This morning a man came to my house to deliver a package. Until today, having a package delivered had seemed like an entirely unremarkable thing. The kind of thing that you didn’t have to give any thought to the inner workings of, just one of those things you could depend on.
I don’t mean to sound complacent by saying this, or like I take the logistical miracle of deliveries for granted. After all, it’s easy to imagine all kinds of doomsday scenarios where packages are no longer being delivered at all. The point I’m trying to make is just that until today, I thought of package delivery was an immutable thing. A person comes to your door with something you ordered, they give you the thing, and they leave. Simple. Like a law of nature.
But as it turns out, even in something so simple, there are a lot of tiny details. Things you never pay much attention to, but which you notice immediately if they aren’t right. Like if somebody came into your house while you were out and moved all of the pictures in your house an inch to the left. The feeling I got the moment I opened the door was something like that.
The first strange thing that I noticed was the way the delivery man looked at me. In my experience, delivery drivers never maintain eye contact when you open the door to them. There’s usually a light sense of relief, presumably because there’s extra work involved if they have to see if I’ve listed a “safe place” for them to leave it, or knock on the door of one of my neighbours, but once the door opens, they’re usually too busy fiddling with the little handheld signature thing to look at me.
But this guy, he was looking straight at me. Whether he wanted to see if I would be wearing a full body hazmat suit, or was about to start yelling at him to stay 6 feet away from me I couldn’t say. I must have shown some reaction, because he gave a little chuckle as if the while situation was suddenly slightly embarrassing. Maybe he was wondering whether I was about to cough all over him. It was as if I was a mostly tame, but nonetheless unpredictable creature and he want sure how I would react to his intrusion into my personal space.
Speaking of personal space, the second thing I noticed, was that he was standing further away than usual. Again, it’s the kind of detail that is only obvious because of all the times it hasn’t been like that. It wasn’t like he was standing so far away that I couldn’t reach the little signature pad, the small plastic stylus dangling from a cord, he was just…farther away than usual.
I took in these details in an instant. Mostly unconsciously. They were processed as a slight feeling of “offness”, like one might get from a person who was just socially awkward. If it wasn’t for the embarrassed chuckle I might have passed the incident off as exactly that, but the chuckle indicated that he knew what was going on. And now, so did I.
I reached out, took hold of the stylus and briefly wondered how many other people had touched it today. I’ve never been a particularly germaphobic person, so this is a thought I have literally never had before. He was probably thinking about it too. I noticed the black gloves he was wearing and wondered if he had touched his face whilst wearing them. Delivery people really have it tough during a pandemic.
After I had finished making the unrecognisable scrawl that we silently agreed to let pass for my signature, I looked up to see him already beginning to back away. My package, which was rather large (I later found out it was a table which my housemate’s company had had delivered to her so that she’d be able to work from home) was propped up against the fence, about a metre and a half from my front door.
I hesitated. My feet were bare, and there was no way I would be able to reach the package, never mind be close enough to pick it up, without stepping out into the cold, damp gravel on the front path, a particularly unappealing proposition in mid-March England. The delivery man noticed me hesitate and paused. He looked at my bare feet and at the path and finally at the package, tantalisingly out of my reach.
Now I believe myself to be a fairly good judge of character, and I feel certain that under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have hesitated to hand me the package before he left. But these weren’t normal circumstances, and it wasn’t until I had stepped one bare foot out into the cold that he, a little half-heartedly, passed the package the rest of the way.
As I thanked him, he gave me a tight lipped smile that may or may not have been a little apologetic, and retreated down the path into the safety of his van. I turned and closed the door behind me, and as I did so, I thought about how suddenly the easy familiarity that I hadn’t even noticed I enjoyed with strangers had been eroded. How little it had taken for us to require a renegotiation of these unspoken details of personal space and physical contact, how quickly utterly normal acts of consideration had become things we had to weigh against our own safety and comfort, and that of our families.
Then I went inside and washed my hands.