BY MANDY BALDWIN
You have inherited a cottage by the sea, at the end of a pretty lane. It’s been in the family for years. It’s a bit run-down in places, but still charming; the walls are sound, your grandparents had the roof fixed, your parents made sure the plumbing was up to date, and you’ve had it redecorated and furnished.
The garden’s looking nice, too: the old patio catches the sun, the flower beds are full of mature plants, the vegetable patch produces more than enough runner beans to share with the neighbours, the apple-tree is a variety you can’t buy any more but it makes wonderful cider, and the old raspberry canes still give enough fruit for jam to sell at the church fete.
There’s a stream behind the cottage, where you can catch trout. You can see the marks on the gate where your children carved their initials.
It’s taken years – generations, in fact – but it’s just how you like it, and although you’re not quite as well off as you were, you are still richer than most in the Lane.
Your cottage is one of several there, each lovely in their own way, each different to the next, so it’s interesting to visit, and sometimes you pick up tips from them and vice versa – and you can swap your jam and beans and trout and apples for their cherry pies and ginger wine and home-made sausages.
One or two of the families are poor, but you do your best to help them, and don’t mind their children playing in your garden as long as they are well-behaved and go home when they are asked to.
Now that the cottage is yours, you join the Lane Neighbours Fund which you think is admirable, because everyone says that your annual subscription will help to build a Community Centre in the middle of the Lane, where everyone can enjoy it, and will pay a security guard to patrol, because in the Woods surrounding the lane there are people who break in, attack the children and damage the cottages, from time to time.
And then you find out that, long before you joined, a Committee had taken charge of the Lane Neighbours Fund and decided to merge all the cottages into one single property, building a concrete walkway between each, so that everyone could get in and out without an invitation. Within days of paying your subscription, work begins on this project.
You want to complain, but you don’t know any of the people on the Committee – they live in a big city, a long way away, and you can never get an appointment.
The Committee are full of ideas of what is best for everyone.
In the case of your cottage, it means cutting down the apple tree to build the path, but when you protest, because it is so old and rare, you are told that it doesn’t matter about the cider you used to make, because your neighbour four doors down makes beer, and you can have a share of that if you hand over half the trout you catch each year. And by the way, that means, half your share of the trout, because now, all the catch must be divided up equally between all the people in the lane, even though it is your family who have maintained the banks and kept the water clean.
Then there is the vexed question of the runner beans. Nobody else grows runner beans as well as you do, and the committee think this is unfair, so, you must pay a large fee to the other cottage owners in order to help them grow more for themselves.
In addition, the poorer families are given permission to come into your garden and help themselves to the beans, or anything else growing there, while the money you have given them is used to prepare their own gardens, all ready for when they have used up everything which is growing in yours.
When they see how well you live, some of the poorer families decide to send their children to live in your cottage, and you can’t stop them: it is now illegal to put a lock on the door. They share your children’s bedrooms, there are often fights because they take your children’s toys and break them, and when your children complain, the Committee says they are spoilt.
The final straw comes when the Committee say it is wrong to stop the people from the Woods coming freely into the Lane, and send the security guard to prison for shouting at them. They then demand that each family takes two of the Wood People to live with them, and order every family to have their dog put to sleep, because the Wood People are afraid of dogs.
You decide to complain to the committee, because surely, they will see that this can’t go on. So you travel to the big city far away, and while you are waiting and waiting to see the committee, you see a plan on the corridor wall, of a big apartment building called Europa Towers.
After many hours you are shown to a big room full of people whose faces you forget as soon as you have seen them, but you know they are the Committee, because that is what was written on the door. You report to the Committee that your neighbours got up in the night, and have taken so much from your garden that you can no longer feed your family. You tell them that you will not destroy your beloved old dog, or allow any Wood People to share your children’s home.
