I live in a sleepy kind of neighbourhood, about 15 kilometres north of a big city. It consists of a group of eighty pastel coloured wooden terraced houses with small gardens, arranged in a rough circle. The people who live here are a mixed bag, with roots in about 30 different countries. They go to work, hand in the kids at the pre-school next door or drive them to a school further away, with a better reputation. At weekends they mow their lawns and invite friends and relatives over to enjoy a noisy grill party. The mixture of languages and exotic spices give the area a little cosmopolitan touch. People say it has a cosy atmosphere, but nothing ever happens here, or nothing remarkable.
At home with a head cold picked up from the grandchildren, I stood by an upstairs window, waiting for something to happen. I had a good view over the neighbourhood. The only movement was the gentle swaying of leaves in the autumn breeze. No, wait! Something stirred in the sand by the children’s playground, something white. I grabbed my binoculars and, of course, it was the ragged moggie from number 17, busy scratching sand over a dump it had left there. The sandpit served as a loo for all the local felines. Which perhaps explains why the kids never play there.
For want of something to do, I made a pot of tea and retreated to my armchair. The phrase “nothing ever happens here” rolled around in my head. I thought, is that really true? Judge for yourself.
The man on the steps
The pungent odour of kitchen waste hit me as I came downstairs early one Saturday morning in August. I had forgotten to put it out the night before. Sliding into my gym shoes I shuffled off to the communal rubbish bin, fifty yards away by our parking lot. It was about eight in the morning, the sun was shining but it was still cool after a clear night. The birds were singing but otherwise I didn’t meet a single living soul. The bin was a large, round container, sunk halfway into the ground and with a hinged lid. Mission completed, I closed the lid quickly and firmly, instinctively holding my breath.
On my way back, I noticed that the front door of one of the neighbours stood wide open. A three generation Kurdish family, originally from Turkey, lived there. I slowed down, ready to exchange a few neighbourly pleasantries. All was quiet. As I approached the house, I turned to look and saw the head of the family lying face down across the three concrete steps which led up to the front door. I ran up the garden path and saw that he had probably tripped over the threshold, fallen forward and landed on the outside steps. His eyes were open but he said nothing, just lay there all still. In one hand he held a cell phone aloft, as if protecting it. I ran up the steps and banged on the door. Eventually his wife hobbled out from the kitchen, looking startled when she saw him lying there. “We must lift him up!” I said, “get some help”. She turned inside and shouted something in a language I didn’t understand. His eldest son and granddaughter came crashing down the stairs and we managed to get the old man up on his feet. He was heavy, all of eighty, and a mite confused. The family took over, lifted him inside and closed the door firmly behind them, without as much as a “thank you”, as if to say: “This never happened, mind your own business!” “Took your time” said M back at home, “meet someone?” “No”, I said, “all still in bed, sleepyheads!”
A couple of months later I heard that the old man had died. His family never mentioned this to me when our paths crossed. I suspect they smuggled his body out late one night to avoid the neighbours. Nobody in the area noticed that he had gone.
“Forgot my keys”
It was a normal, uneventful start to another working day as I set off for the station. It usually took me seven minutes using a short cut. First I skirted the woods behind the house, took a left up a steep asphalt path which led through a small wooded area and then between low apartment buildings up to the station. Striding up the slope was part of my daily exercise programme, or so I told myself. I seldom met anyone.
This day was different. My morning routine was disturbed by loud footsteps coming my way, hitting the asphalt like castanets. I looked up. A slim youngish woman was half-running down the pathway, shoulder bag swinging freely and blonde hair billowing behind her like the mane of a galloping horse. A quick glance and I saw that she resembled one of the neighbours, despite the blossoming red cheeks. A second look, and yes, it was her.
She saw, too, that I recognised her. I was just about to say “Hello there” when I saw the desperation – or was it guilt – in her eyes. Without slowing down she squeezed past, breathing heavily and called out “Forgot my keys!” in too loud a voice. I almost stumbled, and then she was gone, in a hurry to get home. I stopped and half turned and saw her disappear behind the tree on the corner. She lived three houses down. I knew she had twins, one-year olds. They were presumably at home with their father.
What had I just witnessed? Where had she been? These questions occupied my thoughts as I continued on my way to the office. But, really, nothing had happened.
