It’s my usual route, around the Art Center—closed, and the old people’s home—closed to visitors, and along the path behind the church that’s also closed. On the way I’ll stop at the mini mart—open, to pick up my cigs. It shouldn’t be open but the owner, Mr. Auhja, knows that all the old bats like me can’t stand outside Sainsbury’s for two hours waiting to be let in fifteen at a time.
My feet aren’t what they used to be. None of me is what it used to be. Even my elbows have started complaining. I used to be able to carry two bags of shopping in each hand. Now I can only manage one cotton bag with a few bits and pieces.
I like this path around the back of the church. Tall hedges on one side and a wooden fence on the other, and trees that meet overhead to make a cool, green corridor. I always slow down here. It’s magical even if it is only fifty meters long.
I’ve not been inside the church for a long time. I don’t blame God for the arthritis. I just don’t feel the need to be inside a big draughty place that smells of old hymnals and disappointment. Not that I could go now anyway. It’s been closed for months, like everything else. Anyway, God’s not confined to buildings, it seems. He’s often loitering about on the path when I go through. Did you call your sister? Have you visited your mother’s grave? Did you donate to the Salvation Army? Did you check on your neighbor with the bad leg? Such a nag. Sometimes you want to have something cheerful to talk about, like birds. Here’s something I just found out. The small ones live in hedges.
Two days ago, it was raining when I came along the path, and all these tiny things, brown with yellow and black stripes on top of their heads, were hopping in and out of the hedges, fluttering off as I passed. I suppose a hedge is a good place to shelter in the rain. I wondered if birds have waterproof feathers. I stopped to look at them and bingo, here He comes with his did-you-do-this and did-you-do-that. You can go off people.
I tried changing the subject. What a beautiful day, Lord. But there was no distracting Him. Did you wash the soap dish? Did you clean behind the toilet? I don’t know why it’s His business how I clean my toilet. And all the answers to the questions are, No, I didn’t. No, I haven’t. Not yet. It’s never, How are you, Sarah? Is the knee feeling any better?
Actually, the knee is a lot better, thanks to the Tiger Balm. Of course, I can’t say that to Him in case He might smite me with something worse because I’m not grateful for his healing, etc.
I’m about to go through the double metal gate when I see someone coming from the other end where it joins Church Street. Now this man – of course it would be a man – has just turned on to the path and I have to wait because it’s too narrow for us to pass each other what with social distancing.
He must have seen me. But no, here he comes, head down, swinging along. Not a care in the world, while I’m waiting here. He’s not even wearing a mask. What in the world is he thinking? I
make sure the elastic of my beautifully sewn mask, if I say so myself, is firmly over my ears. And now he’s stopped. He’s staring into the hedge. He crouches down. I try to stay patient in case God wants to have a moan about that later. But the man stays there. I wonder if I should call out to him, but then he straightens. He must have come up too fast because he takes a step backwards and steadies himself against the wooden fence. He finally continues his swing-plod walk, finally reaches the metal gates, and finally looks up and sees me. He looks startled. Good. Now he can get out of the way and I can get to the mini mart for my cigs.
But he smiles, —Your mask. Quite a work of art.
It’s a sunflowers-on-black piece that I think is quite striking. He ignores my I’m-waiting expression.
—Have you seen the Goldcrests? In the hedge? They’re lovely.
Goldcrests. Of course. He must be one of those bird spotters that go stamping around the country in wellies and huge green binoculars. He steps a bit closer and I step back. Six feet. It’s the rule.
He looks at me closely, —I don’t know many birds. Starlings and sparrows, of course. But these are so, well, lovely.
I wouldn’t disagree but I’m not going to start a conversation with some mad Goldcrest fancier. —Excuse me. Would you mind?
I pull the mask down a bit, —Would you mind?
He steps aside, apologizing. –So sorry. Big lump in the way.
He says it like he’s heard it before. A lot. He’s tall, but not lumpy. Nice head of more-salt-than-pepper hair, salt-and-pepper eyebrows. I’m pleased that there’s no beard, which, I’m sad to say, I see a lot of in our age group. That is, if we’re in the same age group. I’m less and less able to tell.
And a friendly smile. I nod at him and replace the mask, —Thanks.
And walk past.
—Have you seen them? The Goldcrests?
I turn around and call yes. It’s not easy trying to speak through a mask but I think he gets the idea.
I’m in and out of the mini mart in less than a minute. Mr. Ahuja, the owner, knows me. Collects my Richmonds off the shelf and gives me a little head-wobble that jiggles his tartan mask. I like him. Older man. Dark maroon turban, neatly tucked.
God’s busy elsewhere so I can enjoy the return trip along the path, despite my poorly hip, and make it home for my ciggie. That’s the last thing I need, a scolding about my one remaining vice.
Two days later and it isn’t raining. I’m supposed to be sheltering in place, which is what we’re all supposed to be doing, especially us old folks who can’t be trusted to keep six feet away from other people. And then we’re always falling over, breaking a hip, and creating a bother. But the sun’s peeping out from the clouds and I don’t care what other people think. I’m going out.
I can hear the birds outside my kitchen window waiting for their food. I put out seeds and bread on the ledge that’s too narrow for that greedy wood pigeon.
I head to the path. A turning on the right, just before Church Street, leads into a small area surrounded by trees and bushes, where they’ve put two benches facing each other across six feet of cobbled paving. It’s a nice little nook but they should’ve put the benches side by side. At least people could sit in peace without having to look at some stranger eating their sandwiches or, like me, smoking a cigarette. Not that anyone’s about, these days.
