The key to neighbourliness

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It is, in a manner of speaking, quite a security that our nearest neighbor in an easterly direction (just over the privet hedge, in fact) is remarkably adept at breaking into things.

We have had good reason to be grateful for his profound understanding of drainage systems in the home, with particular reference to tall-pipe blockages caused by autumnal leaf accumulations: he is indeed a handy and ingenious man, more than willing to roll up his sleeves for a friend.

But it is his particular skill as a cracksman and picklock which inspires in us the greatest confidence and appreciation. It was in evidence from the start. No sooner had we arrived at the front gate with a bulging removal lorry, than he offered his services.

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They were, as it happened, very much needed. The precise time of transfer of the property into our hands was nigh, all right, but lawyers will be lawyers and until the cheque had actually been placed on the desk of the lawyer acting for the house's previous owner, the keys were not available to us. Our schedule was urgent, and rather than wait for legal niceties to be observed (especially as we knew very well that the cheque had been dispatched) we decided to at least start unloading as much as we could and arrange the goods and chattels picturesquely in the driveway. It did, however, look like rain.

But Alan, from next door, thought this was all nonsense. He appeared on the scene, appraised the situation, vanished. And then reappeared - with a ring full of assorted keys a professional burglar would have been proud to own. With these , in swift succession, he dexterously attacked the lock on the garage door.

It was only a few minutes before one of the keys turned awkwardly and the door scraped wide open.

''Now just let me know,'' he said, with a triumphant twinkle in his eye, ''if there is any way in which I can be of further help.'' Clearly he was proud of a good morning's work.

The house we had moved into goes back eighty years, and with it came a collection of keys, most of which looked to be of about the same vintage. There were enough of them to fit every door, outer and inner, every cupboard and drawer and more. I must admit that they were rather a shock. I had just spent a decade living in a remotely snug farmhouse, and it is a literal fact that neither the front nor the back door, which I had newly installed in the process of renovation, had a lock. I never gave it a thought.

Now, however, after two and a half years back in the city, I have become sufficiently urban in attitude again to look back at those lockless years as if they were some kind of miracle. A house with no locks: a life with no keys. Incredible!

All this, of course, has its unlaughable side.

But I also sometimes whimsically muse, as I proceed through the days in welter of keys - a key to go to the dustbin, a key to let the ducks out, a key to fetch a couple of nails from the workshop, a key to go out, a key to get in - I muse that it would be so much easier for everyone if those with criminal designs were just to give us a ring before coming round to make off with our valuables. We could then immediately lock everything up appropriately, but for the rest of the time we could live contentedly key-free lives. After all, we know when the milkman comes, and the dustmen. The window cleaners arrive with more or less expected regularity. The man coming to lay the new bathroom carpet phones first. Even life insurance salesmen arrange to call at a specific time. And since almost everyone in the city seems to take larceny for granted as though it were some unavoidable aspect of things (like taxes or electricity bills), perhaps it too should be done by appointmentm.

I do speak ironically, of course.

But the trouble is that activities are slowed down so much when you are continually searching for a key left in a pocket (and you could swear you'd put it on the hook by the door) just to get the car in. And then there is always the unimgainable notion that you might, some day, with consummate absentmindedness, lock yourself out of the house altogether.

It happens with cars. It happened one afternoon with my wife's aunt's car. The good thing about that, however, was that she was visiting us at the time. All I had to do was go next door and ring Alan's doorbell. In about three minutes, with the aid of a brilliantly rearranged coat-hanger, the car was open. He was ''delighted to have been of service: any time.''

Yes, we are fortunate indeed. And the thing is that I don't have too much faith in the policem as lockpickers. . . . The electrician who re-wired our house has a son in the city police force. He and some fellow officers were one day ''pursuing their enquiries'' in an area unhappily renowned for its criminal element. They went and inadvertently locked themselves out of their police car.

They tried all they knew (while pretending that nothing was wrong) but after half an hour they were still at a loss and standing conspicuously outside their impregnable four-wheeled fortress. To make matters worse, they now had a large and amused audience: staring and giggling children; curious, whispering heads poking out of lifted windows; rough-looking men standing nonchalantly on the curb, watching.

After a rather lengthy enjoyment of the spectacle, however, the neighborhood did at last take pity on them. A fellow sidled up and asked were they having a spot of difficulty and could he give them a wee hand? They shamefacedly admitted their predicament.

The man said, ''Aye, well, never mind - just turn your backs awhile and don't look,'' and in a moment he had that car door clicking open.

Perhaps they should give more attention to the skills of breaking-and-entering in basic police training - I don't know.

I do know, however, that we'rem all right. We don't need to trouble The Law if the wind blows the kitchen door suddenly shut behind us when wearing nothing but pyjamas and the key's on the table. We'll just march confidently up to the privet hedge and yell for Alan.

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