A piercing scream penetrated the calm of James’ office and disturbed his important conference call with New York. Every sound in the neighbourhood wafted through the back bedroom windows, but it was too hot to close them.
‘Everything okay?’ asked the managing director in New York.
‘So sorry, yes, fine…’
For a moment James wondered if he should investigate, he vaguely recalled his mother mentioning they were in charge of the twins today while his sister and brother-in-law went to Ikea and she might have to pop to the corner shop... None of them believed that he was actually working from home, that it was Friday and he had a great deal of real work to do. Strange sounds had emitted from his nephew and niece at regular intervals since their arrival yesterday, either because they were having fun, or more likely they were arguing. There was the possibility that one of them had been impaled on one of his mother’s lethal gardening implements, or perhaps they had accidentally killed their grandmother…
Eighty per cent of MPJ staff worldwide were working from home, but usually in their smart book lined studies, not from their mother’s back bedroom with sewing machines and ironing boards as a background for Zoom. It was hardly professional to interrupt discussion of the dreadful news from Beirut ( its importance to the shareholders of MPJ, not the suffering of the locals ) and disappear out of sight to lean out the back window and be heard yelling ‘JASON, JACINTHA what the hell are you doing now?‘
When his sister Julia had said they were going camping for their summer staycation he thought they meant a tent in a remote field, not a camper van parked outside his mother’s house. Julia insisted social distancing would be maintained, while her husband Jack queried whether social distancing was even a thing anymore. They did sleep in the van; James had not had time to look up council regulations and see if this was legal, but there was much toing and froing to the bathroom and the washing machine had been on constantly since their arrival. The twins weren’t that bad, not according to his mother anyway; they were just high spirited, Covid cabin fever and he just wasn’t used to children of that age, whatever age they were… he had forgotten and dare not ask, his family would be shocked at his lack of interest in the precious ones, his mother’s ONLY grandchildren as she liked to frequently point out.
Another piercing scream rent the air. This time James did a few quick manoeuvres on the keyboard and the screen went blank; New York would either think England had been hit by a nuclear bomb or perhaps that his local wifi had gone down. He rushed over to the window and leaned out to see an arc of water gleaming in the sun. Jason was chasing Jacintha with the garden hose and this time she let out a screech of triumph as she ducked under the washing line and the family’s bedding hanging out to dry took the full brunt of the high powered hose.
Cassie sat admiring the vivarium, glad she had chosen the largest most elegant home for her two geckos. It was an anniversary of sorts, a year since they had arrived to complete her new home. They made a soothing break from the computer screen, from work, from the whole Covid business, living their simple lives unaware of the pandemic. Four months since life had changed for everyone, some more than others. Cassie really had little to complain about, life was changing in little ways for her. Doris next door’s family were back in the country, about to come out of quarantine. Cassie had ordered a much larger supermarket delivery for her yesterday, now she would relax and let Doris’ son take some responsibility, not that Doris was any trouble. Cassie was glad of someone to chat to outside of work.
Work, Zoom, MPJ, company policies, James’ plan… she stretched her back, rotated her shoulders… now the school holidays were underway tensions were high. She did not envy James’ task organising ‘the new norm’; some to continue working at home, others to alternate weeks, some to come in just one day a week. The trouble was, no one was sure which of the options they would be doing or when it would start.
Despite promising each other they would not talk about work, when James at last persuaded her to come for the ferry ride and lunch at the waterside pub, they had and what else was there to talk about? She didn’t want to hear any more about his mother or sister and certainly not about his ex wife, but she had enjoyed the outing, well the twenty minute ferry ride at least. Seeing those cruise liners moored up, going nowhere, James claimed to have inside knowledge of the cruise industry, but made her laugh. ‘Who would want to go on holiday in a floating petri dish, even in peacetime they always have that norovirus going round. Pay all that money to see nothing but your cabin and not be able to eat.’ When they discussed what type of holidays they enjoyed they both agreed Cassie’s sounded much more fun. James’ ex would only stay in decent hotels that did not allow children, decent seemed to mean hotels they could not afford.
After lunch James had walked her round to his mother’s house for a little socially distanced chat in her lovely garden. Cassie liked Vivienne, as she suspected, the woman looked younger and was livelier than one would believe when James was talking about her. They stuck to gardening topics, Cassie determined to keep the conversation light, however curious his mother might be about their relationship.
And still Cassie had her little castle all to herself, had not told James where she lived, implied there was some dark reason in her past, rather than not wanting to risk letting another boring chap get his feet under her table. But life was not bad at the moment. This afternoon she would go for a walk with Sam, accompanying him on his dog walking business. It had become a regular feature of their lives, good for her mental health as much as it was for Sam’s. The aim of MPJ’s helping the homeless project, now called Moving On, was to keep people like Sam feeling connected. Cassie was the first to admit he was the easiest of the group to have a connection with and they worked as a team. She had somehow found herself in charge of the project, James had thought her insane to allow herself to be put upon and she certainly would have been out of her depth without Sam’s support and help. But it worked both ways; he was managing to stay on at the hotel, paying his own way, with the grant quietly passed on by MPJ.
