Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, a...


Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, and tugged. The weed’s prickly leaves tore off in his hand, leaving the thick, wet body of the plant stuck in the crack, taunting him with its stubborn resilience. 
  He sighed.
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root. We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  Randal stood, pressed his hand against his aching hip. ‘Afternoon, Maud,’ he said, nodding. The old woman leaning over the fence smiled back at him, unable to make eye contact for looking down at his fist, and the limp leaves hanging from it.
  ‘I’ve got some weed killer in the shed, if you want it. I’m like a dealer for this stuff, been giving it to everyone. I can leave it on a fence post, so we don’t have to touch. Lethal, this stuff; kills anything it touches – breathe it in, and they’ll be scraping you off your drive.’
  ‘No, no it’s okay, thanks. Just clearing out the big ones. If I can.’
  Maud tutted. ‘Hm,’ she grunted, disapprovingly. She said nothing more; just stood there leaning on the waist-high fence, inspecting Randal’s paving and the ugly shoots sprouting from its gaps. Randal’s gardens were not quite as well-kept as Maud’s, but then he had a lot more going on in his life. The half-hearted weeding his driveway was experiencing this afternoon was as much attention as it was going to get this season, whether Maud approved of that or not.
  ‘So, how’s lockdown going?’ He asked. ‘Bored of sitting at home yet?’
  Maud looked up at him as if startled out of some distant train of thought. ‘Hm? Oh, no. Not at all, no. I’d only be sitting at home whether we were locked down or not. Don’t like going out much, anymore. Too many criminals and foreigners about.’
  She sniffed the air, as if the stench of all these undesirables was filling even her quaint little street, over which she kept a constant, close, completely silent watch. Randal shrugged, electing to ignore the less tasteful portion of her reply.
  ‘Yeah, I haven’t been that upset about it, either. Good opportunity to get some DIY done, read some books. Haven’t missed the commute, either.’
  Maud was no longer listening – she was watching Randal’s other next-door neighbour return from her daily walk. As she watched the woman, Maud’s face remained in that same twisted grimace she had worn when she smelt the stench of all those criminals and foreigners, and even when her neighbour smiled at them as she passed, Maud did not exactly return a pleasant look. She just lifted her chin, as if acknowledging an old rival with the bare minimum amount of civility.
  Randal blushed slightly, embarrassed to be thought of as an associate of someone who could be so shamelessly rude. He waved at his neighbour, wishing he could remember what she had told him her name was, back when she and her son had first moved in last year. Shirley? Shelley? She looked too young for either of those names, but they certainly came close to ringing a bell.
  Sharon?
  ‘She don’t clap, you know,’ Maud muttered bitterly.
  ‘Hm?’
  ‘On Thursdays. She hasn’t been clapping.’
  ‘Oh,’ Randal said. 
  Most people had been going out once a week, to applaud health workers in the streets. Randal had joined in the first couple of times, but since then, due to work commitments and the onset of his usual apathy, his attendance had been sporadic at best; so he could not verify Maud’s claim. He did not much care whether she was right or not – which of his neighbours were participating in the applause and which were not was not something about which he was particularly concerned. But Maud was old, lonely and bored, and he knew from his interactions with his mother that that was a combination which cultivated nothing more than unhealthy interest in everyone else’s business.
  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’d better be getting on.’
  He continued weeding his driveway without waiting for a reply from Maud. She was the kind of person who needed more than just a goodbye to get the hint – he knew from experience that she would not leave unless he fully turned his back and walked away. And for all he knew, she had left; for the silence returned, and he was left alone with his thoughts as he tore out the last of the stragglers, with degrees of success which varied wildly between complete obliteration of the weed and any trace of root, and the pathetic, demoralising removal of less than an inch of leaf, which would likely regrow before nightfall.
  It never ceased to surprise him how small the concerns of other people could be. For instance, why did Maud care who was out there clapping every Thursday? People might have other things to do. They might not have heard what the clapping was for, or they might be so introverted that making such displays of themselves was an insufferable eventuality. Maybe some people decided not to clap because they saw it for what it was – a nice gesture, but not something which provided any material benefit.
  For all Maud knew, people who did not clap were abstaining because they had some deep-seated vendetta against health workers. He did not see why that would be the case, but it was possible. And were they not entitled to their opinions? Maud had enough hateful opinions, and none of the other residents of the street had accosted him to discuss those yet.
