Short Fiction by Sarah Dale
I’m in a harbourside café in Wellington, stealing a summer from the south. Catapulted into the light, guilty about flying this far but wanting to visit my brother, I arrive with pale peaky skin, eyes squinting at the brightness, legs shaved for the first time in months. Today, the televisions in foyers and shops screen headlines – THE UK ENDS 47 YEARS OF MEMBERSHIP. Everyone I encounter, from any country, expresses mystified sympathies. I feel a profound sense of loss, which has been building for years. From here, the UK looks even smaller, more vulnerable and more dangerously mistaken than it seemed to me at home. I love my country and I grieve.
As an aside, I note brief observations of people we’ve met. Marion, our Air B&B host in Taupo, was solicitous. She worried about our wellbeing and enjoyment. She fed us chilled local Sauvignon and trout that a neighbour had caught in the lake – a real treat, she explained, because fishing laws prevent it from being bought and sold but you can eat what you catch. It was delicious. She kept a pristine house and wore immaculate neutral make up. The news rolled on her giant television screen all day. Her anxiety about everything (apart from the quietly simmering volcano a few miles from her house, about which she seemed relaxed) was intense. She has scared herself witless about coronavirus, I write.
We visit Sydney for two nights on our way home. Days before we arrive it rains, torrentially, madly, putting the raging bush fires out at last. Our expat Argentinian hosts are beyond relieved, and the loss of power in parts of the city seems a small price to pay. Under grey lowered skies, I am transfixed by the scale of the cruise ships dwarfing the skyline. News drifts in of a sister ship in quarantine in Japanese waters. I watch television crews and ambulances position themselves at the disembarkation point and I wonder about everything.
We fly home, arriving at the same time as storm Dennis. Whilst we wait for our bags, I overhear the cabin crew congratulate the pilot (who looks about fourteen to me, some clichés hold fast) on his landing of the giant plane in such high winds.
There’s a Chinese couple on our flight. They’re about my age, in their fifties, nervously smiling at us from behind their masks. We see them on the shuttle to Birmingham International, the train to New Street, the train (packed, delayed due to the storm) to home. Somewhere in Birmingham, they take their masks off. I’d feared for them because people were staring at them, suspicious, hostile. I imagine they’re travelling to visit their student child. One of my children is in Adelaide, Australia right now. I feel an invented affinity.
The news is consumed with flooding and our hearts go out to those poor sods with ruined houses. I rage about the government’s lack of response. What with that, I note, and coronavirus – lots of lockdown places in Italy since yesterday – it is looking quite unsettling.
My elderly parents, in very sheltered housing, head into their own crisis. Uncharacteristically detached from the news, without awareness of the virus, my father’s lifelong, untreated, health anxiety runs amok. He rings me, leaving breathless messages. He calls out doctor, nurse or ambulance every day. I reassure him and Mum that I’ll be down at the weekend, and the care staff are onto the situation with a swift compassion that I find shamefully hard to muster at times.
I wake with a very sore throat, having dreamt about feeling scared, away from home. Everyone there had decided to congregate in my flat and the floor was covered in raisins and things that people had dropped. I spent all my time with lost soft toys.
I send off my application for a month-long writing residency in Ljubljana. A long shot, I note, I don’t really meet the criteria. The papers warn us to wash our hands and not to panic, whilst increasingly using words like killer, war, scare, mayhem, chaos, terror and won’t cope. Except, I notice, the Daily Star which tells us that lizard people live among us.
I visit my parents, three hours’ drive away in Suffolk, for the weekend. My daughter, the one on a working holiday in Australia, messages me late in the evening for a chat. I reply that I can’t talk now – I’m nearly asleep with a cold I’m trying so hard not to have so no one runs screaming from me for having the plague. My sore throat has gone, my nose is streaming, I have no cough or temperature or headache. I wash my hands so much my childhood eczema flares and I buy myself the best hand cream I’ve ever owned. I repeatedly check the list of symptoms on the NHS website, and take Lemsip which works. It’s a cold. Yes. It’s a cold.