She hadn’t exactly told James about Sam and the time she spent with him, after all they were just a couple of friends in their forties enjoying a walk in the park, a walk and a chat about all sorts of things, he was probably the cleverest man she had ever met. How he came to be homeless was a mystery and none of her business, nor did it seem to matter. Everything was different in 2020.
A second anthology from the author of ‘Dark and Milk,’ including recent prize winning short stories. As you would expect, some tales are light, others very dark and you will not know which are which until it is too late! Visit places you may or may not find on a map, discover the Hambourne Chronicles and meet people who may not be what they seem.
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.
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?
Vivienne looked out of the bedroom window across the road, glad to see signs of life. The little boy in the corner house was outside again after the welcome rain, playing swing ball on the lawn. Since the family moved in a couple of years ago the house had been transformed, the noise of all the building work had been worth it and with the designer garden it was a welcome outlook in these restricted days. Young Freddy was an only child, she had felt sorry for him, such a quiet little thing, not like her grandson, but he seemed happy with his own company, playing, building tents and searching for wild life amongst the flowers and his father’s strange sculptures. She wondered if a grandparent or lost uncle would be added to their household to create one of these new bubbles, more confusing instructions from Boris. Well she couldn’t join a bubble, not with James living with her, you had to be living on your own; so still no chance of seeing Jason and Jacintha. Julia and Jack lived too far away to pop round with the twins and stand in the front garden. Even if she had been on her own who would they choose to share their bubble; she felt a stab of jealousy, probably one of Jack’s divorced parents, his lonely father or his needy mother. Unless they had both acquired new partners… Vivienne smiled to herself, she couldn’t be bothered to house train another man, even in the unlikely event of meeting someone. She imagined some dreadful man in his eighties wanting to try out Viagra, or even worse, a chap in his declining years searching for someone to look after him.
Over dinner it turned out James had his own idea about bubbles.
‘What would you think Mother about inviting Cassie to join our bubble?’
‘We haven’t got a bubble.’
‘No, but we could make one. Cassie hasn’t got any family, she’s new in the area, so perhaps she would be glad to visit us?’
Vivienne pictured having someone new to talk to, someone intelligent to chat with, not about geckos, but it sounded as if this on line girlfriend had plenty of other interests, including her new gardening adventures.
‘Or I could visit her.’
She wondered what her son had in mind exactly, how did on line dating work? It was not new, a few of her friends had had some hair raising adventures on line, or rather, when they went off line. James visiting Cassie would obviously give them privacy, surely he didn’t want his mother part of the bubble.
‘What does Cassie think?’
‘I haven’t mentioned it yet?’
‘Has she suggested you meet up in the open, now there are less restrictions?’
‘No, I sometimes think she prefers being on line, she has never exactly said where she lives. I only know it’s within cycling distance of work.’
‘And how would you get there with the ferry still being out of action, surely not on your bicycle?’
‘The boss was talking about a short term car hire. I shall have to go in to the office soon, if only to finish my assessment of who or if anyone can work in the building. Anyway, what about you Mum, you could go out a bit now. ’
‘A walk round the block is going to be my limit for a while yet, where would I go with everywhere closed ?’
‘It’s a pity you gave up driving so long ago.’
‘Because you could have borrowed my car?’
‘No, no of course not, so you would be independent.’
‘I was independent, near the town centre for my bits of shopping, meeting friends at that nice waterside restaurant, popping over on the ferry for a proper shopping day out and of course Suzanna was always happy driving me and Dee out and about on our little outings.’
‘Oh… yes, I’m sorry that must have been such a shock.’
‘…and most of us only finding out on the grapevine, Suzanna’s family didn’t know who all her friends were, not that we could have gone to the funeral. She was the fittest of all of us, the last one we expected to get Covid.’
For some pre-Covid tales, why not dip into one of my collections?
A second anthology from the author of ‘Dark and Milk,’ including recent prize winning short stories. As you would expect, some tales are light, others very dark and you will not know which are which until it is too late! Visit places you may or may not find on a map, discover the Hambourne Chronicles and meet people who may not be what they seem.
They didn’t do clapping and banging saucepans last night, did that mean Covid was going away? Freddy didn’t want Covid to go away, he wanted it to stay forever so he didn’t have to go to school ever again and Mummy and Daddy didn’t have to go to work ever again.
Freddy was good at home schooling; he did all the work his teacher set, he did lots of BBC Bites, he liked those and the extra work his parents set because they didn’t think his teacher gave him hard enough work. Even when Mummy was doing conference calls and Daddy was busy on his lap top, Freddy carried on working, looking up countries in the big atlas or writing a story. If he kept being good at home schooling then he wouldn’t need to go back to school.
At the weekend they had had an important conversation with him.
