I just want to record this one thing I saw.
Maybe I need to do this because, on the day I reconstruct this description out of notes I took on the day I actually saw this thing, I am sitting at home complying with the severest lockdown rules yet imposed anywhere in Australia. I live alone and have been in locked-down solitude for weeks, and will be for more still. So maybe witnessing a hug constitutes a major event in a life lived, for the time being, without touch.
Perhaps it is a reflection on how weird and shifting our behaviours are due to lockdown, too, that I stared so unashamedly at someone else’s intimate moment. The lives of other humans are not readily available to me up close right now. Intimacy is a novelty.
But I feel that I also need to record this because I feel almost a duty – a human gesture that needs to be made – to record a sighting of a particular stranger. Because I suspect – I might be catastrophizing here, but maybe not (given the urgency of the moment I witnessed and clues in her appearance) – that she might not be seen – by anyone – for much longer.
So, this is what I saw.
A few weeks ago, I went to Austin Hospital to see my poor, desperately ill nephew. And, because of the Coronavirus, hospital regulations required me to queue up to have my temperature taken and to answer questions before I could go to his ward. Although fast moving, the queue was enormous which meant that I had a few minutes wait before it was my turn to get screened.
By the lift to the car park in the foyer of the hospital, I saw two women saying goodbye. One – evidently the visitor – was dressed in jeans and a top. The other was the patient and wore a faded pink dressing gown, with black velour pyjama pants encasing unnaturally skinny legs. She had short, patchy, oddly stiff hair sticking out in tufts from her head with some bald spots showing. She was pale. Deathly pale. She held what looked like an envelope – I’m guessing for a card – and a small decorative bunch of Blue Gum twigs in one hand.
She and her friend suddenly hugged in farewell, desperate and close. And the hug went on, and on. And on.
They were so still.
The hardness of the hug claimed the little sphere of space they stood in and shut the busy foyer out of a part of their world that was momentarily charged by their need to collapse onto the other. The patient was the one facing me, her chin locked on her friend’s shoulder, and her eyes were closed; she couldn’t see me staring at their intense knot of bodies while I and about 100 queuing people were socially distancing by marching from one marked cross to the next on the floor, carefully and gauchely like kids at some strange debutante ball.
Her eyes and mouth were squeezed shut, hard slits in her wan face. The muscles of that face, and in her pink dressing-gowned arms and shoulders, and in the back and torso they were embracing, were tense with visceral concentration.
And the hug went on.
I could sense them drinking in the warmth, the intimacy, greedily absorbing the physical knowledge of each other in one drawn out moment before the lady in the jeans left. Which she finally did after one parting look. The patient turned on her heel, having waved off her friend, and went threading her way back through the indifferent crowds in the foyer to her white-sheeted hospital bed.
I need to record this because, whoever that patient is, and whatever non-plague ailment she has, I need to record that – yes – she was here, with us for a while. Yes, whoever she was, she lived, loved, had friends. That hug was a marker in a sea of plague, a snatch of existence while she still had it.
I saw it, lady. I saw you. I know.