Jenny Danes

The Girl Next Door

‘The Girl Next Door’ is from Division Street by Helen Mort and is reproduced here with kind permission of the poet.

Jenny’s response

I love the way this poem deals with the home (and the self) being encroached upon. There’s something very uncomfortable about an intrusion into the spaces that should be safest and most private. Domestic territory is such a sensitive subject; how many of us have had irate neighbours saying our garden is growing too far onto their side? The details in the poem of the neighbour ‘blowing smoke rings’ into the speaker’s garden, and how ‘she’d ring the doorbell late at night’ feel significant and got me thinking about these micro-invasions.

As a child we had a small climbing frame in our garden, and I would often climb right up and sit on the top. I remember how our neighbour would inevitably call out to me, talking to me, asking if I was shy. I didn’t know how to respond, and this was partly because I couldn’t understand the feeling – the peculiar consternation – of my space being somehow invaded. But perhaps it was the other way round: he was minding his own business in his own garden until a seven-year-old climbed up high enough to stare at him, fruit pastel lolly in mouth.

At the beginning of the poem, the favours the neighbour asks become increasingly bold. We move from her borrowing sugar, to ‘a pint of milk’, to ‘books / with tattered spines that caught her eye’. I started thinking about all the things I’ve exchanged with my neighbours: weed killer, missed parcels, covid tests, phone numbers for builders. Where would the line be in real life – outside the strange world of a poem, what would it really be unacceptable to ask for? Orange juice? Chicken? Condoms?

When the poem moves into its more sinister phase, the speaker’s own identity is gradually borrowed by the neighbour, starting with her stance and hairstyle: ‘head tipped back, the way I stand’; ‘These days / she wears her blonde hair short.’ The poem is laced with near-rhymes such as ‘took’ and ‘books’, ‘rain’ and ‘name’, and ‘spines’ and ‘blind’ – the subtle copying of sound a sort of counterpoint to the neighbour’s insidious stealing.

Is imitation really a form of flattery? Thinking back to being at school, there were certain rules about what you couldn’t copy: a friend’s dress to the same party for example, or getting a fringe cut in immediately after someone else. I remember a girl who used to repeat pretty much everything people around her said, with just a slight rephrasing, and I remember the confusing tangle of irritation and amusement I’d feel hearing her. The speaker’s passivity in ‘I’d smile and nod’ is so interesting, almost as if the cliché of ‘give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile’ is a warning within this poem. The final ‘Last night she said my name. / It suited her.’ taps so neatly into the fear that other people – your alternative selves – could do a better job of living your life than you. And are waiting to do so at a moment’s notice.

^ back to the poem

Tayiba’s reponse


Three months into the war, I watch a father toss a child into the air after a march. Her gold-plated cries of laughter pierce the afternoon. Behind my eyelids, her mirror image collects teardrops from a dripping tap. When I shut my eyes, she’ll drink.

On the bus home, someone recognises me. I return his greeting before I’ve placed him. Long time no see. I tread water, ask questions, search his chatter for clues. How old are your two now? he asks. We miss them at the museum. I smile. It’s too late. I can’t bring myself to tell him that I avoid museums, or that we’ve never met, or that I have no children. So I tell him they’re eight and nine, milk teeth lost, ears pierced.

At his stop, my two non-daughters climb from his shadow and follow him out. They wait just long enough to see me off, then race around the corner, place backs flat against the wall, ready to pounce.

In my dreams, I walk the city with my arms reaching upwards, as if to help them down from a fruit tree or pull them from a burning building. They find this very funny, and laugh at me from their beds. The bed frames float on waterways which mirror the cracks in the pavement. I’d fall in to lie down between them. I’d try to coax them upstairs. They’d just splash my face with the freshwater, and neither would sleep a wink.

^ back to the poem

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