‘Hello, how are you?’ And then she called me by my name. This was a few weeks ago, a night when the temperature had dropped precipitously, providing perfect conditions for the snow that would lie thick during the week. It was Monday and I had nipped out on foot to Meadowbank Shopping centre, a ten-minute walk from my flat. Hatted and gloved and scarfed, the speaker was also masked making it difficult for me to work out who she was. She shook her head, freeing tiny flakes and creating her own little snowfall under the concrete canopy. ‘Hello there, stranger,’ I said, happy to make face-to-face human contact, even if I didn’t recognise the half-face in front of me. ‘And you are a stranger under that mask,’ I added, ‘as I have no idea who you are.’ She pinched the fabric at a point under her nose, pulled it forward then lowered it for the big reveal. My suspicions were confirmed: I had no idea who this person was, yet her voice was familiar, and she knew me for sure. ‘Fiona!’ she announced, as pleased as I was, it seemed, to have an in-person chat. But even though she had given me her name I remained unable to place her. ‘Monday night zoom writers?’ she prompted. ‘Last year,’ she said, nodding encouragingly. She raised her hands placing each palm a couple of inches to the side of her face and then above and below, making a little screen around herself. ‘Do you know me now?’ she laughed. ‘Just think of my head and shoulders in a wee box on your computer and you might know me.’ It worked; I knew her! The motion of boxing herself in had done it. ‘It’s because we are meeting IRL,’ she said, and she could read the look of confusion on my face. ‘In real life. That’s how the kids say it, IRL.’
And there we stood, in the darkness of an outside stairwell sheltered from the falling snow which illuminated the evening and softened the usual callousness of February, and together we marvelled at how meeting someone IRL has become something notable, a highlight, a small joy. ‘My hope for spring,’ I told her, ‘is to see more people IRL.’ She nodded, smiled, bade me farewell and covered her face back up.
I wandered home in the thickening snow wondering about this suspended state that is very much real life, no matter how much we might tell ourselves it is not. After a full year of spending time largely alone or in tight little knots, there is a temptation to discount it as a year (and let’s face it, it could be longer yet) that was put on ice, a sort of detention or arrest (a rest?) from IRL, but it has been real, and full, and busy and connected, and also wonderfully idle.
Idleness, Douglas Dunn
Can you hear them? The flap of the butterfly.
The unfolding wing of a resting wren.
The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost.
A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.