Neighbourhood Watch

Shutterstock / Edge Creative © Garden illustration for uplifting short story Neighbourhood Watch


It’s the folk quietly keeping an eye out for each other who are the truest friends, even if they don’t see it themselves

“I’m taking some stuff to the dump today, Sarah – would you like me to drop off anything for you?”

Jack had folded down the seats in his car and was cramming in an old desk chair, a broken-down bookshelf and lots of cardboard packaging that had been left behind when his new washing machine got delivered.

Sarah had been on her way to meet a friend for coffee when her ever-helpful neighbour had called across to her. Bless Jack! He was such a kind man and actually, now that he mentioned it, Sarah had an old duvet to get rid of – the charity shops no longer accepted bedding – so offloading it at the dump would be very handy.

“That’s a very kind offer, Jack! How would you feel about taking an old duvet away for me? I got new beds put in the spare room for the grandchildren so I don’t need the big bulky quilt any more.”

Jack smiled.

“No problem at all, Sarah. If you bring it downstairs, I’ll get it into the back of the car with the rest of this stuff.”

As Sarah nipped back upstairs, she thought about how lucky she was to have a next-door neighbour like Jack. Always helpful, yet never intrusive, he often did small favours for her.

In return, Sarah occasionally dropped off half a dozen scones that she’d baked, or some leftover lasagne.

Yet despite living next door to each other for over twenty years, Sarah didn’t really think of Jack as an actual friend. Yes, they were always friendly and polite to each other, and exchanged pleasantries whenever they met on the street, but they’d never reached the stage where they had coffee together or shared lunch.

Perhaps if their children had been younger when they’d first moved into the street, but Sarah and Paul’s boys had been in their teens while Jack and Ellen’s two had had already grown up and left home by then.

It was easier when children were smaller, when friendships were made simply by plonking a gang of toddlers on a picnic blanket in the garden with juice and crisps, or by heading to the park together with a bat and ball.

Instead, the neighbours had maintained distance and privacy, albeit very politely, and after all this time, it would perhaps seem faintly ridiculous to suddenly strike up a friendship.

Sarah’s husband had died a few years earlier and now, at the age of sixty-eight, she’d become used to life as a widow.

It was after Paul’s death, and without saying anything, that Jack had begun doing occasional chores for Sarah – taking her bins in and out of the driveway on the required days, pulling up weeds that suddenly sprouted in her flower beds and mowing the little patch of grass that was her front lawn.

She always thanked him, offered him a cup of tea or a cold drink, but it was as though any potential friendship couldn’t get beyond that first step.

“Looks like we might be getting rain later, Jack,” Sarah would comment. Or “Those trees at the back fence are getting big,” Jack would say.

Then Jack’s wife, Ellen, had died a year ago after a long illness. And suddenly, the two neighbours were the only ones left in their previously busy family homes, together in widowhood but ultimately both alone.

Sarah’s husband had always been of the mindset that people should keep themselves to themselves and had never been a fan of “unnecessary socialising”, particularly in his later years, so she had simply gone along with this.

However, since becoming a widow, she’d discovered, to her surprise, that she actually very much enjoyed socialising. As a result, she now belonged to a book group, a choir and an aquarobics class. Not to mention the two days of childminding she did for her grandchildren, as well as her volunteering at a charity shop.

All in all, she was busier (and perhaps happier?) than she’d been in years.

Which made her feel even more sorry for Jack, with Ellen gone. She knew that men left alone when their wives died often struggled to cope, probably more so than women in the same situation. Women were just more capable!

In the end, Sarah decided to just get on with her own life, all the while keeping an eye on Jack, making sure he took his newspaper out of the door every morning and hung his washing on the line during the day and occasionally took his car out of the drive to go shopping.

“Nice weather for a bit of gardening, Jack,” she’d say if they spotted each other, and Jack would smile and comment that it was time to get started on the bedding plants again.

Sarah looked after her two grandchildren on Mondays and Thursdays as her son and daughter-in-law were both back at work, and though the days were exhausting, she adored having babies in the house again.

Molly was three and Rory had just turned one and they were the sweetest, funniest children, full of cuddles and laughter and cute conversation.

