February 16, 2009

Neighbours don’t always play a huge part in people’s lives and I have certainly lived in some houses where I would have been hard pushed to name the people next door – but sometimes they do. When I was a child, living in a large house, which I didn’t think of large because I didn’t know any better, we lived next door to a paint salesman who had made a small fortune (very stupid phrase, a fortune is big) by selling paint, not in small tins, but in whatever containers you need to paint ships. He had gone on to play the stock market like as if it was a rigged fruit machine, and, as a result, his conversation tended to revolve rather endlessly around the subject of money.

He looked, to me, like Phil Silvers (Bilko), and his wife, who was a spectacular person, like Lucille Ball. So you can see what we watched on TV in the late 1950s. The physical similarity was slight – he had a bald head, and wore glasses (and was forever angsting about money), and she was tall, elegant, and just a little ditsy (but not a redhead). I ought to admit that they have popped into my head because the same web-site that has yielded me scores of wartime radio broadcasts has also just turned up, for free, pretty well every radio broadcast Lucille Ball made between 1948 and 1951. (The original sjow was not I Love Lucy but My Favorite Husband.) A friend says I’ll never listen to them all. A friend is wrong. I will go to bed early for the next decade IF I AM SPARED and try to work my way through the backlog.

In those days, a child called an adult friend of a parent ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’. I don’t know how many years this had been going on, only that it died out with my generation. So my next door neighbour was Auntie Mary, and she played a starring role in my childhood, forever coming round to visit my mother (her children, one of whom was another Bill, were a few years older). Auntie Mary arrived with a discreet whiff of posh perfume and a cigarette on. The only thing that stopped her talking, and she was a terrific talker, was her chain-smoking. She arrived at any hour, tapping on the back door with her perfectly manicured fingernails – on one occasion, to tell my mother that Marilyn Monroe had been found dead. (That called for an extra cup of instant coffee.)

What she brought into my mother’s life in particular was a mixture of humour and glamour (she left bright red lipstick kisses on you, which is any nine-year-0ld boy’s definition of glamour). She was an incorrigible gossip. You wouldn’t have trusted her with a secret any more than you would have entrusted The Wicked Witch of the West with your children. She liked to laugh huskily over the events of her life – huskily because of the cigarettes, which were what did for her in the end, and not in a good way: she lost her tongue to them, perhaps the cruellest thing that could have occurred to a woman to whom talk was a way of life.

Sometimes I probably showed a bit too much affection to Auntie Mary, and the task of making my birthday cake fell to her after I had foolishly said I liked her cakes better than those of my mother. That must have hurt! I was always lip-loose like that. I am more discreet these days – not much, but I do try.

At Christmas, she and her husband would come round and down great quantities of whisky and gin (if I make my childhood seem like living in one long middle-class binge, then I have only told the truth). Auntie Mary would arrive with some stock-market-profit jewellery, and would say airily that it had come out of a cracker. In truth, she and her husband didn’t see perfectly eye to eye, and she revenged herself by buying a dachsund, which she called George, on the grounds that it was her husband’s middle name, and he didn’t like it (the name, although he loathed the dog, too – as did everybody who came within ear-shot, never mind sight, of the thing).

But her husband eventually needed a tax haven, and took her away to the Isle of Man. She hated it. New neighbours came along. We didn’t ever really know their names.