  For that matter, why did he care so much that Maud had brought it up? Was it just that he thought his neighbour should be able to get on with her life without being judged for something which, in the grand scheme of things, did not really matter? Or was it because of those weeks he had missed, and the fear they brought on that Maud might be saying things about him behind his back too? Perhaps, he thought, as he finished his weeding and stood with a fistful of dead plants, twigs and leaves, he would have to make sure to free himself up this Thursday evening.
  Then he looked up and saw Maud – still standing at the fence, staring past him at the house next door, her lips curled as if a sour taste lingered on her tongue – and he nearly dropped the entire clump of plants.

‘I’ve only just started dinner, Randy,’ Francine said that Thursday, tipping vegetables from a chopping board into the hissing pan on the hob, ‘I can’t be arsed to go out there tonight.’
  ‘You can turn it off for a minute, and continue when we get in.’
  ‘I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. I’m not pausing dinner to go out and clap. Why do you suddenly care so much, anyway? It’s not going to be the first one we’ve missed, and you haven’t been this concerned all the other times.’
  ‘I just think it’d be nice,’ Randal lied. ‘Show some community spirit.’
  His wife rolled her eyes. ‘Well, you can show as much community spirit as you want. I’m just going to stare at this dinner until I think it’s done enough to pour into my mouth.’
So, Randal stood in the street and clapped alone. Found himself feeling like an imposter, as the regulars banged wooden spoons on pots and pans and waved big blue NHS flags above their heads – flags which Randal would not know how to source even if he wanted to. Feeling watched, as the burly builder who lived opposite paced up and down the pavement, perhaps taking attendance in his head. Putting so much pressure on himself that by the end of the applause, not even two minutes long, he felt queasy.
  But relieved, too, that he had probably bought himself a few weeks free from judgement, by showing his face that evening. Because that was all he ever cared about, no matter how much it irritated Francine (who had always been much more adept at disregarding the opinions of others): being a good neighbour. Not a neighbour who works hard to place themselves in everyone’s pockets, knowing all their business and popping in unannounced for tea and gossip; and certainly not a neighbour who becomes the shame of the street, the unacceptably noisy or messy or inconsiderate neighbour whose departure would make the street a nicer place. The kind of neighbour who avoids both of these extremes by sitting comfortably at the top of the bell curve, contributing enough to stay out of the bad books, without going as far as to make new, unwanted friends. 
  He wrestled with this odd mix of relief and discomfort all the way to the front door, where he was distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye. The family who lived on the other side of Sharon (if that was her name) had been eating crisps and ice lollies in the street while they clapped, celebrating as if attending a summer party; and as they wandered back to their front door, they tossed their wrappers over the fence into Sharon’s front garden, with a disregard so complete and shameless that it was obvious that this was their weekly routine. Randal was about to call out to them, to tell them to pick up their rubbish and learn some respect, when the father made eye contact with him, and stared at Randal with such intense aggression that Randal shrunk back into his shell.
  Randal spent the rest of the evening feeling ashamed. Had he not cared so much about being an unremarkable, average neighbour, perhaps he would have stood up to that man, who after all did not appear to be that much bigger or stronger than him. Even if he had called out admonishments which had been ignored by that family, at least he would have done the right thing. But he had stayed silent, and allowed a woman to be bullied for a reason he had not even realised might be brewing in people’s minds until Maud had brought it up. 
  Clearly, if one wanted to stay out of this neighbourhood’s bad books, it required more these days than simply minding one’s own business.

Whether it was because he had more spare time now to think on these things or because the injustice had riled him that much, this bad feeling bubbling away under the lid of the street began to play regularly on Randal’s mind. He began to notice things, as he took his daily walks or sat in his garden after work, that had never reached him before, but which he now regarded as symptoms of a town with cabin fever, a populous who hated being stuck at home so much that being put into lockdown for their own protection was slowly driving them out of their minds.
  ‘I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind,’ he overheard one neighbour say to another, ‘keeping your cat out of my garden?’
  ‘Well,’ came the reply, tight as a drum, ‘I can’t control where my cat goes. You can feel free to chase him out, but there’s nothing I can do to stop him going in there.’
  ‘Maybe you shouldn’t keep animals if you can’t control them!’
  ‘So, only animals we can control should be allowed to live? Is that what you’re saying?!’
  This kind of bickering – formerly the hobby only of those who stayed at home all day while everyone else was at work, and who therefore became busybodies to pass all that free time – was suddenly commonplace, and could be heard in one form or another almost daily. Fence panels were not treated often enough, and trees were growing too far over property boundaries. Children were too noisy, animals too smelly. Everyone was finding it very difficult, of a sudden, to live in such close proximity to one another. Even Randal began to find himself irked by how often Maud looked over her fence at him, the regularity with which she gave him gardening tips he did not want or need.
