Eleanor Rigby waits at the window. No one has passed yet today, and it’s already after 11. Perhaps she missed someone when she was in the kitchen or the bathroom. But the block of flats is in a quiet road; even in normal times it can be hours between pedestrians. Cars don’t count because she’s on the fourth floor; too high to be able to see the drivers. So she has to content herself watching branches in the breeze and bees and butterflies and birds, which, she’s sure, there are more of. Not just in number but in variety. She’s read that some have come to cities because of the quietness. Sadly, this probably won’t last; they will go away when normal life and traffic return.

She’s also read about people saying things will never be the same again, but she has her doubts. Humans are lazy, and they’ll go back to doing things the way they did before. Driving. Drinking. Consuming. If things do change, she thinks, it will be forced on us because we’re out of work and can’t afford to do what we used to. But even that is temporary. Economies bounce back eventually. Maybe the protracted nature of this thing will help. If it really is going to be a year or more, as people say, maybe we’ll get used to living our lives differently, and maybe we’ll come out the other side changed in ways we don’t realise. But, Eleanor expects, the more likely outcome is that we’ll revert to type, unless we make a deliberate decision not to. All of us, together. And each one of us, alone.

This is something else she’s read a lot: alone together. For her, the together part only applies in a general way; we are all going through this. But Eleanor has nobody to be alone together with. No family, no friends, no one to call or message.

Her parents have both passed on and, like her, both were only children, so she had no aunts or uncles or cousins. It’s been nearly 20 years since Frank died. They were both introverts, never a very sociable couple, and the small circle of friends they did have has drifted apart and moved away to other cities and countries.

Her company is – or, until recently, was – made up of brief encounters with familiar people. The bus driver. Isabel from the flower shop. Kareem from the corner shop. Their conversations were simple. Sometimes just a smile and a thanks, sometimes hello and how are you, sometimes the weather. That was enough for Eleanor. 

But now she isn’t taking the bus or buying flowers. Even Kareem has closed his shop. She doesn’t know why. He sells bread and vegetables and pet food; he could be open, but he isn’t. She wonders, doesn’t he need to make a living? One of the few that is allowed to, but he isn’t. Eleanor imagines that maybe his mother is sick and he is looking after her. Or maybe he is sick. Or scared. She thinks of him a few times a day. And when she has to go out to get food, she walks past his shop hoping to see it open and him behind the counter, but that never happens, so she has to go to the supermarket a few roads down. She feels anxious being in a place with so many people, and they all probably feel the same. They can hardly manage a smile, and even if they could, you wouldn’t be able to see it behind their masks. The cashiers try to be friendly but Eleanor can see their fear.

Just after midday a young woman walks past. In her early 20s, Eleanor thinks from her window. About the same age she was when she met Frank. The woman has long brown hair, which she flicks behind her shoulders, causing her to look up momentarily in Eleanor’s direction. Eleanor does what she does whenever someone walks past. She plays a scene out in her imagination: The woman smiles. Eleanor smiles back. The woman waves. Eleanor waves back. Opens the window. Shouts hello. The woman says hello back. Eleanor says wouldn’t you like to come up for a cup of tea? The woman looks around her, crosses the road. Eleanor says to buzz flat 402. The woman is taller than she looks from a distance, but more fragile. She comes in, Eleanor boils the kettle and makes some tea. I have a young child, the woman says. Three years old. I could bring her with me but, I don’t know, I feel safer leaving her home. I have to ask my neighbour to look after her for an hour. Who knows if my neighbour has it or not. I don’t even know her that well. You could bring your daughter here, Eleanor says. I don’t know you at all, the woman says. That’s true, Eleanor says. Where’s the father, Eleanor asks. Stuck in Japan. He went there for work and can’t get back… 

Eleanor can’t take the conversation anywhere after that. It’s a not very satisfying ending to the story, but that is just how her fantasies go. Some are significant, some superficial. Some last an afternoon, some are short and abruptly concluded. They have ended with friendships, sex, assault. Not yet with death.

In real life, she could die and nobody would know. She could trip and hit her head on the bath, for example. How long would it take for the neighbours to smell? She has no idea. Who would arrange the funeral? Who would attend? What would the tombstone say? Eleanor Rigby (born Stapleton), deeply mourned by… who? That’s what Frank’s tombstone says: Frank Rigby, deeply mourned by his wife, Eleanor. He was also the only child of two only children, so Eleanor is the last of the Rigbys. When she dies, she will be buried along with the name. 