They say you are selfish: if you can’t grow enough for everyone, you should buy vegetables from your richer neighbour, instead, who needs to sell vegetables because he is now forbidden to make sausages, which the Wood People dislike. You say you prefer to buy from an old friend you knew before you moved to the Lane, but the Committee don’t like your old friend, who is very rich and powerful, and disagrees with the Committee on many things.
But there are my cousins, you say. I can buy from them. We may live far apart, but we keep in touch, and they used to visit all the time – but now you have put a gate at the end of the lane, and you won’t give them a key.
The Committee say it isn’t right for you to have such a big extended family, when the rest of the neighbours don’t. They tell you to forget your cousins, and your cousins will soon forget you.
And what about the friends I made when I used to go travelling, when I was younger? You ask. They used to enjoy coming to stay with my family, but now they are afraid of the Wood People.
The Committee are annoyed that you mention this: most of the neighbours never had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, and they prefer that you break those friendships, now.
In any case, they say, stop complaining; you must be very lazy, to have been sleeping while the neighbours were busy taking things from your garden.
Why were you not also awake all night picking vegetables? How useless you are!
You should learn to work harder. After all, if you work harder, you will produce more, and then you can share that with the neighbours, too!
And look, says the Committee: how bright and shiny the poorer cottages are now! Look at their gardens! They bought seed with your money, and took cuttings from your fruit bushes. Haven’t they used them wisely? You should learn from them! However did you manage, before the neighbours moved in? It’s a good thing they diverted the trout stream away from your cottage: goodness knows what a mess you would have made of that, left to your own devices!
You are now very angry, as well as very tired.
You go home and find your family are in the middle of an argument: some are scared of upsetting the neighbours, but most are for restoring the trout stream, ripping up the concrete paths, repairing the fences, putting locks back on the doors, and replanting the garden, and after a stormy evening of debate, that is what you decide to do.
Some of the neighbours hear the argument and come round to see what is wrong. Many of them feel the same way: nobody likes the way things have been going lately. Under the strain, old arguments and resentments are beginning to resurface: the way Number 4 borrowed the lawn-mower and didn’t bring it back; the time Number 6 used to have noisy parties.
But a few seem afraid: they say everything was awful, before the Committee took control. They are sure that those things they hear, about the plans to knock down the cottages and build one big apartment block, are just rumours, put about by nasty people who don’t realise how terrible it was, having to knock on the front door instead of simply walking in.
The Committee have told them, unless everyone moves in together, nobody will be safe, and as for the Wood People, if all the Wood People in all the Woods everywhere are allowed to move in, and everyone does exactly as they say, and smiles at them all the time, and gives them everything they ask, they will settle down in just a few generations, and stop being frightening.
Anyway, wouldn’t a nice shiny new apartment block with lots of security guards around to make sure stupid people didn’t ruin everything by complaining, be far more sophisticated and up to date than a cottage with a garden? After all, each apartment would have a number on the door, the same as the number of their cottage.
You say you’ve already put it to the vote, and decided what to do: but these people suddenly become sly.
Why take any notice of that, they ask, when disagreeing with the Committee would all be so complicated and difficult? The Committee are Experts who only want what is for the Common Good. Only stupid people who are sentimental about the past, only horrible people who don’t like sharing with the neighbours, only nasty people who hate others for no reason except being from the Wood, would disagree with the Committee, after all: so why give people like that any choice in the matter?
“Because it’s fair,” you say, “and in this cottage, we have a tradition of being fair.”
And they smirk and tell you those days are gone. The Committee are building new traditions now, and they will tell you what those traditions are, when they have finished making them up.
“But it’s wrong, to ignore what we have decided,” you say, and you are very frightened, now, as well as tired and angry, because you saw those plans on the wall in the corridor in the big city, and you know it is true and will soon be too late to stop. “It’s undemocratic!”
And they look at you and smile, because after all, your cottage is quite poor and scruffy now, and what do you or your silly ideas matter?
“What’s democracy?” They ask.