  Everyone’s worlds seemed to be shrinking, which meant that by comparison, even their smallest worries were growing.
  And if Randal really had thought that the weekly applause was an opportunity to show community spirit, a chance for everyone to put aside their differences and concerns and come together to celebrate those on the front lines who might eventually get them all out of this mess, he was very quickly proven wrong. Once he began attending regularly – more to keep up appearances than because he wanted to be there – he realised that it was not a celebration, but a competition. Who could clap the loudest, who could cheer with the most enthusiasm, who waved the biggest flag – these were the things that won the competition on a Thursday evening, not the good will shared or the love demonstrated toward one’s fellow man. This was not a union of hearts and minds looking forward to a better tomorrow – it was a community turning in on itself, identifying those who did not conform today, so that they could be ostracised tomorrow.
  This was demonstrated when one house drew a three-foot-high NHS logo in chalk on the front of their house one week, and the house next door spray painted a six-foot-high version on their garage door the next. It was demonstrated when two neighbours almost got into a physical altercation over whose miniature fireworks display was better. But mostly, it was demonstrated by the treatment of those who chose not to participate.
  They were not simply losers of this great unspoken competition, who should be pitied or forgotten or told to try harder next time. They were ruining it for everyone else. They were the villagers who would not take part in the rain dance, and their abstention was the reason it was not working. One house, whose sole resident was a wheelchair-bound nonagenarian who had a carer visit him daily to help with his basic needs, was covered in toilet paper before it was established that the owner was not just unwilling but physically unable to participate. Another had a front window smashed – but for all Randal knew that one was empty, as there was never a car parked outside and he had never seen anyone go in or out.
  But the brunt of the street’s ire was being borne by Randal’s next-door neighbour. When she was leaving for her afternoon walk one day, Randal heard someone shout ‘Bitch!’ from their window, before quickly hiding to avoid identification. And one Thursday night after a particularly boisterous applause, one of her tyres was slashed so that she could not even drive to the supermarket that Friday to do her weekly shop. When Randal found her changing her tyre and offered his condolences, she told him that was not the only time that week she had been victimised – she suspected the family next door had also thrown a bucket of weed killer over the fence, killing half the plants in her flowerbed. She just wished she knew why these things were happening, she said. 
  Randal did not tell her the reason he suspected, simply because it sounded too trivial to be true.
  Trivial or not, the matter came to a head the next week. Clearly sick of having to hide their identities or perform their vandalism in the dead of night, a few houses armed their teenage children with eggs and sent them toward Sharon’s house to teach her what happened to households who did not conform. Hoods up and boxes in hand, goading each other on as if none of them could conjure up the courage alone, or would even be able to stand there if it were not for his co-conspirators. Child soldiers, on the front lines of a war against outsiders.
  They had only thrown a couple – one exploding on the roof, another unable to clear the drive – before Randal stepped in, and made up for his failure of weeks before by standing up for sanity, and refusing to tolerate this cruelty any longer.
  ‘I’ll call the police!’ He shouted, waving his phone around as if it were a dangerous weapon. ‘I know all your faces and I know where you live. You throw one more egg at that house, and I’ll have all you little shits arrested!’
  Some residents of the street continued to clap, either because they had not noticed the kerfuffle or because they were pretending not to notice. Others, most likely the parents of those children (and therefore the conspirators who had planned the attack) and their friends, stopped celebrating, and although too cowardly or furious to say anything, they glared across the road at Randal as though their suspicions had been confirmed, and he had outed himself as being in league with the traitors, added himself to the growing list of targets for vandalism and abuse. 
  Even Maud narrowed her eyes at him, from the end of her driveway next door – he would be receiving no more pruning advice from her.
  For a moment, with everyone staring at him and the heat rising in his neck and ears, he almost regretted stepping in.
  But this act of courage, although small and perhaps stupid, had its desired effect. The teens skulked off, only one or two of them brave enough to mutter a swear word under their breath or show Randal their middle fingers on the way. And despite the way he was being looked at, Randal felt good, pleased that he had redeemed himself for the time he had not spoken out when he should have.

