Short Fiction by Louise Hare
She wakes before the alarm every morning these days, despite not needing to get up that early. Sod’s law. The sun breaks through the blinds and, where under normal circumstances Esther would have turned over and dozed on through several bleary-eyed pushes of the snooze button, she is suddenly alert. Reaching for the phone, desperate to cram new information into her over-tired brain. Scrolling through the updates, checking both news apps, then Twitter, then Facebook, but it’s just Boomers posting videos that Esther laughed at on Instagram days earlier.
On Whatsapp there are six unread messages in the Old Mill Residents’ group even though Esther checked it out of boredom as she was falling asleep just before midnight.
KATIE (Flat 15): The stairwell stank of weed again last night. Can the culprit please go outside and commit their crime away from the rest of us.
GINA (Flat 22): Why were you in the stairwell? The lift was working fine when I went out earlier (supermarket if you need to know).
KATIE (15): I was exercising on the stairs but it’s impossible to breathe when you’re worried you’ll end up high as a kite!
GINA (22): We all know who it is and I doubt they’re smoking anything strong enough to affect you second hand. I can recommend you some YouTube channels if you want a home workout while the gyms are shut?
KATIE (15): I’m fine thank you.
Esther grins to herself, imagining Katie’s expression. She stretches and sits up. She’s been awake for almost forty minutes, all spent glued to her phone. Katie’s the block mother, always trying to organise everyone, the first to email the housing association if there’s litter in the hallways or any of the corridor lightbulbs go. Esther wouldn’t have joined the Whatsapp group only Katie had collared her in the lift one day and it was easier to just agree to it. Gina, she doesn’t know. Esther is Flat 23 so they’re next-door neighbours but she’s only ever seen the back of a braided head or heard a raucous laugh from the balcony that is so thoughtfully barricaded from her own with frosted glass that reaches inches above Esther’s five and a half feet. The couple she only knew to say hi to moved out two weeks into the new year. To a terraced house with a garden in a corner of what is Surrey on a technicality but is, for all intents and purposes, south London.
She makes a coffee and carries it out onto the balcony with the book she’s been trying to read for the past week, War and Peace, for an online book club. All the time in the world and she can’t settle to anything. She should be writing but nobody’s paying to read a think piece on the latest fashion when all the shops are closed and people are declaring themselves civilised if they’ve bothered to have a shower that day. For the fiftieth time since lockdown, she wishes she’d not given up smoking. She makes do with the coffee, brewed so strong the first sip makes her wince.
Silence reigns, but for the odd rumble of a lorry trundling down the main road on the other side of the block. Even the police sirens have become less frequent in recent days. Instead, Esther can hear every shift she makes in the cheap wooden chair that she meant to replace last summer. She can hear her neighbour – Gina – open the French windows that join her bedroom to her balcony but the woman herself doesn’t emerge. She waits, sips coffee slowly until the cup is empty, then goes inside to shower, her book left unread.
She wasn’t going to bother with it. Was anyone? At half-past six she’d put on some music and poured wine even though she knew she should have a night off the drink. Surely if she stuck to the unspoken rule of never before six o’clock? Or was it five?
The sound of the clapping breaks through the Leon Bridges vocal and she’s drawn outside onto the balcony. In the darkness the lights on every flat in the development are on, the blinds drawn back so that each apartment is a festive lantern, and people have come out to cheer and clap, and some bloke has brought out his wooden spoon and saucepan. There’s always one.
She sees a guy in the block opposite filming the scene on his phone and hurriedly joins in. It feels good, to be part of this. She doesn’t know any of these people and yet her eyes well up. For the first time in five years, she feels connected to these strangers who live in the same part of this huge city, who walk the same streets and shop in the big Sainsburys two streets over.
The applause and cheers fade out slowly and Esther takes a sip of her wine as she hears people still going in another part of the apartment complex, like a sonic Mexican wave reverberating off the tall buildings.
‘Great, isn’t it?’
Esther jumps, almost dropping her half-full glass. ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’
‘You must be Esther. I’m Gina.’ Gina pokes her head around the barrier between their flats.
‘Yes. Hi.’ Esther feels awkward
In the distance she can still hear one lonely saucepan being banged, a man singing Rule Britannia, as though a virus might have respect for patriotism.
‘There’s always one,’ says Gina, and Esther snorts a laugh.
‘Working from home?’ Esther asks.
Gina shakes her head and grimaces. ‘I work in the theatre. Self-employed so… We’ll see what happens.’
She sips coffee that went cold while she was waiting for Gina to come outside, determined to speak to her. Less than a week in and she was already desperate for any human connection, the organised applause of the evening before like a drug she was keen to try again. Hooked.
‘What can you do?’ Gina shrugs.
