My mother always said she never needed a psychiatrist because she always had good neighbours. Of course in those days, we didn’t know much about mental illness, and I doubt that she ever seriously considered psychiatry, but it is an indication of how important the ladies next door were in her life.
Our first next door neighbour was Mrs Sheen, a kindly, but slightly intimidating New Zealander. Her bald husband bore a striking resemblance to the animated figure who encouraged housewives to “wax and polish as you dust” with the product bearing his name. There was a gap in the fence between the two houses and I remember slipping through and helping Mrs Sheen fold washing, and then being given cordial and cake. In retrospect she was helping Mum deal with my “difficult” younger brother and perhaps filling her own day while her own children were at school.
In my teens we moved house, and Mum was lucky to have another good neighbour in Joan Barnes. Much of their conversation was carried out over the side fence, as they shared tales of difficult husbands – both drinkers – and teenage children. Gradually they moved on to share cups of tea in one house or the other, and by the time both men had died and we children had left home, it was often a brandy before dinner.
They both had their own circle of friends who only mixed occasionally. But when Joan decided it was time to swap her three story house for a level apartment, which she bought off the plan, Mum soon followed. She said it was because she found herself doing the ironing instead of gardening – not the other way round as had been her practice – but it was also a recognition of how important the friendship was to her. The pre-dinner brandies and cups of tea continued, and when Mum uncharacteristically wasn’t answering her phone one morning, I rang Joan, who found her body and sat with her until my brother and I could get there.
With women spending less time at home, and many other options available for forming friendships, I wonder how many people form close and lasting friendships over the back fence.