Cassie was feeling more positive than she had for a while as she saw James approaching on his bicycle for their rendezvous at the austere offices of their employer MPJ. It was not because the pubs were opening tomorrow, something to be avoided, or because she believed the pandemic was over, it was not; but her mind was open to new possibilities.
‘How was the ferry James?’
‘Great, it’s so windy out there on the water this morning, I love it like that, blowing the virus away; only a few of us on the boat anyway.’ He laughed. ‘Less than a week of the ferry back on duty and they have taken away my hire car.’
Cassie couldn’t help feeling a little pleased that once again they were safely separated by the water and a limited ferry timetable. Their several meetings at the offices had been good, making life seem a little more normal, but would it be awkward now she had declined to join his bubble? Would he try and change her mind after she admitted on Facetime last night that Doris next door did not want Cassie to create a bubble for her. Doris’ son and family were now 85% sure they would be over from the USA for their delayed annual holiday and Doris was hoping they would quarantine with her, be her bubble.
James keyed them in at the side door, ushering Cassie in first and keeping a safe distance. At the desk the lone security chap looked glad to see them.
‘How many in today?’ asked James.
‘Three, no sign of the boss yet.’
They walked up the stairs; even if they had wanted to use the lift James had put several bands of yellow tape across the lift doors. The corridor was silent and Cassie stifled a giggle.
‘Why are we whispering.’
‘Strange isn’t it, I didn’t realise how noisy this place was when it was full. Coffee first? That machine must be the only thing still working at MPJ.’
It was still a bit awkward – just standing there a few feet apart. He was smiling at her.
‘I like this, having a proper chat, I know it’s not every girl’s… wom… lady’s idea of a date. That’s what I like about you Cassie, up for anything. I love the way you aren’t worried about what you wear and don’t fuss about makeup and stuff.’
Cassie wondered how to take his remarks, she couldn’t imagine him doing very well on the dating scene, but obviously she wouldn’t either.
‘Has anything new been decided about work? The parents in my group are going round the bend. The children are going back to school next week, but it’s only for two days a week, then in two weeks it will be the holidays.’
‘So what do parents usually do in the holidays?’
‘Don’t ask me, what does you sister do with her two?
‘They are too far away for my mother to help out, they take some time off for the family holiday, that’s up in the air this year… the rest of the time, holiday clubs I think.’
‘All grandparents can’t be isolating, they can’t all be old and have health issues.’
‘The younger grandparents probably have jobs, or did have. Anyway, the boss still thinks we’re all doing a wonderful job working from home and wants as few coming back here as possible till we’re absolutely sure it’s safe.’
‘You can’t blame him after losing his daughter and that girl in my department, but it’s never going to be a hundred per cent safe in any work place, safe anywhere for sure.’
‘He’s changed a lot,’ said James ‘those who have known him a long time say he’s changed completely. Now we not only have to treat all the staff as family, we have to look after the homeless as well.’
‘I know, I got the email, I volunteered.’
‘I didn’t volunteer, it’s been dumped on me, have to work out the logistics of using this nearly empty building to make sure nobody in this city goes back on the streets.’
‘Isn’t that the future of offices, that’s what everyone is saying, but what do the homeless want? That’s what I’m going to find out at this ‘People in the Park’ thing this afternoon.’
‘Oh that, don’t you go taking in strangers Cassie.’
‘Is that likely, I’m afraid I’m not that much of a do-gooder, my home is my castle.’
‘Don’t I know it’ said James.
Cassie smiled to herself as she cycled to the park. Poor James, she was still managing to avoid telling him where she lived, but would she feel home owner guilt as she met up with these homeless people?
Luckily some overly sincere volunteer was facilitating the little gathering in the park, a couple of other MPJ people and five men and women and a dog. Cassie didn’t think of herself as good with people, but this little straggle of folk must be feeling even more nervous. She found herself drawn to the chap with the shaggy dog, Sam he introduced himself. The others were happy to let him do the talking, he was engaging and had good ideas. He needed a haircut, but so did everybody till the barbers reopened tomorrow; Sam didn’t match the homeless stereotype. Staying in a hotel obviously helped and perhaps he was recently homeless without ‘complex issues’. The more he talked the more fascinated Cassie was, how could such a chap have ended up with nothing in the world except a rescued dog? But what he said was true, how would putting these people in an empty office building help if they didn’t have jobs to regain their self respect. Where would the jobs come from in a post Covid recession.