It has been an exhausting visit. I could have done with two wheelchairs, but I don’t know how that would have worked with one of me. But, somehow, we manage to venture out for a ploughman’s and a glass of wine and we are, for now, happy with that. I take a photo and share it on Facebook and people like it. But later, Dylan Thomas’s lines churn through me when I’m with my agitated father, who rages against something terrifying, something unnamed, that I have always felt but can’t grasp, a past that he can only inhabit alone, the dying of the light. As I drive away, I feel a tide of love for my mother, who waves me off, smiling as she leans on her walking frame behind the window in the communal lounge. She’s so small now. Her surge of pragmatic determination of late, in the midst of her fragility, is unexpected and welcome.
The day after I get home, I spend the day helping to plant trees at a local primary school. It feels like blessed, cleansing, distraction and I go to bed physically tired.
I succumb to a mild panic buy. Tea bags, tins of tomatoes, lentils. I note, the fear of losing everything keeps swirling around like an invisible gas. Climate emergency, this virus, a different one, politicians really screwing up.
In a rare moment, the papers largely agree on their headline. FIRST VIRUS DEATH IN THE UK. Apart from the Daily Star which shouts LIFE FOUND ON MARS.
I meet friends for lunch. We don’t touch each other and wash our hands assiduously between courses. One – a senior research nurse specialising in the care of the elderly – tells us the NHS and School of Nursing at the University are expecting the shit to hit the fan in three weeks’ time.
I go for a routine smear test at my GP practice. I am surprised how low key everything feels there and use my own hand sanitiser – a half bottle, years old, discovered in an old coat pocket – after checking in on the shared touch screen. The nurse tells me they’re off on a teambuilding afternoon after she’s seen me. They’re going to an escape room and then for a meal. That’s why she’s wearing jeans, she explains apologetically.
In the evening we have dinner with friends. I’m shocked by the level of vigilance amongst them which means we don’t even pass plates to each other. Am I being complacent? I ask in my diary.
Mum rings to tell me Dad is worse. He is hard to look after. Life is getting weirder, I write. My husband’s office is having a practice shut down. He’s responsible for managing a hundred people through this. He’s stressed, preoccupied. More and more uncertain. Seems likely that shut down’s coming. Maybe today. Soon, my daughter probably won’t be able to get back from Australia even if she wants to. I’m glad she’s not in the USA, I add.
I watch the final update of the BBC’s Child of our Time, which I have followed since it started at the beginning of the millennium. I am so moved by the simultaneous fragility and resilience of young people, I think I might burst. They all feel like my children. My heart breaks for Parys Lapper and his mum. I literally feel chest pain.
13 March (Friday)
My oldest friends and I decide to go ahead with our planned annual weekend together. We haven’t missed one in twenty years. We agree a last – fairly careful – hurrah, sensing that soon all this will be impossible. We go for long walks by the sea and spend money in local cafes and shops, deciding on take-aways in preference to sitting in restaurants as the weekend progresses. We drink too much, laugh a lot and continuously talk about what we think will happen, especially to our parents who are all in their eighties with various permutations of difficulty. The wheels fall off for one of us as we speak as both of his parents are admitted to hospital at the same time, a hundred and fifty miles away, and he rings his brother who happens to be on a skiing trip in Austria. At the same time, my cousin messages to say they’re all ill in their house following their son’s skiing trip to Austria last week. We speculate about whether my friend’s brother will have to be quarantined on his return, whilst planes are turned back from Spain without landing and France closes all its cafes and bars. I have the first migraine I’ve had for thirty years. We scatter back to our homes on Monday with urgency, impressing on each other how we’ll see each other on the other side. I have never felt closer to them all. We say fuck it and hug each other before we leave.
