Emily Willows watched her new neighbour and wondered again, not that the woman was really a new neighbour any longer. She, this woman, had bought the adjacent house last May and it was now August. During that time they had barely spoken, and what had been said was no more than the most superficial of politenesses – a few good mornings when they met each other on the path into the little town which some insisted was still a village, and once, a month ago, when fate had thrown them together in a queue at the butcher’s, Emily had made an effort to chat because it really was a little embarrassing by now, being neighbours and not speaking.
Her efforts in Mr Donovan’s shop had met with little success. ‘So,’ she had said with a smile, approaching the matter as if they were in the habit of acknowledging the other’s existence, ‘how are you finding Polperro?’ There had been a pause, as if the woman, whose name was Lane - that much had been established from a fortuitously mis-delivered letter – as if she suspected that it was a trick question. And then came ‘Oh, it’s absolutely charming.’
That was all – ‘charming’. As far as Emily Willows was concerned, this was akin to saying that the sea this morning is absolutely a sort of greenish blue or bluish green. A statement of the blindingly obvious… Every advertisement ever written that has anything to do with Polperro includes the word ‘charming’ – it’s beyond a cliché, she thought afterwards, it’s almost insulting to say that and nothing more.
She hadn’t given up though, in the butcher’s.
‘I imagine that it’s very different to where you’ve come from,’ with a very encouraging smile.
The queue shuffled forward; Mr Donovan’s daughter Amy was missing that morning, probably attending an ante-natal class, expecting her second, still not married.
‘Where was that – I hope you don’t mind me asking!’ with a smile so encouraging now that it was beginning to hurt. And the extraordinary thing was that the woman did mind, it was obvious from her frown and pursed lips.
‘Of course not. I moved down from London.’
London. Home to about eight million people and covering tens of thousands of acres, Lord knows how many boroughs and postal districts and suburbs, all with names. But Ms Lane – no sign of a ring but who knows – is content to say that that’s where she has moved from. London.
There had been one more attempt to open a line of communication.
‘Oh, what a change for you! Was it your work that brought you this way?’
Emily doubted that. There had been no suggestion of regular comings and goings, and no sign, in her occasional glimpses, of business clothes or a briefcase.
‘No. I’m retired.’
Emily knew that she had probably failed to hide her surprise at that – retired? The woman was in her forties to be sure but she was a young-looking forty-something. She was slender to the point of being a little thin, but toned, and when she wore a T-shirt, as she had several times since August became hot, and worked in the little front garden, one could see muscles in the arms that removed the weeds.
Emily would have said ‘Really, what did you used to do?’ but Mr Donovan interrupted with ‘Now then, Mrs Willows. It’s Friday so it must be chops!’ That’s what it means, to be part of a community, to be known, and she hoped that Ms Lane, if Ms she was, might appreciate that and treat her with a little more respect, if she couldn’t manage friendship. But when she turned around after being served that morning, she found to her surprise that her next-door neighbour had disappeared.