Róisín Ingle: I nearly asked a stranger for her number. It’s the isolation talking

In this grotesque new world we have to find other ways to hold each other

We talk about how tranquil our secret place is, how lucky we are to know about it. Photograph: iStock

We talk about how tranquil our secret place is, how lucky we are to know about it. Photograph: iStock

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Feeling emotional, having not left the house for three days, I cycle one morning down to my secret place. I time myself. A seven-minute cycle, well within my 2km.

Funny how quickly you get used to things, isn’t it? Treating each other like pariahs. Queueing outside supermarkets. Checking the death toll. Zoom.

I’m not the only one who knows about this place, mind you. The last time I was here, I saw an older man sitting on the bench I’ve come to think of as mine. He was minding a sleeping baby, probably a grandchild, tucked up in a buggy. Maybe my secret place is not that much of a secret anymore.

Still, I sit here now, alone, listening to the birds calling to each other, talking to myself. I’m surrounded on all sides by hedges and trees. I am looking out at gently flowing grey-blue sea water, at the gulls, at a cloud-scattered sky.

I am looking across the water to the other side of this wide strip of sea. Gazing at the grand houses with stone steps up to the doors that face onto the promenade along the road to Clontarf.

My laptop is on the back carrier of my bike. I smile and give myself the award for Most Innovative Hotdesk

It might not yet have occurred to the people over there that the view from over here is miles better. Less industrial. Calmer, without the battle royale between cyclists and walkers and small kids. I never knew it myself until I found this place.

To my right, across the water, I can see Howth Head. I think of my friend who lives there alone. I’ll call her later, I think. I know someone who bumped into Kate and Wills when they went for their walk up there before everything went so strange and scary. I add Howth Head to my mental list of places I will treasure when it’s over.

My laptop is perched up on the back carrier of my bike. I’ve seen some impressive working-from-home desks on Instagram but mine takes the prize. I smile and present myself with the award for Most Innovative Hotdesk while the birds overhead flap their wings by way of applause.

My brother put the back carrier on the bike when he was over the last time. He’s back in southern India now. Holed up in his apartment, doing somatics and yoga on the roof of his building. Making conference calls and occasional, risky trips on his motorbike to forage for prawns and good cheese. Choosing back roads where the police aren’t waiting with big sticks to beat anyone who breaks the lockdown rules.

He’s staying there, he says. For now. Come home, I’ve said to him a few times. Come home. But he’s taking his chances. This is a man who was in the ocean, bodyboarding, when the big wave came to Asia in 2004, so I suppose he has survived worse. Or is this thing worse than a tsunami? Probably.

Still, he’s used to danger. Perhaps a pandemic suits some more than others.

I brought a flask of good coffee with me to my secret place. I thought I’d need it to warm me up, but the sun is so strong I’ve had to take off my big blanket coat and drape it on the crossbar of the bike.

There is nobody else around. All is still except some gently waving tall plants that have not yet flowered.

When she goes I begin to understand better the almost sacred attraction of this place at this time

The stillness is broken by the sound of shoes crunching on gravel made by a young woman with big sunglasses who has a toddler in her arms and a baby in a pram. She brings her small boy to look out at the sea, standing two metres away from me and my bike. My desk.

Her name is Sarah. We talk about how tranquil our secret place is, how lucky we are to know about it. Without saying much, we acknowledge the awfulness of everything. I think of asking for her phone number. In just a few minutes I feel we’ve made a connection. It’s probably the isolation talking.

When she goes I begin to understand better the almost sacred attraction of this place at this time. I find I breathe more deeply here.

I needed the headspace, I realise. I needed to get out of the house. At home, my daughters are doing online choir practice. Somewhere else my friend is preparing to say a final goodbye to her mother at one of those socially distant, deeply unfair funerals.

The death notice said: “Claudette George (nee Noujaim)... a polyglot, an intrepid traveller and an incredible chef.” My friend and her sisters thought they’d have more time with their mum.

But cancer, to quote my always-eloquent friend, is a “gaslighting motherf***er”.

I would like to hold her. But in this grotesque new world we’ve had to find different ways to hold each other. So, instead of a hug, I send loving thoughts and healing wishes skimming across the water, from a secret, sacred place.

I hope they reach her shores.

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