“Dear neighbour, I promise I’m not a weirdo”
It’s just before the weekend of my daughter’s birthday and she’s having a party so I decide I must warn the neighbours.
Because you should warn the neighbours, right? Especially if it’s on a Sunday.
There’s a new lady I don’t know very well, and so I start with her.
“Just to let you know,” I say, when I find her. “You might want to turn your stereo up this Sunday.”
“Why?” she says, intrigued – and that’s good, because intriguing someone is a good way to break bad news.
“Because my garden is going to be noisy,” I say, pushing the intrigue further.
“Oh,” she says, looking concerned, which means I should probably stop intriguing her.
“Only for a couple of hours,”
I say reassuringly. “But I’m afraid that the only sound you’re going to hear between three and five is the noise of 20 four-year-old girls!”
I laugh, lightly, as if to show how delightful that is.
She swaps it for a frown.
“Yeah, there will be a lot of screaming,” I say, mock-wearily. “Anyway, how are you?”
We have a stilted chat after that, and it’s only when I’m walking away from her house that I begin to feel uneasy. She didn’t seem as happy about a little girl having a party as I’d hoped. And I get a little paranoid. I realise why almost immediately.
I don’t think that woman thinks I said there will be 20 screaming four-year-old girls.
I think she thinks I said that this weekend, for two hours, there will be nothing but the screams of 24-year-old girls.
She must be thinking, “Why? Who is this man? What scandalous world does he inhabit?”
We didn’t even really touch on the issue of a birthday party. Did we? I think back through the conversation. I don’t think we did. I think it just seemed obvious. But now there is the very real possibility that she thinks that for one intense two-hour window – possibly while my wife is away – I have arranged for there to be nothing but the sound of 24-year-old girls screaming.
Why? In delight? Terror? Am I standing there, shouting, “GET IN MY BACK GARDEN!” at them? Also, why do I seem so incredibly proud of this that I am going door-to-door with a beaming smile on my face announcing it to little-known neighbours?
“No, Danny,” I think, sensibly. “She will have worked it out.”
Because of course, even if she did initially think one thing, she will have quickly worked out that I meant the other. Of course she will. People are not mad.
And yet I am someone hardwired to want to make sure there has been no misunderstanding in almost any aspect of my communications. It has always been important to me not to gain a reputation as the local weirdo. Always. And now I see it is just as important that people do not think I am running brief, annual, perverted Sunday-afternoon garden parties, too.
My life has been full of moments where I have felt it necessary to clarify. It is so wearing. I care too much. I am like a walking Notes & Corrections section from a newspaper that needs to be sent on a course.
So unless I wish to face a life of mental unrest, I am going to have to revisit what I meant, because experience tells me that if I don’t, this will stay with me for years. I know full well that at some point in the future, I am going to have to engineer a conversation in which I turn things around to how “24-year-old girls” sounds the same as “20 four-year-old girls”, and I also know that if she does not very clearly indicate that she has heard me or that she understands, I am going to be forced to raise this topic of conversation literally every time I see her until she does. Should I ultimately feel I have not done this effectively, I may be forced to post this column through her door and then simply move house.
Maybe, though, it’s other people’s fault. Maybe other people need to start saying, “I UNDERSTAND YOUR MEANING AND INTENT” after everything I say. I just think that we need to work together, guys, and that you could shoulder your side of the responsibility for my words.
“I reckon you should leave it,” says my wife when I tell her, and as literally anybody else in the world would tell me, too. “We’ll stick the balloons out the front, she’ll see it’s a kids’ party, it’s fine. And if she doesn’t, who cares? She’ll just think we’re doing our own low-budget Love Island.”
So I buy the balloons. And we get the cake. And on the big day, I stand outside with a cup of tea and wait for the kids’ entertainer to arrive.
When she gets out of her car, I see with horror that she is about 24.
No! She cannot be seen!
“GET IN MY BACK GARDEN!” I very nearly yell.
Read the Danny Wallace archive here