Nothing in my life brings me to the conclusion that people are meant to live on top of each other. Fortunately my own experience of communal and sectional title living are not extensive, but the exposure I have had indicates over and over again that it doesn’t generally bring out the best in human nature.
Once my parents and I moved from Oribi Gorge, we lived in a series of flats in Durban for a couple of years : my dad was a member of the Durban Philharmonic Orchestra and Port Shepstone was a much longer trip away than it is on today’s N2. By the time the farm was sold, my brother had been born and we all moved to Botha’s Hill. This is where my first memories are based so I can’t comment on lifestyles that affected me prior to four or five years of age.
From then right through until I married in 1982, apart from my dad’s parents living sometimes in a wing of the same house, occasionally in their own house on the same property, for a short while independently of us, we always lived in free-standing homes a comfortable distance away from the neighbouring families. Of course, three generations living under one roof came with its own set of problems, but that isn’t the subject of this particular set of observations.
For the first eleven months of our marriage we lived in a small block of flats in central Pietermaritzburg next to Oxenham’s bakery, the site that now houses McDonald’s Burgers – famously in Burger Street. There were about fifteen flats in the building and we had very little to do with most of our neighbours as almost everyone had fulltime day jobs. With two exceptions, whether we liked it or not. On one side lived a young nurse who brought home what seemed a never ending string of overnight visitors. This was more information than I needed even at the time, but she was obviously a sharing kind of person and we were given frequent updates on the status of her living arrangements. The other neighbour is the one of whom I have fond memories. Mrs Templeton was already in her eighties and lived with her adult blind daughter. We used to exchange frequent brief chats but it never occurred to me how much Mrs Templeton knew of our lifestyle. Then one day during our daily exchange in the communal corridor I was lamenting an uncommon cold when I was surprised by our neighbour suggesting that maybe it was because I went to bed so late at night. This was actually far from the way it was on our side of the shared brick wall – but I had apparently washed dishes after visitors left two evenings earlier, leading to the suggestion I would benefit from some earlier nights. That was the first time I realised what grand expectations of privacy we have from fifteen centimetres of clay and plaster. We also had a close encounter with the caretaker when we acquired a kitten a month before we moved out. She had direct access to the garden and I don’t think either of us considered that her presence could cause ructions, especially as there were a couple of other residential cats who all rumbled along famously together. It was a relief to move into our own home in its own garden with neighbours a respectable, and mutually respectful, distance away.
This property had a sectional title development on one side and one of the original Scottsville houses formed a pan-handle behind us. The house had apparently been condemned by the local municipality and was in use as a digs until the owner was compelled to sell. This he did to developers who subsequently built another sectional title development on the land. Our little house still stands, I understand as a unit of the greater plan, but it appears to all intents and purposes to be independent. We were not willing to sell at first and I suspect the delay until we were offered a price that made it silly to resist resulted in the building going ahead without the demolition of our two-bedroomed home. However, back to things as they were when we moved in. Considering that we were quite far from either development, their lifestyles did impact on us to quite a degree.
The development below us consisted of eight units but they were situated further up the property with the postboxes immediately outside our bedroom window. This wasn’t as disruptive as it sounds and it was the spouse of the owner of the first unit who disturbed the peace from time to time. They were an elderly couple and, rather unsurprisingly, it appeared that the husband could have been mute. I think he made himself deaf too. There were a few interactions between the bored wife and ourselves but I don’t remember most of them, with one exception. Just in case she has lived to be one hundred and fifty, I will refer to her as Mrs P. It is likely that the husband has been deceased for some years in self-defence.
Our kitten had grown up to be a free-thinking cat and had been seen digging and performing bodily functions in Mrs P’s garden. The problem must have been conveyed to me directly over the boundary wall because I clearly remember saying to Mrs P that no amount of counselling on my part would impress the cat and it would be best if she threw water at the culprit while engaged in her dastardly hobby. Not even two weeks later the whole neighbourhood was pale and faint because of an unbearable reek that permeated everything. Having a vantage point, my spouse soon identified the source of the smell as Mrs P’s garden which was covered inches thick in compost. He was quite pithy in his description, opining that it had come directly from the municipal sewage works. There are not many memories of marriage that make me laugh openly but this led to one. My husband placed a note in the owner’s postbox the same evening. It merely said : “Mrs P, you complained about my cat!”
Working on campus at the time, I had a lot to do with students and generally enjoyed them. However, it was soon brought to bear on me that living next to them is quite another matter. It is quite likely they will appear in other blog posts but on this occasion it is the digs parties that occupy the space. We had had cars driving right up our driveway and parking both in it and on our lawn, blocking the driveway by parking across it in the street, had the postbox torn from its mounting, cars damaged in the road, dah dah dah. So when we got wind of the next party we resigned ourselves to sitting up and protecting our turf. Our verandah faced onto the front garden and the students’ house was at the end of a very long driveway behind us. Despite this, the smell of alcohol from our verandah was still gut-wrenching (we are both partakers so this wasn’t an overreaction). Come our usual bedtime, we switched off the lights and settled down on the verandah, prepared to repel invaders on the front home front. There are many times in life I have been very grateful for my sense of humour and this evening provided a whole cluster of them. There was one highlight in particular. We finally went to bed at four in the morning ; about an hour earlier a seriously plastered guy and a couple of girls swayed down the road and paused in our driveway. At full volume the guy said to his companions, “hold on, I’m going to pee” and lurched onto our lawn. The other moment of marriage that makes me laugh (ok, I’m being mean – there must be more but I’ll have to think). With only a second’s pause my husband said loudly “no, you’re not”. Governed partly by our lack of visibility and partly by the state of the would-be-reliever-of-himself, there was a think-pause as this apparently divine instruction was absorbed and then the latter said in a rather puzzled way “oh, no I’m not” and staggered back to the group.