They’re keeping a safe distance, at least the two metres advised, leaning forward against the railing. Late thirties like her she estimates. Lives alone but is there a romantic partner practising good social distancing technique in another part of London? Gina’s braids are wrapped up in a printed scarf today and she wears the sort of glasses that used to be prescribed by the NHS but that are now considered trendy. Ugly beautiful.
‘Are you an actor?’
Gina shakes her head. ‘Costume. I was trying to get into fashion and then I fell into this by accident and it sort of stuck.’ She smiles wryly. ‘I was saving to open my own shop but it looks like that money might be paying my mortgage now so…’
‘That sucks.’ Esther cringes at the understatement. ‘I write about fashion, amongst other things. Maybe when this is all over I can do a piece on you?’
Gina looks away and Esther wishes she’d kept her mouth shut.
KATIE (15): Hate to be a killjoy but can I just remind everyone that you shouldn’t be having visitors, even boyfriends. Deliveries still allowed of course.
HAYLEY (14): Are you talking about me? My boyfriend did come round but he didn’t come in. He only came to drop off medication that I’d left at his.
KATIE (15): I wasn’t going to mention names. I understand that people might need things dropping off, but he stayed for at least ten minutes. It doesn’t take that long to drop a package off. As I said, I’m not trying to pry but the rules are pretty clear – no visiting people outside of your own household.
GINA (12): So no Tinder hook-ups allowed then?
KATIE (15): Is that supposed to be funny?
‘She’s not that bad in person,’ Esther tells Gina. ‘You’ve not met her yet?’
‘No. I assume the quarterly residents’ meeting will be cancelled next week.’ Gina rolls her eyes.
‘Honestly, they’re not that bad, the meetings. Everyone takes wine and a few people bake. Though you have to watch out for John in Flat 6. He’s the one who smokes weed. Last year he brought space cakes to one of the meetings. Not that any of us realised until it was too late.’
Gina laughs. ‘Fucking hell! Was everyone off their tits?’
‘No. Cause, you know, it takes ages to kick in. And Katie makes us get straight down to business so… I dunno. I imagine everyone was high as a kite eventually, just back in their own flats, alone.’
Gina sputters coffee over the side of the balcony. ‘Wow. Please tell me Katie ate one.’
‘She took two.’
It’s a beautiful spring day and, although Esther has been well aware of the new quiet of the city for days now, it is the first time she’s realised that it is the children she misses most, playing in the school playground across the street. Their screams and laughter accompany so much of her weekday writing. They shape her day, along with the faint ringing of the bell that is audible even through her double glazing. Morning playtime, an hour for lunch, home time, which is so often Esther’s cue to down pen and think about what she wants to eat for dinner. Maybe that’s why she’s finding it so hard to write these days. Hasn’t written a word in ten days. She’s waiting for the school bell to signal the start of the day.
Giving up, she decides to risk a walk through the park with its accompanying random obstacles. Kids on scooters, people rollerblading for what feels like the first time in a decade, couples holding hands, joggers, and Esther’s most hated combination: jogging couples. Walking across the grass is the safest route, beneath blue skies no longer marred by the crisscrossing of vapour trails that used to mark the Heathrow flight path. The odd lonely plane does still fly over her little corner of the world and she wonders who is still flying, why, where are they coming from?
She feels her chest tighten and takes a deep breath, steering a course that will bring her out by the supermarket. While she’s out she might as well get some food on. She’s run out of wine and rice. She keeps an ongoing list on her phone. So often the items she needs are missing from the shelves. She leaves them on the list which is now resembling a random pot luck of foodstuffs.
Joining the long queue outside the shop sets her mind at ease. Here is civilisation. People obey the rules and stand in line, leaving the recommended distance between one another. She smiles at the man in front of her and he grins back. They exchange that wry glance, the one that says ‘oh well, could be worse.’ It could be raining but it’s not. Esther turns her face to the sun and lets her body relax in the familiarity of the routine.
Day Twenty Two
KATIE (15): Just a little reminder to leave the bin store in a decent state. There is still a bin collection, it’s just maybe not as regular? The last thing we need right now is a rat infestation!
STU (4): The bins are overflowing. I tried to ring the council but no one’s picking up. Just a message that due to high sickness, blah blah blah.
FRAN (17): I think we can all have some compassion for the situation under the circumstances. I’d never usually suggest this but perhaps we should keep waste to a minimum? Save the planet.
GINA (22): I agree wholeheartedly, Fran, great suggestion. After all, what would Greta do?
KATIE (15): I don’t know if that’s practical? Also, sorry if I’ve missed the joke but not sure humour translates that well on this app??
Day Twenty Nine
She checks her phone again. Nothing new since the message from earlier:
GINA: I’m fine. Just a bit under the weather – it’s not the dreaded virus. Don’t worry.
