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The first thing the new neighbours do is erect a tall fence round their garden, adding a heavy iron gate at the end, with a sturdy lock. Even the scrubby section at the top where the fox tiptoes about is enclosed, and the gaps the hedgehog uses to pass through are covered over.
Next comes decking. It takes up half of the lawn. They set two plastic sun loungers on top of it and lie on them for a few days, oiled and goose-pimpled, desperately trying to soak up the last dregs of summer. Soon after, there is grunting from behind the tall hedge that separates our gardens as they lay a thick concrete path. After a few weeks, they decide the lawn is too much bother and a van arrives. By the end of the day, the lawn is gone, replaced by a flat green sheet of plastic grass that requires no attention. The children trundle listlessly about on it on their trikes. When it rains, the water lies on top of it in a pool and the children are not allowed outside in case they get wet and dirty.
In spring, our cherry tree blossoms, a sure sign that winter is over at last, and we breathe a sigh of relief. The neighbour calls round to complain about the mess it makes of his plastic lawn. He has to hoover the blossom up, he tells us, it isn’t fair. The cherry tree has to go. We refuse, of course.
We spend time in our overgrown garden, watching the bees wiggle their way into the bell-shaped flowers of the tall foxgloves, and the birds flit about with nesting material in their beaks. This year, a family of long-tailed tits has settled at the far end, close to the feeders, and we think there might be a robin nesting in the middle too. A pair of great tits has taken over the nesting box, and the male stands proudly atop it each morning, shouting out his song.
Next door, the youngest child, a little girl, peers at us through the hedge. We pretend we can’t see her. She plucks leaves from the hedge and makes patterns with them on the ground, then scatters them with her hand, sighs and goes back inside.
One Saturday morning in April, there comes a dreadful noise. A chainsaw. We listen in horror for a moment, then run to the end of the garden where you can lean over, and we shout to the neighbour. There are birds nesting in the hedge, we tell him, he has to stop. He stares at us for a moment, then shakes his head and starts the chainsaw up again. We don’t know what to do. We call the police but there is only an answerphone, so we leave a message.
The chainsaw stops, and we hear the neighbour calling the little girl. “Look at this!” he shouts, and she skips up to him. We peer through the hedge and see her face light up as he holds out the robin’s nest to her, three smooth speckled eggs still lying in it. “You can have that,” he says.
“But what about the mummy bird?”
“She’s gone,” he says.
The little girl hesitates, then takes the nest inside the house. “I’ll look after you,” she whispers.
The police come and talk to us a few days later. They go and talk to the neighbour too, but nothing is done. A little while after that, he complains to the council that the hedge is too tall, it blocks his sunlight, especially in winter and it’s difficult to keep it tidy. We receive a letter. Someone comes to look at it, but they don’t feel it’s unreasonably tall, or that the neighbour’s light is affected. Every couple of months he cuts it back, hard, regardless of the time of year, until it’s brown and dead on his side. Eventually the birds stop nesting in it.
We sit outside less and less. Next door there are barbecues whenever the sun is out and the stench of smoke and cooked meat is overpowering, the loud music jarring. Sometimes, we go out at dusk, when they’ve gone in for the day, and enjoy the stillness and the quiet, watch the bats flit about overhead, but we miss the old days. It’s not the same anymore.
We decide to sell up and move away. Somewhere a little more rural, perhaps. Somewhere detached if we can afford it. We take a slow walk around the garden before we leave, watch the bees clambering greedily over the chive blossoms, the dragonflies dipping down to the pond’s surface, then speeding away, the woodpigeons clumsily thrashing about in the cherry tree. Next door, the neighbour brings his chainsaw out of the shed and sets it down on the decking in readiness. We get in the van and sit a moment, letting the sadness dissipate.
A movement catches my eye as the engine starts up and I turn to look at the upstairs window of the house next door. The little girl is there, pressing a large drawing to the glass. It is of a garden, full of trees and flowers, butterflies, bees, and birds. There is a fox lying on the lawn and a hedgehog snuffling about in the long grass. A rainbow stretches overhead. She smiles and I smile back, give her a thumbs up as we drive away.