Boris Johnson does the first daily briefing. I am surprised by the serious and clear format, with all sides of the press in attendance (well, I didn’t notice the Daily Star). There is time, and patient turn-taking, for questions. It is broadcast professionally and responsibly by the BBC rather than self-published by the Tory party on YouTube. Boris is basically chairing it and allowing the scientists and doctors to lead, rather than proclaiming in party political manner. Who knew this was possible? I’d previously noted Boris needs to be careful in his choice of language and of course he never is. Over the coming days, I stop watching or listening to the news and simply tune into the briefing. It’s all I can handle right now.
Phone and Facetime and Skype and Messenger (we haven’t yet heard of Zoom). All of us mothers fretting over our young adult children. Come home! Stay where you are! Wake up! Listen! But don’t worry! Decide, decide, decide.
The care home manager where my parents live rings me to tell me they’re going into tight lockdown from Friday. No more visits, no more agency staff.
Australia and New Zealand close their borders. In the UK, since the briefings started, the headlines have become more consistent and factual. SCHOOLS CLOSE TOMORROW, almost universally announced today. Well, there is this from the Daily Star: WE’LL CRACK DOWN ON BOG ROLL BANDITS. Even they are edging closer to message.
Mum tells me Dad has been getting up at 3am and microwaving dry oats till they burn in an insistent attempt to make breakfast. My younger daughter – a second year student nurse – wrestles with what she’s expected to do, and what she feels able to do, in the face of rumour, advice and mixed messages from all directions. My eldest drives to Melbourne with new mates in a camper van along the coast road, with no decisions yet about what next. When they arrive in the city, they don’t like the atmosphere. It’s a big city where they know no one which is on the verge of shutting down. They hire a car big enough for six and hightail like outlaws back across the state boundary – just before it closes – to Adelaide. She’ll remember this, I say to myself, trying to unclench my jaw and laugh. My husband works harder than I’ve ever seen him work. I help set up local support groups.
I spend the whole week in a permanent startle reflex, like a baby shocked by a loud noise. Palpitations, tight chest, heart in throat. I can’t read. I can’t concentrate. I can’t write. Even the potential silver lining of all this is in tatters. My carefully planned sabbatical year of 2020, set aside for writing and creative work, is suddenly enforced and I am frozen. I’m clumsy and forgetful. I’m focused as hell on some sudden priorities for very short periods of time. I take Wind in the Willows to bed with me, for a few soothing sentences. I sleep suddenly and wake suddenly with spikes of anxiety.
Soothe all cells. Attend only to the physical. Yoga, sex, walking, gardening, breathing. It’s Mother’s Day and the weather has – at last – turned to gloriously incongruous perfection. The UK throws caution to the wind and congregates in all its favourite spots, luxuriating in blossom and freshly cut grass and fish and chips and ice cream. Of course it bloody does. That’s what we always do and what we instinctively feel we need. It’s hard to square the rational with the emotional today. I go for a wary walk, alone in the forbidden spring sunshine, and feel nervous as photos from around the country are circulated.
We are told off, as I knew we needed to be, in the manner of a teacher blaming the disobedient few for spoiling it for the rest of us. Boris Johnson addresses us, probably the first time I’ve ever seen him reading from an autocue rather than winging it:
In an impressive scramble, everyone I know shuts the last of everything down – offices, labs, classrooms, shops, extended families – in line with the rules. By eleven o’clock, we begin to stare at each other on screens, in vertiginous hysteria, our bodies and minds alternating between settling in for a weirdly dissociative and exceptional bank holiday – a royal wedding or funeral, England in a world cup final – and a sense that this is actually the beginning of the end of the world. Adrenaline surges and collapses, in waves that echo the graphs we are trying to understand. The sun still shines. I order a huge bag of compost whilst being a model citizen about toilet roll and pasta.
I dream I am locked into a hostel with people I don’t know, about to go home when suddenly the rules change and I can’t leave. The toilet, in a small room, is dirty, and the cistern and flush handle are in another room, and the handwash sink in another. When I reluctantly accept I need to go to the toilet I discover I am having an unexpected period and I splat clotted blood all over the toilet seat. I take the seat outside to clean but the stains won’t come out.
Whatever this is going to be, it is upon us.