What brought me to brooding on how people’s behaviour affects others when our proximity to each other is less than desirable are a few events since we moved to our new home three and a half months ago. Although we have a lot of space and freedom, the only settlement between us and the end of Pietermaritzburg is *another* sectional title development. Fortunately the two homes parallel to our boundary are occupied by very quiet families ; I haven’t yet got to meet them. However, there are apparently a few residents who aren’t particularly concerned about the wellbeing of their hapless co-residents.
Our home was originally built as farm outbuildings and has recently been converted, making us the first people to occupy it. About a month after we moved in, I discovered that a couple of drug dealers had been using our verge as a meeting point and saw no reason to be inconvenienced by our arrival. This meant, sometimes three times a week, they and their clients would park off behind our garage and drink, smoke, whatever else, with no consideration for the fact that all of us in the vicinity have young families. Talking to others, I discovered that the Narcotics Squad, Dog Squad and Public Order Policing unit were all aware of their activities and had their own plans for dealing with the matter. This was all well and good but didn’t solve my immediate problem. Disregarding the advice of a couple of people, I decided to make it obvious to them that our property is now occupied and no longer a shelter for that type of activity. I already spend a lot of time in the garden, so I just upped the ante some notches. Whenever they started driving up and parking off on our verge, I’d do even more gardening and make sure I was visible. I was being a pain in the ear but quite deliberately so and hoped they would get the message and move off. It took weeks and weeks but we have now had about seven weeks of peace.
Up until today. Shortly after one o’clock this afternoon, a group of about eight male residents from the units next door decided to sprawl along our verge and have a drinking party. Due to the current extreme heat, I’d got up a lot earlier than I usually do on a Sunday in order to finish some varnishing around the house. As a result I had a midday nap which is generally a luxury I do without. The group outside made such a noise they woke me up. One of the neighbours contacted me and suggested I call the police. That is not my first choice of response, especially as my daughter and at least one elderly neighbour are at home on occasion during the week and I don’t want to alienate neighbours who could, for all I know, take it out on them – just as I’d had to consider with the drug dealers. After a bit of cogitation I opted for the direct approach and pottered up the hill, greeting them pleasantly and asking them to make sure they took all their bottles with them when they left. After eyeing my approach with large eyeballs, they opted to take the same tack, apologising for the noise and agreeing that the bottles would leave with them. They were true to their word. While I would have preferred them to party on their own premises, a compromise seems to have been a successful first step and I’ll take those one by one.
The litter matter is currently a sore point. Due to the location of the development at the end of a cul de sac, their weekly refuse is stacked on the top end of our verge awaiting collection. There is little I can do about it and it hasn’t generally been a problem. However, this week the municipal truck broke down (a frequent problem on the other side of town) and our refuse was not collected. Most of us left it out anticipating a late night catch-up which only happened today – six days later. By this time only one home in the street still had refuse waiting outside.
None of this would have been worthy of note – except that on Wednesday morning our small pile of rubbish had escalated by three hefty black bags. The truck didn’t come on Thursday and by Friday morning dogs had torn the ‘donated’ bags wide open exposing used nappies and worse. I only saw this on my way to work and had no time to do anything immediately. On my return, our neighbour on the other side was waiting for me and wanted to know how big my baby is and if that is all my rubbish. My ‘baby’ is eighteen and that definitely wasn’t all our rubbish. She had thought as much and was furious as it had spread between both our verges. It even included used sanitary wear and we had to pick it all up and pack it into new bags. She brought her wheelbarrow and we moved it all to the other end of our verge where the communal rubbish is collected. The next morning it was back along with a couple of extra bags. What annoyed me most is that it was done under cover of darkness so the person was well aware that what they were doing is not acceptable. Not one of the eight houses at this end of the road has a child young enough to be in nappies ; most of us have either adult or young adult offspring. The neighbour has spoken to the chairperson of the body corporate and I shall be launching a missive at the same hapless person in the next few days. Apart from the loaded and lethal nappies and towels, there were beer bottles, a broken dummy, a doll – and a business card. It’s no exaggeration to say that refuse could pose an identity risk. In this particular case, it’s just made it easier for the chairperson to approach the culprit and issue a couple of lessons in civilised neighbourly behaviour.
All in all, as much as I am generally very much a people kind of person, we rumble along together a lot more smoothly with a little bit of breathing room all round.