During the summer of 2020, amid restrictions imposed by the national lockdown, I tried to hang on to the bits of freedom I could catch. Like taking the twenty-minute walk to work to enjoy the peace and quiet while I crossed tasks off my to-do lists.
Because the normal course of life was altered, in the streets fear was palpable. People hurried past and made a point of deviating from their route to make way for others. We were all engaged in a bizarre dance on the pavement to avoid each other. On the deserted roads, cars sped more than usual as if to run away from the virus. I also started to notice my neighbours. Now that everybody spent more time at home, I saw them tending to their flowers, gardens and front doors.
One afternoon, upon my return from work, I came across an elderly woman on the path leading to my front door. She wore a dark blue sari and sandals. She somewhat looked out of place to me. As I got closer, I caught a look of concern on her face. Our eyes locked for a few seconds as I tried to walk past her. She raised her hands to stop me, her big eyes and pleading for help. She extended an arm toward a downstairs window. She gestured to explain that she wanted to get inside the flat, but she didn’t have the keys.
At first, I assumed she didn’t speak English, but I soon understood that she was deaf-mute. I must have looked puzzled, but she wasted no time. With one hand, she gestured to ask me to follow her to the back of the building. I followed diligently all the while praying that whatever was about to happen didn’t land me into trouble. There was no one else around. We reached her front door and we stood outside the flat considering the best course of action. She gestured, I spoke and mimicked her.
Even though I lived in the flat upstairs, I had never seen her before. I only heard the back gate we shared when she and her husband came in or went out. And the occasional door slamming at night. Otherwise, they were quiet neighbours who kept to themselves.
With events of recent weeks in the back of my mind, I worried about being found alone with a vulnerable elderly woman trying to enter her flat. Two women were murdered in a local park not long before and the community was tense. The Police increased their patrolling to reassure neighbours. I took a minute to consider the explanation I would give any member of her family who unexpectedly came home early.
She asked if I knew the code to unlock the front door. I shook my head and I pointed to the bins nearby to indicate that I could help her through the window if she climbed on them. She laughed and raised a hand to decline. It was a Victorian style window which opened from the top. A safety lock inside prevented it from opening all the way down. We took a moment to look at it.
I saw no alternative than to climb inside the house myself. Being very skinny, I gauged that I’d be able to slide through the gap at the top. I told her that I lived in the flat above and that I was going to change into more comfortable clothes. I was keen for her to know that I wasn’t abandoning her. I pointed upstairs repeatedly until I was satisfied that she understood that I was coming back.
At home, I found a bright pink vest and my running leggings. I hoped to look as innocent as possible, so my help was not mistaken for something else.
Back downstairs, things moved fast. She helped me move the bins under the window and steadied them for me. In a few seconds, I was in the small gap we manage to open from outside. Once on the other side, I jumped down in the room, ran to the front door and opened it triumphantly.
As I leapt outside, ready to celebrate our teamwork, she seemed more reserved. Pointing to the door and the bins in turns, she explained how she came out to dispose of something and neglected the door. She lightly hit her forehead with her palm to say it was stupid of her for having let that happen. She wasn’t usually alone she let me know. Her grandchildren were away that day and she had no one to help her. The door had a code for accidents like this, but she didn’t know it. I reassured her that incidents like this happened all the time. I would have given her a hug if I could.
We waved goodbye to each other and I returned upstairs. I felt such a rush as I ran home, I barely touched the ground. I helped someone who couldn’t help herself. The last time I used my climbing skills, I was a child in my family’s orchard. I owed it to the lockdown to bring me the most unusual adventure.