When they broke up from their carefully distanced circle, agreeing to meet next week, Cassie felt she was at least part of something new and positive, even if she couldn’t see how it would work out. She felt a cold nose on her hand.
‘Sorry Miss, Sheba doesn’t understand social distancing.’
‘Oh er, call me Cassie please Sam, I like dogs, or at least I’ve never had one… I have got a pair of geckos.’
‘Really, how about that, I used to have some strange pets when I was a kid.’
Sam’s route around the park, with Sheba glad to be on the move, was the same path back to where Cassie had locked her bike. He walked parallel with her, keeping to the edge of the path, a safe distance, but smiling and chatting. Yes, Cassie felt she was part of something new and positive.
I keep listening out for the doorbell, I keep looking out of the window, but the street is empty. The postman, greengrocer, Amazon delivery and Co Op groceries have all been, but They never come. Another day when a long pole, with a microphone on one end and a television interviewer at the other end, has not appeared at my front door.
How do they choose all these citizens who keep showing up on the news and breakfast television? I am not talking about science experts, political commentators, journalists and doctors, but ordinary people who sit in their living rooms unashamed of their ghastly wallpaper and awful fashion sense. Out of millions and millions of us how do they get chosen to be interviewed for several minutes in a segment that will be repeated endlessly on the main news and on News 24.
If they happen to have recovered from Covid they obviously have a head start over the rest of us, but it’s not just people pondering on pandemics, I have always been ignored. Every general election, the long years of Brexit, no one knocks on my door or stops me while I’m out shopping for my opinion. Though I would flee in the opposite direction if I did see cameras; too windswept, wrong clothes for television…
But if a reporter did call on me at home they might not get away; all those years of stored up opinions.
‘Yes we need more lockdown not less, gatherings of more than two people forbidden, identity cards, everyone to stay inside their own postcodes, disposable BBQs should be banned, litter bugs should be tasered on the spot, private motor vehicles confiscated, air travel banned… it was so nice during the first few weeks of lockdown…. Perhaps you and the cameraman would like to buy one of my books, I just happen to have a box full… or buy all my books…
Maybe a little bribery would secure their release…
Everyone is filmed at home now so if you haven’t had the chance to appear on television you can always pretend. Facetime with your boring family could become one of Alan Bennet’s brilliant Talking Heads – which are perfect for isolated actors and have just been remade.
Or dust off your bookshelves and pontificate late at night on tomorrow’s newspaper headlines.
In the kitchen you can have your own masterchef celebrity banquet bake off.
‘What are you making?’
‘Bangers and Mash, it could all go horribly wrong… I’m just going to test the potatoes, okay, this is the moment when it could really go wrong, I could end up with third degree burns, I need to strain the potatoes now… make sure the camera lens doesn’t steam up… yes the sausages all free range, they were running around in a Hampshire field yesterday… oh oh is that the smoke alarm, I forgot to check the sausages…
Perhaps it would be better to stay in the garden. Gardening programmes are so popular now for peaceful healthy escapism and you can even send in videos of yourself and your delightful children giving a guided tour of your fantastic / unusual / beautiful / bountiful garden. Gardener’s World receives thousands of them, so you might not get chosen unless you have turned your bathroom into a tropical paradise, installed a waterfall in your living room, or turned a six foot sunless concrete square by your back door into the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps it’s best if I don’t film my garden; putting carefully cropped selected flowers on Instagram is my limit. Though if the people with poles do turn up tomorrow I could give them my views on new major projects injecting money into the economy; have all the motorways turned into cycle routes and gardens…
Have you ever invited television cameras into your home?
The opening of pubs in England on the fourth of July might be welcomed by many, including characters in books and television dramas, but characters and their writers might be in for a shock. Pubs in fiction are where people meet, either by arrangement or propped at the bar chatting to a stranger. Large and busy pubs are also where characters good and bad like to lurk anonymously, looking out in case they are being followed or following someone. In the best stories our heroes and lead characters inevitably have secrets they must keep from family and friends; in dark corners of noisy pubs they meet up to exchange important information unnoticed.
