Last week, when the shops reopened, I went down Byres Road to Rymans. I adore stationery and spend more on it than is necessary, but there are worse vices. Stationery, even more so than books, must be physically browsed. You can read a book review or an excerpt on Kindle, but stationery has to be touched. I needed a particular kind of blank A4 exercise book and buying it online wasn’t good enough.
Just as I put on my mask, my phone rang. I backed out the door onto the street and unmasked to take the call. It was the administrator for the plumbing company I’d hired to switch out the pathetic electric shower for a proper mains shower. Non-essential works are now permitted; the parts had arrived and the administrator was calling to book a time.
‘Can I ring back? I’m out and about, and I need to check the dates in my diary. Normally I’m at home every day, but now the rules have changed I might actually be somewhere else.’
Did I sound excited? Slightly hysterical?
‘Oh, of course, bless you!’ said the admin lady, as if I’d said something very funny.
After spending days alone, I’m often conscious of overtalking in otherwise impersonal and passing interactions. After a year insulated from small talk with strangers, my sense of what is appropriate has become very thin.
In Edinburgh on the weekend, heading into the city centre to admire the newly opened shops, I wandered into the plant boutique on the corner near Bear’s place, which has reopened after long lockdown dormancy. It’s the sort of shop I would’ve shunned, in my more precarious days, as entirely inessential and money-sucking, a lifestyle shop for people with excess cash. In those days, I kept geraniums in my window. Colourful and robust, they embodied a cheerful resilience I aspired to myself but couldn’t always manage.
The geraniums I took to Edinburgh to live with Bear didn’t survive my defection. Their stems became soft and hollow and their leaves browned; they stopped flowering and withered and, eventually, I had to throw them away.
My mid-life property acquisition has been accompanied by greenery. I am now the guardian (since living things can’t properly be owned) of an asparagus fern, a pitchforked devil plant, two peace lilies, a snake plant and a large yucca which moves to the deep bathroom windowsill on sunny days for its Vitamin D.
Several of my plant-babies are date-expired mark-downs from Tesco and Waitrose. The ones from Waitrose come in their own ceramic pots, which seems very classy.
‘I think of them as rescue plants,’ I told the young woman behind the counter of the plant boutique, in a possibly breathless fashion, and she laughed nicely.
I asked for advice about my plants, and she gave me instructions for looking after my peace lilies and monstera, on elegant, pre-printed cards. I then enquired about some of the plants on display, in particular, the striking maranta with its red-ribbed leaves. It didn’t need much sun, she said.
‘That’s good, my living room is mostly dark, I only get sun in the kitchen and bathroom,’ I said, and it seemed to me that I was gabbling.
When I asked what time the shop shut, thinking to drop back in on my way home, the sales assistant said she was closing up early to visit her grandmother in Pitlochry. They hadn’t met since the summer.
We talked for almost ten minutes, and I came away feeling slightly overwhelmed by such intensive interaction with a stranger, wondering if I’d somehow shamed myself by overdoing it, perhaps even delaying her early closing.
The degradation of what a Guardian article called our ‘social biome’—all the interactions, minor and major, that make up our daily human contact—has been a feature of the pandemic, so at least I’m not the only socially challenged, over-chatty, possibly eccentric-seeming middle-aged woman now hitting the streets.
Two days later, I went back to the plant shop to buy the maranta. On an impulse, because browsing pretty things in non-essential shops is such a novelty, I bought a blue ceramic pot to put it in.
I asked the sales assistant for care instructions. A different, older woman was behind the counter, otherwise I could’ve asked after the grandmother in Pitlochry.