Recently I discovered a fantastic Twitter account called Very British Problems which documents those moments of social awkwardness that we believe only afflict us as a nation (I have had it confirmed by friends in Ireland that it’s exactly the same for them, too).
There is some terrific stuff on there but the further down the page I read the more I realised that my enjoyment was underpinned by a growing sense of recognition. This hilarious lexicon of mild-mannered inner torment was practically my autobiography.
I fear, however, that I may have embarked on a saga of etiquette awkwardness that goes way beyond the remit of that Twitter account; a situation already on an accelerating downward spiral whose hard landing I can only guess at but may involve me having to move house.
Last autumn I moved back to London and into a nice flat on the top floor of a small block where we share a tiny landing with the flat opposite. For the first few weeks we’d hear the person who lived there coming and going and, doubtless, he heard us. We never bumped into him and, of course, the more time that passed the bigger deal the inevitable crossing of paths became.
I didn’t like to knock and introduce myself, partly because it would have been, you know, unforgivably forward, but mainly because whenever I thought of it, it was always potentially at a bad time for him: he’d have just got in from work, he was having his dinner, he might be watching a television documentary he’d been looking forward to all week, he’s probably ill in bed, that kind of thing.
So far all pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, but this crisis of neighbourly etiquette would escalate dramatically at Christmas. We went back to Ireland for a few days and when we returned there was a handwritten note on the door dating from before the season of goodwill.
“Hi,” it said. “I took in a parcel for you. I’m going away for Christmas on the 23rd but if I don’t see you before then I’ll leave it in the electricity meter cupboard. Best, [name] [flat number]”
Of course any rational person would have a) checked the electricity meter cupboard there and then given it was right next to them, and/or b) gone straight over and knocked with the note still in their hand. But no, I went into the flat, put the note on the side in the kitchen and commenced a period of anxious fretting that increased in intensity with each passing day.
One night I plucked up the courage to check the electricity cupboard, waiting until it was very late before creeping out like a cat burglar in case he heard me.
No parcel.
This meant one of two things: either he still had the parcel or he’d put the parcel in the cupboard but it had been stolen while we’d all been away over Christmas.
The obvious course of action was, of course, to knock and ask. I couldn’t really do that though for the reasons outlined above involving work, dinner, television documentaries and bed.
There was now an added factor, though: if it turned out the parcel had been stolen and I knocked to enquire after it he might think I was accusing him of being the thief.
All this ruled out any question of ever knocking on his door as long as I lived and within a week or so I’d given up hope of ever seeing the parcel. It was part of my girlfriend’s Christmas present but, well, you know, I was clearly in a quite impossible position. She’d appreciate that.
I tried to come up with a way around it, even considering contacting the supplier, claiming the package had never arrived and asking them to send a replacement – I’d reached a stage where actually committing fraud seemed a more rational and appealing prospect than briefly troubling my neighbour.
Anyway, about two weeks ago, there was a tentative tap at our door. I opened it and a nervous-looking young man was standing there holding a parcel.
“Hi,” he said, holding out a small cardboard box, “I, um, took this parcel in for you before Christmas”.
“Oh, wow, great, thanks!” I replied a little too loudly and trying my hardest to look like this was the first I knew of it. This involved doing some weird movements with my eyebrows and vastly overplaying my surprise and gratitude to the extent that he must have thought I was either taking the piss out of him or off my face on drugs.
He turned to go. I grasped the nettle and blurted out, “I’m Charlie, by the way.” “Oh,” he said and told me his name which I proceeded to completely mispronounce when I replied that it was nice to meet him. I could tell he’d thought fleetingly about correcting me but decided against it.
We both went in and closed our doors.
It was an excruciating encounter; so much so that three hours later my girlfriend finally found me, squeezed inside a kitchen cupboard, gnawing on my knuckle and whimpering.
Yesterday morning I went out to get the papers. As I opened the flat door to leave, my neighbour opened his at exactly the same time. We caught sight of each other briefly and both half-closed our door hoping the other hadn’t noticed. We both stood behind our respective doors for a moment. Then he closed his. I rushed out and got the papers.
An hour later my girlfriend returned home from staying the night with a friend. She’d forgotten her keys so buzzed the downstairs intercom. I opened the flat door ready to welcome her home and, wouldn’t you know it, my neighbour opened his at exactly the same time. Again we caught sight of each other briefly, again we both half-closed our door hoping the other hadn’t noticed and again we both stood behind our respective doors for a moment.
I couldn’t close our door because my better half was on her way up the stairs and would be here any second. He couldn’t close his because he’d done exactly that when this had happened earlier and feared looking like he was some kind of weirdo who had to open his front door every hour to reassure himself his flat hadn’t launched itself unilaterally into space.
In these brief seconds I knew we’d both have considered and discarded every possible way of avoiding having to interact. But one of us had to do something.
It was me who broke the deadlock, barking a noise that sounded something like, “hahahahahahhahawright?” and giving a strange little wave. He made a similarly strangulated noise in response.
At that moment my girlfriend appeared at the top of the stairs. I reached out and practically bundled her inside.
Both our doors closed.
Both of us are now scanning the ‘properties to let’ pages.
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