This is Paulina. Before this afternoon, we were strangers.
It was a good, productive morning. I had a video call with my Aussie publisher. Worked through my To Do list. Pottered at home, knowing I wanted at some point to walk to the post office. Put it off and put it off, it was blowing a gale outside. But, after days of sobbing rain it was finally dry. Seizing the chance to shake off cabin fever I laced up my shoes and went out into the bluster, listening to a podcast about common humanity and self-compassion. Paused along the way to marvel at wildflowers, and one of my favourite tree-lined paths in Manchester. Stopped at the fruit shop to pick up some apples and lemons. Waited in line for the check out. Waited for the traffic lights to turn green. All these little stops and pauses, all clocking up to the moment I crossed the road and went into the post office. Queued.
First thing I noticed was the beautifully thick and curly hair of the woman in front of me. Second thing I noticed was that crawling in her curls atop her head was a big bumblebee.
For one or two seconds I froze: don’t say anything, she’s a stranger, it’ll be awkward, you’ll come across as weird, there’s people banked up either side of you in line, you’ll cause a spectacle. Thankfully, gut instinct overrode madness; I was terrified she’d feel it in her hair and swat it away. Can you imagine the pain of a bee sting on your scalp? I reached out to touch her arm.
“Excuse me, love, I’ve just noticed there’s a bee in your hair.” I assumed she went instantly pale, eyes wide, because that’s how most English people I know react when confronted with insects. “Let’s go outside? I’ll brush it away for you?”
“Yes please,” she said calmly, in a lilting accent I couldn’t place. She’s not English, I thought fleetingly. We left the queue together. I still assumed the terror in her face was because of creepy-crawlies. As soon as we walked outside, the bumblebee flew from her hair, up into the sky.
“Look, off it goes. No harm done.” I smiled.
The woman exhaled a shaky breath. “Thank you so much,” she said, smiling for the first time. “Really, thank you.”
We walked back into the post office together.
“Really,” she said, when we rejoined the queue. “Thank you. Especially because I’m allergic to bees.”
It hadn’t occurred to me whatsoever that she might have had a bee allergy.
“The last time I had a bee sting, within fifteen minutes I was in hospital in a coma. Thank you so, so much. Thank you.”
My knees jellied as varying levels of realisation dawned on me.
This is my new friend, Paulina. She’s Lithuanian, travelling the world with her boyfriend, currently living and working in Manchester. Next year she plans to visit Australia, a big dream for her, a place she’s always wanted to go. She’s also allergic to bees. Before this afternoon, we were strangers.