Lockdown has turned us into spies – and fantasists

Kitty Drake
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/PARA/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar</span>
Photograph: Allstar Collection/Cinetext/PARA/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

There is an upside to being locked in your house for a year: your neighbours are locked in too, and it has never been easier to spy on them. Curtain-twitching is an ancient national tradition, but coronavirus seems to have made us even nosier. My life has shrunk to four walls and a window, and although my own habits are now ugly and familiar to me, my neighbour’s are a daily mystery. I see her making snacks and feeding her dog and making things on her sewing machine, and I wonder about her. What is she thinking? What is that snack? Should I, too, invest in a sewing machine?

More than 194,000 people reported their neighbours to the police in the first five weeks of the lockdown last spring, and neighbourhood-based social networks such as Nextdoor – where you might typically have shared a photograph of a lost cat in pre-pandemic days – now crawl with amateur sleuths; activity on the site increased sharply during the first lockdown. In one post from March last year, a woman describes obsessively counting the number of times her neighbour opened the front door and then emailing that number to the police.

But more striking than snitching is the evidence of stranger, more imaginative sorts of spying. Nextdoor’s online message board feeds paranoias by digitally documenting what might have previously only existed as rumour. In the last three weeks my neighbours have shared photographs of alleged “dognapping”; CCTV footage of a dog owner failing to pick up after their pet; and a detailed complaint from one resident, who claims that someone in the area is defecating on her doorstep. The pleasure of this app is the unprecedented access it grants you, not just to your neighbours’ houses and gardens, but to the insides of their minds.

Related: 'I know all their pet peeves' – why neighbourhood apps are a mixed blessing

The most absurd posts, collected on the viral Twitter account @bestofnextdoor, feel less like genuine queries than a yearning to peep and be peeped at, to take a quick break from your darting thoughts by publishing a thought on an app for all your neighbours to see. In a post from last June, one user complains about a naked man who has – he says – been hiding in his bin: “My main concern is that last night I saw him get in the bin, but today after the binmen came, the man wasn’t there and I’m worried that … he may have been scooped up into the bin lorry. Does anyone know how I could check this hasn’t happened?”

Isolation has sharpened the desire to live through other people. Trapped in our rooms, we can press our ears to partition walls and compulsively imagine things. In Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock’s ode to spying on your neighbours, protagonist James Stewart appears uninterested in his own life. He fixates on his neighbours as a form of escapism, and goes window shopping for other lives. Stewart ends up catching a neighbourhood murderer – his spying is put to practical purpose – but the film’s point, about the way our fantasies can overtake reality, still stands. Viewed from a distance, your neighbours can be whoever you want them to be. This is their great appeal.

A friend of mine knows this all too well. She has spent lockdown imaginatively entwining her life with one particular neighbour. Almost every night a man in the block of flats opposite has had a cigarette on his balcony at 9pm: “I can only see his silhouette and him smoking which I like because he looks thoughtful, like a poet.” She plays out little scenarios in her mind about their future destiny (“Why do we live opposite each other? Maybe it’s meant to be?”). The thrill is that an alternate life could be right there, on the balcony opposite yours, ripe for the taking. She tells me she is careful not to look at the balcony at all in the daytime so as to maintain the illusion: “I’m frightened of seeing him in the light.”

My own window shopping is aspirational. My neighbour looks a bit like me, but a sprightlier version. She seems at peace with herself, and she does arts and crafts. My bedroom window looks directly into her kitchen, and I can’t help noticing small, boring details. Sometimes when she is making tea I make myself a tea, too, and as I drink it, my mind wanders, imagining her life. I feel, in a way that is objectively mad, that she is my friend.

Occasionally, the dream comes true. One (real) friend in east London began a window flirtation with the boy next door after he held up a handwritten sign saying, ARE YOU SELF-ISOLATING? She told me the game became more elaborate: they began to deliver letters to one another’s doorsteps wrapped in red ribbon, in which they communicated in a kind of code, pretending to be a lost neighbourhood dog. Things fell apart when she asked to meet in person. “He wrote this really polite letter back in his own voice, not as the dog, saying he was trying to stick to the rules.”

My own fantasy became a disappointing reality when I met my neighbour just before Christmas. She was opening her front door and I plucked up the courage to say hello. She was much smaller than I expected, like meeting a celebrity, and she spoke to me as if I was a stranger – which, of course, I am. The people next door exist, in their most intriguing forms, in your imagination. That is where you know them best. Last month, my neighbour moved out, and I miss her. But I only really miss the version of her I had made up in my head.

  • Kitty Drake is a writer and editor based in London