We had just moved into our new home on an idyllic, North London street – the kind with pastel facades and window boxes.
For the past six months we’d been refurbishing the house and had invested thousands of pounds of savings in it. This was to be our family home, where we would have our children and watch them grow into teenagers. Then, the first night in, alarming noises crashed through walls.
Jemma Wayne is an author and journalist. In 2015, her first novel, After Before, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. This was followed in 2016 by the publication of her second novel Chains of Sand. With her third novel, To Dare, Jemma moves into the realms of psychological suspense. The story was in part inspired by her own experience of living next door to neighbours from hell.
“Do we call somebody? Is she hurt? Or is that- Is that what rough sex sounds like?”
These are words spoken by a fictional character in my new novel, To Dare. But I also uttered them in real life, whispered urgently to my husband at 3am.
At first, it was thuds, with the muffled sound of a woman moaning. Then a man grunting, and more thuds. Not salacious or titillating, but violent and forceful, like somebody was being thrown, hit, hurt. We hadn’t met our neighbours yet, but we shared a bedroom wall. The noise was so loud that it sounded as though they were on our side of it. Despite the protection of brick, I remember feeling gripped with dread. These sounds felt fierce, traced with danger. We couldn’t make out the woman’s words, but they sounded like a plea.
My husband and I didn’t know what to do. Phone the police? Go round? We weren’t actually certain what we were hearing – perhaps it was consensual. What if we called an authority and caused trouble for our neighbours, when nothing untoward had occurred?
What if we went round and made the clearly aggressive man turn his aggression towards us? But what if we did nothing, and a woman was in peril? That first night, we were caught in the not-knowing. We talked and talked, but we couldn’t decide, and so, we did nothing.
After half an hour or so, the thuds stopped, but were quickly followed by the blaring of dance music that continued until five in the morning with the obnoxious tones of the man shouting along. And then there was the baby. A baby crying, and left crying, for many hours, and sometimes shouted at to shut up.
By the morning, our concern had turned inwards. On this tranquil street, how had we been so unlucky as to end up living next to these people? Our minds spiralled with the thought that this might happen every night, that our lives would be plagued by it. And they were.
Often, there were raves till the early hours. Sometimes the baby was played with wildly, laughter echoing, her name called in glee; other times she was screamed at or ignored. Occasionally, there were more thuds. When we saw our neighbours in the street – their eyes rimmed-red, their expression either eerily intense, or totally spaced out – it seemed clear to us that they were on drugs.
As the weeks and months passed, we tried a number of approaches. A few times we knocked on their door to ask them to lower their music. They said they would, humouring us, but never did. We started calling the council’s Noise Pollution unit. They never came. Eventually, we made an appointment with their housing officer. Still however, we wavered. Even now we weren’t sure what those thuds were.
We couldn’t actually see what was happening. We didn’t want to be busy-bodies, and we didn’t want to do anything that might tear a baby from its parents. We were also hugely anxious for ourselves. Our neighbours would know that a formal complaint had been made. Our role would be obvious. We spoke carefully.
But the noise grew. We felt they were doing it now to spite us. They both glared at us in the street. We wondered if perhaps it was all consensual after all. Still, I worried about bumping into the man alone. All the while, our sleep and sanity were increasingly depleted. We never knew when we’d be woken, and by sounds that filled us with angst. We worried about it constantly. Our tiredness led to temper.
And while we tried to get pregnant with our own child, the sounds of the neglected baby ate away at us. How had people who, from what we could hear, barely even cared about their baby, be blessed with a child, when we who so longed for one, were struggling? Eventually, after nearly two years, we decided to sell the house and move away.
I always knew that at some point this was an experience I would want to fictionalise – though what happens in To Dare is far more twisty and extreme. But I hadn’t anticipated that it would ever again play so deeply in my mind. Then came lockdown.
We have all been learning a lot about our neighbours during this time. For some it has been a daily struggle with unsocial behaviour, far worse that my experience, but there have also been many stories of incredible support. For me however, one thought keeps percolating: what duty do we have to each other? Delivering groceries is one thing, but what about interfering where we are not invited? Intervening when something seems awry? Do neighbours have an obligation to help victims of abuse?
For months now, many people, especially women and children, have been trapped with their abusers. The safe spaces of school and work have disappeared, opportunities for escape vanishing behind closed doors. Some domestic abuse charities have reported a surge in calls to their helplines, and a doubling of the number of women killed in their homes.
This month, the government announced that ‘rough sex’ will be banned as an excuse for death or serious assault.
Rough sex – is that what we heard?
All these years later, I still don’t know the answer to that question. But I do wonder if we should have intervened..