Frank died young, just short of his 50th birthday, before Eleanor even wondered who would die first or imagined what life without him might look like. It was difficult at first, but she got used to it, and has grown content being on her own. The thought of meeting new people, and making conversation… it’s not for her. We are all different creatures, she feels, and this is who I am, and I am okay with that. Of course, she also never imagined this happening. She is accustomed to being alone; knows how to be alone; but now she feels unusually alone. She looks out the window again. The street is empty.

Later in the week, Eleanor gets up from her chair at the window and goes out. She hopes Kareem’s shop will be open this time but is not surprised when it isn’t. She takes the envelope out of her handbag and crouches down with difficulty to slide it under the door. The letter is short. It says Dear Kareem (she doesn’t even know if that is how he spells his name), I just wanted to know how you’re doing. I thought you would keep your shop open. I hope everything is okay. Kind regards, Mrs. Rigby (Eleanor). Kareem is too polite to call her by her first name, though she has told him to before. He always calls her “Mrs. Rigby” or, occasionally, when he is feeling jovial and open, Mrs. R.

Eleanor strains to get up. It is more difficult than it was crouching down, and she looks around to see if anybody is watching her struggling. She fixes her face mask, walks the extra few blocks to the supermarket, buys enough so she won’t have to go again for a few days, but not so much that it will need more than a packet or two, which she would not be able to carry. Bread, eggs, milk, tea, some fruit and vegetables, a few frozen meals. 

Back home, she boils the kettle, makes herself tea and goes to drink it at the window. Two youths – maybe seventeen or eighteen – walk down the middle of the street shoving each other and laughing. Both of them have shaved heads. Neither of them is wearing masks. Eleanor plays out the scene: She opens her window and tells the boys to be careful, to go home. They look up, snigger. They take a few pebbles from the pavement and pelt them at her. One just misses the window. They mock her: Be careful! Go home! and walk off, laughing louder…

The next morning, from the same chair, Eleanor looks around her flat. Her vase is empty, for the first time in years. The last flowers she bought from Isabel were tulips, and she kept them until they were wilted and turning brown. She imagines Isabel’s house, also flowerless. She imagines Kareem’s house, also flowerless. She wonders if Kareem has been to the shop, even just to check it. Maybe he has sent someone else. Probably not. It’s been closed for weeks; why would it be different today? But then again, why wouldn’t it be? If she could just know that he’s okay, she would feel better. Would it be silly to call him? Could she even call him? Shops normally have an emergency number somewhere on the front door, but she’s never thought to look if Kareem’s does. Next time she goes out she’ll check, she thinks. But why shouldn’t that be today, she thinks? She could take a bag and pretend she was going shopping. She looks out of the window, as if that might influence her decision: maybe if someone passes by she might be distracted or dissuaded. But nobody does. She gets up, walks to the front door, goes back to the kitchen to get a shopping bag, leaves.

She wonders if she is being inappropriate. If she is interfering. No, she is just caring. Nothing wrong with that. But might it be misconstrued for more? Kareem must be a similar age to Eleanor. What if he has a wife? She knows nothing about his family; doesn’t even know if he has a family. She has thought to ask, but it always felt awkward. 

There is no number on the door, or anywhere else that she can see. There is a sign for a security company. That makes sense. It’s not the 20th century. In case of emergency, there would be an alarm, and the security company would be notified automatically.

She walks back home, feeling sheepish and silly. But that doesn’t stop her from taking out her pad and writing another short letter. Dear Kareem, I hope you don’t think I’m as silly as I feel writing this, but I realised there is no way for you to let me know if you’re okay. So I’m writing again to leave you my number. I’d be so grateful if you’d just call me to tell me everything’s alright. She signs her name and writes out her number, folds the letter and puts it in an envelope. But she resolves to only deliver it next time she actually has to go shopping. Perhaps by then his shop will be open again and she won’t have to embarrass herself.

