14 Dec 2012

The message in the basket: Talk to your neighbour!

I never heard the whistle. I did not even know there WAS a whistle. But as I was passing my local newsagent yesterday morning he was just coming out of the doorway of his shop armed with a copy of the Daily Mirror. “Here”, he said, “wait here and watch”. I looked up at the tall Victorian block of flats opposite in time to see a window opening on the first floor.

Very soon a little basket emerged as the lace curtain billowed in the breeze, I glimpsed an arm and a hand unravelling string as the basket descended to the waiting arms of my newsagent. He folded the Mirror and placed it into the basket, extracting a tiny package of something wrapped in tinfoil.

The string tightened and the basket ascended back to the open window. As it was taken in, a sweet looking elderly woman, with a winding of grey hair, a ribbon and pretty grey silk scarf emerged at the window and waved delicately to me. I waved back. The window closed, and my newsagent retreated, elated, to his shop.

Later I went back to see him, to ask who the lady at the window was, and how this sweet service worked. I have known him for years, he’s a Kenyan Asian and has battled to revive the Swahili I once knew when I did VSO in Uganda. “Jambo Bwana! She blows a whistle when she wants something”, my newsagent said.

He added: “She’s 94, Italian, and a lovely lady.” She wraps in tinfoil whatever she owes.

Just as he’d finished telling me, an evidently Italian man came in for stamps. I found myself telling him the story. He wasn’t surprised at all. “That’s the way it is in Italy”. I found myself musing about community and ethnicity and delighting in the possible. Is there anywhere else we could forge so lightly strung a relationship?

It was as I collected my Miso soup from further along the road that I had my second delight of the day. A family of three sitting at a table as I queued to pay. The father got up and said: “My wife and daughter are too shy to talk to you, but each time we have been to the Eastman Dental Hospital we have seen you somewhere around here”, he said. “I work round here”, I said.

Riskily I asked about their teeth. It turns out Mum and daughter have a rare condition in which they only have baby teeth – no second teeth. The baby teeth do last longer than ours, but eventually they have to have implants – painful and expensive, but in their rare condition, the NHS provides.

“My teeth are fine” said the father. They might not be, given his job. He’s an electrical engineer closing down Bradwell Nuclear Power Station on the east coast. I learned so much about teeth, radiation and heavy concrete in just five minutes of exchanges.

A paper in a basket, the infamy of television, our intriguing nuclear legacy, and talking to one’s neighbour. Perhaps we should all do a whole lot more of it before we retreat completely into our keyboards!

Tweets by @jonsnowC4