Roving campervan detective, Tobias Channing, in my latest novel, regularly sought out popular chain Wetherspoons for a cheap meal where he would be unnoticed as the stranger in town. Fortunately his story is set firmly in 2014, pandemics are one of the few things he doesn’t have to cope with.
What of novels and dramas of the future? No one will be slipping anonymously into any establishment. At the pub you will have to give your name and contact details at the door, perhaps needing your passport to prove who you are. Inside you must sit down and wait to be served and you had better take a book to read or your phone to play with as you won’t get chatting to strangers. There will only be two or three other customers, all spaced well away.
And if you want to pop to the toilets to do a drug deal, sniff a line of cocaine or squeeze through a tiny window to escape the enemy you have just spotted, you are out of luck. You have to ask the bar staff for permission to visit the Ladies or Gents and they will be buzzing in one person at a time.
If this idea from Paris catches on it won’t do much for the street cred of a crime boss or super spy to sit with Big Ted.
It was the dog she recognised first and even then she wasn’t sure it was him, without his red vest and his hair much longer. Vivienne was busy with the secateurs in the front garden, glad of the breeze and cooling of the weather. If she didn’t call out he would cross over to the corner and the moment would be lost.
He turned and looked, would he even recognise her out of context?
‘Wednesdays, noon, I always bought my Big Issue when I came out of the library after my class.’
‘Of course, how are you, fine by the look of it, me too.’
Vivienne was relieved, she had always felt slightly guilty at not offering him a home, a room at least, not that he was homeless exactly, but it sounded pretty grim the room he had in some place where you might get your stuff stolen and they were always being threatened with eviction. She could imagine James and Julia’s reaction if she had taken in a complete stranger and one wouldn’t know for sure if they were honest and then they might never leave. That was one good thing about the pandemic. All In, councils had to get everyone off the street, so she didn’t need to feel guilty about any homeless people, especially when she discovered she could subscribe to the Big Issue, get it through the post. The money still to go to Big Issue sellers who now needed help with mental health issues and loneliness and boredom, stuck in hotel rooms…. What would she say to Sam… thank goodness for dogs, always a conversation starter, Sheba, a shaggy friendly rescued dog.
‘She’s got a foster family, couldn’t have her in that hotel they put me up in. Now I’m allowed out I take her for a walk every day, access visit’ he laughed.
‘Sheba probably gets out more than me, I’ve got my divorced son living with me, polices my every move, though I guess he was right, the virus is so scary.’
Vivienne felt she had provided an explanation why the spare room could not be offered to Sam; even though there was now the worry about the homeless being put back out when hotels were back in business. The mention of divorce also made her feel more comfortable, her family, her life, was not cosily perfect; James could very well have ended up in the same position as Sam, they were much the same age, though it was hard to tell. She had no idea what Sam’s circumstances were, she didn’t like to intrude, he had his dignity and she could look up to him standing as a working person, not like walking past and trying not to look down at a bundle in the doorway.
‘What’s it like, the hotel?’
‘My own television, comfortable bed, three meals a day, some of the other guests though… I’m glad to get out and about, bit too hot the past few days…’
Vivienne looked at the over insulated dog, panting even in the cool breeze.
‘Would she like a drink?’
‘No, we’re right, Sheba’s been kitted out by the RSPCA’ he rummaged in his bag, produced a bottle of water and unfolded a dish. ‘New lead as well.’
She looked up the road, conscious that James was likely to come bowling down the road on his bike, back from his work break and daily exercise.
‘Well I must be going, I hope the library opens soon, maybe I’ll be back on my patch in July, before Sheba gets too soft and used to her foster home.’
He stepped out and crossed the road, narrowly missing James on his bike.
‘Who on earth was that Mother?’
‘My Big Issue man, you remember, I told you about him.’
‘Wednesdays, near the library, anyway at least he’s okay, for the moment, staying in a hotel.’
