I’ve walked past the oak tree a few times, since meeting Finola, feeling her absence there, and wondering about isolation.
A few weeks ago, the sound of suitcase wheels, outside on the pavement, caught my attention, hooking into a longing for freedom; their squealing protests echoing an over-laden world in lockdown.
It stopped beneath my window, creating a silence that stepped into absence, loneliness and then curiosity as a woman’s quiet northern lilt ushered her presence into the room through the open window.
I lent into the alcove to look at her. She was busy rummaging in a holdall that was resting on top of her black suitcase, eventually, pulling out a large stainless-steel flask and passing it to the shop’s security guard. I recognised that sense of familiarity, a habit, and I felt the loss of those habits that coat-hanger the day.
It was a travelling bag, her essentials to hand, and she quickly pulled out a jumper to put on over the small rucksack on her back; preparing for an evening chill that would reach into a cold night.
She came back at more or less the same time every evening, keeping a distance from other homeless people who were congregating close to the shop. I wanted to imagine her life; how locked-in worked for those locked-out, but the lack of sureness and a foothold in my everyday imagining seemed unlikely.
Sadly though, being stranded in a city with relatively quiet empty streets, imagining seemed unnecessary. The sleeping spaces, often created behind buildings near heat sources, were more visible on the streets, and sitting places – homing into where people were coming and going. Competition for money and food fierce at times, as people tried to secure what they needed.
Walking in the streets, I found myself looking for her, but we eventually met in a park of fields, a couple of miles away. She was sitting, leaning against an oak tree. I stood looking at her as she took in the warmth of the sun as it fell, reaching under the canopy of new leaves and trailing blossom as the blackbirds were singing. The suitcase lying open, her belongings cascading onto the grass as though she had been rummaging again; an arresting image.
She looked tired and weather-worn but relaxed, and it felt as though we shared a sense of being at home in green open spaces. She looked like she’d fallen asleep in the grass at some point, with bits of dry twigs and leaves snagged in her hair, and earth caught under her fingernails.
As I stopped to say hello, an insect landed in my eye and she quickly offered me her wipes; it eased us into a conversation that felt a bit awkward to start with but seemed to find its own way. I don’t know what I expected, but it largely settled on the the burning issue of the epidemic.
I suppose, I thought her interest might rest with the practical everyday aspects of it, but she wanted to discuss the wider societal implications. Whilst we chatted a bit about ourselves, there was a feeling that we came from different worlds, but that Covid-19 seemed to question the reality of that.
There was a sense of beauty in our unexpected connection, as with her name, Fonola, that derives from Fionnuala – the carrier of Gaelic legends.