I was the only person she saw today.
As I let myself into her home this morning, I shouted: “Happy birthday!” She grinned: “Good morning,” she said and hurried back behind the door to her bedroom to sit back down in her chair.
As I put down my bag, I took my phone from my pocket and opened an app, hovering the camera lens over a QR code on a white folder on a side table, logging my presence and noting the time: 8am exactly.
“This is for you,” I said and thrust out a square handwritten envelope. “I’ve brought you a magazine too,” I said and placed it on the arm of her chair.
That’s when she looked up at me, eyes blurring. A look both of happiness and sadness intermingled.
One other card lay beside her teacup with the words “Happy 70th birthday neighbour” hastily scrawled inside and I looked from that card to mine and then back to her tiny lost-looking face and wished more than anything that I could give her a hundred cards. Or that I’d brought flowers with me. Or could give her a hug.
As she opened the envelope her hands shook a little and I momentarily regretted having not brought her a gift she could unwrap, or a cake or some balloons. I wished that I hadn’t been wearing a smile-obscuring mask. I just watched and tried to crinkle my eyes a little with warmth and keep eye contact – showing her the only reassurance I could: She existed. At least to me. That I saw her. I was here.
As I put the kettle on to make tea, I tried to stay upbeat and chatty. Tried to talk about everything and nothing. The weather. The clocks going back. The dog I’d just seen wearing a raincoat.
Looking around at the cobweb-scattered windows that looked out onto the peeling paint of a basement brick wall, I considered bringing green plants next time. Some music. Books and films.
The milk, curdled in the cup as I poured it and I noticed on the carton label that it was nine days out of date. How long had she been indoors?
I made a note to buy her some more milk and poured away the tea and fixed, instead, a glass fresh juice as an alternative.
In the other room, I could hear Sellotape being drawn from the reel and when I rejoined her, noticing she had taped her two birthday cards onto the back of the bedroom door on a diagonal slant, like people do at Christmas. “I’ve made a display,” she said and I smiled behind my mask. “It looks great. This one is such a nice card,” I said, tapping the card from her neighbour which had sunflowers on the front.
She smiled, proudly.
“Any plans today?” I ventured and she shook her head. “No, not today. I’ll watch a programme or something.”
That’s when she told me that she used to go out every day. But the charity shop she worked in had been closed since March and there were no plans for it to reopen. And the pub across the road where she used to have lunch, that had shut too. And with no family or friends, her husband of 30 years having been gone now, she was alone. More now than ever before. Invisible.
She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes.
I looked at her form. Her next of kin was her neighbour’s address. And I felt in that moment a duty of overwhelming gratitude that I’d been assigned to her. It made my heart ache in acknowledgement.
“Did you have your tablets with your orange juice?” I asked. “Drink up,” I added as I raised her glass to her lips and she said “bottoms up” as she swallowed four tablets. Technicolour treats to keep her here.
“I’ve taken my meds and I’ve made my bed. I don’t think there’s anything else that needs to be done today,” she whispered to herself.
Then added: “I won’t go out because the news says I should stay inside. They’re going to close it all down soon anyway. But you’ll still come by sometimes, won’t you?”
I looked up and nodded. “We can go out some time, if you like. To a pub. Or a cafe one day when the weather gets better, maybe. I like going out and it’s nice to sit at tables with a friend with a drink, don’t you think?”
I wondered, momentarily, if I should tell her what I did for a living when I wasn’t visiting people in the mornings. Tell her about the industry I worked in. About the drinks and hospitality business or any of the magazines for which I’d written. I wanted so much for her to know that it wasn’t just her feeling lost and alone. That entire sectors of society had been overlooked and that the paucity of support for those in need had begun to force people into poverty. Do I tell her that I’m really a drinks and pubs writer? That later on that day I’d be at a desk looking for the right words to describe something that made people feel good and interested. Things that reflected our thoughts, tastes and individuality.
No. I decided against it.
And here’s why.
Right then, right there, she needed to be my focus. My priority. And she needed to feel it too. Because everyone is deserving of a tiny slice of time that is not about anyone else but them, especially on their birthday.
Everyone deserves to be seen and heard.
So I stayed quiet and, instead, asked what she planned to watch later on tv. What her favourite foods and drinks were, so I might bring her a few things another time. Then I discovered how she met her husband and the name of the shop she had worked in until recently. And, instead of offering fragments of my life, I made mental notes of hers. Committed her stories to memory and turned each of the adventures of her youth into a vivid picture in my head. Her retelling of who she was, why and how she came to live in the city animated her in a way I hadn’t yet seen. And I watched her face light up as she told me each detail.
When I noticed the time and held my phone over the QR code to log out, I paused before looking at the white folder where others have written down “All ok” and “All fine” and looped the words: “The best of days. Tea and chats. Smiles and stories. A brilliant birthday.”
And I thought: “We have been asked to stay vigilant. To stay indoors. Away from harm. Advised to retrain. But we cannot and should not adapt so much that we forget what it means to be human. To care about one another. Because our lives and livelihoods – they mean something to us. This is not our failing. It is part of who we are. Socialising is important and loneliness is real.”
I pulled the door to on my way out as I heard her dial a number on the phone.
She began: “It’s me. Yes, today. Thank you. Not much, but my friend came to visit me this morning.”
I took a deep breath, composing myself and put my mask and gloves into the pocket of my bag.
Then I walked up the stone steps from the basement flat and pulled my phone out of my coat pocket to open up the app and read the details of the next appointment.
And thought: “Right, who’s next.”