‘Nice to be some, you’re as bad as Cassie, she’s worried about her Big Issue girl, but you should be careful, how did he know where you lived?’
‘He didn’t, just coincidence, the dog’s foster home must be near here. It would be a shame if the poor dog didn’t want to go out on the streets, now she has enjoyed home comforts.’
‘Never mind the dog, the point is it could be dodgy, you don’t know him…’
‘I’m sure he’s not a burglar and he knows I’m not living alone,’ she decided to change the subject ‘anyway, talking of living alone, how’s Cassie, you haven’t said how the bubble idea is going.’
‘She’s not sure, thought she ought to ask that old lady next door to her if she wanted to be in her bubble, have her in for meals, make her feel less isolated.’
‘Oh that’s kind of her.’
‘Cassie already does enough, getting her shopping and stuff, anyway I shall find out this afternoon. I have to go in to the office again, all my plans up in the air now two metres distance has suddenly changed to one metre. Cassie has a few ideas, suggested chatting over the coffee machine. I can sign her in for half an hour.’
‘Well I suppose that will make a change from talking on line.’
Vivienne thought Cassie sounded like someone she would like and certainly an improvement on her first daughter-in-law, but what Cassie thought of James was another matter.
Being in lockdown, isolation, shielding, what ever you like to call it, life has been different for all of us, some more than others; suddenly working from home, or not working at all. Even those who already worked from home, were stay at home parents or retired, still went out and about. How many of us are asking ourselves what’s the point of going out to work, what’s the point of ever leaving home at all? Will there be people who join the true agoraphobics and never leave home again?
If you live on a country estate or an outback station in Australia you probably rarely leave home; it’s a very long way to your front gate. If you live in a city centre with all life on your doorstep in normal times, you did not need to go far. But if you are among the millions and millions who live in suburbs, going out and coming home again is the natural order of things. For generations people have been getting on the train to go ‘up to town’ to the office. Cities are full of offices, new towers of offices are still being built, but why? When I was very young I asked my father what he did at work and he said ‘write letters’. That sounded very boring so I vowed to avoid an office job and I have, apart from a temporary job when I did commute up to Waterloo station for a few months. I’m sure lots of important things go on in offices, but my little temping job involved chasing up orders that were never ready and seemed unlikely to ever get to where they were supposed to and apologising on the phone to the people that were not going to get them.
Whether you are a big or little cog in your company, we now know you can contribute from a lap top on the kitchen table. All those office blocks could be used to house key workers who at present cannot afford to live near their work and also waste hours commuting.
If the world of work has changed what about leisure and shopping? Will shopping have altered so much there will be no point? I haven’t actually been near a shop except the tiny pharmacy attached to our doctors to collect prescriptions. In our new restricted life even that has taken on an allure of adventure. But will shopping be an adventure or an ordeal now?
When our well known chain BHS, British Home Stores, collapsed, one commentator suggested it did not offer a focussed shopping experience, which is probably why I used to go there, I am an unfocussed shopper. The best buys are when you stop for lunch at a garden centre to break a long journey and end up buying a coat, new trainers and colourful kitchen items you didn’t know you needed. We did have a lovely shop in town that sold an array of colourful and very expensive items that made you want to throw out everything in your kitchen and start all over again. I only looked and didn’t actually buy anything, but they had a nice coffee shop upstairs, strewn with unhygienic cushions, where you could relax and check your social media or write. Where do writers go now?
Whether you enjoyed trying on endless clothes and sampling makeup, or browsing in the book shop before going to your knit and knatter group in that trendy LITTLE yarn shop, the shopping future looks bleak. I imagine only focussed shoppers will be allowed in, two at a time, no browsing, one way system, no turning back, straight to what they need and out again, no idling, no coffee and cake. Jumping casually on the bus, laden with bags of shopping, squashed in by people standing in the aisle, listening in to people’s conversations, observing strange people for your next short story? All that real life is gone; six people on board, strictly spaced out, wait for the next bus. You will be glad to get home and maybe never leave again, glad you have mastered on line shopping.
