The Letters Page, Vol 5, #7: We Are Already Finding New Ways to Touch

We hope you are all staying alert; staying indoors, or gathering outdoors in groups of no more than three, or six, or in extended bubbles, or keeping two metres apart, or keeping one metre apart, or wearing a face mask at all times, or only wearing a face mask in essential shops, or only wearing a face mask in non-essential shops in an expanded one metre bubble. We hope you are not confused. Thank you to everyone who has written to us since our last letter; we hope you will find the time to continue writing. Although our post-room is currently locked, we’ll welcome your letters in the form of an email. Simply reply to this email with ‘submission’ in the subject line, and feel free to include a picture of where you are right now. Each letter we publish will be rewarded with a gift subscription to one of our favourite small presses or literary journals.

Today’s letter comes from Rachael Smart, who lives and works in Nottingham. Her fiction and poetry have been published by ProleInk, Sweat, and TearsCoast to Coast to Coast, and others. Her story ‘The Inconsequential Codes on Lipsticks’ was shortlisted for The Bristol Short Story Prize 2018. An essayist and critic, Rachael reviews books for the Storgy magazine and also publishes her own blog The Stickers on Apples. As a thank you for her contribution to The Letters Page, she’ll be receiving a year’s supply of books from our friends at Dahlia Publishing, an excellent small press based in Leicester. 

The photographs below are the author’s own. 

Dear Jon, 

I’m writing from my temporary office at the ping-pong table. In these strange capsules we call days, a ping-pong table isn’t as redundant as it might sound for a work base. When the death tolls spike and the gravity of other people’s loss presses at my chest, so that it’s difficult to speak during video calls, I find the blueliness of the table brackish and soothing. There is also a satisfying reliability in the white middle line which divides the table. I don’t know, perhaps the eyes appreciate a pattern in these uncertain times. In between hosting calls and workshops to support vulnerable people, I use the ping-pong bat to shoo out flies that have lost their way through the open back door. There has been the odd hover fly. Last week, a bumble bee as fat as a baby’s fist found its way in, and its drone made me pine for the liberties of past summers. I’ve yet to find a purpose for the net, but there will be time for that. 

I believe Aislinn Hunter was right, when she wrote of a divide between the people who Covid-19 has taken from and those who won’t be directly affected. My sister is a community nurse treating patients at home, many of whom have the virus. During a video call tonight, her face was scored with crimson dents from her mask, her hair dark and wet. Her hair is always wet now. It had been a bad shift. She’d discussed end of life plans with a patient from a two-metre distance with a full gown and visor on, her voice distorted, ghostly. She said that the masks condensate inside so that it is difficult to make eye contact with a person and how that feels such a betrayal because the least a dying man should have is his eyes met. My sister has kind eyes. Tiger eyes, Dad calls her. Whilst we talked, she rubbed moisturising gel into her flushed cheeks after her second bath of the day, said she has never been so clean these days. 

My sister and her colleagues are why I cannot applaud the NHS. The frivolous jollity of Thursday night’s clapping with the clash of saucepan lids and a glass of Prosecco raised feels like a dangerous use of the rhetoric of heroism to detract from a decade of underfunding. My sister re-uses kit, works with uncovered arms. Recently, she obtained some PPE from the husband of a nurse who had died of the virus and she was most grateful yet tormented by how she had acquired it. I cannot put my hands together for that. Instead, I lean out of my son’s bedroom window and bellow ‘More PPE!’ and ‘Pay Rise!’ I should probably say that the neighbours are reluctant to join me in my resistance. 

When I take the children walking, my belief that nature is more magnificent without us gains strength. At Calverton Pit, the gorse is a shriek of yellow, the paths a symphony of lacy whites and mints and purples. In the grass verges, cow parsley and witches’ briar spring up to waist height. Everywhere is verdant, re-nourished. The birds no longer startle now that the public only has day passes. 

I’m afraid of this new culture of not touching, how it will impact on our children. My youngest child is five and because he has asthma, I have been shielding him. Now, when we go out on walks, he leaves the path and shrinks into the nettles at the first sight of an approaching person. He is suspicious of dogs not on leads. He asked me when he would be able to hold his nanny again. Nights, he has taken to sleeping with a bouncy egg, one of those pretend eggs that feel velvety smooth and which can boing almost to the ceiling. He clutches it close to him in bed and whispers ‘eggy, eggy’ to it softly. I imagine that egg to symbolise the things he can no longer touch, his friends and teachers, his grandparents, shop door handles, the soft toys in the GP surgery’s waiting room. 

I’ve been thinking about touch often. When I was a social work student in alcohol detoxification, I learned that delirium tremens is typically worst on the fourth or fifth day. It was those days when the patients would squeeze my hand the hardest, tell me they felt woodlice rushing across their face. Some would see them upended on their grey-lined backs on the sweat-soaked bed sheets, thready legs pedalling. Give me your hand, I’d say, there’s nothing to hurt you here. 

Outside the Co-op in my village, a homeless man sells The Big Issue. I take him money and provisions every so often and it is our custom to bump fists. This morning I sprayed his money with antibacterial spray and put it in an envelope, packed him a bottle of hand gel and stacked food in a cloth bag. I drove to him, got out of my car and placed the bag on the tarmac a few metres away. For you, sir, I said, but no fist bump in case I’ve got the virus. He collected his bag, gave me a grubby thumbs up. As I drove past, he ran up to the car window and put his fist to the glass. I stopped the car and leant over, my fist against the glass so that our knuckles aligned. We bumped fists with the window between us. It felt good. It felt like a connection. I think we are already finding new ways to touch. 

All good wishes, 

Rachael Smart