Elizabeth Day: Love thy neighbour – from two metres away

When I was a child, I loved Neighbours. Not the ones who lived near us, but the Australian soap that would air at 5.35pm, just in time for me to get home from school and do my homework before watching.

Photograph: Jenny Brough. Hair: Fabio Noguiera. Make-up: Ruby Hammer. Trousers: Amanda Wakeley. Jewellery: Alighieri

We lived in the middle of the countryside and, for much of my childhood, our closest real-life neighbours were at least a ten-minute bike ride away. This changed when, aged 11 or so, a nice couple moved in across the road from us and set up a fish farm and had two young children whom I used to babysit. The eldest recently popped up on my Facebook announcing his marriage, which made me feel 800 years old.

When I moved to London after university, it was into a house-share of other graduates who were all playing at being adults and were too busy having noisy parties to make friends with our neighbours (who probably hated us). As the years went by, I never entirely got the knack of befriending the strangers who lived above, below or either side of me. Either we never spoke and existed in respectful silence that always felt a bit mean-spirited, or we did speak and I ended up in an overly intense pseudo-friendship I had never asked for, where I would be expected to listen to their anxieties over kitchen fittings and dysfunctional relationships and to cat-sit and water their plants when they went away.

For some reason, I could never strike the happy medium of ‘friendly but not involved’. Until now. One of the pleasures of lockdown has been that we have got to know our neighbours – but not too much. The weekly Clap for Carers at 8pm on Thursdays is a beautiful moment of community bonding, but the joy for me is that none of us has to talk to each other. We can smile and wave and acknowledge this moving event, but any attempt at conversation is drowned out by the righteous thumping of wooden spoons on saucepans, and after five minutes, we all go back inside. Social distancing means that whenever I pass a neighbour, we stand two metres apart to have a chat and because the gap feels slightly unnatural, the conversation comes to an end quickly. We leave feeling we have been polite and friendly but we don’t have to go to each other’s houses and find ourselves trapped by endless cups of tea.

The local restaurant that has transformed itself into a farm shop is the perfect place to feel like you’re living in a 1950s village, safe in the knowledge that all the people you recognise buying their eggs will recede from view once the lockdown is lifted and we all get back to anonymously scanning our ready-meals at Sainsbury’s.

During the sunny period, I sat in our small back garden and got to know my neighbours through their different sounds. On one side there are two young men who share a flat and spend all their time doing bench presses to the soundtrack of the new Dua Lipa album. On the other is my favourite neighbour: an older gentleman who I chat to over the wall about plants and birds and poetry.

Recently, it was someone’s birthday two houses along and when the chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ started up, everyone in their gardens joined in, despite not being able to see who was celebrating, and probably never having met them. For an introvert like me, this is the perfect kind of neighbourly interaction: I can get to know people just the right amount and then I can hunker back down in the safety of my own four walls because the state has decreed I must. Of all the side-effects of this horrendous global pandemic, this is the one that has been most unexpectedly beneficial. I do wish those men would turn the music down, though.

This week I’m…

Watching

The Last Dance on Netflix: the story of the 1990s Chicago Bulls featuring Michael Jordan and his mum (who is the true star of the show).

Having a home spa

With Charlotte Tilbury’s Goddess Cleansing Ritual. So good my partner actually commented on my skin the next day.

Eating

Delicious fresh meat and fish, thanks to home delivery service Field & Flower. Each product in its range has 100 per cent traceability.