Years ago, my then partner, Jane, and I were blessed with perfect neighbours. In those days, neighbours like these were rare.
They were a hard-working youngish couple with two boisterous young boys, four and six respectively. Despite this, they were always ready and willing to help us with any tasks.
Whenever we went overseas – quite often in those days – they took care of everything. Checking regularly that the house was okay, feeding the cat, collecting the mail, paying all our bills, you name it.
We tried hard to reciprocate, with little success. Returning the favour was made harder by the fact that they never seemed to go away. Surely there was something we could do. Finally there was – they were off for a four-day holiday.
Matt came to the door, carrying a fishbowl with two plump goldfish. Would we mind caring for their sons’ pets? Talk about an easy babysit.
The next morning we woke to find the goldfish floating lifeless on the surface.
How could this have happened? The forensic skills of Sherlock Holmes were not required. The hapless fish had died as a result of the ingesting of polyurethane vapours, made worse by the fact that there was absolutely no ventilation in the spare room where we had put them. I put the blame on Jane’s obsession with security, together with her love of multi-coated polyurethaned, wooden floors.
Despite my sense of moral superiority, finding fault was of no help in finding a solution. However, that quickly presented itself. Despite their importance to our neighbours’ sons, they were just goldfish. Well then – why not go to the local pet shop, and buy replacement ones of similar size and colour? The little boys wouldn’t notice the difference.
It was then that Jane, a senior member of one of the ‘caring professions’, came up with a radical alternative. “What experience, if any, are these boys likely to have had with the reality that all creatures big and small die?”
This was intoned with the authority of one who enjoyed an academic and professional reputation for her work on the family dimensions of death and dying.
“But, but,” I spluttered. “How would the kids react, let alone their parents? Goddam it, we’re just the neighbours.”
We argued – heatedly – but in the end Jane convinced me. She was a formidable debater at both a professional and personal level. Two days later we heard the neighbours arrive home. They were barely in their house when our phone rang. I answered.
“Hi, it’s Matt. Thanks for looking after the goldfish. The kids can’t wait to see them. Mind if I pop over now to collect them?”
“Matt, there’s been a bit of a problem.”
“What problem?” (I could hear a note of incredulity in his voice. How could there be a problem with something so simple as caring for a couple of goldfish for a few days?)
“We’re so embarrassed, Matt. Call it negligence, call it stupidity, but we managed to kill your goldfish.” (I then told him how it had happened.)
“I was going to replace them, but Jane thought their death might be as a valuable way of imparting life’s fundamental lesson to your boys in a non-threatening way.”
Matt listened without comment. Then I was startled to hear a voice in the background:”What’s he saying? What’s he saying?”
It was Matt’s normally mild-mannered wife. Matt whispered to her, carefully paraphrasing my words.
“Bloody hell!” she said. “I’m not having no fucking social worker tell me how to bring up my kids!.”
Matt and I quickly ended our conversation. In less than a minute he was through the fence to collect the bowl and the dead fish. Barely a word between us.
That was the last contact we ever had with those neighbours. It was as if some neighbourhood ‘Berlin Wall’ had been erected.
Jane remained unrepentant. “Poor parenting” she declared. “They’ll pay a price for that some day.”