13 years older than me, my sister was a child of WWII and my mother took her to the country where the bombing was less. They moved into rooms in a country vicarage a long way away for the time (hardly any petrol for cars, few trains) while my father stayed at the local aerodrome with the Air Training Corps. My mother became a magistrate’s clerk in a nearby town, and she told me as a little girl, about getting up in the morning and pulling trousers and a coat over her pyjamas, to make tea and get my sister and herself ready for the day. I can’t explain to you why this image of my pretty mother (I’d seen photographs) pulling a tweed coat and corduroys over her nightwear stuck with me but it did. I smile as I remember it, I bet she put on perfume too.
When he flew away, I went and put on newspaper collection clothes – pants, trousers, socks and shoes, sweater – no bra ! – and a soft and voluminous jacket that conceals all. If I am knocked down by an errant vehicle, everyone will know. I put my far too long, Noh play lion, hair up and taking my purse (check for keys) and the bag that stands ready, I walk the five minutes up to the main road where two white vans pass. From the window of the second comes a young man’s voice shouting “I like your hair !” I gape and raise my arm. And from the window of the van up the road, I see a young man’s dark arm waving back.
When people talk (and they don’t much, it’s a journalistic thing) about the pandemic influencing us for the better, they are not talking about mass movements. We won’t suddenly all become good neighbours or better friends. But there might just be a renewed interest in the small acknowledgements, politenesses and behavioural generosities that make the day brighter.
There are a group of people who are working harder from home than they ever worked in the office and may I say that 12 hours a day on the screen is tough on the eyes and the back ? Yes I know, theoretically you should stand up, stretch and move every fifteen or twenty minutes but you don’t, you forget, the next thing happens and you go on.
And then there are all the people whose work has just closed down and heaven knows where they go from here. One minute, there were three young women in publishing living next door to me, offering their mobile numbers in case I should need them. But they were gone overnight – no income, no rental.
And alongside the small courtesies which take no time and cost nothing, there might be a greater appreciation in the subtle gradations of meet and greet. We don’t all become friends. Friendship is a very high order of social and emotional connection. I can’t stand that phrase “my new best friend” unless it’s said in jest. Nor can I remember the last time I heard someone talk about an acquaintance. It risks sounding chilly and formal. We must all be friends – thank you, I prefer to choose mine rather than have them foisted on me.
But there are two women, slightly older than me, whom I met because I said “Good morning.” Obviously I look as if my neck is clean (and my bra on) so they would risk returning the greeting and we are free with each other for all sorts of subtle personal reasons, because we “recognise” each other but also because these are hard times. This is not The Great Mortality (see John Kelly’s book on the Black Death) nor the Second World War. But it is quite bad enough. This is the Third World War and it will be fought every way except militarily – economically, socially, medically, psychologically – not made any easier to bear by the political aggrandisement of several men who are a disgrace to the genus.