The news grows dark again as talk is of the second wave and lockdown in Scotland is tightened and everyone goes about with their faces creased in concern, not sure what the future holds. I’ve been working hard to process my other griefs, the ones that don’t make headline news. I miss my stepfather keenly. I keep thinking, ‘I must ring Roddy,’ and then remember he is no longer there. It sounds slightly absurd to say, when one is grieving a human being, but I miss my little bay mare too. I miss her sweetness and kindness and straightforwardness and her astonishing capacity for love. And then, as I’m doing all that, the coronavirus says, ‘Ha, puny humans, I’m not finished with you yet’.
But this morning the autumn sun is shining with a great, amber dazzle, and the hills are gleaming blue in the light, and people are out with their children and their dogs, looking happy in the glorious day.
I go down to the Co-Op to buy some food, that most ordinary of ordinary tasks. Our Co-Op is more like a village shop than a supermarket. Wooded hills rise behind it, and fields run away to the east, and I know most of the people on the tills and often run into a friend. It has a sense of community which I cherish.
As I walk in, I see the most splendidly dressed man. I stop and stare in admiration. He’s got on a forest-green gilet and a sweatshirt in burnt orange. As if this were not chic enough, he’s wearing fabulously cool trainers with shoelaces that are the same orange as his sweatshirt.
We cross each other a couple of times, in the vegetable aisle, in the drinks section. Finally, I can contain myself no longer. I march up to him and smile behind my mask and say, ‘Excuse me, but I have to say how marvellous your colour combination is.’
He laughs and ducks his head, the traditional British response when accosted by an unknown middle-aged woman. We Britons are not trained to give compliments to strangers, nor receive them. I’m not sure how much of a cultural thing it is. I have a suspicion that there are places where this does go on. Do they do it in Duluth or Sweden? Are there people in Minnesota and Stockholm running about telling other people how smart they look? Anyway, here it is not a thing, and I am rather astonished by my own effrontery. But I’m so glad I said it that I add, laughing along with my startled gent, ‘It’s a triumph!’
As I return to the car, I see something even more lovely. A woman with a trainee guide dog is giving a lesson to a Labrador and a visually-impaired gentleman. The gentleman looks as if he’s got a little sight, but not much, and the dog is taking him over the road and on to the pavement. The training woman is completely focused on the dog, to see he is doing his job right, and taking care of the man at the same time. She is utterly absorbed in her task.
I stand and watch them, in delight and awe. I have so much wonder and respect for all assistance dogs – the ones who sniff out bombs for the military, the faithful police hounds, the dogs who help people with epilepsy, the ones who guide the blind. And I think of that woman, and what a job she does, and how much dedication and time it must take, and what a responsibility it is, and how it adds to the sum total of human happiness.
There’s something about this little scene – so much tenderness, and care, and connection; so much goodness and kindness and love. It lifts my heart and gives me hope. Whatever that damn pandemic is doing, out in the world, it can’t stop this.
I want to pay another compliment, but I sense I must not interrupt. So I stay silent. And just as the trio pass by, the woman looks up and catches my eye, and a fleeting flash of emotion runs between us – respect, acknowledgment, something I can’t quite put in to words. Perhaps it is gratitude – on my part because I am so glad that there are people like her in the world; on her part because I stood back and did not barge into the moment.
As I drive away, I see the trio walking steadily up the slope towards the village, and just ahead of them is the splendidly dressed man. There they are, I think, the people who made my morning.
But the universe is not finished with me yet. All good things come in threes, and there is a third, waiting.
As I navigate for home, I see a merry couple with a scampering spaniel. I start to think something mildly disobliging about dogs off leads. (This is pure Freudian projection. My own dogs are a perfect menace off the lead, because their enthusiasm impels them to make friends with strangers, and the strangers often do not welcome two bouncing lurchers. I try to remember to keep them leashed at all times, but sometimes I slip.)
Then I see that the dog is being brought to heel as if it has some kind of radar device in its head. It goodly sits at its human’s feet, staring up in adoration, as still as a statue.
I am so impressed that I bring the car to a jolting halt, leap out, and yell across the social distance between us, ‘That is the best-trained dog I’ve ever seen!’
There is more British laughing: half pleasure, half extreme embarrassment. As seems to be the case with me today, I do not know when to stop. I bang on about the training, and how much work they must have put in, and how I wish I could learn to train my boys like that.
There is a slight edge of fear in the laughter now. Will this strange person ever leave us alone?
The spaniel is still gazing upwards, love all over his face. I bend down and direct my last compliment to him.
‘Good boy!’ I cry. ‘Good boy.’
I get home and go in to the house, bathed in the benign light of Having Been Nice To Strangers. A very old, very dear friend calls. I tell her of my happy morning. She starts to laugh helplessly. ‘So,’ she says, ‘you’ve basically been going round the village terrifying people.’
I start to laugh too. I laugh until I cry. The absurdity tickles me so much I can’t speak.
‘Yes,’ I say finally, when I can get a word out. ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been doing.’
And why do I tell you this very long, very shaggy dog story? It’s partly because I want to remember. One day, to paraphrase Yeats, I shall take down this book and slowly read. I always think I’ll remember moments like this, and I almost never do. But it’s also because the more we go on through this never-ending story of virus and fear and lockdown, the more I think the only solace lies in the smallest of small things. It is not the governments or the professors or the institutions which are going to save us, in the end, although I hope they will step up and do their bit. I think we very ordinary humans are going to save each other, in a thousand tiny, unheralded, everyday ways.