The priest advanced towards me, arms open wide, about to plant a kiss on my cheek, his standard welcome for female volunteers at the cathedral – harmless, if a touch damp. But I was to be spared that day, because such a greeting was against the new Rule. So he made a courtly bow instead – and I bobbed a curtsey. This social distancing thing, I thought, had its upsides!
It was something of a novelty back then, this commandment to keep 2 metres away from people you didn’t live with – but there was a deadly new virus at work in the world and the chain of contagion had to be broken. The range of ways to say hello shrank overnight. Hugs and handshakes were dangerous; elbow bumps were for juveniles, waves for wimps…
Signs appeared on the city streets and multiplied. Don’t stand – or sit – so close to me! they said. Arrows and crosses on pavements, stickers on benches, posters in shop windows, tapes on the floor…
Strange indeed, but not entirely alien to our kingdom culture, Keep Your Distance only an extension of the unwritten codes of behaviour already there. The ones that find their perfect form in that standing in a tidy line we call a queue. In not pushing your way to the front, in minding your own business. We don’t need to be told not to breathe down anyone’s neck – and if we have to, an etiquette applies.
Squashed against strangers in a lift or a train – far too close for comfort – we pretend we’re not actually there, avoid eye contact, adopt a blank expression, focus on a point over the heads of the crowd and wait for the doors to open…
And Society has always had its ways of keeping people apart or in their proper place – the noble from the peasant, the rich from the poor. All those moats, fences, gates and grilles; all the spikes, weapons, even fashions of the day. Like the yards-wide crinolines of the 1860s, skirts supported by hoops of steel to keep the importunate suitor at bay.
The solid barrier, often fixed in place – but akin to the invisible one that seems to erect itself. The wall defining the immediate area around the body that belongs to you and you alone. In the 1960s, the sociologists gave it a name: Personal Space.
The Romanians, for some reason, like a lot of it – at least 4 feet away from people they don’t know, while the Bulgarians over the border are happy only 81cm apart, under 3 feet. Tricky for the tourist… For most of us, the most acceptable distance for comfortable conversation is about an arm’s length away. With lovers and partners, children parents and pets, of course, things get much cosier.
There, with them, should be a haven – but if you live in fear or sleep several to a room or a tent, personal space will be a luxury you can’t afford, or maybe even imagine. So how close is too close depends on degree of acquaintance, climate, country, lebensraum – and now, in the Age of Coronavirus, science. While how private a person you really are – how high the wall – goes back to the beginning and the early years of life.
I wasn’t an only child, but when I was 9, my stepfather disappeared, taking my younger sister with him, for good – so I grew up with a loving but deeply wounded mother in a quiet council flat, with few visitors. Which may be why I prefer one-to-one or small group situations to big gatherings of any kind.
So – never a party animal, but too affectionate to become a ‘bride of Christ’, the fate the nuns at school forecast for me. I wondered how there could be people on the same planet who rejected the society of others altogether, who sought something beyond mere human company. Like Julian of Norwich, the anchoress immured in a mediaeval cell and St.Simeon of Syria, the 7th century stylite who ascended a pillar in the desert and stayed up there for 37 years on a little platform, preaching to the pilgrims far below, who came to see him. Like the sublime poet Emily Dickinson and the aviator-filmmaker Howard Hughes.
Famous recluses, whose stories serve to highlight tales of the common people – the sociable souls, who gather together to survive and share earthly experience. Who stare up at the stars in the sky at night and long for there to be life on Mars and not to be alone in the universe.
And much closer to home, the species with a primal hunger – an absolute need – to be held.
The student me read about experiments in the 60s on infant primates and wished I hadn’t. Separated from their real mothers, they were given two surrogates to choose from. One was made of terry towelling, the other of bare wire, but offering a full bottle of milk to feed from. The baby monkeys invariably clung to the cloth structure that offered something more important than food or drink – the promise of warmth and affection. The creature comforts.
The grown-up human primate hungers for attachment too, in friendship or romantic love – the dream that dies so hard. The myth that for some comes true – the quest for the ‘other half’, the soulmate. I met the One, once. Or I think I did – it was over too soon to be sure. The man I’d have followed to the ends of the earth, or at least to the Yorkshire Dales.
We met at a writers’ retreat. He liked my poetry; I liked the faraway look in his eyes. The electric touch was true, but it wasn’t a full-blown affair, because he was a cancer patient in remission and had a wife in Skipton.
One day, we sat on a sofa in my flat and I got up to go to the kitchen. ‘Please don’t be long!, he laughed – but the moment fused into memory, because I knew then we were only breaths away from falling in love. When it was his turn to leave the room, even for a few minutes, I felt bereft too. Something in me had begun to dissolve.
A week or two later, he went back north. In one letter, he wanted to return, but a wise friend said, ‘he thinks you can keep him alive…’
So long ago. I don’t know if the clouded green eyes closed for ever or not, but that day, when nothing – and everything – happened between us, still burns bright.
And now, in these distancing days, it’s the everyday intimacies I miss the most – the casual pat on the arm, the bumping into someone in the street, the open face to face encounter. The mask to mask variety is a poor and muffled thing; like hugging yourself, it doesn’t really work.
It’s fortunate then that bonds to the people important to you – dead or alive – are untethered to time and space. That closeness is more than proximity. It’s a feeling. And feelings are free spirits that break all the Rules.
Today. October, 2020
The phone rings. My heart leaps. Miles and even oceans vanish in a voice from the other side of the world.