I walk through the metal gates. The hedges are almost vibrating with small chirps and chatters. I’ll be glad
to sit down on one of those benches and enjoy a Richmond. And as I turn right between the thick bushes, the wind drops. The sun comes through the leaves and scatters across the cobbles. I sit with my legs in the sunshine. What luxury. It’s like a private garden. A starling screeches. I pull my mask down and raise my face to the warmth. It couldn’t be more perfect. Bring me my cream cake and tea, Hudson.
I sit up. It’s Goldcrest man, still not wearing a mask. He’s standing behind the second bench.
I slip my mask back in place.
He lifts a hand, —Hello there. Did you say something?
I pull the mask aside, —I didn’t say anything.
I want to leave. I want him to leave. I wish I hadn’t come out in the first place.
He sits on the opposite bench, —Wish I’d brought a flask of tea.
I pull my mask up again. This is exactly the problem with these benches. If they were only side by side, we could have politely ignored each other. And I really want a smoke.
He is fiddling with something in his pocket. He pulls it out. A yo-yo. I haven’t seen one of those since I was a girl.
—I can walk the dog.
—Good for you.
That was rude, but at least it was muffled by my mask. He winds up his yo-yo, —I learned this one while I was in Korea.
—You were in the … I pull the mask aside, —You were in the war?
He doesn’t look up, —For a bit. See? This is the bit where the dog walks.
—I’m sorry to hear that. About the war, I mean.
He makes the yo-yo jump up the string. He must be a wow at kids’ parties. —Listen. I don’t mean to be rude, but you should be wearing a mask.
He gestures at the air between us, —We’re six feet apart.
—It’s airborne, they say.
—Well, I’ll try not to breathe too hard at you.
The trouble is, I can’t sweep away as I could when I was younger. It’ll take me a while to stand up even when I’m pushing hard on the bench arm.
—Don’t go. I’m sorry. Please?
I stay sitting, but it’s only because of my hip. —Got a cigarette?
Is he the limit? But I really do want a smoke, so I pull out my Richmonds and throw one to him. It falls on the cobblestones. He bends down and picks it up. Stands uncertainly, grabs onto the bench arm, and lowers himself onto the seat.
—Got a match?
I throw the box of matches over. He grabs at it, misses. I laugh. He laughs, too, —There goes my cricket career.
He lights up and takes a puff. I pull out a cigarette for myself. He stands up carefully and walks towards me with the matchbox. I pull up my mask. He stops. –I want to light your cigarette, but I can’t throw a lighted match at you. Look, I’ll hold it out like this.
He extends his arm, leans forward. He’s about three feet away. Half the safe distance. I should just ask him for the matches.
I pull off the mask and put the cigarette in my mouth. He strikes the match and holds it out. I lean forward to the flame, and inhale. He immediately steps back, shakes out the match, throws the box into my lap.
He backs away to his bench. His eyes are black, and his skin is brown, like he’s been abroad. He looks quite nice for an old man.
The question pops out before I can stop it, —How old are you?
—So, because we’re smoking together you can ask intimate questions?
I haven’t blushed in twenty years. I look down, —Sorry. Just, you said you were in the war. But you don’t look like you’re that old.
—Fifty-seven. Fifty-eight next week. You? If I might ask?
—Me? Oh. Sixty-five.
—Get on with you. I thought you were maybe early fifties.
I know he’s just saying this because I gave him a cigarette. I flick the ash off, —Actually, I should be going.
He crosses an ankle across a knee, —They used to think that Goldcrests rode on the backs of owls when they migrated. It’s a beautiful story, even if it isn’t true. Sometimes after migration, they’re so exhausted they land on people. Incredible.
I think of the tiny birds flying for hundreds and hundreds of miles, —Perhaps they don’t see us as people, just a place to rest.
He holds up a finger, —There! Hear it? That’s the Goldcrest. It’s that high warbly song.
It takes me a moment to filter out what he’s listening to and then I can hear it. It’s loud for such a tiny bird. We smile as we listen. He has a nice smile.
He stubs out his cigarette. I finish mine, —I really must be going now. —You have a nice smile.
—It was nice to have a cigarette. Thank you.
I manage to stand without too much hip strain, —Well, goodbye.
I pull on the mask and walk out to the path.
—You forgot your matches.
They must have dropped off my lap. He puts them on the arm of the bench and backs away. It’s not that I’m afraid, but somehow going back for my matchbox feels too awkward.
I pull the mask down, —You can pass them on to someone else. He scoops up the matchbox, flips it in the air and catches it in his coat pocket. He’s spry for a fifty-seven- year-old. I remember his dodgy balance, but maybe that’s a war wound.
I wave a hand as I leave. He doesn’t say anything. I make a big thing of walking straight in case he’s watching me go. After I turn onto Church Street, I can finally let myself limp. The relief of letting the pain dictate the pace.
I’m half-waiting for the usual Divine Nag to start, Did you really maintain social distancing? How many cigarettes have you smoked this week? But, oddly enough, there’s nothing. Perhaps I’m being given a free pass for today.
You have a nice smile. I must remember to check my teeth when I get home. When we’re back to normal and the dentist is open, I’ll go in for a cleaning.
I wouldn’t mind sitting on that bench again. Even if someone was sitting opposite.
As I pass around the back of the Art Center, I hear the Goldcrest’s song, high and clear and loud. It’s right out in the open, where anyone can hear it.
Sandra Hunter’s stories have won the 2018 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Award, 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, and three Pushcart nominations. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Fellow and the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Books: story collection TRIP WIRES, chapbook SMALL CHANGE, LOSING TOUCH, a novel