I was leaving my flat earlier today (*checks clock*) yesterday, and I happened to coincide with two of my neighbours standing on the landing having a chat. There are 6 flats on the floor of my building, and these are the two neighbours I know best. Not that I would say I know them well, but we exchange cards at christmas, and say hello to each other if we happen to pass. Both of these neighbours are – how shall I put this politely? – of the elderly female persuasion.
We did the usual exchange of hellos, they said that they hadn’t seen me for a while, and asked if I was ok to which I, inevitably, replied ‘Fine’. (Some questions people don’t want you to answer honestly.) I responded by asking how they were, and they replied by saying they weren’t feeling too good, and were talking about how they ‘can’t get out so much these days’. (Little old ladies are exempt from the ‘questions you don’t want people to answer honestly’ rules.) The younger (or, at least, younger-looking) of the two went on to say, ‘It’s just old age’, and I somehow managed to fire up my ‘Basic Social Interaction v 3.1’ software to initially express concern that they weren’t feeling well, and when the ‘it’s just old age’ line was repeated in a this is supposed to be a joke way I managed to reply with ‘Well, you said it, not me!’, which was the kind of bantering reply they were hoping for, and we all laughed appreciatively.
And then I sacrificed six goats and a cockerel to the Gods of the Lift Shaft, and for a wonder they answered my prayer and opened the doors, and I was able to escape from my first social interaction in months. But it’s not the social interaction that’s bothering me.
The thing is, I know what I should have said. I should have offered that, if they ever needed anything fetching in – like, say, shopping, or a prescription – then they should let me know, and I’d be happy to get it for them. I’m reasonably certain they would have turned me down flat (little old ladies tend to be fiercely independent around here), but it would have meant that, if they did need something at some point in the future, perhaps in the bad weather, they would have felt more able to ask. I know them well enough to make the offer in a way that would make them think ‘what a nice young man’ rather than ‘what a patronising little shit’, or at least I think I do. And this is, of course, the sort of thing that good neighbourliness is all about, and other things being equal I would genuinely mean that I would be happy to help them out.
But other things aren’t equal. I didn’t make the offer because I couldn’t run the risk of having them become dependent on me, because I can’t guarantee that I will always be able to do what they need. I have periods of time when I can’t go out, or when I can only leave the flat after dark. I have periods of time when I’d be inclined to regard them as part of some terrible conspiracy trying to get at me, and probably couldn’t even bring myself to talk to them, let alone anything more. Making genuine offers to help people, but then folding up like a piece of wet cardboard at the crucial moment, is a fairly common behaviour pattern for me. It’s not something I intend, but, you know – the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. At least I’m learning to recognise the pattern, and not to make promises I may not be able to live up to, although none of that makes me feel any less guilty.
Anyway, this isn’t the end of the world for my neighbours. The younger of them has a daughter who pops in regularly, and she seems to keep an eye on both of them. Of the other neighbours on our landing, two are a dead loss – one because they only seem to be in the flat about 1 day in 30, the other because, even though they’re very friendly and nice, they really don’t speak enough English – but the third are well established, and friendly, and likely to be ready to help. I’m not seriously worried that either of them will turn into one of those dreadful ‘she lay dead for 5 years and no-one knew’ cases that make the news from time to time.
But looking at it another (less serious) way, it brings home to me how little I can do. Even something as natural, as spontaneous, as making a casual offer to help an elderly neighbour is beyond me. This is how much of a failure as a human being I have become.