Short Fiction by Sarah Stretton and Gael Bell
I’m keeping my virtual curtains open in the hope of seeing you
in your self-isolation. You haven’t come to the window in a while.
Can’t you hear the tap, tap, tap of my thumbs on Instagram,
pecking the glass like a springtime goldfinch? We missed you
at the poetry reading, partitioned in the back room of the pub, but still
breathing in each other’s words. So many chose, like you, to stay away.
Today, I remembered the existence of stamps, put down my phone
to write you a poem on a postcard. Let me know…are you okay?
Love G x
You can’t see me, but I hear you. I thought it was the blood
circulating in my head, but it was you, dripping lines into my seclusion,
driving self-isolation to the heart. My life has contracted to the Victorian
ley lines of a farmhouse annexe – one up one down, one bed one bath,
two rooms, two people, high ceilings and a quarrel of sparrows.
I’ve blocked off my exits, cut down community, turned dependent,
set reminders to breathe – consequences of underlying conditions.
I exercise at twilight; stretching my legs feels safer in the half-light.
Take it all in, breathe in this storm before the quiet. Look for me
in the asthmatic sigh of post through a letter box.
Yours, “AT RISK”, SJ x
The postman delivered your sigh in surgical gloves.
It made me forget how the world was, only yesterday.
Before the stockpiled snarl of shopping trolleys,
gorged themselves on every aisle and belched up fear.
You are lucky, in a way, to be locked down.
I made a note to remember bees in the heather, cider
in the park and the movement of reaching out a hand.
Did you know the schools are closing? My son is excited
but behind his eyes is a fear. A fear of missing his friends,
of maths with mum, of what we might not be telling him.
I say: it means the world can stretch and clear
its long-mistreated lungs, unclog its sinuses of contrails,
cough out the tickling irritant of 747s. I tell him: it will be okay.
Do you think I’m right? Maybe your lungs will be happier too.
Love G x
You talk in grey tones and it’s as I suspected.
Who knew the sky could fall so swiftly? As our lungs falter,
there is comfort in the planet’s opening up. I feel for your son.
I started this week, gloveless, at work, planning lessons,
unaware that in the blink of a weekend my students had gone,
putting a continent between us before I could consider it.
I was the first teacher sent to the home front of quarantine,
my classes are digital prototypes in carrying on, remotely,
weak WIFI, no video. I am surrounded by noise — a cacophony
of mouth-breathing, flushing toilets and Italian curses. Everything
is sharper in audio. I am starting to flesh out. I went for a walk, alone,
in the rain; it stuck so I must still be here, perhaps you can see me now?
Yours, “remotely”, SJ x
Your avatar flickers in my hand, like the juddering reels
of a silent movie. I see the flash of gold, purple, gold
of a flower, an orchid, in your hair. Its petals light up
the screen of my imaginings. We have closed our doors now.
Solidarity sister. But the key is still in the lock, the bolt, hesitant.
You’ve helped me see the noise; sharp as a paper cut. Together,
we might slice through the grey skies, carve a letting wound
into to the infected blue. Suture our planet with a thread
of thin compassion. SJ…I’m so glad I can see you now.
Love G x
Your door is shut, and I see your lock; it glints. You’re less distinct:
a stretched out gossamer cocoon around your family.
Wait at the bolt for the nod, soon we will all be in-complete lockdown.
Blue skies have brought out the indifferent: grouping, mingling,
spreading, restricting my short routes, I am a tight spiral from door
to fury. I put springtime flowerbeds between my compromised lungs
and hazards, bright yellow scents accessorise my dark hair:
a warning — do not come near. Gloves, scarf, flower, my DIY defence.
I’m an infant remade — reliant on others, a nuisance, uncertain.
Your postcards transform hope into a sound I can visualise
and that’s what we’re doing here, right? Making words tangible.
Yours “persisting”, SJ x
For the last two days I have scraped pieces of my son
off the floor. Glued him back together as he cracks, reforms,
cracks and reforms; brittle as porcelain. My only child,
with the prospect of three or four months without his friends.
Long days without playing football, wrestling, poking and prodding:
the elementary tangles of learning how to be, a boy.
I fold around him, to hold him together but he’s at an age
where he needs to break free and…tomorrow is Mother’s Day.
The first without my grandma. We have that lost love in common,
you and me. She spoke so often of ‘the war’. For the first time
I understand the smallest fragment of her fear.
Love, G x
Mother’s Day has arrived and with it, bright light
to convert your son’s hurts into liquid gold; tell him of
the Japanese art of gilded repair, kintsugi, let him know
how beautiful he’ll become. My mother says sunlight does
us the world of good if we let it sink into the very bones of us.
Today, she is at home in West Wales without her mother,
hemmed in by hordes of visitors and second homers who fled
from infection and descended, contagiously, on our rural coastline.
I flit between anger and compassion; I too have the urge to return
and scavenge peace and comfort from those wild, Welsh beaches,
but, I do not. This morning, I danced in my living room in rays
of sunshine caught in dust motes and it was beautiful.
I sit at my window and write to you, waiting for a robin to appear
so I can spend the rest of today with my grandmother, who though
long gone, visits me often. I might dance again later.
Yours “still breathing”, SJ x
We will all be well practised in the art of precious scars
when this is all over. And it will be over. All humanity
will turn their skins inside out to compare the marks of
worry, loss and repair. Re-evaluate. Home school begins.
In drama, we had a sword fight in the garden, in geography
we looked up the capital cities we’d deserted in Europe.
It was so satisfying to hear the thump of the fat atlas
on the kitchen table, wipe the dust from the cover,
peer down like gods at the names, each place full of people.
We imagined what they are doing right now. In their own
isolation. Alone, we walked the dog in the woodlands
and noticed the bluebells pushing upwards, whispering
oxygen into the path of our footsteps. We breathed
so deeply that I realised the bond I have with this boy
will set even tighter in the expanding spaces between love.
Love G x
It’s so much easier when the sun shines, isn’t it? It sits
on my old garden bench between eleven and noon.
I sit in the middle, encircled by daffodils, blue tits and bees,
l tuck my legs under, tilt my face up and join in the spring.
It’s louder outside, deafening bird song shouts down the wind;
give me twelve weeks and I’ll have each one by heart.
I’m learning to hermit, to acknowledge peace as an activity,
to flinch and smile at others and their proximity, to calculate
the risk in collecting prescriptions. I’m vigilant, watching.
I’m getting to know my face, each involuntary expression
inverted on a screen as lessons, meetings, workshops, blend.
I keep a digital thermometer at my lip, it hangs like a cigarette
spewing beeps rather than smoke – when it stops the trouble begins.
Yours “a steady 37°”, SJ x
Sarah and Gael are both completing a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University.