Esther hasn’t seen Gina in two days. Katie’s been very active on the residents’ chat group but nothing from Gina. Just dull messages about the allocation of service fees and the reduction in costs now that the cleaners only come once a week instead of three times to keep up the communal areas. Not a sarcastic peep out of Gina.
That morning had been hard, her morning coffee taken in silence. She had some work to do for once and her creative spark had returned just long enough to whip up a six hundred word article on engaging in retail therapy when the supermarket was your only available option. Now she flicks through the TV channels aimlessly, War and Peace still unread in her lap. There’s a routine now and Gina is part of it. Esther tries not to think in the past tense.
Day Thirty Two
They drink their coffee, neither of them speaking a word. Esther is dying to spit out all of the questions that have been fermenting over the days since she last saw Gina. With nothing else to do, she had taken to listening out, peering through the spyhole in her flat door when she heard footsteps in the corridor. Watching Gina walk away, her canvas bags in hand, on her supermarket run. The afternoon before she heard music through the wall, later on, the raised voices of a telephone argument. Not ill then. So what?
‘I had some bad news,’ Gina says suddenly, casually.
‘I’m sorry.’ How best to ask the next question? ‘Did you want to talk about it?’
‘It’s nothing…I mean, it’s not a death or anything. It’s not that bad, it’s just…not good. Work. I don’t know how…’ She shakes her head. ‘It’ll be alright.’
Money, then. Esther thinks about the large online order she made the night before after two glasses of wine, deciding to spend the money she saved the month before on a Le Creuset frying pan that she’s coveted for an age, along with some other random bits and bobs. She’d never realised how much money she used to spend on a night out. Dinners in chain restaurants, bottles of wine, the pack of fags she would end up buying on the walk to the next bar.
‘It’ll be fine.’ Gina’s voice is stronger. ‘I’ve got savings, and this – it can’t go on forever, can it? I mean, there are people far worse off than me. How are they coping?’
They drink their coffee and look out on the apartment blocks opposite, to the left, towering over their own. So many people, so many different lives. It feels unsafe to think too hard about that. About the people who are ill and what will happen to them. Those who have no jobs now. People who were on the edge already, this tiny virus enough to push them over. Esther can’t think about any of that. She knows how lucky she is. And how guilty that makes her feel.
John (6): Does anyone have any flour they can spare? I’ve been trekking round the shops all weeks and there’s none to be found for love nor money.
Katie (15): I’ve got some self-raising but can I ask what it’s for?
John (6): Baking innit. Brownies if you want specifics.
Katie (15): With all due respect, after what happened last time I think I’ll have to politely decline. I’d hate to be implicated if you get caught baking illegal goods with flour that I’ve supplied.
John (6): With all due respect, I think you could do with taking that stick out your arse.
Gina (22): I’ve got some flour. Trade you for a brownie or two? I’ll leave the bag out by my door if you’re alright to pop up.
John (6): Deal.
Day Thirty Three
‘That’s better!’ Gina groans with the weight of the opaque glass divider, resting it carefully down on the wooden decking that makes up the balcony floors. ‘Now we can have a conversation without me putting my back out.’
‘Much better,’ Esther agrees, dabbing sweat from her brow even though her contribution was only the loosening of a few screws on her side of the divide.
‘You alright?’ Gina has finished rearranging her balcony furniture, a small glass table and chairs that look brand new so that it faces Esther’s.
‘Yeah. Just enjoying the quiet. It’s so peaceful out here.’
The weather has been incredible almost since the beginning of lockdown as if a greater power feels guilty and is trying to make up for the disruption. Esther smells the floral fragrance of spring in the air, a whiff of barbecue from a back garden way out of sight. It’s surprising to her that her neighbours don’t use their balconies more. Perhaps it’s too much of a reminder of what they’re missing. A tiny square of outdoor space not able to replace the outside world that is now non-existent.
This is her favourite time of day, this half-hour or so when the sun is lowering itself in the sky, graceful and unhurried. She can hear Stevie Wonder singing, the tracks following an order she knows: Songs in the Key of Life.
They fetch their drinks, Esther’s a glass of red wine, Gina’s a rum and ginger beer, the ice clinking gently with each sip. It’s part of their routine now. Coffee in the morning, drinks in the evening. It’s silly superstition but she feels that if she makes even the slightest change, she could lose even this. She’ll worry about her liver later.
‘My mum says hi by the way.’
‘Your mum?’ Esther is surprised. For whatever reason, they just don’t talk about life outside of these apartments. She talks to her parents every couple of days, it makes sense that Gina speaks to hers, but still…
‘She was worried about me being alone. She’s convinced that if I catch this thing no one’ll know until it’s too late.’
