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Love Thy Neighbour

Mark Simpson on the love that dare not draw the curtains

Relationships are difficult things to maintain in this day and age. Especially in the metropolis, where everyone’s too busy with their own life to find the time to share it with someone else.

But not for me. I’ve been successfully seeing someone for years. We recently had our tenth anniversary. And you know, I feel so proud of Us and so superior to those sad singlies out there who just can’t get it together. We have the perfect relationship. We never row. We give each other space. We don’t get jealous or possessive. We don’t ask too many questions. In fact, you could say that we live our own lives. And yet we always look to one another when one of us feels lonely or a bit blue.

The secret of our success? Well, apart from the fact that we’re obviously just much luckier, happier, less dysfunctional people than most, I think it has something to do with the fact that, like a lot of modern couples, we don’t live together, and aren’t always round each other’s flats, even though we’re just a stone’s throw apart.

Or maybe it’s something to do with the fact that we don’t know one another’s names. Or that we’ve never spoken. Or that we’ve never had sex. Or that we’ve never actually met.

The man in my life is my neighbour.

Looking back, it’s easy to see now that we were meant for one another. We have so much in common! For instance: we have the same postcode and we shop at the same newsagent. Spooky, eh? But the real clincher, the incontrovertible evidence that we were meant to share our lives is that he lives directly across the road from me, on the same floor.

Our relationship wouldn’t be possible if we lived in a working-class neighbourhood. Common people have these anti-social things called curtains in their windows. They treasure their privacy. It makes them feel middle class and semi-detached. Middle class people, on the other hand, like to feel aristocratic and landed, or at least a bit bohemian. They let their windows stare arrogantly and unblinking because they want to affect disinterest in the opinion of the world, and don’t want to acknowledge that there might be other people living within voyeuristic distance of them, even when they’re training zoom lenses on their neighbours’ bedrooms themselves.

It took me a while to learn this class fact of British window life. When I first moved into this neighbourhood I used to draw my curtains, twitching them the way I’d been brought up to when I wanted to spy on the neighbours. If I was actually caught at the window staring at someone—like, for instance, my silent movie boyfriend across the road—I’d duck beneath the sill and then crawl out of the living room on all fours. Or I’d suddenly pretend to be trying to remove a minute mark on the window pane with my fingernail. But no longer. I’ve become naturalised upper middle class. I had my curtains removed and I stare at my neighbours in broad daylight, scratching my balls while they stare back picking their noses.

I only really have eyes for one neighbour, my see-through sweetheart directly opposite. Thanks to a happy combination of topography and sociology we have shared each other’s lives for the past decade. We’ve witnessed each other’s triumphs and traducements. We’ve redecorated at least three times. We’ve seen our middles thicken and our hair thin. We’ve eaten pizza in front of the telly together in our underwear.

And never a bad word—or in fact a word of any kind—exchanged. Although we’ve passed in the street many, many times we’ve never actually met. This being London, I don’t think we’ve even looked one another in the eyes. The moment we see one another coming we become very interested in the pavement design or stoically fix our eyes on the middle-distance and walk quickly past holding our breath. In other words, we managed to incorporate some of the fun games into our relationship most people only get to play after they split up.

But yes, sometimes it hurts having to deny our love in this way. Sometimes I want to speak to him, to ask him his name, his star-sign, what kind of music he likes and why he bought that sofa. But I realise that it would be a mistake. Our love is conditional upon never knowing the answers to these questions. Even acknowledging that we know one another would be social disaster. Not least because if we ever spoke we’d have to put up curtains.

And then of course I have to think of his situation. He’s not ready to tell the world about Us. I think his family would find it hard to accept our relationship. And I suspect his girlfriend wouldn’t understand it either. People can be very narrow-minded and traditional, even in London. There’s so much prejudice directed at the love that dare not draw the curtains. People think that just because there’s a couple of panes of glass and a major road between you your relationship is somehow invalid, or not quite ‘normal’.

And before you accuse me of being a doormat here, let me just say that we both need our freedom: he has his girls and I have my boys. But when all’s said and done, we both know that these people we do humdrum, silly things with, like talk and touch, will come and go and that it is mute, chaste Us that endures. (And besides, we both like to watch, if you know what I mean).

Anyway, I don’t fancy the guy. Please. Just because you spend ten years staring at someone in their living room doesn’t mean you find them attractive. Ask any ordinary, non-window mediated couple. Our relationship isn’t about sex; it’s about mutual respect, genuine admiration, and a deeply-shared fear of commitment.

Oh, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t tried flirting with others from my window, like a buzz-cut Rapunzel. I’ve even tried to catch the eye of Family Fortunes TV game show presenter Les Dennis, who also lives on the other side of the road. But it isn’t the same. It doesn’t feel so special. Millions of others can watch him through glass in their living rooms and never get to speak to him. Plus, he’s a couple of doors down and I can’t see much of his flat.

Then there’s the guy with the odd floppy haircut and the beanpole body. For years I watched him come and go, fringe waving from side to side like one of those car-wash brushes after they stop spinning, and thought, ‘Oh, he’s a bit of a Bernard Butler clone.’ Then, one day, I saw him with a guitar case and realised that he actually was Bernard Butler. Which explained those anti-social shutters on his windows. Only a pop star would stoop to such a thing.

So I stick with my pane pal across the way. If only because I see more of him than anyone else. But I have to say, I don’t approve of his new girlfriend. She looks the kind that shops at Ikea.

In the blinds department.

(Originally appeared in Attitude, 1998 collected in Sex Terror)

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