Two Pairs of Hands by Maisie Bishop

This was the first time Tom had visited King’s Park. The lilacs were utterly beautiful with their drowsy scent, and he felt as if he was drowning in birdsong. How could everything seem so idyllic when lives were being destroyed by a tiny virus?

He found a sufficiently isolated bench at the top of a slope overlooking the varying shades of lilac. He sat down, the sun hot through his black jeans and T-shirt, and opened his book. The Ben Lerner novel wasn’t doing it for him today, though, and his mind kept being dragged back to the newspaper article he’d read that morning. A journalist, commenting on the restrictions in place because of COVID 19 had written that the government was asking us to ‘stop living in order to avoid dying.’

Why, he wondered, would anybody suggest this as a route to health? Clearly the programme had not been set by anybody who had experienced acute anxiety. Memories of the inner terrors of his teenage years surged unwelcome into his brain and he felt his heart begin to race.

His momentary panic was interrupted by the sound of pounding footsteps and panting. He looked up to see a young woman of about his own age who, like him, did not appear to be a natural runner. Her unforgiving lycra joggers showed every bulge, and her black wavy hair tied back into a messy ponytail seemed as if it wanted to break out of this attempted athletic look and flow freely around her face. As his eyes wandered from her hair and face downwards, his glance stopped short at her hands, which were red raw like his own.

Tom jumped up, forgetting the book on his lap, letting it fall rustling to the ground.

‘Hey...your hands....look...!’ he stammered as he held out his own hands towards the young woman.

She turned quickly and stared at him as if he was out of his mind.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought you’d understand. Forget it. I’m sorry.’

She said nothing, just shook her head in disbelief.

Tom turned away from her and fumbled to gather up his book and re-attach himself to his headphones and Bob Dylan’s latest lengthy release which was playing on his phone. When he looked back, she was jogging away from him. No chance to explain himself then.

He headed out of the park, and as he passed through the heavy lichen-encrusted wrought iron gates onto the pavement, a runner crossed his path and spat on the ground. Too horrified to speak, Tom stared after him. ‘Great’, he thought. ‘I’ve spoken when I should have kept my mouth shut, and said nothing when I should have called somebody out.’

During lockdown Tom had observed that many people were creatures of habit where their exercise routines were concerned. Indeed he himself had only recently ventured beyond his local park to explore others. With this in mind he walked briskly to King’s Park at the same time the following day hoping to see the young woman again, and apologise properly. He fought back the nagging voice in his head. 

‘What if she’s not there? What if she is there? What if she won’t listen to me?’ and tried to rehearse what he wanted to say.

Tom’s observation of human nature proved correct, and just as he reached the top of the lilac-clad slope, he recognised the slightly out of breath figure with the crazy black ponytail jogging towards him.

She stopped abruptly when she saw him.

‘What, are you stalking me or something?’

She had an Irish accent, which sounded almost gentle despite her anger.

Wiping his sore sweating palms on his jeans, Tom launched into his speech.

‘No, I’m not. I’ve come to apologise for yesterday. My name’s Tom. I spoke without thinking. I’ve got OCD. I had it very badly in the past, and the instruction about washing our hands has set me back. I’m washing them obsessively again, and that’s why they look like this.’ He held his hands out, as he had done the day before. ‘I thought maybe you were the same.’

She took a deep breath. ‘OK, Tom. I appreciate your honesty. I’m sorry to hear about your OCD.

People often treat it as a joke, but I know it isn’t. It can ruin your life.’

‘Exactly’, said Tom. ‘I was reading about the idea of stopping living to.......’

She interrupted. ‘I’m Niamh, by the way. I’m a nurse. I’m working round the clock and I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life right now. My hands look like this because of an allergic reaction to the latex gloves I have to wear at work. I jog every day if my shifts allow, and it’s the only time I get to de-stress.’ She scratched at her hands.

‘And I’ve upset you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I was just wondering if...’

‘No, please don’t wonder anything. I’m not upset by you. I deal with far worse at work. But I’ve got nothing left. I’m emotionally spent. So, please don’t come looking for me again. This isn’t the time.’

Her voice was weary and sad.

‘I understand. I really do. I won’t come back. But thank you, Niamh. I’m glad we talked.’

‘Me too, Tom, but now I have to go.’

And with that she gave a beautiful warm smile, and Tom noticed her gorgeous green eyes for the first time.

Then she jogged away down the hill.

Tom walked slowly home, without his music.  ‘This isn’t the time.’ Niamh had said. Did she mean that maybe one day it would be the time? Tom knew the answer to that question. She was being kind. She seemed like a kind person. There wouldn’t be a time. This moment, like a fly trapped in amber, would be just another memory from the false idyll of this lockdown spring.

Published in Issue #20

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