Tempting fate and the return of Stompy McStomperton

My wife and I have noisy upstairs neighbours. They do not party or fight; it’s not loud music or television. It’s just a mother and a teenaged son with a clumsy, obnoxious inability to walk softly. They stomp and — this is key — they stomp at all hours, waking us up on countless occasions.

After about a year and a half of constant and serious frustration with this problem, it mysteriously eased up in 2020, and since the pandemic started we have been quietly counting the noise cessation as one of our dwindling stock of blessings. “Quietly” because neither of us dared to tempt fate: acknowledging the sweet silence might break it, right? Because we all know that’s how this works.

Months passed — March, April, May — and at least a dozen times I resisted the temptation to comment on it, consciously wary of jinxing it. In June I thought, “They must have moved,” and I even noticed that I was having trouble remembering how bad it had been for so long: pain amnesia was setting in. We had simply stopped hearing them, other than the odd bit of daytime clunking and scraping and flushing that is just the soundtrack to life in all apartments. I finally dared to speak of it yesterday, cautiously:

“I probably shouldn’t say this out loud,” I said, “but the neighbours do seem to have been a bit quieter lately. Been a while since we were last woken up.”

I understated the matter greatly, as a kind of self-defense. Everyone knows fate is most tempted by smug overconfidence. My humility was like a sad little offering to the gods.

The noise resumed at 6 AM this morning… only a few minutes or so after having finally managed to get back to sleep after a couple hours of tossing and turning (which is a separate source of superstitious exasperation for me).

This was not a subtle revival: it was thunderous, outrageous stomping, shaking our ceiling like the skin of a drum, as bad as ever and instantly reminding us how bad it had been for so long. A streak of at least 180 days of peace, decisively smashed the very night after I defied my sheepish superstition to speak of it.

I know what I am supposed to make of such coincidences: nothing at all, because “tempting fate” is not actually a thing. But it is truly astonishing how good a job life can do of making it seem like it absolutely is a thing. It’s easy to see why it’s such a potent theme in human psychology and culture.