She hears a man coughing in the street below. She looks out of the window and plays out the scene: The man’s coughing becomes worse. He doubles over. Puts his hands on his knees. Wobbles. Eleanor opens the window, calls to him: are you okay? He looks up, waves as if to say it’s all fine, but it’s not. He attempts to take long breaths but can’t because of the coughing. She tells him to come up to her flat so he can take a break and recover, but he shakes his head. He gathers himself, shouts thank you, thank you very much, I’ll be okay…

A few days later, she knows it’s not essential to go out but her milk is half finished. Never mind that she has a few cartons of long-life. At Kareem’s, she sees her envelope still where it was when she was here last. She slips the second envelope under the door. As she gets up, a woman almost walks into her. She is not wearing a mask.

“Damn, he’s closed,” the woman says. “I’ll have to go to the supermarket,” she sighs in Eleanor’s direction. “I can’t wait until the end of the month when this lockdown is over.” 

Eleanor has noticed that the penny seems to drop at different rates for different people. Things are not going to return to normal at the end of the month, she wants to tell the woman. But then, Eleanor was taking the bus a few weeks ago, not washing hands any more than usual, even when others were starting to stay home. Maybe people only process what they can cope with. Maybe it’s just hard to defer dreams, hopes and plans. She thinks of the holiday she wants – wanted – to take in July. She hasn’t been to Spain, has always wanted to go, and now probably never will.

She walks back to her flat, already preparing the next letter, but she can’t think what she might say.

The next day her phone rings. It must be Kareem, she thinks. Nobody ever phones her. But it’s a wrong number. Somebody with a foreign accent. She is next to the window. On the table to her side, her writing pad is still out and the page is still blank. She starts to write: Dear Kareem, My phone just rang and I thought it was you, replying to my last letter. I dropped it off yesterday when I came past, hoping you’d be open. But you weren’t. It was so disappointing. Instead I had to go to the supermarket, which I dislike. So many people. I just feel like seeing a familiar face; a smile. Anyway, maybe one day we’ll laugh at these letters I wrote you. Kind Regards, Eleanor.

She reads it, cringes a little, resolves not to give it to him. But later in the week she still hasn’t crumpled it or thrown it away. She has folded it neatly and put it in an envelope. She remembers when she was sixteen and wrote to a boy and sprayed the envelope with perfume, but she doesn’t do that now. Now she only sprays a little on her neck.

She is standing outside Kareem’s shop with the envelope in her hand, looking at the two envelopes on the other side of the door, when the same woman as last time walks around the corner, still not wearing a mask. She walks right up to Eleanor.

“Did you hear what happened to him,” she says.

“You mean Kareem?”

“Terrible business. Our local WhatsApp group was talking about it.”

“About what?”

“They say he got beaten up. While he was on his way to the shop. Two young thugs, apparently. Kicked the shit out of him. He had to go to hospital.”

“Oh my goodness. Is he okay?”

“That’s the worst part. He got sick there. Sicker. Because of all this, probably.” She waves her hand around theatrically in no particular direction. “Anyway, that’s what the WhatsApp group said.” The woman sighs in Eleanor’s direction again. “Who knows if he’ll be okay.”

“I-

“Stay safe!” the woman commands.

Eleanor stands at the door, wondering how much is rumour and how much is truth. Did he really go to hospital? Which one? What difference would it make; she wouldn’t be able to go anyway. She slides the third letter under the door and walks slowly home.

For the next few days, Eleanor spends much of her time at the window. She has a book open but has hardly read a chapter. She has played out a few unimaginative scenes involving passers-by – a woman on a bicycle, an elderly couple walking arm in arm, a man carrying a drill. 

Early on Monday a man walks past. He is grey like Kareem, but has a bald spot at the top that she has never noticed Kareen having. He is also slighter, gaunter, and walks with a stick. Is it him? Eleanor watches carefully. The man lifts his head slightly, and she plays out a scene in her imagination: Kareem? she calls. He smiles, waves. Kareem! she shouts. Mrs. R! he calls back. How are you? she asks, I heard you- Yes, yes, he nods. But I’m getting there. Better every day. I’m opening the shop again today! Eleanor feels a warmth and happiness of spirit that she hasn’t felt for months. Maybe years. Wonderful! she calls. Oh, please ignore the letters, throw them away! Letters? he asks. She feels herself blush but she doesn’t care. Never mind! She calls. I’ll see you at the shop! Yes, see you soon! He waves.

Eleanor watches the man walk to the end of the road and turn right, out of sight.