Her Next Door

by Ruth Hatfield



Her Next Door. The smuggest woman on the entire planet.

She asked me if I’d heard from Callum this morning. And then, as if she’d seen right into my email inbox and knew that I hadn’t heard from him in two weeks, she said, “Oh, but they go so wild on these ‘Gap Years’, don’t they? My Richard is settling at Cambridge. I’ve just got off the phone – he says they were given their first cadavers yesterday.”

Cadavers? I ask you! Just because Callum’s backpacking round Australia instead of learning how to cut up dead bodies, she thinks she’s free to point out at every opportunity how useless he’s being.

Callum’s not useless, I want to scream. He just knows how to enjoy himself. Unlike your precious Richard.

But I can’t make an exhibition of myself. So she just stands there smirking, watering her dahlias like she’s got all the time in the world. Which she has, because she doesn’t have three other kids turning her house into an earthquake every morning.

I’d love to lie and tell her that I have heard from Callum, actually, and he’s gone off to work in an environmentally friendly sustainable orphanage in Bhutan, but I’m no good at fibbing. I know full well he’s lying on a beach somewhere, sleeping off his hangover. I just hope he takes care of himself, that’s all.


But I get the shock of my life when I come back home after taking my youngest to football. Because Callum is sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of tea. He’s very brown, so he must have spent at least some of the past month on the beach. But underneath the brown he looks exhausted and pale, and his eyes are ringed with grey.

“Hi, Mum,” he says.

I drop my bag and go to give him a hug. He’s thinner than he was when he left.

“Callum! What… what a lovely surprise! I was just picturing you on a beach, this morning…”

“It’s OK, Mum.” He lets me go, pushes me gently away. “Everything’s fine. I just wasn’t… enjoying it, that’s all.”

He looks so sad, as he stares down at his mug of tea. I want to hug him again. But whatever’s wrong, I can’t ask him about it right now. Callum’s a person who gets round to things in his own good time. He’ll only talk to me when he’s ready.

The doorbell rings. It’s Her Next Door. She tells me I’ve left the garden hose on and it’s flooded her rose bed. And roses do not appreciate being drenched. She’s right – I did leave it on, when I was cleaning out the wheelie bins earlier and the postman came round. But that wouldn’t be a good excuse to give to her. She pays someone else to clean out her wheelie bins.

As I’m talking to her, Callum comes out of the kitchen, heading upstairs.

“Oh! Callum!” she cries, like a cat pouncing on a bowl of double cream. “I thought your mum said you weren’t due back for another five months! Partied yourself out, have you?”

I want to slap her. Callum looks so defeated. But bless him, he just shrugs and starts to clamber up the stairs.

She raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow at me.

“I’ll go and turn that tap off,” I say firmly, and close the door in her face.


The next day, Callum’s gone. He leaves me a note that says, “Back in a few days. Don’t worry. C.” He’s underlined “Don’t worry”, twice.

I trust him. What choice do I have?


For three days I do the routine. I don’t hear from him. His brothers and sister don’t hear from him. His dad doesn’t hear from him, although I get an earful when I ring up to ask.

“Probably got himself arrested, or spent all his money on drugs. You know what they get up to out there, all those tales in the papers. I was against him going in the first place, remember?”

I don’t feel much better when I put the phone down. When it’s time to hang the washing out, I lurk around, waiting for Her Next Door to finish her watering. She’s just about the last person I want to see, right now.


And then he’s back. I come into the kitchen after the school run, and Callum’s there. He’s drinking tea again, only this time he just looks tanned. The grey circles have gone. In fact, he’s positively shining.

And there’s someone else sitting beside him.

“Richard?” I say. “Aren’t you supposed to be at Cambridge? Cutting up cadavers?”

Richard grins. “Have to face it some time, don’t we?”

I don’t understand. I look at Callum, who smiles. There’s nothing apologetic about it.

“Sorry, Mum,” he says. “We were going to wait till I got back to tell you, just in case things didn’t work out. But I was so miserable, away. And Rick was, too. We were just both… sad to be apart.”

OK, I’ll admit it, I’m surprised, just a little. But not really, after the first second or two. And falling in love is much more honourable than six months spent sleeping off hangovers on a beach.

They’re both smiling at me. They look at each other, and then back at me, and I smile too, because my gorgeous son is happy again. Which is all that matters, in the end.

Richard says, “We’re going to go and tell my mum now. Though something tells me she’s not going to be quite so cool. We always knew you’d be fine about it.”

They stand up, and I hug them both, and then – well, I can’t help it, really I can’t. My grin gets just a little wider, all by itself.

And the next time I see Her Next Door watering her dahlias, I pick up my laundry basket, open the back door wide, and go outside into my sun-filled garden.

©2010 Ruth Hatfield

Ruth would love to hear what you think of her writing - email her now