I've got a longstanding beef against the neighbour immediately behind me (or should I say around the side from me -- it's all bound up with the configuration of my semi-detached flat). He smokes like a chimney, and as is the fashion these days, he goes outside (every ten minutes it seems) to have his puff, leaving his own place free of the stale miasma. But when he opens the back door and steps into his small backyard, he's also stepping into my territory.
I live in a 1930s group of three ground floor flats that are semi-detached. Mine is the only flat that fronts onto a main street; the other two are around the corner in a quiet side street. He lives in the middle one, attached to a flat on each side. The side fence of my backyard starts on the right of my bedroom window (from my vantage point) and runs past the part of his backyard that flanks his back door.
He is a young student completing a higher degree and I work from home. On the left of my bedroom is a bathroom and I basically don't open the windows of either room when he's home, which, it seems to me at the moment, is almost all the time. In fact when he's home I often keep the blackout curtain and venetians in the bedroom closed too, so terrified am I of a skerrick of smoke invading my bedroom (I've even contemplated putting some kind of plastic sheeting over the air holes up high in the far wall of the bedroom, but I think this is taking things too far!).
I'm so careful that rarely does the smell of cigarette smoke enter the house, but I've almost abandoned the backyard. I no longer hang my clean washing on the line; instead it's on clothes racks, outside the laundry or in the spare room, depending on the weather. My laundry is a little outhouse a step away from my back door, and when I'm out there handling my washing, I often hear the fateful slam of his back door. A minute later the smell comes wafting across the side fence and it always upsets me.
So why don't I march around the corner and confront him, and ask him to stand in another part of his backyard, say the part nearer his neighbours on the other side? They're probably not at home all day like me.
It's a long story that has something to do with the general vulnerability that the configuration of the flats forces on me, but the fact is I've already been through this with his barky dog. He and his girlfriend moved in a couple of years ago and I soon started to hear the frenzied yapping of a young puppy shut up in a room.
This turned into a nightmare of a few months, with the dog keeping up its forlorn chorus like a demented siren whenever they left the house. They were blissfully ignorant but when like a coward I complained to the council, they popped around, introduced me to their gorgeous dog and couldn't have been more cooperative. They arranged for dog sitting when they went out at night, promised to buy a citronella collar if things didn't get better, and even gave me a mobile number to ring if they were out and the desperate yelping started up.
Now it's not an issue. The irony is that when I do hear the dog during the day, it signals to me that they're out, and I actually open the windows for a much-needed airing!
So if I'm not prepared to do anything about it, I can't blame my neighbour, and I can't indulge the fury I feel when I hear that familiar back door slam (the last one at about 11.30 at night). I can't have it both ways. I've made an adult decision and I have to live with it. I know, too, that the determined way I shut my windows when I hear him come home, or the way I flounce inside from the laundry and slam my back door at the first whiff of smoke are signs of a pathetic passive-aggressive streak. I want him to read my mind and I want him to care. And he does neither.
My hatred of cigarette smoke does have some basis in legitimate health concerns. A decent amount of it makes me sneeze and feel foggy, and If I'm around a lot of it for hours I get a horrible case of catarrh and can't sleep. I see my hatred of cigarette smoke as a symptom of a general lack of secure barriers between myself and the world -- I'm a delicate greenhouse plant that shrivels if exposed to the elements. And indeed, after ingesting a lot of cigarette smoke (which very rarely happens) my subjectivity feels diminished. I feel less present, less there.
When I see a French movie in which everyone smokes around the food I can no longer project myself into an idealised, parallel version of my life as a sophisticated Parisian -- I wouldn't last two minutes in France, they seem to smoke everywhere. If I'm watching a television drama and someone lights up in a loungeroom I stop focusing on the plot and start imagining the horrible smell and the nicotine haze.
In Melbourne I'm relatively protected now that smoking is banned from restaurants and pubs, but I still get angry if someone lights up at a covered railway station or even a tram stop, which they're perfectly entitled to do.
I guess I know that if things got really bad I could assert myself. I also know that part of my fury stems from a desire to control my world and others. The world isn't perfect; my neighbours aren't perfect. And God knows, neither am I.