I was sitting at home on a weekday.
Normally, I would have found that nice. A day off.
But this wasn’t normal.
Of course a pandemic hit the year of my exams. And school closed. And there was absolutely zilch to do.
That is, until I saw my friend’s Instagram Story. There was something called ‘Mutual Aid’.
What even was mutual aid? I followed the link through. I was curious, and bored.
It turned out to be a community Facebook group set up during the pandemic, a neighbourly thing. I smiled. That was sweet.
There was a sign-up form, too. I filled it in and before I knew it I was in a local WhatsApp group.
The chat was very quiet. I guessed I’d watch some telly for the umpteenth time that week.
I didn’t really think about the group until the next day when there were some notifications. I tapped onto it and up popped a message saying someone needed shopping.
Without thinking, I typed, “I can do it!”
Oh. Oh no.
I had no idea what I was doing!
What if there were all these rules I had to follow? What if I got stuck in a situation I didn’t know how to get out of?
But I couldn’t just say no, now, could I?!
It was too late anyway. Freda the organiser had already confirmed me.
Stop. It was okay. I was just a volunteer, after all.
I tapped irritably through my phone on various apps while I waited for Freda to contact me. After about ten minutes, she popped up with some documents I had to read and a shopping list for an elderly woman named Doris.
With a deep breath, I scanned through them. There were a lot of things to remember.
Clean the inside and outside of each bag with disinfectant.
Disinfect every item of shopping before packing it in the bag.
Put a weight in the bottom of the second bag to make it easy for the person-in-need to lift the inner bag out.
Sheesh. I was going to have to write a shopping list on ye olde pen-and-paper. And wear some proper gloves and use disinfectant spray. And try not to use my phone, because as it turned out, there were a lot of germs on a phone case alone!
I sighed reluctantly. This was going to be tricky.
But it was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?
I guessed I could only try. I typed a quick ‘thank you’ to Freda.
It was preparation time. I did the whole wipe inside and outside the two bags thing… it took a good half an hour! It felt so strange to clean a plastic bag and I kept stopping because I realised I’d forgotten to wipe something.
Then I had to get the shopping list sorted. Oh, wait. If the gloves were supposed to be sanitary and clean, I couldn’t just pick up a pen I’d used with my bare hands, right? Or paper? Or-
Stop thinking and just do it!
Finally, I set out to the shops.
Well, I tried to. I spent another ten minutes going back and forth washing my hands and debating which gloves to use and wiping down my credit card to be on the safe side and-
Oh, just do it, you idiot.
Pretty quickly I’d reached the local supermarket, ready for a quick in-and-out with only four items to buy.
I gaped at the five… no, ten… too many people lined up outside the store.
The socially-distanced queue wrapped around the corner of the street! It must’ve been over twenty meters long!
I groaned, joining the end of the queue. I stood behind some duct tape on the ground that was already starting to peel off at the edges. Though to my surprise, it only took me about ten minutes to enter the store. The staff seemed to be on board with keeping up the flow of shoppers. There were arrows marked on the floor, indicating a one-way system in a zig-zag fashion through all the aisles. One man was just flicking in and out of the aisles as he pleased in any old way.
Aside from having to casually browse some tomatoes with earnest interest while the woman in front of me discussed various mealtime plans with someone on the phone (which did take a while), shopping was pretty straightforward. There was the broccoli, the carrots, the onions. Fabulous. Into the basket they went.
Then came the orange juice.
The problem was that there wasn’t just one orange juice.
There were over five different choices for orange juice. Some were thick like a milkshake, some you had to dilute with water yet insisted they weren’t squash, and some were pulpy. Who knew there were so many types?!
What kind did Doris want?!
I’m sorry, Doris!
I decided to take a punt and go for the smooth juice. Into the basket it went, fingers crossed.
To the till!
I sped through the motions as fast as possible, wiping anything and everything, then through various streets until I reached Doris’ door. I’d focused so much on not dropping anything that I almost walked straight past.
I walked halfway down the path as instructed and placed the bag carefully on the ground, the small brass weight bulging underneath the shopping.
I hurried back just as the door opened.
There was Doris.
She was not frail and old like I thought, not at all. She stood upright and was short, but elderly in a healthy sort of way.
And she smiled not just with her mouth but her whole face, bright and beaming like the sun.
Now I just felt even worse for being late!
“Um, I wasn’t sure if- with the orange juice, you know, some people like the pulp but I got you the smooth kind- and I hope the-“
“It’s fantastic! Thank you so much!” Doris grinned. She fished a hand into the bag and pulled out the orange juice with a laugh. “I love the smooth kind!”
At that point I realised I was smiling too. I couldn’t help it.
“I drink apple juice, myself,” I said.
Doris chuckled. “More for me, then!”
Her smile faded a little, like clouds drawing in across the sky. “Do you know,” she said, “you’re the first person I’ve talked to in person since the lockdown?”
My heart sank.
And yet she was still smiling. At having orange juice.
She asked me about school. I told her a few details, and even the most mundane things like how I contacted my teachers sounded way more interesting the way she reacted to what I said. She told me about her plants. We must have talked for half an hour.
Eventually she went in to sit down, and I walked home.
I sank down onto the sofa – after washing my hands, of course. I was shattered. All that shopping was exhausting.
I thought about Doris, being alone. Not having anyone to talk to. I myself had all that time to call people, but… I just wasn’t up to speaking so much, you know? That was okay.
And yet, talking to someone had been nice, like a weight shared. I felt like I achieved something that day.
Imagine if I’d never replied to that message on WhatsApp.
I wasn’t at school, but I was learning something.
That helping other people also meant you could help yourself.