Where Angels Fear To Tread

“HELP! I’m about to commit murder!”

Luckily, I recognise hyperbole, and was able to talk my friend down from her frenzy. Or rather, she talked herself down once she was assured I was listening. Blame the COVID-19 lockdown.

D has been my friend for many decades. She was my colleague when we both worked for the International Baccalaureate, and that’s how we became friends. She was a dynamo there for 25 years, and an important cog in the wheels during the time it was being developed. So what if she has been retired for 20 years? The IB was a very significant part of her life, professionally, emotionally and socially. Despite various trials and tribulations, she made many friends there and was highly respected.

Over the last few years I have watched helplessly as what used to be a solid bulwark of support has eroded, crumbled and been dismantled as friends and people around her have died, moved away to be near their children and grandchildren or into homes, or retreated into their own solitary senescence. Those she used to meet for coffee or a meal, to play mah-jong in each other’s homes, sit in one another’s gardens or share leisure activities such as swimming, art classes, visits to the cinema or theatre, or even Women’s Guild – all have melted away.

Now she’s 80, visually impaired, very deaf with an aggressive form of tinnitus and frequent bouts of labyrinthitis, and rather unsteady on her feet. Despite all that, she has managed so far to remain in her own home, and retain her independence and sense of humour. Although she used a computer for her work until she retired twenty years ago, unfortunately since then she has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with any electronic device (apart from her TV and hearing aids), and thus has no idea of anything that requires a mobile or smart phone, tablet or laptop. Completely innocent of the Internet (“What do you mean, she sent you a link?”) and thus totally out of the loop and a luddite to boot.

No remaining relatives, and the few friends – like me – who are still in touch mostly live far away. Communication is difficult, even by phone (she does have a landline) because of her poor hearing, but even letters are very few and far between nowadays: who picks up a pen, writes on paper, addresses an envelope, affixes a stamp and walks to the letterbox today, when e-mail and other forms of messaging are so much simpler? She is very, very isolated, especially during the lockdown.

But this cri de coeur couldn’t be ignored. I knew exactly who the proposed victim was. I half guessed the motive, and I knew that she would be the last to suspect that she had incurred D’s wrath. Poor Lady No!

Lady No moved into a house just down the road from D about 5 years ago. She has grandchildren who attend the International School of Geneva and since the IB Headquarters are still in that city, D shared some information about her own career and experiences of Geneva, thinking they might find something in common. However, it seems that as far as Lady No is concerned, D is just a poor old woman who needs a helping hand now and then, and has no idea of the force of nature that D was in her prime.

Lady No is a self-proclaimed benefactress to the world. Her first act upon moving into the vicinity was to organise a petition against the local Chinese restaurant, and she has followed this up with innumerable letters to the Council and local lobbying for various causes. I suppose it’s one way to meet the neighbours.

Although none of Lady No’s causes has met with D’s approval, D is polite and Lady No is impervious.  She clearly sees D as a needy recipient of her services, and so when the lockdown began, she posted a note through D’s door announcing that D should let her have her shopping list and she would get whatever groceries etc. were required. The tone was peremptory, which instantly rubbed D the wrong way, but she graciously acknowledged the offer of help and handed over her list.

Next day, Lady No left a shopping bag on D’s doorstep, containing about half of the things that had been on the list and a whole lot of other items as replacements for those she hadn’t found. I thought this was kind and thoughtful, until I heard what the “substitutes” were: mostly luxury items, hence expensive, and many of them things that D either didn’t like or really didn’t need. She thanked Lady No, and pointed out that if any item was unavailable, she should please just forget it and only bring the things actually listed. But Lady No is Lady NO. She ignored this. She also gave D lots of instructions about what to do in order to improve her circumstances.

D is an alpha girl who doesn’t take kindly to being patronised, but she bit her tongue thinking that, alas, she was to some extent dependent on Lady No for fetching her food so didn’t want to alienate her. And so the situation has escalated. And Lady No is no doubt convinced that she is being a wonderful neighbour, kind and helpful in another’s distress, totally oblivious to the rage and frustration mounting in D’s breast.

Lady No is avoiding any direct contact. She puts notes through the letter box (which D doesn’t usually find until the following day) and leaves bags of groceries on the doorstep without verifying that hard-of-hearing D has actually heard the doorbell. She tells D that she has to do this or that as if she were a child – and that is for D as a red rag to a bull. D will respond to “Have you thought of doing x …” or “Have you considered y …” but not to “You should …” or “You must …” Lady No has told her that she must see the doctor for this or that, and the optician for a problem that D knows is a matter for the ophthalmologist. D replied that at present, she can’t get any medical appointments and is self-isolating anyway. Lady No is putting visiting cards through D’s doors with the addresses of mobile podiatrists and hairdressers, cleaning services and gardeners with notes saying: “I spoke to so-and-so and (s)he can come to you next Wednesday”. D has told her politely that she doesn’t need these services. Luckily, she can vent to me.

“I shall murder her!”

I asked what Lady No’s latest misdemeanour was. Well, for the first time in its 50-year history, the IB exams were cancelled owing to COVID-19, a fact of which both D and I are naturally very well aware. We take an interest in our former employer. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was Lady No standing, socially distancing, at D’s garden gate and explaining to her, loudly, condescendingly, and in great detail, all about the International Baccalaureate, prefaced by the question:

“Have you ever heard of the IB?”

If only she knew! Fools rush in …

9 thoughts on “Where Angels Fear To Tread

    • As with A-levels etc, students have been assessed on course work I think, so diplomas have been awarded. Hopefully, next year it will be back to exams in the familiar form. Not the end of the IB by any means!

  1. Yes, this sort of unasked for help can be misleading and annoying. One is loath to loose contact so it is tempting to put up with people who mean well but have the sensitivity of a fence-post. We are reminded in this strange corona world to keep contact and look after each other, but…?

    Often people, especially at old age, are found dead weeks after they actually died. Utterly friendless unknown and forgotten.

    The story reminds me a bit about my own situation. I live on my own and a good neighbor insists on baking me sweet breads and ‘tea things’. They are nice but I am not for sweets and because of her concern for my somewhat lean looking exterior, perhaps feels she needs to fatten me up. She is a caring neighbor and I feel it a small price to accept her food with thanks.

    • Good intentions – I’m sure these well-meaning people would be amazed and horrified to learn that their attentions are not welcome! And nobody wants to hurt their feelings … I just wonder sometimes if I am doing things that I think are kind, and others find irritating.

  2. Oh my. This is a heartbreaking story in oh so many ways. One which may well play it in one form or another for many of us who aren’t quite at that lofty 80 mark just yet. Poor D. And really, poor Lady No, as she has no idea how her efforts come across. She’s setting herself up for some bitter times ahead, not just with D.

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