“It’s not rude to stare”

Our neighbours live behind closed curtains. Curtains, blinds, drapes, boards, sometimes just piles of stuff – anything they can get their hands on, it seems like. And all the time. ALL THE TIME. How can these people survive without daylight? EVER? Their electricity bills must be astronomical.

I hardly ever see these people (obviously), but I imagine they must have a severe vitamin D issue. And be really quite sad. And broke, on account of the bills. I catch glimpses of the occasional shadow or two, but that’s all folks. Is our apartment block a secret vampire society? Or is the more likely answer that our neighbours are incredibly, well, private? You’ve got to wonder how realistic someone’s privacy can really be today, considering the scrutiny we as citizens are subjected to. Nothing is ever truly private any more.

Me profile widgetMe, I live life with the curtains well and truly open. I long for a bay window. If I could, I’d have my nosey face pressed up against one all the time… perhaps I’m the problem. Maybe my neighbours consider themselves terrorised in my constant quest to people-watch. But since when did being observant become such a dirty habit? Don’t the French have a word for it – the flaneur? A sort of voyeuristic stroller about-town. That’s me (although less of the strolling and more of the seated lounging), watching the world go by and exercising my curiosity muscle. Surely looking and watching is just human nature – and, therefore, perfectly healthy!

Windows and I go way back. Some may argue the relationship is a little distasteful. That I obsess over windows. But it’s love and it’s forever. First there was the bird watching from my bedroom window. As the older sister I got one of the larger rooms and enjoyed an unrestricted view over the back garden. I’d be glued to that window for hours, incorrectly identifying birds. Occasionally my sister and I would handwrite messages on sheets of A3 and hold them up to the glass for our friends who lived around the corner – handily, the landscape of the road curved and their bedroom backed into the range of my window. But it turned out A3 paper wasn’t ever going to quite cut it,   they had no chance of reading our messages. It became easier to just yell messages from the back garden. Or, you know, phone them.

Then came the casual glances (ok, spying) in the evenings – as the world got dark I would peer into the rooms of those helpful neighbours who had left their lights on. Nothing interesting happened, not once, but I loved the potential for thrills. On some nights my sister and I would migrate to her bedroom – a tiny box of a room but poised, fascinatingly, at the front of the house and therefore ripe with people-watching potential. We’d play the ‘guess the next number-plate’ or ‘car colour’ game. When that got boring, we’d break out the A3 paper again and surprise unsuspecting pedestrians with illegible messages illuminated by torchlight and tinsel. Mercifully for the people of Perry Barr there weren’t ever many pedestrians out at that time on a winter Sunday evening.

And then annoyingly, a few years later, there was an armed police raid on the house a few doors down from ours. I was getting changed in front of my bedroom window, as I always did, to find a rifleman statue-like in the alley way next to our house. Garbed up in head-to-toe black leather Terminator style, he waited stolidly for the call to attack. And that was that – I can still remember the tragic day we got the net curtains fitted. It was rubbish. No longer was I the covert-but-well-meaning spy. No, the nets rendered me pestering, nosey and rude – a Hyacinth Bucket figure. They made everything darker and life just less, well, colourful.

Thankfully now, in my adult life and adult home, net curtains are banned. Curtains in general are kind of banned too, only used when turning in for bed. It’s windows and I, side by side. I’m that awkward bugger in the restaurant who insists they sit by the window, totally confounded by those who refuse the window seat so preciously offered to them and opt for an aisle table or dark shadowy corner – they can’t all be having affairs.

I don’t consider myself either voyeuristic or extrovert – just human. The entertainment of people-watching aside, it’s a genuine social issue – how can you look out for your fellow man if you can’t see them? When I think about it, being nosey (if that’s what you insist on calling it) makes me a better person. I am able to understand, to empathise. I’m more aware of what’s going on in the outside world and therefore more useful and relevant. I wonder if our politicians always take the window seat? Or are they are the ones in the shadows, conducting their own affairs?

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