While There Is Still Time

I am in the Post Office sending parcels, there are two hatches but she says – go to go his, I am sorting something, and as he serves me she speaks sharply to him, saying that he has labelled these boxes incorrectly and has placed a bag where she is bound to trip over it, and he grunts back with a scornful familiarity and before I can help myself I ask, are you two brother and sister? He tells me yes and adds – people say we look alike but I can’t see it. And I say, no, that wasn’t it, it’s how you bicker. She laughs but he looks stony, and I hope I’ve not made it worse by speaking out of turn. Then again, maybe we ought to speak out of turn more, without thinking, not throwaway remarks like mine, but spontaneous hellos, conversation, words as connection, an exchange of being, an acknowledgement, a kindness.

I read a prose-poem called, “I don’t usually talk to strangers,” by Claudia Rankine, to which I respond by thinking, why ever not? and wondering about all those people, me included, who might not speak much at all during the course of a day were we not to talk to strangers. An hour later on the same day I’m walking past Gala Bingo at Meadowbank where a homeless man with whipped red hair sitting on a square of cardboard asks me how I’m doing and I say, not too bad how about you, and he says, I’m fine, thanks, and wishes a good day upon me, and he smiles and I feel better for the small connection we have made. On my way back, I slow to speak to him again but he doesn’t notice me as he is chatting to a woman with a lanyard around her neck – I figure she is on a smoke break from Poundland – and he is offering her a pink marshmallow sweet from a big bag and she is leaning down to take one, hand in, rummaging.

He didn’t have much to share but it was her acceptance that to me seemed the more important and it reminded me of a day I was taking the train to Belfast and there was an unusually large crowds on the platform at Ballymena waiting to board and someone in the carriage said, the agricultural show’s on this week, and I lifted my bag and coat from beside me and put them on the rack above to make space. An older man got on wearing an old tweed jacket and a slacks that were too wide at the waist for him so they folded in tucks under his belt, and when he sat down he pulled a flask from his inside breast pocket and a china tea cup from his main pocket. Even before I could connect the dots there was sometime about the very slow deliberate way that he moved that told me he was drunk, and he said, will you take a drop, I sold a heifer today and did terrible well. I had no interest in sipping whiskey out of a teacup at four on a Wednesday afternoon, but I said, I will surely, thank you very much.

We’re told to be socially distant, but it doesn’t hurt to talk. Or, as Philip Larkin put it in a poem of his (The Mower), “Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”

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