He stands in the deserted high street and waits. The silence of the empty city remaining every bit as unnatural as it had been fourteen weeks ago when lockdown had started, the windows of silent restaurants and pubs blacked out in the dusk of a Saturday evening.
When a bike breaks the stillness, he knows it will be her.
Still, the old instincts kick in: he performs a bizarrely futile pantomime of initial nonchalance, to no one in particular, as if they are back in a playground and the other children might notice and mock any sign of over-eagerness.
She dismounts and locks her bike to the rack nearby. He is struck by a moment’s panic. He had once known her name, but that had been over three months ago. He wonders if he might have enough time now to flip out his phone and double-check.
Her name begins with an S, that much was certain… Almost certain. Maybe it is a soft C.
She checks the lock, turns her attention to him, and flashes him a big smile. As she goes to embrace him, he curses himself silently for being so stupid as to wait alone for around five minutes without thinking to double-check her name. She pulls back and says:
“Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But you are only the second person I’ve seen in fourteen weeks.”
Much the same is true of him. They had both spent the pandemic living alone, as mature students, away from family and friends.
Or perhaps Sophia?
He points up towards the hill and suggests they get moving while there is still light in the sky. She agrees and they begin the climb.
Their first date had been a slightly stuttering experience, in a café, back in March. The Corona Virus was then a nebulous, continental threat. ‘Herd Immunity’ would be the solution proposed days after, which, to the scientifically ignorant, sounded almost like no solution at all. Two hours, two pots of tea, and two tiffin’s later, they had nervously decided to meet again. They had been talking about the hill on the south side of the city, where an observatory was situated, and where the best views of the night sky were alleged to be found. They agreed they would investigate these allegations for themselves.
A lot has changed in the weeks since. She has met someone else, for one thing, sending over a polite apology and asking if he had minded. He hadn’t, and, rather grandiosely, offered his ‘blessings’, whatever the hell that had meant.
And so, here it was, lockdown, phase two – which made it sound almost like anyone had a clue what was going on. They were on a second date, which was now no longer a date; arranged through their dormant dating apps because they had forgotten to exchange numbers in the meantime, and he cannot remember her name.
As they climb, they discuss the obvious pleasantries: course assignments, diets, sleep patterns. They also notice the faint streaks of salmon pink still visible late into the evening, how during the Scottish summer the moon is often visible by day, and the sunlight lingers in the night sky well beyond midnight.
“All this freedom has got me thinking about time. I’m writing my dissertation on the subject,” she says. “How have you been finding it?”
They were walking side-by-side, and so honesty was a real option. He is oddly tempted to tell her that this prolonged bout of extreme isolation was making him freak out again: about love and life, about money, about the direction of his life. All the neurosis that he hoped this move away might help solve.
“This and that,” he replies eventually, cowardly, “reading, and a lot of walking.”
“Nice! How many steps?” she asks. The question coming with a slight suggestion of competition. He wonders quite when steps replaced miles as the understood metric of distance.
“Anything between fifteen to forty thousand. My flatmates all moved home at the start of everything. So really, home feels like I’m the last contestant on a reality show, and no one ever came to tell me it’s over,” he replies.
It feels right that her name ended with an “ah” noise. Do parents sill name girls Celia?
“Don’t you think it’s funny. Mostly, people complain they don’t have enough time, to get fit, to do DIY, to read books, get creative, spend time with loved ones. And now this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself. Lockdown can be agency over time. That’s why I thought – why not go out stargazing late after all? There’s nothing to get up for tomorrow.”
“You’re the first person I’ve spoken with who hasn’t just moaned about it all,” he replies. “Most seem to be finding freedom oddly oppressive.”
He realises then that this includes himself and resolves to aspire towards positivity tomorrow.
“People fear uncertainty,” she says. “The future feels like a moral right. But when this is all over, we’ll see these months as opportunities, whether we took them or not.”
“And are you taking them?”
“When I can. Otherwise, these months will just be forgotten… I’ll be old one day, and this stretch of time just won’t exist anymore.”
They reach the top of the hill, beneath the observatory, where the ground gives way to several pockets and hollows. He pulls off his rucksack to lay in the soft grass. She lay next to him, side by side, naturally reclining to look upwards at the stars. It really is exceptionally romantic. He thinks about saying so, but he thinks she will assume he is attempting to passively-aggressively flirt with her, and this night-time non-date really shouldn’t be any stranger than it already is.
Besides, he can’t even remember her name. Selina?
He pulls his bag close and tells her he has brought some essentials. She looks at his rucksack and bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
“What?” he asks, paranoid now.
“Nothing, just dreading what essentials could be inside this time,” she replies.
