Yesterday I wrote about missing human contact. Today, the universe woke up, stretched itself, and decided to send me a present.
I took the red mare out for a gentle walk in hand. After about twenty minutes, we spotted a gentleman walking his extremely handsome Labrador. As we came within earshot, I said something about some people walking dogs and some people walking horses. I thought he would keep on walking (he had an extremely purposeful air about him) but he stopped and started to talk.
The dog, it turned out, was twenty months old and his name was Alfie.
‘Alfie!’ I cried in delight. ‘What a great name.’
The gentleman said that he himself had not been well. He said, in a matter of fact sort of way, that he’d had a stroke and then a stomach cancer. I looked at him in astonishment.
‘You look so incredibly well now,’ I said.
A faint flash of satisfaction crossed his face, as if he knew he’d worked hard for that health. He told me he’d been a physical fitness instructor in the Royal Marines, as if that explained everything. Which I think it did.
‘You’re a Marine!’ I cried. ‘I knew there was something.’ In my experience, there really is something. They have an aura.
‘Best of the best,’ he said, smiling.
So we talked about the Marines and I said I worked with a couple and we talked of this and that and the other thing and then we smiled and said a courteous goodbye and walked our ways.
Human contact, I thought, even with a complete stranger, even at a ten foot distance – there is nothing quite like it.
That’s all I need, to get me through a day. Ten minutes of connection and laughter and human warmth. I don’t need parties or hours in the pub; a smiling stranger will do it. That anchors me back in the world of community; it makes me part of something. I sometimes get so sappy that I think if all I have achieved in a day is to make one person laugh, my work is done. That day has meaning. I have a purpose. My life is worth it.
But the universe was not done with me yet. Waiting in the wings was a whole family. An entire family! The two very small girls were on their bikes. Their dad had charge of the dogs. Their mum, rather racily, was on rollerblades.
‘Look at you!’ I said, even though we had never met before in our lives. ‘Rocking those blades.’
She burst out laughing.
‘Mid-life crisis,’ she said.
‘Ah,’ I said, understanding completely. ‘I have one of those.’ I pointed at the red mare. ‘She’s my equivalent of a Lamborghini.’
We grinned at each other, getting the point.
‘Look at the horse,’ the father said to his daughters. The red mare was guzzling the grass and looking entirely unlike a super-car. I decided not to tell them the history of the thoroughbred and how her grandfather won the Derby. We talked about their splendid dogs instead. We talked about the sunshine and how lucky we were to have beautiful Scotland to walk in. And we waved at each other and on we went.
‘One more thing,’ said the universe.
I went to the shop to get essential supplies, and there was my friend Wanda, the one I always chat to, the one I’ve been missing, because I ration my visits to the shop and always seem to miss her shift.
‘Oh,’ she said, beaming. ‘I’d like to give you a hug.’
We were strictly social distancing. I flung my arms open. ‘Virtual hug,’ I said.
I went home, feeling as if someone had decided it was my Christmas and Easter rolled into one. It was my birthday and my day of jubilee.
I don’t know if it was the change of perspective, but I had two intensely exciting and productive sessions with a writing client and then went on Zoom to meet a new one. I always give people a free introductory session, because I teach writing in such an idiosyncratic way and it’s not for everyone. For some reason, I’d thought, from our initial messages, that this person might want someone different. But she was the most fascinating woman, completely on my wavelength. We were supposed to talk for twenty minutes and we ended up speaking for an hour. I’m already galvanised about working with her. That felt like another beautiful and unexpected offering, to remind me that not everything is bleak and black. It was all light.
‘Hang on,’ said the universe. ‘One last present for you.’
And there it was, one of my young English pupils, surprising me with his bold thinking. He’s much brighter than he thinks he is, and sometimes I like to lift the bar a little high, just to see if he can clear it. I always tell him this. ‘It doesn’t matter if you can’t guess,’ I say. ‘But let’s give it a go.’
I asked him one hard question. I genuinely thought he wouldn’t get it. There would be no shame in not getting it. He frowned and thought and frowned again. I reframed the question. And then, like a shooting star, there it was, the very answer I had been hoping for. I almost fell off my chair. ‘You brilliant boy,’ I hollered. I always holler when they surprise and delight me. He gave a wide, free smile of pure achievement.
‘That’s your last gift,’ said the universe, ‘before I go.’
Normally, by this time of day, I’m wrung out. I do find this time of lockdown hard, I can’t pretend I don’t. I have to work my socks off to keep my little boat sailing over the roiling sea. This is usually the moment when I look at the news and see the looming headlines and feel hope drain away. I’m not looking at the news tonight. I feel exhausted, but in that holy, cleansed way that you get after a day that has taken all you’ve got and given you as much back.
I think – if these are the things that matter, if these are the things that heal my chipped heart, if these are the things that give me life, then there really is hope. Because when normality returns, I’ll know what is important. I won’t just pay lip service to it. I’ll know in my bones. It’s not money or success or fame. It’s not the worldly things. It’s not stuff. It’s the human heart.