Her two days a week with them were often a blur of activity, with trips to the park, swimming lessons for Molly, walks on the beach and picnics here, there and everywhere. Other days, they just pottered about in the back garden, which was where they were when young Molly had found the mysterious ball…

“Look, Granny,” she said seriously. “A yellow ball. Not ours. Can we keep it?”

Sarah looked at the squashy foam ball, which looked new.

“Hmm, I wonder where that came from?” she said. “Could a bird have dropped it into our garden?”

Molly looked amazed.

“Do birds play with toys, too?”

Sarah had laughed and hugged her sweet little granddaughter.

“No, not exactly, darling, but they sometimes pick up and drop things when they’re looking for food or bits and pieces for their nest.”

Molly nodded in understanding.

“So, can we keep it?” she asked.

And so the ball had ended up in Molly and Rory’s toy box.

A week or so later, Sarah was loading up the washing machine and making the children some drinks as they ran about the garden when Molly suddenly appeared at the back door.

“Granny, I think maybe the yellow ball belongs to the little girl next door.”

Sarah looked up and smiled.

“That can’t be right, darling,” she said. “There aren’t any children next door.”

But just then, she heard the shriek and giggle of a child’s voice, which was definitely coming from Jack’s garden.

Molly and Rory ran over to the fence but it was too high to see over, so Sarah popped up on her garden bench to peer over into Jack’s garden.

And there was her old neighbour, swinging a cute little blonde girl around by her arms as she yelled in delight.

Sarah laughed in surprise and without thinking about the usual polite distance between them, called over the fence.

Jack, who is that adorable little girl and where on earth did you find her?

Jack stopped spinning and turned, breathless, and holding the toddler, as he noticed Sarah at his back fence.

“Oh, hello, Sarah! How are you?” he gasped. “This is Beth, my granddaughter!”

Sarah grinned. “Ha! I didn’t know you had a granddaughter, Jack! Who does Beth belong to?”

As Jack started to explain, Sarah, without any plan or thought, invited him and Beth around to her garden.

“Come and have a coffee and tell me all about it, Jack! Beth can play with Molly and Rory…”

And so as easily as that, the two little groups merged into one, sitting in the sunshine in Sarah’s garden, with the children rolling around on her old picnic blanket, giggling and eating biscuits.

And Jack explained that Beth belonged to Ruth, his daughter, who “finally, at the age of forty-one”, had decided to have a child and had given birth to Beth eighteen months ago.

“Ellen and I had given up on the idea of having grandchildren, to be honest, so I was so happy she got to see this precious girl before she died…”

He paused for a minute as tears welled in his eyes, and Sarah felt her eyes filling up in sympathy. Then he smiled and continued.

“Well, you know what our two were like with their careers, and of course Rob is gay, so there’s less chance there.”

Sarah gulped her coffee as she listened, enthralled. She didn’t know anything about Jack’s children’s careers and she’d had no idea his son was gay.

“Anyway, Ruth had Beth, then decided it was time for them to leave London and move back here. She said she didn’t want her child growing up in the city, so her and her husband found new jobs in the area and bought a house a couple of miles away!”

Sarah smiled. “Jack, that’s lovely for you. So how often do you see Beth?”

He grinned.

“Well, that’s the thing – I think Ruth moved back here after Ellen died because she thought I needed looking after.” Sarah blushed as she realised she’d been thinking exactly the same. “Then when she saw I was actually coping OK with everything, she asked me if I could be Beth’s childminder two days a week while she went to work!”

They laughed at this development and then chatted easily, about life, and grandchildren, and being alone again.

“It’s funny,” Jack said, “because when Ellen was alive, we just kept ourselves to ourselves once the kids left home. But now that it’s just me – well, I’ve decided to make more of an effort.”

He told Sarah about how he’d joined the local historical society, and taken out a gym membership, and enrolled in an evening class and bought a bike…

“A bike!” Sarah laughed. “That sounds great fun, Jack! I’m not sure I’d be fit enough for that.”

Jack grinned. “I cheated – got an electric bike and it’s like having a superpower. I’ll give you a go on it, Sarah. It’s great!”

And as the children continued playing happily in the garden and Jack started up a baby game of football, using the squashy yellow ball, Sarah watched them and smiled and thought about how funny and strange and easy it was to make new friends.

Especially funny and strange and easy when they lived just next door.

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Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.