Tim Dowling: are my lockdown neighbours spying on me?

Tim Dowling: are my lockdown neighbours spying on me?

‘I can’t work out there,’ I say. ‘Everyone is at their back windows, looking down’

My inbox is flooding with emails from PR companies trying to make things they would have to promote anyway sound coronavirus-relevant: Bacteria Busting Bedding; Lockdown Weddings; WFH Wallpaper Offers. One subject heading says, “Hi Tim. The call for clean fashion has never been more relevant.” I think: yes, it has. Another just says, “Struggling with New Snack Ideas?”

They have a desperate whiff, but more heart-rending still are the emails that make no mention of the pandemic, the ones that posit an alternate reality where we’re all still wondering how best to celebrate National Pet Month. I think: you know what? If we’re all still here at the end of National Pet Month, let’s go nuts. Let’s have a parade.

I spin round in my chair, and suffer a sudden sense of exposure. Working from home feels different when everybody else is home, too. People are in their gardens, or at their open windows, gazing out. I am heavily overlooked, and my office door is wide open. All that stuff I was thinking about National Pet Month – I may have said that out loud.

I walk from my shed to the kitchen, feeling surveilled. It will be better when the trees are in full leaf, I think. The cat is standing behind the back door, staring at me through the glass.

“Miaow,” it says, as I open the door.

“Don’t be stupid,” I say. “It’s 3.30pm.”

“Miaow,” it says.

“He’s hungry,” says the oldest, who is sitting in his kitchen office, the power cord of his laptop stretched across the room at knee height. On the table between us is a new 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, still sealed in its box. It reminds me how naive we were just a month ago: we really thought it might come to that. It’s like the bottle of vodka hidden in my bottom drawer. Actually, I think, it might still come to that.

“Miaow!” the cat says.

“There is no schedule, emergency or otherwise, according to which you get fed at 3.30pm,” I say.

“Miaow!” the cat says.

“He knows you will,” the oldest says.

“I won’t,” I say.

“Miaow!” the cat says.

“I’m unmoved,” I say, opening the freezer. “Is it OK to have ice-cream now?”

“What?” the oldest says.

“Is this an appropriate time for ice-cream?” I say. “And if so, what with?”

“Actually, I’m trying to concentrate on this,” he says.

“Miaow!” the cat says.

“With cheese?” I say. “Would that work?” I consider the possibility that I am struggling with a New Snack Idea. My wife enters.

“Hard at it, I see,” she says.

“Yes, I am,” the oldest one says, through gritted teeth.

“I can’t work out there,” I say. “Everyone at their back windows, looking down.”

“I don’t think they’re as interested in you as you think they are,” she says.

“With binoculars,” I say, “they could probably read my computer screen.”

“Is this you cracking up?” she says.

“When the leaves return, that’s when I’ll go back out,” I say.

“Miaow,” the cat says.

“Fine!” I say. I feed the cat.

Twenty minutes later, I am back in my office, idly perusing a new email. “It can be a challenge right now for those who are self-isolating or social distancing to access the ingredients for frozen smoothies,” it says.

“That is so true,” I say. There is a knock on the glass. I jump and spin round in my chair. My wife is standing there, staring at her phone, bag over shoulder.

“I’m just going to get some milk and veg,” she says. “Is there anything – oh dear.” She is staring at the ice-cream tub I am holding.

“What?” I say, pulling the spoon from my mouth. “It wasn’t full.”

“Do you need anything?” she says. The cat sticks its head round the door.

“Miaow,” it says.

“Oh my God,” I say. “Are you insane?”