And what of the great tradition of visiting garden centres? As well as our travel adventures, we did visit our local centre regularly to actually buy plants, browsing through the reduced stands for ‘rescue plants’, wandering round the water features and overpriced gift section. Then there were the very popular two for one dinners on Thursday evening, masses of people, leaving Cyberspouse with his coffee while I made my final choice of plants. Yesterday’s email outlined the latest rules. Every adult must take a trolley so they keep track of numbers and the strange line ‘We prefer one child per adult and trolley’ … what if you haven’t got a child, do they hand them out along with gloves and gel or might you have to fit your six foot 35year old son in the trolley? I have had plants delivered by the greengrocer and have ordered some on line, but it’s not quite the same…
Are you planning to leave home any time soon? Can you see any point in going shopping?
Today I am once again a guest of Sally Cronin at Smorgasbord. In her current series she is sharing the bios of more than 150 of us who enjoy belonging in her café and bookstore, so don’t forget to drop in regularly.
There are over 150 authors in the Cafe and Bookstore and I wanted to keep it to key pieces of information such as buying links, recent review, website and covers. However, I know that readers also like to know more about the background of authors.
In this series during June and July I will share the bios of all the authors in the cafe in a random selection. I hope that this will introduce you to the authors in more depth and encourage you to check out their books and follow them on their blog and Twitter.
Meet Barbara Silkstone
Barbara Silkstone’s most current series is COLD CREAM MURDERS ~ GLOSSY LIPS, SMOKEY EYES ~ SOAP ON A ROPE ~ SUN SCREAM ~ LAVENDER TOES. And a bonus novella GRAMS’S CHRISTMAS BABY. This series will have at least 6 books when complete. The adventures take place in the imaginary burg…
Hurrah it’s the longest day of the year; but that doesn’t mean you cannot join in the fun if you are in the southern hemisphere. One of the features of the new WordPress BLOCKS, which not many people are aware of, is the fifth dimension, which only works twice a year at Solstice. Simply click on a picture and you can be transported to that place. A square picture will take you there in the present, a round picture will take you to the exact moment the photograph was taken. Got it? Just make sure you read the complicated WordPress instructions on how to return…
How did you get on? Tell us which was your favourite place.
Friday again; each week Cassie was more relieved when Friday evening arrived. She had James to thank for ensuring she drew a line under the working week. He insisted they Facetime early and put the week behind them, they were not being paid to work at weekends, it was already too easy to catch up with work in the evenings. She opened a new bottle of wine, a glass to share with James and a glass later to enjoy with dinner as she watched Gardener’s World. Is that what her life had come to? Doris had got her on to gardening programmes, but it was to relax and enjoy the calm that she tuned in, away from Covid news and work. If a few gardening tips penetrated her brain, that was a bonus.
Working from home suited Cassie, but motivating and organising her little team was another matter. James said she should not be carrying the others, but it was easier to do extra herself than worrying. No one had sent their children back to school, even the few who could were too worried, or could see no point in sending one child back and still have to look after the others. Having seen, or more often heard, children of various sizes bouncing off the walls during Zoom sessions she thought it a miracle anyone got any work done. And then there were those who had found themselves being full time carers for elderly parents.
But that was only a part of Cassie’s low feeling this evening. She had spent so long planning and executing a move to own a proper house, have a change of interests, slip out of Giles’ life; she had done all that very successfully, but now what? The promotion had been a means to an end and now she realised it could have been a mistake. Being in lockdown made people think too much; normal rushing to and from work, out and about socialising stopped people pondering the big questions like ‘What are we all here for anyway?’
Cassie’s aunt had brought her up to be independent and secure; with no family to fall back on and the fact that ‘you can’t depend on a man to look after you’ Cassie had always sought out secure jobs, not that any job was secure in the 21st century. Now she wondered if she should have thrown caution to the wind and gone travelling properly or taken up breeding llamas. Was it too late to try something completely different?
‘James, cheers… oh some pink stuff I got from the One Stop down the road. Any news, have you been in to work yet.’
‘The good news is I got the hire car for a month and I went in yesterday, the bad news is we are no further forward. We can’t even take all the people who don’t have to worry about kids or parents. Coming in on different days, sitting three desks apart, it’s no improvement on what we have already. The boss thinks we are all doing a grand job working from home, but he’s hardly in the zone, it’s only six weeks since his daughter died and his second in command is pretty useless.’
