She’s already settled by the time I climb the last flight of stairs at nine am. Her workbooks, pad of paper, pen, and laptop are neatly arranged. Her mask is still on. She’s tucked in a nook at a small table on the public balcony outside of my office, ready to go. Every day for a week she is there, before I arrive. These public areas are a well-known secret, a space for students after school to finish homework and chat, a space for tourists to enjoy the view down over central, and a space, sometimes, for work from home types and others to enjoy the fresh air. There aren’t many tables in all, and fewer now with some closed still due to the building’s strange coronavirus restrictions. Some gathering areas are fine, but not others. Some indoor rooms are available, but not all the outdoor spaces. Like many things the response is a mishmash of sensible and awkward.
At three pm this results in a scramble for outdoor space, those of us in the five small offices that share this floor competing with the students and tourists for places to take video calls, places to check in with our partners, places to take a five minute break from our colleagues. At four this jam peaks, and by six or so, as people start to drift away to dinner or to the gym, as the offices start to empty, the balconies are free. As the lights come on down the hill in Central the whole building gains a bit of Bladerunner, the sky lit with halos of signs as it otherwise fades through shades of darker blue.
The punctual woman is gone by then, of course. Her schedule seems fixed, starting at least at nine and ending before three. Or perhaps that’s the limit on her laptop’s battery, as there is no power on this balcony, retrofitted from its earlier purpose to this role as tourist destination and incubator. Every day for a week I wonder about her. My own team is not as punctual, arriving between eight forty five and ten thirty. Her rigor, then, stands out, as does her arrangement of materials. An online class, I expect. Perhaps languages, though that is probably a reflection of my own learning pattern rather than an accurate assessment. Whatever her goal, I am impressed by her dedication, by her preparation, and by her discovery of this tiny sanctuary among the bustle of Soho. When she disappears again, a week later, I wonder if the class is over or if the increasing virus case load has caused her to revisit time spent in public.
Whatever her goals, and whatever her reason for the week on our balcony, I hope she achieved them. Having studied myself on odd hours, on breaks between jobs and long evenings, I know the value of her rigor, and her habit. Age is of course a guess, for someone I never spoke to more than a quiet hello. Fifty, I’d estimate, punctual and well-prepared. May I too be so dedicated, regardless of aims.