Last week, my favourite neighbour died.
Frank was a huge part of why I love where we live. A 60’s estate – it’s certainly not the most chic of locations.
No postcode envy, as Lorde would put it. But it’s a real community of a place – a place where children have grown up and played outside on the greens and trees, the remnants of a once-great orchard and the legacy of a bold mood of residential planning where open plan living and grass and shared public spaces were seen as crucial. A place where many people have lived happily for a long time. The houses are not beautiful or elegant, and I miss high ceilings and fireplaces and Victorian brick with a dull ache sometimes, but really, it’s low-cost housing at its best. It is families and students and retired people and a beautiful jumble of people. I’ve grown to love its un-homogenous air more fiercely than I thought I would.
I often saw Frank out in his front garden. He was a devout gardener, always attending to some tiny detail or other, always tweaking. Always smiling, and always happy to stop and chat.
It’s looking lovely, Frank! I would shout from my bike or stop to remark as I walked past.
Oh, it’s getting there, he’d say, straightening up and frowning slightly, like it was never finished and never quite right, although it was always immaculate.
We would talk about the weather, holidays, the children, houses. Small talk, but it was never an effort.
I’d watch him and his wife walk up the road hand in hand, always smiling, and think that there was no greater advert for marriage than those two; quietly in love after all those years; after children, after a lifetime.
I once turned up at their house with all three children in tow – hot, cross and a bit tearful – one of the many times I managed to forget my keys and get us locked out. They invited us in and gave the children a drink, let me use their phone. They told me about their family, they made me a cup of tea in a mug that reminded me of my Nana and Grandad’s house.
After that I gave them our spare key, and Frank gave me theirs’.
The children grew to understand how nice it was to know their neighbours. They’d stop and say hello too, and wave. Frank’s house became a reference point for various things (that poor dead hedgehog that was near Frank’s house, the snow-blossom tree near Frank’s house). So much of what we tell children about talking to adults is wrapped in ‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ – and I loved how they got to know it was OK to talk to people in our neighbourhood – even if they weren’t close friends. He was someone they knew but did not know, someone they could trust, and I loved that.
Now that they are older, my children play on the grass in front of our house – no cars, you see. They play on the green that used to be the orchard over the road, where they climb trees and cycle loops around the path (no road there, either.) We don’t have enough space inside our house and the bedrooms are teeny, but Will plays football and tennis with his friends right outside our house; we put a slide out there for a whole summer once and other kids came and played on it.
We don’t have a lovely big back garden with a trampoline like the children wanted for ages, but they can walk by themselves up to another lovely neighbour’s house and Tilly talks at her for hours. (I’m not sure how much of that is appreciated). My neighbour makes them orange squash in cups that she remembers having drinks out of at her uncle’s farm when she was a little girl.
My children live in the middle of a town, but they are learning how great neighbourhoods can be when you don’t live in constant fear of traffic. When you walk to school every day or go on your bike, and you can scoot to the park. When you don’t have to get in a car to go everywhere and you can do some things by yourself, even when you are six.
I would often meet Frank walking up the road and he would tell me all the places he was thinking about for holidays – and take the time to ask me about the children’s schoolwork, and schools and term dates and all of those things that seem inconsequential from the outside but really are the defining rhythm of days with young children.
I’ve been taking it all for granted, and moaning about how small the house is, and it took losing Frank to realise how good we have it here. How a big sitting room and a proper hallway is not really that important in the long run.
And how crucial the difference is between being always driven through your neighbourhood and walking through it.
I had never thought how important all of this would be.
And then one day last week, Frank died. One day he was out gardening, the next he was gone. We will really miss him. We’ll walk past his house every day and think of him. We’ll cycle past and it will still always be Frank’s house.
And I’ll always be glad to have known him, even just a bit, as neighbours, because he reminded me of how important community is; how important neighbourhoods are.
Farewell Frank. I trust you’ll be tutting at your tulips from somewhere right now – but let me tell you; they look pretty amazing to me.