Short Fiction by Sue Barsby
When this is over, we’ll meet.
We’ll go to hug and instead we’ll pause and feel a split second of awkwardness and worry, and then finally reach for each other. We’ll feel the warmth and the strangeness of touch, taking in the smell of the other’s fabric conditioner and shampoo and, with you, the briefest hint of vanilla vape smoke. We’ll say hello to our usual barista, expressing our delight that she is still here, from the old days, and we’ll take our coffee and walk in the sun. We’ll wander around the streets, noticing tiny architectural details on the shops and offices we’ve never spotted before, and we’ll pass people who will walk a little too close for comfort. We’ll nip into shops on a whim, flicking through magazines before replacing them on the shelf, thinking about impulse purchases from the unnecessary items that lie before us in a bewildering array of choice. We’ll leave them untouched.
We’ll enjoy the moment, this skill that we’ve acquired during lockdown to value the everyday, and to celebrate this we’ll paddle in the fountains in the square, shrieking at the shock of the cold water on our feet and laughing at the children who join us, who cannot believe that this is their life again.
We’ll go to the deli on the corner and buy whatever takes our fancy, just because we can, and we’ll take this mismatched picnic to the park and sit on the grass and sunbathe and make plans. We’ll talk of excursions to other cities, to take in an exhibition or a play, or to go to a restaurant we always wanted to try. We’ll go to a karaoke bar and belt out dire versions of our favourites and then to a club with the dancefloor packed with hot sweaty bodies, moving as one, their joy contagious. We’ll drink ice cold white wine on a warm evening and watch the condensation run down the side of the glass. We’ll take the kids to the seaside so we can run on the sand and feel it between our toes; so we can eat salty fish and chips and chase away the gulls; so we can play crazy golf and buy a bag of hot sugary doughnuts afterwards; so we can go on the pier and lose loads of 2ps in the slot machines; so we can feel the sea air on our faces and the tightness of the sun on our skin and go home afterwards with sand in our bags and clothes.
We’ll pick up the threads of our life where we can, visiting our parents and holding them close, going into an office that is familiar and yet different, returning the library books that are three months old and realising that we still didn’t read all of them. I’ll tell you about how each night, despite not wearing make up for weeks, despite the reports of the drop in air pollution, I gently cleansed and moisturised my face, wondering what purpose it served except to soothe me with its routine. You’ll tell me how you still set your alarm and found order in thrice-weekly runs and how you tried to ration your drinking to weekends.
When this is over, we’ll meet. And if we feel that we can, we’ll start to talk about it properly. The months of restriction, the anxiety about our wages and our rent and our children; the days where all we wanted to do was cry but batted it down; those days when we stared at a magazine picture of a tropical blue sea and realised that we couldn’t face leaving the house, that the restrictions in our minds were as effective as those in the law. We’ll talk about how we tried to get refunds on tickets, about how we threw away our diaries and our plans, about how we disinfected doorknobs, of how we were addicted to the daily numbers and how each day we immediately wished we didn’t know them.
We’ll swap pictures of the drawings we did, the jigsaws we completed, the strange meals we put together from food parcels and the bread we tried to make. We’ll reminisce about our parents using Whatsapp to videocall for the first time, about how we clapped and drew rainbows for our windows and left thank you notes for the bin men.
We might, later, when we’ve remembered how it feels to be together again, to talk side by side, we might discuss how scared we were. How the numbers terrified us, how going outside worried us, how danger seemed lurking invisibly on every parcel. How appalled we felt at pictures of nurses with bruised faces and pictures of nurses with homemade scrubs; and how angrily protective we all felt towards those nurses and cleaners and pharmacists and anaesthetists and social carers.
And we’ll part then, and grasp each other’s hands and confirm face to face our love for each other now that we’re through it and I’ll retain the feel of your hand on mine, the tight grip, the soft skin, your warmth. But instead I’ll have to remember that you were one of the numbers and that I couldn’t hold your hand, not then, not now. I keep going to call you about it, so we can talk.