"United, yet divided."
One matter of the deepest import confronts the owner of the small suburban garden, from which his prototype in the country is generally free; it is the question of "next door." Inevitable, critical, all-important, almost uncontrollable as it is, "next door " has to be faced and made the best of.
Sometimes the best is very good indeed; sometimes there is no best, but a thorn. In the suburbs a kind of etiquette exists which helps to smooth the way. People must not stare at each other, children must not throw things over the wall. Nobody should play games on Sunday, or make much noise if one or other of the neighbours has a garden-party. (Suburbia revels in garden-parties.) Snails must never be dropped over the fence, nor stones, and boughs that hang over are not to be robbed of fruit; rules as to fallen fruit vary, but are not so strict as some others. These codes prevent much friction. The discordant apple is as tempting in the suburban garden as ever it was in Eden. I have known a generous apple-tree owner present the rights of an overhanging branch in perpetuo to a family where there were schoolboys, thereby securing their lifelong friendship. Such acts of grace as this make next-door neighbourdom a pleasant thing.
And there are customs. It is allowable to borrow garden-rollers, but not brooms, nor spades, nor lawn-mowing machines; this is considered encroachment,' and "going too far." Neither is it considered ladylike or gentlemanly to pass unsolicited remarks about the next-door garden, even in praise; nor is it good form to scrape acquaintance across the fence - proper introductions in the drawing-room must be waited for; windows must not be looked out of obtrusively; and lost balls must be searched for by going round to the front gate and ringing the bell - no short cuts.
Putting up barriers to shut out "next door" is liable to offend. Manoeuvring is here advisable, and wire netting comes in useful. It is insidious. At the outset barely visible, as creepers clamber over and cover it, the screen becomes impervious imperceptibly; there is no grievance.
It is not thought good manners to work too hard on Sundays; - not like a navvy, and the shirt-sleeve would annoy. Anything like serious work should be done before breakfast. Pruning and light gardening, however (in the Sunday coat), may go on at any time, and one may see friends and give them tea; but decorum must prevail, and loud laughter is avoided by the well-behaved.
Yet great happiness has resulted from, and many a friendship been cemented by, handshakes across the garden-wall; children have thus found playmates, and older people kindred souls.
To the little houses of Suburbia come many brides. What an interest the new bride takes in the one-year-longer-married matron of the next-door garden as she paces round it with the nurse-maid and the brand-new baby. By-and-by what comparisons and friendly talks, what advisings and what exchanging of plants and flowers, what sage remarks from the old inhabitants to the new, what pleasant evenings in the summer dusk, when husbands appear upon the scene in restful undress with tobacco-smoke, the spark of cigarette, and the latest news from town.
There are no unwritten laws about music and practising in Suburbia. Every one plays as loudly and as much as he can or likes. This is a pity, but it is difficult to see how it can be prevented.
"Sound loves to revel in a summer night," says the poet; indeed he would have said so if ever he had sojourned in the suburbs; but many of the sounds are pleasing. There is the indescribable hum of the distant City, which seems to match the red glow on the sky-line of its countless fires; there is the chime of clocks, the ringing of church bells, the thrum of the banjo from a holiday group, the trumpet call and drum of the Salvationist.
But it is not for sentimental or ethical reasons alone that "next door" exercises so great, so extraordinary an influence; horticultural affairs of the deepest moment are also implicated. Imagine somebody, a yard or so removed from your most cherished border, planting a row of Poplar trees close on to the very boundary fence. Nothing can stop it - the hungry roots may burrow as they choose. They are not liable to the law of trespass; there is no redress. Or for years you have been enjoying some comfortable nook under the shelter of your next-door neighbour's Elm or Oak tree. One fine morning you get up to find it has disappeared in the night, and with it your cosy corner; but this you must take in good part. It was your neighbour's tree, not yours. Or upon the next-door frowning house-wall you have (on the sly) been planting Ivy. What a trial to see this carelessly or ruthlessly cut down, or injudiciously lopped; again you have to suffer in silence.
It is extraordinary how most children idealize "next door," particularly if it so happen that the inhabitants thereof are personally unknown. Everything beyond their own wall is pervaded by a sense of mystery. They see a halo round every flower, which blooms more brightly than any in the home patch; the lawns are greener, and the trees and bushes give a pleasanter shade. Things half seen and only guessed at are fraught with breathless interest, and stray glimpses from the top of a dust-bin are heaven itself. The. barriers of reserve once down, more than half of the excitement and all the glamour have departed.
Then there is the question of bonfires. Some people enjoy bonfires - I do myself - but the smoke of burning weeds in an adverse wind is liable to be too choky for choice. I have known the bonfire to rankle. As regards the hanging out of clothes to dry (smoke reminds me of them), I am informed that in the lease of many a suburban house a clause is inserted to forbid the family wash. I am quite sure, were such a thing attempted, the breach of good manners would not be tolerated for one moment in polite suburban circles. In one suburban house I knew, the coachman's wife was allowed - once a week - to dry her linen for two hours of the very early morning, before the world was up. She was quite alive to the fearful necessity for punctuality, and this is really all I know about "next door," except that, oddly enough, it is possible to live for thirty years without making any acquaintance with a neighbour of the next-door garden, and this simply for accidental reasons. In the thirty-first year the neighbours may meet abroad and find themselves dear friends ! Such are the fruits of the whimsical juxtaposition of small suburban gardens - "United, yet divided."