I live in the middle of a pleasant, friendly former council estate built in the 1930's. During my time here lots of houses have been rebuilt or extended, and the area's appearance has changed quite a bit, along with the demographic. But a community spirit has survived. Locals pause for a quick chat in the street or over the front gate, share a bit of gossip, help each other out. Neighours are familiar with each other's routines, and if I'm concerned about an individual I haven't seen for a while I can generally check with someone who knows them.
There's a wider circle of people I encounter fairly regularly, usually on the morning towpath. We exchange greetings, news about wildlife sightings, wry comments about the weather and the state of the nation. They add a warm glow to my day – but I know nothing about them, often not even a name. So if I don't see one of these regulars for a while, there's no way to find out if they're ok.
During the pandemic I've sometimes become aware of an absence, and it's gnawed at the back of my mind. A few times I've met someone whose been away for several months. We've had a glorious catch-up, oblivious to bikes, dogs and runners swerving round us. But I remember other faces, of people I no longer see, and can only hope it's because their lives have gone back to some kind of normal.
A few years ago I made the acquaintance of a burly Jamaican pensioner with a gammy leg, who'd been hired by the owners of the house next door to tackle their overgrown front hedge. He lived in a nearby block of flats so after that introduction, if we happened to meet in the street or shopping in Hammersmith we'd often take time for a chat. One morning on the way home from my walk, I met him looking at parked cars to see if any had a 'For Sale' note in a corner of their windscreen; his old car was getting a bit cranky. I offered to ask a friend who was a car mechanic and might know of one, so we swapped mobile phone numbers – the first time we actually learned each other's names. A few hours later a text arrived from 'Andy' saying he'd found a car, so I sent a brief reply and that was the end of our mobile connection. The new car appeared outside the flats; when our paths crossed we'd enjoy a good humoured natter. Then the pandemic hit, and the streets emptied.
One evening a couple of months into the pandemic, my phone rang with a call from 'Andy'. But on answering I heard a woman's voice, and realised this was going to be sad news. Andy had succumbed to Covid. His ex-wife, sorting out his flat, had found the phone, charged it up, and my name appeared first in the alphabetical list. She sounded weary. But she was clearly relieved at being able to express her exasperation, along with the sadness, at this unwelcome task. Our conversation ended on a warm, sympathetic note.
In the circumstances, it was better to have this 'closure' rather than months of nagging doubt. But with those continuing, anonymous absences? I'll choose optimism, every time...