The Stranger From Middlesbrough

Mum always told me not to talk to strangers. Sometimes though, it pays to do exactly the opposite.

After six long weeks cooped up inside my home, finally, the time had come. The cupboard was fresh out of passata, and after one last hopeful rummage, I gave up. It was time to do something that I had long feared – It was time to brave the store.

I tied my hair up in some semblance of a pony and pulled my jacket on. Frankly, I had no idea what to expect and, for the first time in ever, I was feeling both excited and nervous about the prospect of buying food. I realise it’s seldom a comfortable experience for people with anxiety, but this time around, I was extra nervous.

On my way to the store, I paused suddenly and gasped for air. My first venture alone in more than a month, and it actually felt quite daunting. I made eye contact with a man on the opposite side of the road. He smiled.

“It’s quite scary when you’ve been stuck inside for so long, isn’t it?” I joked.

“Oh yes, those first steps of freedom. I’ve just been up to see my Dad. At a safe distance like, you know” he said, gesturing at a large and imaginary distance between himself and an invisible person.

A bit naughty as we weren’t meant to meet anyone until tomorrow, but it could be forgiven at this point, given our government has managed to confuse an awful lot of people. Also at this point, I’m not even sure that the police really care, as long as it is only one person, outdoors, and you do socially distance. Still, even if we’d never met before, we soon got chatting about the virus.

“I reckon they’ll have to let people out soon,” he said, “people have got to work! They can’t keep us locked up.”

“Oh, I agree! My husband is at home working right now. My bedroom used to be spotless, now it’s all cables and wires. I do feel bad for them, I worked for the NHS during swine flu so I do get why-“

“Oh love, God bless you” he interrupted, bowing slightly.

“Thank you, it was only admin,” I said, raising a hand to stop him. “It was only admin work, but it was still tough and nothing like it is now. This one has overtaken those numbers and still going, so it’s nothing to compare, but yes, being stuck inside our homes, unfortunately, will not work.”

“We need common sense” he offered, I laughed.

“In our government? That went out a long time ago. Now we’re the laughing stock! We’re run by a man who accidentally suspended himself over a crowd during a publicity stunt gone wrong. Our goose is cooked!”

He nodded and grinned.

“Anyway love, I need to make a move. But you know the lovely thing? In three months from now, I’ll be here, and you’ll be there, and we’ll have this same conversation we’re having now.” I smiled warmly – this is where I live now.

“You don’t get this where I come from”, I sighed. “I’m a Shire girl. Down there, they greet you with sharp knives and broken bottles.”

“And I’m from Middlesbrough” he replied, I nodded. I didn’t know it that well.

As I entered Tesco with my disinfected basket, I was greeted by a sign directing me anti-clockwise around the store. I clocked the arrows on the floor and shrugged – easy enough to follow.

Up and down the aisles I walked, almost skipping merrily over the arrows. All I wanted was the passata, but heck, this was a change of scenery for me. I saw the security guard smiling at me and I smiled back – everyone seems so happy today! As I walked down the second aisle, he was still watching me and still smiling. Okay, now it’s a bit creepy.

“Excuse me, love”, the security guard laughed, “I’ve been watching you, and you seem a bit confused by our social distancing measures. You don’t need to follow the arrows up and down the aisles. You can just go around and just go up the aisles you need. It’s Tesco, not Ikea,” he said with a wink. I nearly died.

At the tills, things change. Far from arrows, spots have instructions like counter spaces on a board game, reminding you to stand and wait until the person in front of you moves forward. I found the next spot in front of me and waited. Unfortunately, the girl behind me didn’t read the signs. Instead, her main focus was on her phone call.

“Yeah, my throat and chest kills but I’m fine. I think it’s an allergy to bananas. Yeah, my chest kills though. my throat and chest does.”

People, including myself, were visibly anxious in her presence. Far from two metres apart, people were aiming for ten.

“Yeah, no I don’t think it’s the virus.” We weren’t taking our chances. As she coughed and sniffed, I made wide eyes at the cashier – Please, PLEASE let me out of here!

Noting Little Miss Splutter, the cashier pressed the bell and called a colleague through. Within seconds, another till had been opened and finally I could be served. Outside, I palled aside to punch out a quick Facebook status ahead of my walk back home:

As I walked, I thought about the stranger again. How nice it was to meet someone so kind on your first trip out? How nice it was have a pleasant conversation, instead of a miserable one.

And that was when I saw him again.

“Has it been three months already?” I joked. He laughed and crossed over the road, being mindful to keep a safe distance. Time to tell him what I really do.

“Have you ever fancied fame?”

“I’d rather not. I’d rather just be me, you know. Just the way I am”. I smiled. So humble.

“I’m a blogger”, I began, “I write about mental health, among other things, including the pandemic. I was going to give you a mention”. He looked surprised, then thought again and posed.

“As long as you get my best side,” he exclaimed, gesturing down his side. I laughed. We got a dirty look from a lady who decided to walk right between us, but I didn’t let that stop us from chatting. It was just nice to have some human contact, even if from two metres apart. We talked more about mental health and our broken bodies; we both had bits wrong with us. He admitted he only had the confidence to talk to me because he’d been drinking, and I didn’t judge him one bit.

The saddest part is that we probably never will meet again, or then again, we might. I’m going to write to the local newspaper and see if I can’t kickstart a friendship. 

A new friendship with my new friend from Middlesbrough.









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