For a moment, he struggles to recall the reference. Then it comes flooding back. Their first… their only date. They had discussed a book he had been reading. He had it with him in his bag. He had tried to show it to her before a slew of compromising items had cascaded listlessly out onto the table. Among them, antidepressants, loose condoms, and a toothbrush jammed into an empty tissue packet.
He wonders if that was the moment she decided they would just be friends…
This evening’s essentials are a four-pack of craft IPA, a hip flask filled with whisky – along with separate plastic cups – and a multipack of rice crispy squares.
He waves each at her as evidence.
“Brilliant,” she replies. “Absolutely perfect.”
He thinks if it were a date, it really would be perfect. Not that he secretly wants to date her. Not that he would truly know. They are virtual strangers. But the sky is perfect, and this is surely a spot for lovers. The writer in him recognises the potentiality of scene and setting. This really would be a perfect memory to ground the start of something wholesome and nice.
He reminds himself this will be a nice memory. That relationships with women are not meaningless without sex.
They pop open a can each and look for the constellations. She points out to what she thinks is Orion. Though they all just look like dots to him. She points out the slight curve of the bow.
“You have to use your imagination,” she says.
She follows his body in the sky. When he still couldn’t see it, she pulled out her phone and googles the image, holding it high into the air.
He still can’t see a hunter.
“Looks more like a lobster to me,” he concludes. She googles again the Scorpio and begins the hunt for the celestial arachnid in the night sky before she starts laughing.
“What am I doing? we’re here, under the actual stars,” she observes, putting her phone back in her pockets. “Even if we don’t see constellations, these points of light are incredible. Each one is like the sun! It’s mad to think how big it all is. How tiny and fragile everything we will ever know truly is. And yet, from here, it’s gorgeous, serene, peaceful. Like a blanket.”
“That’s it!” he says impulsively.
Her name is Serena. Definitely. Panic over.
“What’s it?” Serena replies.
He covers for himself, pretending that Orion has just materialised clearly from the dots. He retraces her finger but cannot find his head.
“There’s no head really,” she says, pulling the phone back out to double-check. “Fucks sake! I need to stop looking at my phone. Maybe I should fling it down the hill.”
He is still squinting at Orion. “The constellations seem like a bit of a reach to me. But I suppose it’s only human to force Matter into patterns, construct a narrative, to try and create meaning from chaos,” he suggests.
Serena asks for a rice crispy square. There is a lull while she unwraps it.
“How’s the relationship?” he asks to fill the silence. “Has it been an odd time to start?”
“You could say that,” she laughs in reply.
He can almost hear her mind at work as she decides how honest she will be. He believes that if he turns to look at her, she will give a joke answer. If he had asked her in the daytime, her answer would be blithe and passing. But leave her alone here and she will talk more to the stars than to him, and that will be the truth.
He is curious, and so he leaves her to it.
“Ok,” she replies eventually. “So, it’s kind of my downstairs neighbour, doing their PhD. And it’s a little odd for me. It started when the lockdown was called. When everyone was still scared to step outside unless we really had to. And we began swapping some kitchen things. And we realised we got on. And we thought that in other circumstances, we might not have ever talked. And so, they invited me in for dinner one evening, and… it’s a little strange to tell you the truth.”
He shrugs. “Doesn’t sound strange to me. Sounds like something nice has happened for you. I’m glad to hear it. Happy for you.”
“Thing is – my neighbour is a woman.”
“Oh,” he says, realising he had been oblivious to the more subtle markers. “I didn’t know that you liked both.”
She starts laughing.
“Neither did I. In fact, I don’t think I do. She says I flinch when she kisses me. She was quite persuasive though. Said society conditions us into a heteronormative outlook. And, that’s true… and it seemed a fitting relationship during this time of societal liberation.”
“Good for you though,” he replies, “for being brave, and open-minded enough to experiment.”
“I’m getting older. I don’t want to look back on a life so timid that it passed me by,” she says, draining her beer. “You never remember the times that you didn’t take an opportunity. Probably when this is all fully lifted, me and her will go our separate ways and never speak of it again.”
He pops open another beer for them both and realises that the conversation flows so much easier than it ever did on their first meeting. They have liberated themselves from expectations and pressures, that this is no longer inorganic interaction, no longer two people co-interviewing each other to fill some vacancy in their lives. Somehow, it is already half one and they are not even tired, there is not even a suggestion of going home yet.
For the first time in months, he does not feel oppressed by freedom. For the first time in months, time feels populated by sounds, colours, and textures. Life is beginning to return; and tomorrow, they will both know that this time existed.
Image via Pixabay