‘That’s so sad… and the other girl, no wonder morale is low in the company and everyone is nervous of coming back to work. They were both younger than us… me and in good health. I don’t know how people can crowd down to the beach or go on protests when they know people are still catching it and dying.’
‘Cassie, Cassie, let’s get off that subject, I wanted to ask you something.’
Of course, it filtered through to her brain that he now had access to transport; the ferry was still out of action, but it wouldn’t take long to drive the hire car the long way round and over the bridge. Was he going to ask where she lived, were postcodes something modern young women kept a secret? She had not dated since Giles, what were the rules? No, she was jumping the gun, he was just going to suggest she cycle down to MPJ when he was assessing the building, stand two metres apart by the coffee machine…
She tuned back in to what he was saying
‘…and Mother would love to have you round for dinner and of course I could come and see you properly, so what do you think, would you consider being in our Bubble?’
The only bubble that made sense to Cassie was the one she had created around herself and her home and she wasn’t sure she wanted anyone to burst it, or was that just what she needed to raise her spirits?
For some pre-Covid tales dip into one of my collections.
When my younger son was little he looked up at the black and white magpies in the tree and cried PENGUINS!
When I was working at Heathrow a new young chap started; his name was something like Fabrizio and he spoke with a strong Italian accent, of course everyone referred to him as ‘the new Italian bloke’. But he was furious to be called Italian, insisting he was English and had been kidnapped from England as a child and taken to Italy. As you might guess, he was the product of an unsuccessful mixed marriage.
Whether you are bird or human, how others perceive you may not be how you perceive yourself, but do we even know ourselves who we are and does it matter? We’re all human and if we all treated each other the same what a happy place the world would be. Alas that is unlikely to happen. In a previous incarnation, when we had moved to a new place – let us call it Dullsville – I turned up at the church hall for the mother and toddlers’ group. The church happened to be marooned at the end of a lane cut off when the motorway was built; a subway connected our side to what had been the rest of the old village. Anyone who has moved to a new area will know it’s like going to a new school – will anyone talk to you? They all sat in an imposing circle, mums, one granny and a dad, but I soon perceived there were two distinct groups; each side of the motorway regarded the other with suspicion.
We are all different and it would be a dull world if we were all the same. We are more different from each other than the clumsy groupings some would like to impose. Everyone has their own unique combination of DNA, culture, religion, origin and generation so why not celebrate our differences, pick out the positives in every group.
My Ancestry DNA test showed nothing exotic in my make up and only a fraction of a percentage possibly Jewish, but one of my mother’s many sayings was that the Jews must be God’s Chosen People because they are so good at everything, while my aunt said that Jewish folk seemed to have more hours in the day than everyone else. Pick a great musician, scientist or actor or perhaps a polymath good at all of those things and they will very often be Jewish; probably you wouldn’t know that because who you see on the stage or screen, who you listen to on the radio is an individual who is your favourite performer or an interesting scientist.
Every country and race has positive characteristics we recognise, whether their people are the backbone of the caring professions, natural musicians or the brains behind every electronic device we possess. But success in the modern world is not everything and we also need to recognise those who can help save the planet. The Aborigine in Australia, who has managed to stay connected to his ancestors, will understand more about nature and his ancient land than any scientist.
And how do we perceive ourselves? We can imagine what it is like to be someone else, writers do it all the time, but we still look out from one pair of eyes, inside the body that others see. Liberal thinking white men wrestle with the angst of not knowing what it is like to be another colour or to be a woman. While white British women, the only group I can claim to belong to ( and this is just my opinion and observation ) for generations have seen themselves as neutral, eager to embrace the more exotic by travelling or marrying for love into a family different ( and less boring! ) than their own. They embrace new recipes, colourful clothes, perhaps a new religion and look forward to giving birth to a designer mixed race child with Mediterranean olive skin and dark eyes or lovely Afro hair or adorable oriental features. What they do not dream of is their beloved child being treated as anything less than a unique individual equal to anyone else.