‘Like that woman whose body they found four years after she died? She ended up mummified or something equally grim. She had no friends…’ Why is she still talking? As if someone like Gina would just disappear like that poor woman had, no one to care or check up on her. Gina was the sort of person who had loads of mates, who under normal circumstances wouldn’t notice Esther in a crowded pub, might nod if they crossed paths in the lift or by the mailboxes but never think twice about her.
‘Thanks for the visual. And yeah, I guess that’s what she thinks, despite the fact that she calls me every day so she’d be the first to know if I got ill. Actually, probably second after you if I’m honest.’
‘Me? Really? I thought you’d be on Zoom every night chatting to mates.’ She imagines Gina’s friends are eminently cooler than Esther. They still have house parties and wear incredible clothes that they picked up in charity shops for pennies. Esther’s clothes are strictly high street. She’s the wrong shape for vintage clothing anyway. She’s had the horror story changing room experience to prove that, losing twenty minutes to a wrestling match with a dress that refused to fit back over her shoulders.
‘Sometimes. The first week or so, then everyone’s kind of over it.’ Gina shrugs. ‘It’s nice though, old fashioned in a way, making appointments with friends. I’ve spoken to friends I haven’t seen in over a year.’
‘Me too,’ Esther realises. ‘It’s nice. I wonder, when this is all over will we just go back to how things were or d’you think we’ll be changed forever?’
Gina doesn’t reply.
Day Forty Two
‘I’m gonna cook tonight.’ Gina sits down, blowing on the steaming cup of coffee in her hand. ‘I just realised that I need to get used to this. Stop feeling sorry for myself and deal with it. It’s not like it’s gonna be forever. Right?’
‘So I was thinking about it and I used to love cooking. Not just baking. There’s only so much banana bread one person can stomach, you know? It’s just that with work and all that, I got out of the habit.’
‘But now you have all this time,’ Esther pointed out.
‘Exactly! So I dragged my sorry arse to the supermarket last night before they closed and it turns out the weirdos round here don’t like chicken thighs so I grabbed a load and – you’re not vegetarian are you?’ Esther shakes her head. ‘So it’s not gonna be perfect cause I couldn’t get everything but it’ll taste good.’
She’s draining pasta in the sink when the news arrives. The background music from the radio cuts to a news broadcast and there is a man talking. There is no noise around him and his voice has that solemn tone that a certain breed of male politicians learn at public school. He is speaking but the words don’t make sense in Esther’s ears. She realises that this will be being shown on television, that this is one of those announcements that goes out on multiple channels. Switching on the telly, then the subtitles, as if reading his words will make it make sense, she concentrates, forgetting about the penne cooling in the sink. It’s not that life is going back to normal, not entirely and certainly not immediately, but it’s something. A small step back to familiarity.
It’s over, she thinks. She hears the sound of Gina’s balcony door opening and knows she is waiting for her to appear on the balcony. If she goes out will that break the spell? They can leave the block together now without worrying about Katie seeing them. Will the pubs open right away? The shops? Restaurants? Will she want to visit those places with her or is she waiting outside to say goodbye, it was nice for a while, couldn’t have made it through without you?
Her phone buzzes and she looks down.
GINA: Meet me in the corridor.
She always feels apprehension when she nears the front door. Usually she is bracing herself to enter an outside world that has for weeks now been terrifying. A deep breath as she turns the lock and fixes a smile on her face. Gina is there already, leaning casually against the wall. In his hand are two glasses of sparkling wine – champagne? Prosecco? – and she holds one out to Esther.
‘It feels wrong,’ Esther says. ‘Being out here. Standing this close. I am awake, aren’t I? It’s not one of those weird boring dreams where everything’s normal and you go to work and it isn’t until you sit down at your usual desk and look out of the window and see a flying car that you realise it’s not real?’
‘That sounds cool but no. This is very real.’
They clink glasses awkwardly. It feels as though there should be more happening. The rest of the block is silent and from the hallway window, Esther and Gina can see straight out to the main road below. A supermarket lorry trundles past and there is a cyclist in full lycra. An older woman walking her small dog.
But then, suddenly, people appear in the gardens of two terraced houses below. A couple on the left, two young lads on the right, shirtless with beer cans in hand. The words can’t be heard but Esther watches as they shake hands over the fence. Human contact.
‘Should we be shaking hands?’ Esther asks. It seems a bit strange after all this time. The idea of it.
Gina thinks for a moment. ‘Let’s go one better.’ She holds out her arms and they both laugh as they hug. ‘Do you want to come in?’
It feels forbidden, a rule so recently relaxed that Esther hesitates before she nods shyly. Standing on the threshold of her neighbour’s flat, listening to the sound of people coming out into the corridor, the goods news being passed around the building, she feels silly for being so fearful.
She shakes her head and smiles. And takes a step forward.
This piece was kindly written in response to our Stories in the Time of Covid 19 project.