A short story set in strange and trying times.
‘Great, I’ll call you next week,’ I said and put the phone down. Then I clapped my hands and shouted ‘Yeah’.
Little did I know then that things wouldn’t go according to plan, as the presence of the pandemic put a stop to so much, and sadly took many lives. Restrictions were introduced and I’ like everyone else, just had to hunker down and get on with it. ‘Stay at Home,’ was the order of the day, and with travel limited to 2Km there really was nothing much to do except to grin and bear it – and accept that I was one of the lucky ones. But I still looked forward to that ‘next week’ that had yet to come when I would meet Barbara.
We had met briefly at my friend Paul’s house where she was filling cups of Pimm’s. They were proving very popular and I wasn’t the only one who went back for seconds, and more.
‘Same again?’ she asked.
I nodded. ‘Sure, and with so much fruit in this, I know this is good for me.’
She laughed, and I noted that my glass was definitely fuller than it had been before.
There was a big crowd in the back garden and I spoke with some people who I hadn’t seen since I returned to Dublin, and a few of Paul’s neighbours. It was a fun day, and I did manage to have a brief chat with Barbara before she had to leave. Later, as I helped Paul tidy up I asked him about Barbara.
‘Interested, are we?’ he said, a cheeky grin on his face.
What have I said?, I thought before replying ‘Yeah…is there a problem?’
He shook his head. ‘None as far as I know, but she’s occupied right now – keeping an eye on her mother.’
‘Is she sick?’
‘No, just old, and in need of care and attention.’
‘Barbara’s a nurse so she’s happy to be able to help, especially as her brother lives in Australia.’
‘I hear you, so can you give me her phone number?’
He gave me Barbara’s number and we shared a final drink. ‘I’ve not see you move so fast before…is it love at first sight?’
I knew he was teasing me but the more I thought about it he might just have been right. I remembered the infectious sound of Barbara’s laugh, and how her brown eyes seemed to shine. ‘Possibly, and you’ll be the second to know.’
Paul frowned for moment and then laughed out loud. ‘The second to know….I love it.’ He leaned over and we clinked bottles.
As the sun went down I left, thanked Paul for a great day and the phone number that was safely stashed away in my back pocket.
The next day I picked up the phone and dialled Barbara’s number. I was hoping that she would answer as I didn’t really want to leave a message, and thankfully she did. ‘Hello.’
‘Hi there, I was wondering if there is any Pimm’s left?’
She giggled. ‘Let me check,’ she said, and then we had a short and friendly chat before I asked if she would like to meet sometime.
‘Maybe next weekend,’ she said.
Fine I thought, but then the quarantine was introduced and we never got to meet. And with the travel restrictions there was no possibility of that happening for some time. It was disappointing but a small price to pay for staying healthy. I called her and we spoke about how we were coping and she told me that her mother was not doing well. I knew she was upset and it only got worse when her mother was taken into hospital. She wasn’t suffering with the coronavirus but her breathing was causing a concern. I wished both of them well and waited for more news.
Over the next five or six weeks we spoke at least once a week and realised that we had a few friends in common. We both liked, among other things, music, tennis and reading. And she was interested to know the progress on the book I was writing. ‘I’m almost finished, and if you like you can be the first person to read it.’
‘That’d be great. I look forward to getting it,’ she said and paused before adding ‘so you trust me with your bestseller?’
‘Of course,’ I replied immediately, there being no other answer.
‘I can be a tough critic; you might not like what I have to say.’
‘I know, but I’ll take that chance.’
There was silence before Barbara said ‘Good…that’s very good of you.’
‘Right, I’ll send it to you by the end of the week…and you can get busy with a red pen.’
She laughed and I did too. ‘Got to go…and thanks,’ she said and hung up.
With her mother in hospital and working in the same building Barbara was busy and we managed only brief phone calls. It was understandable especially when her mother’s condition deteriorated and she was place in an Intensive Care Unit. It was, as they say, a ‘touch-and-go’ situation but, thankfully, she came through it. I could hear the relief in Barbara’s voice when she told me the good news.
‘And I just want to say that it’s been great talking with you, Joseph, over the last few weeks. With my brother in Australia I really needed to tell someone about what was going on…and you’ve been a great help.’
I wasn’t expecting that but it was nice to hear. ‘You’re very welcome, Barbara, and I suppose it’s like the old saying ‘’A problem shared is a problem halved.’’ Know what I mean?’
There was a long pause before Barbara replied. ‘You’re so right…and thanks again.’
‘Anytime,’ and then I told her that I had a plan for where we would meet.
‘Never,’ I joked, more than happy to hear her laugh gain. ‘Well, the restrictions are being eased next week, so maybe we can celebrate if that’s the right word to use.’
‘It is…and I’m almost finished your book.’
‘And what do you think of it?’
‘Hey, if you have a plan that you’re keeping to yourself then I’m certainly keeping my thoughts on your book to myself…for now.’
‘Touche…and should I be worried?’
‘I guess you’ll just have to wait…won’t you.’
There was nothing I could say to that. ‘You got me there. Ok, like I said a long, long time ago I’ll call you next week.’
‘Good…and my mother will be coming home in a few days.’
‘A double celebration, eh?’
That got another laugh, a perfect end to our conversation.
The days raced by, and then I called Barbara. ‘Hi there, I was wondering if you’d like to meet up?’
‘Sure do. So have you a time and place in mind.’
I had, and we met at the front gates of the Peoples’ Park in Dun Laoghaire on a day when the sun was shining from a cloudless sky. I smiled as Barbara approached, noticing the brown envelope under her arm. I knew that I was in for a critique, but right then I really didn’t care as I was so happy to see my favourite bartender again.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘Hi, and how are you?’
‘I’m fine…considering that I’m meeting a stranger.’
I frowned. ‘Stranger, is it?’
‘Well, I know we spoke for a little while at Paul’s house, but I’ve never spoken so much with someone I don’t really know.’
‘It’s a first for me, too…and I’m delighted that you’re here.’
Barbara smiled and I could see her searching look. ‘So, where are we going? I mean, it’s the middle of the afternoon and there are hardly any places open.’
I had expected this. ‘I know, but this is the best I could manage in the circumstances, ok?’
‘O..k.’ she replied, her eyes questioning.
‘This way,’ I said, and we walked through the park, past the hissing fountain, the curved benches and groups of people sitting on the grass, and onto the promenade.
‘Here we are,’ I said stopping outside Teddy’s ice cream shop, the best in south Dublin.
Barbara smiled. ‘I’m impressed…you really do know how to treat a lady, don’t you?’
I shrugged. ‘That’s me. Now, what would the lady like?’ I asked, and that was how our first date began. The long wait was finally over and, as we sat on a bench touched by a gentle sea breeze, we chatted and laughed as only familiar strangers could.