Over the week that followed, it seemed that Randal’s outburst had made the street see sense. There were no more acts of violence or vandalism, and Randal did not even overhear any bickering or neighbourly friction on his daily walks. He was still receiving dirty looks, but he told himself that these were in his imagination, that he was noticing them only because he expected to, and not because they were actually happening. For seven days, it appeared that he had fixed a developing madness, by turning on a light and showing his neighbours the errors of their ways.
  But at the next clap, which he attended out of habit and to monitor the situation as, he thought, the only sane member of the street, he realised that the calmness he thought he had brought to the road was just a veneer, under which still seethed a bitter rage, a roiling stew of madness and distrust that looked like it might explode at any moment, and descend the street once again into total chaos. People looked at each other with suspicion, they paced their driveways with pent up energy, they glared at Randal with unmitigated hatred. The air was alive that evening, buzzing like a wasp trapped in a glass; and although nothing of note happened, he came away feeling like it had. As if chaos was taking hold before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
  Over the next couple of weeks, this feeling did not go away – it only matured. The atmosphere on Thursday evenings was electric, the tension so palpable that it took great effort to remember why he was out there, what the applause had originally been for. It was supposed to be a positive thing, a pat on the back for all the brave people who were fighting to bring this dreadful pandemic to its deserved end; but it had become something entirely different, something which left a bad taste in the mouth and turned neighbour against neighbour, opening cracks in the town which might never again be healed.
  Or… was that his imagination? Randal knew that he too was feeling the strain of being locked indoors all day. He missed seeing his colleagues – even the ones he did not like so much – and he missed being able to go shopping with his wife or to restaurants with friends and family. His world was getting smaller, the walls closing in on him just as they probably were on everyone else; so perhaps all this bad feeling, all that bubbling hatred, only existed in his imagination. Maybe it had no basis in reality, and since he had stopped those adolescents from egging his neighbour’s house, perhaps the street really had calmed down. After all, his fears just then were based on nothing more than dirty looks and an energy in the air – and were these things not just a matter of perception, a choice one makes when taking in the world and its contents? If he chose not to notice them anymore, would they really be there?
  And just like that, the street’s cabin fever was cured. He did not fear his neighbours, because he had decided there was nothing to fear. He no longer read bitterness or anger on Maud’s face, because he realised it had always been a bit twisted anyway, so it had likely gotten no worse since he stood up for Sharon. He had gone a little mad, become a tad paranoid, but it was all better now, and he finally saw the neighbourhood for what it was – a group of people struggling not only with being stuck at home with all their issues, fears and relatives, but also with the regret of taking too far their punishment of a neighbour who had committed nothing more severe than the laughable crime of not clapping on a Thursday evening.
  How silly he had been, thinking the street could descend into total chaos. How little he must think of people, if he thought they could turn savage and set upon each other, for reasons so petty.

But then, he was woken one night by the smell of smoke. His bedroom full of it, a fog so thick that it made his eyes water and his stomach turn.
  ‘What’s happening?’ croaked Francine, sitting up in bed. ‘Is the house on fire?!’
  ‘No,’ replied Randal, as he got out of bed and walked to the window. ‘I don’t think so.’
  Their house was not on fire. If it had been, the smoke would be thicker and the alarms would be going off. But something was, and even as he pulled the curtains apart to find out what, a heavy feeling in his stomach told him he already knew.
  His fears were confirmed: the house next door was ablaze, fire pouring out of the windows and billowing thick, black smoke into the night’s sky as if the house had been filled with kindling. The whole thing consumed by so much heat and flame that the opportunity for anyone inside to escape alive must have long since passed. Leaning out of his front window to look sideways at the devastation, Randal almost vomited down the front of his own house from the shock of it. 
  ‘What is it?’ Asked Francine, wrapping the duvet around herself as if it might be enough protect her from harm. ‘What do we do?’
  Randal’s knees began to tremble, and he had to grip the window frame to steady himself. He was sick with shock, weak with fear. Crushed to find himself correct, that the entire street had gone mad. It had not been his imagination after all, was not a symptom of his own brief descent into madness; they really had gone savage, given in to their new rage and turned on each other, like a pack of animals pouncing on their weakest member.
  Look at them now – locked in their homes, not even looking out of their windows to watch the destruction they had caused. Not a single person in the street to observe, let alone help. Things were worse than even he had imagined.
  And as he tried to form a response to his wife, the words elusive and foggy in his addled brain, he suddenly remembered what Maud had said to him, that first day he knew anything about this madness developing in the minds of his neighbours. 
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root,’ she had said. ‘We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  ‘Call 999,’ he said finally, closing the curtains. ‘Then we need to pack our suitcases.’