Two teenage lads were amusing themselves by setting fire to tubes of petroleum jelly in litter bins. They were brothers and this was the first sign that something was wrong. With them and their family, who lived in our neighbourhood. Not long after the lads had progressed to dealing, which developed into a serious business on a scale which attracted stream of cars and other traffic to the area. Neighbours complained about nocturnal “visitors”, but the police replied that there were a couple of hundred dealers in this part of town. The housing association said they couldn’t do anything either, and chose to turn a blind eye
A couple of year’s later things turned really nasty. Late one night, the older brother was sitting in the back seat of a car a few hundred yards from his home, with two “friends”, after a visit to a local restaurant. He pulled out a gun, killed them both and did a runner. Unfortunately for him he was seen and identified as he collected his getaway car from our garage. He was caught on his way to Denmark and is now in a safe place for many years to come. The police did a house to house and asked if we had seen anything. Most said “Nothing”. Two brave residents did provide information and one witnessed in court. They look over their shoulders ever since.
The younger brother carried on the business, but was himself the victim of a drive-by shooting outside a shopping centre not very long after. This had direct, serious consequences for our neighbourhood lasting over a month. Friends of the dead lad and the family organised a period of mourning. This involved a large number of visitors to the family home, paying their respects to the parents. Mourners of all ages were ferried in from far and wide. Residents from the same ethnic group were knocked up and advised to get their best suits on and pay their respects to the family too. A memorial with flowers, candles and photographs was built in the area, guarded by young men in sharp suits and expensive cars. This carried on for a month – the normal mourning period before a funeral could take place.
Residents who called the police about this invasion of their neighbourhood were told not to disturb the mourning or mourners, as this could provoke another shooting. The police were lying so low they were invisible. Apart that is from one overweight plain-clothes man playing computer games and eating cold take-aways in his car, at a comfortable distance from any possible action. The nose of the car pointed away from the neighbourhood, so he couldn’t see if anything happened – and to make a quick getaway. Nothing was going on, it seemed. For the police, nothing had happened.
Something did happen once which almost everybody noticed: somebody set fire to a couple of cars in our neighbourhood garage. Standard procedure amongst criminals is to set fire to getaway cars after a robbery or drive-by. Prints and dna don’t survive the heat. The two cars exploded and fire spread to the two-storey building, heavy concrete roof beams collapsed and the corrugated tin roof fell onto the cars below. Close on ninety cars were damaged, mostly by smoke and fumes. Some went straight to the scrap yard, others for reconditioning.
Most people in the area slept through the fire. A few, awakened by the sirens of the fire engines, assembled in silence to watch the flames. One well-known resident, stood out, by showing too much interest in the progress of the fire. No one said anything. For who would set fire to a car in their own garage?
Next morning there was an unmistakeable smell of burning plastic and rubber throughout the area. Neighbours hurried to check if their own car had been damaged. “Who will pay? Where will I park my car?” were the questions uppermost in their minds. Nobody asked, Who did this? Or Why? Those who did know kept mum.
The day after the fire, a police car drove up and parked on a patch of land next to the garage ruins in a display of presence and to promote safety. It was a sunny spring day and the three police took the opportunity to do a little sunbathing, languishing against the car. I went and had a word, showed a photo of a strange car that I had seen near the garage before the fire. They showed little interest. I went home, as though nothing had happened.
After going through the usual motions for a couple of days the police closed the case, the third garage fire in the area that year. As victims we were all advised to contact our insurance companies, and were provided with relevant documentation. The housing association was left with a partially collapsed two-storey garage and disruption to utilities: internet, water supply and area heating were all damaged. Ninety car owners had to find alternative parking space for the next half year. In the area, we know who did it, but nobody wants to talk about it.
The man who disappeared
He lived in one of the larger houses in our neighbourhood. But then he had a load of kids to house. How many was a matter of speculation amongst neighbours. We could only count them as they were shepherded to or from school. I saw the man almost every day, morning and evening, on his way to the garage swinging a battered brown attaché case. He was the only person in the area who wore a suit and trenchcoat every day. I liked him. He always smiled and said hello, and turned up at annual meetings of the housing association. He didn’t say anything, but most people didn’t. On one occasion he helped a young girl who jumped off a nearby footbridge, in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.
Then all of a sudden he disappeared. Not in any dramatic way, he was just no longer around.
The family still lives in the large house, but the man is nowhere to be seen. The children marched off to school as usual and all seemed normal. Nobody in the area talked about the missing man – most probably didn’t notice that he had disappeared. To most of the neighbours, nothing had happened.
Time passed, and he didn’t show up. I noticed a trickle of visitors to the house, strangers, who took the kids out sometimes. But nothing was said.
Several months after his disappearance, I received a phone call from someone who said she was calling from the Financial Police Department. Not an everyday occurrence. She asked a couple of questions about the missing man, which I answered. Then she told me not to tell anyone about the phone call. I didn’t.
The man has still not been seen at all, and nobody asks why. At first there were rumours, of course, and perhaps his family know what has happened. The people in the neighbourhood go about their business as usual, as though nothing worth talking about has happened.
Nothing ever happens here in our neighbourhood!