where there is a certain waiting time for defrosting, though they buy the right sort of poncey lettuce at the supermarket for salads and probably imagine they know a thing or two about good food. From their conversation I would guess they know enough to at least impress anyone who struggles to form an instant mental picture of, say, chard. Borderline gourmet snobs who can't actually cook, I have them down as. There ought to be an acronym for that. They have an annoying electronic metronome that plays a duet with a pinging microwave.

More details: He's standoffish and hasn't exchanged a word with me in 4 years, since they moved in. He's a bald-headed sardonic American, never smiles, doubtless well-known in the world of the double bass; she sounds Eastern European and probably lives in his creative shadow. There are arguments about whether feta is best crumbled or diced. If it is not crumbled he doesn't want any salad, but he'll have some if it is. 'Are you hungry or not?' she says. 'It's not whether I'm hungry,' he replies, 'it's whether it's crumbled or diced.' On this, though it irks me to say it, I feel he has a point.

She said hello once, when it was forced upon her. She came out to sit in the sun about 2 years ago while I was out pegging washing on the line. She gave the impression that she was sneaking out, their back door had been firmly closed for 2 years. They hardly use the garden, upper-flat dwellers rightly feel intimidated by lower-flat gardeners. I naturally said hi, though held back on 'so you made it to the garden then'. She was taken off-guard perhaps, 'washing'll be dry in no time in this weather,' she said. 'Yes, warm isn't it?' I decided to forgo pegging my pants out while she was talking to me, dry them indoors. There was a bit of small-talk.

She seemed quite pleasant I must say. Better than him. I was in a photocopy shop once xeroxing part of a book on ancient China when I noticed he was at the photocopier directly facing me. He was photocopying sheets of music. I would have said hi, but it seemed pointless as we'd been walking past each other in the street for a few years studiously ignoring each other, an extended proximity was just a variation on the theme. Generally, I greet neighbours when walking by, but he prefers to blank them. He is not the type to exchange meaningless pleasantries in the street merely because a person happens to live next door. No argument there, it's more the offhand way he doesn't do it. I get the impression he deems people who aren't in orchestras to be quite beneath him. I'm guessing, could be people in orchestras just don't talk to people who aren't in orchestras, and he is merely conforming to type. Of course, I haven't overlooked the fact that he is an American, and may have no idea how to behave in a civilised country. Although I rather think many Americans would find him just as 'up himself', as we say here, as I do. Unless they were in an orchestra. It's amusing to think that for all I know I may actually be describing a very famous internationally acclaimed double bassist, and anyone in an orchestra would instantly recognise him from my description. I have no idea, to me he's just the prat next door.

For a few weeks after I had said hi to her in the garden, I thought to myself, what if I am walking down the road and they're both coming towards me together, do I say hi to her and ignore him? Once he crossed the street to avoid me at precisely the same time I decided to cross the street to avoid him. When I saw him crossing I just went back. It didn't seem to matter any more.

I didn't know she played violin until recently, I thought she was an opera singer. Before the violin it was the human voice, although at first I wasn't sure where the noise was coming from and suspected the white-haired old lady on the ground floor was fond of belting it out while going round with the feather duster. I haven't heard her singing lately, not since I saw her that time pegging out my washing and I happened to say: 'Is that you I hear singing sometimes?' She blushed and said: 'Yes, sorry.' And I said: 'Oh no, it's… very interesting.' For the past couple of weeks she's been practicing her violin in the kitchen from 10 in the morning till 7 in the evening. I thought it was him at first, until I heard a female grunt during the fifth repeat of a particularly expressive passage. The rest-break of sweet silence rarely lasts longer than it takes to toss a pre-washed leaf salad and tip croutons out of a packet. Hot days, all the windows open. People live too close together in London. Still, a mite inconsiderate to the neighbours I thought. But, despite my periodically shouting out, apparently to no-one in particular, perhaps just to a stray cat, such things as 'Shut the fuck up' and 'Give it a rest why don't you?', I'm not one to complain. I have been known to shout out loud at the old lady's long-haired tortoiseshell: 'Why don't you shit in your own garden?' No reason for the musicians to respond.

Yesterday, awoken again with too little sleep by that torturous little instrument, I conceived a philosophy of making every single thing serve a personally useful purpose, and I thanked the damn violin for changing my sleeping habits, especially as it was a nice sunny day. Later, driven out the house on my bike for a ride down the towpath, past the marshes and filter beds, I sat looking at the sun sparkling on the green pond scum skimmed by low-flying dragonflies and reflected: were it not for that violin I may not be here right now, I may not have got back into riding my bike, first time in 3 years I do believe.

But as I was sitting reading a book in the garden this morning listening to the violin I was no longer grateful. This philosophy wasn't going to last. Rather I was gritting my teeth against a rising tide of anger, unable to concentrate on my reading, the peace of the garden disturbed. I consulted the I Ching about what it thought of me going round there and telling them to put a sock in it with the bloody violin because it was driving me crazy and I couldn't rule out bloodshed. It didn't think it was such a good idea. Then this lunchtime I hit upon the answer: Turkish radio full blast in the kitchen with the back door wide open. I had tried a Rammstein CD for a while, but didn't think it was sufficiently annoying. Turkish commercial radio I suspected would get the message across better. Great ads in Turkish, just right for blaring out. I was particularly amused by the ads for the 'Venus Cash & Carry'. There is no Turkish equivalent for 'cash & carry' it seems. After the first 10 minutes of that the violin stopped. I thought they'd got the message, so I turned the radio off and back to the peaceful birdsong and breeze rustling the leaves in the trees. But 10 minutes later the violin was back, so I switched the radio on again, even louder, and treated them to 2 hours of Turkish radio full blast. I was hoping the American gent might have the gall to come round and complain.

This is how the conversation went in my head: 'You've got some nerve haven't you? A beautiful garden in the sunshine is not to be polluted with the shrieking wail of a practicing violin day after day, even if she has got a fucking concert coming up, since some of us think the birds alone are worth listening to and the music you are so kindly making me a forced audience for is just a noise disturbing the day.' He cringes at the self-recognition, he knows I am right, he knows he has sinned against the peace and sanctitude of the garden. So much for his refined tastes, he is nothing more than a noise polluter and nuisance neighbour and he's lucky he hasn't ended his life with a kitchen knife through his heart.

But he didn't come round.

After 2 hours tapping my feet to Turkish music in the lounge I go into the kitchen to make a pot of tea and turn the radio off. Dimly permeating the silence, the quiet and hardly discernable murmur of a violin, kitchen window closed. Success! But as I take my cup of tea out into the garden I soon discover they haven't closed the bathroom window, left it open for a breeze through the flat, and you can still hear the violin in the garden, albeit a little quieter, a little more tolerable by the taste otherwise of victory. Good neighbourliness will accept reasonable compromise. For now. The noise finally stops just before the sun sets gloriously large and orange behind a distant tree on the shore of the reservoir, and I listen as a gull circles like a jester buzzard cackling maniacal jeering seaside laughter owning the sky and I part my lips in a spontaneous smile of fellow feeling and a chevron of honking Canada geese suddenly comes in stretched wide over the roof with a low swoosh overhead to join the hundreds already grazing in the playing fields. As I walk back to the kitchen I notice not only are their windows closed but their blinds are lowered too, out of fear of catching my eye, I like to think, because it may be evil.