‘The Prime Minister says your class can go back to school, but we have some bad news… now don’t be too disappointed, but Daddy and I have decided you should not go back yet. We are very proud of you doing so well at home schooling and it might not be safe at school; remember how we measured two metres?’
‘Yes and our desks are closer than that’ said Freddy hopefully.
‘What Mummy means is that some of the children who aren’t as clever as you might forget at playtime and bump into you.’
Freddy knew for sure who would bump into him, purposely and give him Covid. He certainly didn’t want to go back to school if They were going to be there.
‘Are the other children in my class going back?’
‘Some are, perhaps when things settle down you will be able to go back.’
Freddy didn’t want things to settle down. Perhaps They would go back to school and catch Covid and die.
At bedtime he listened to his mother talking on the phone, who was she talking to?
‘Yes I know, it’s a difficult decision, we’re just lucky we can work from home and Freddy has taken to home schooling so well. But it’s not really fair on him, being an only child, he needs to be with other children. Yes, I heard about that, extending the end of term.
Cassie looked at the atomic clock on the wall, one minute to eight. She waited till eight on the dot before opening the front door. It it wasn’t for Doris next door she wouldn’t step outside, but it was the highlight of the elderly lady’s week, banging her saucepan and clapping for the NHS. Now it was the tenth week and there was talk on the news of this being the last, going out on a high. Their little road had never reached a high, not compared with the lively streets shown on the ten o’clock news and later on the local news. They had no singing, dancing or pipers piping, no string quartets or even any NHS staff to show their appreciation to. The children across the road would miss it; the chance to come out in their pyjamas, bang on saucepans and delay bedtime. Apart from that, next door the other side would chat cautiously across the fence to their other side, Doris would have her weekly catch up with the family the other side of her. Not every house came out; several parents of the children would wave to Doris, perhaps wander to the middle of the road to exchange a few words. Who would decide if their road should stop the ritual?
Cassie stood on the front path, no saucepan, just a self conscious clapping, then relief as neighbours started to retreat indoors. Doris would come for a final chat before going in, standing the exact two metres apart; Cassie had even measured the distance across the flower bed and hedge to reassure her. Doris would then relay news gathered in the precious quarter of an hour. Cassie hardly knew any of her other neighbours; before Covid she had been busy at work or out exploring her new city and happy to close the front door on the world.
Apart from Doris, the only real people she saw were those who passed by while she was watering the front garden. She was still happy to work from home and that looked set to continue. The almost constant sunny dry weather had given a holiday feel to the whole experience, it made the garden a lot more work than she had expected, but she was still enjoying it thanks to Doris. Her poor neighbour was bereft at the closure of garden centres, not able to go for coffee and plant buying with her friends. Cassie had gone on line and found a nursery that delivered bedding plants; in quantities that required her to share them with Doris.
Doris admired Cassie’s front garden, it was almost restored to its former glory. Her new young neighbour had done a good job reclaiming it from the several years of neglect after Ken’s health declined. At least he didn’t live to see this virus business; he would have hated being called vulnerable and put into lockdown. Doris hated being in lockdown, but she had come to terms with her situation and she was lucky; lucky to be alive, lucky not to be sitting in a care home in pink fluffy slippers, like that clip she kept seeing of an old lady’s feet on every television report on care homes. Very lucky not to be in an intensive care unit, expected to use some electronic devise to communicate dying words to her family. Well her son and his lot wouldn’t be able to visit her in hospital anyway, not from the USA. He was very good, phoned her regularly, even offered to organise on line shopping, but she had told him no need. Cassie next door had got a vulnerable delivery slot for her with Sainsburys, they shared an organic fruit and veg box every week and her new neighbour even bought the Radio Times and newspapers when she went for her daily bike rides. It was a mystery what Cassie did at work, how she managed to do all that from home. Doris didn’t pry into her life, modern women didn’t need a chap, they were happy to live by themselves, though she apparently had a friend from work who happened to be a man, that she talked to every day on the internet.
They were lessening restrictions, but would that make much difference to herself Cassie wondered. She had no local friends to meet outside and socially distance from, not a group of two, let alone a group of six. James had suggested they could theoretically meet, but the ferry was still out of action, neither of them had a car and public transport was still to be avoided. He would safely remain on the other side of the water. But she still looked forward to talking to him. There was something missing from her life. She had relished living in a new part of the country, by herself; spending her free time as she pleased, wandering round galleries, going to the theatre or cinema, dropping into coffee shops, taking in the ambience, people watching. Now all that was taken away.
James peered unseeing at his computer screen. How had he come to be given this impossible task; was his boss impressed by his organising of the company into working from home or had the new boy in town been given the job nobody else wanted? No one knew when or how the lockdown should be eased and whatever the Prime Minister said on Sunday, staff at MPJ could not just go back to work as normal. The open plan offices and hot desking at the big company were not suited to a pandemic. The simplest answer was to keep everybody at home, the alternatives to bring in a quarter of the staff or half the staff on shifts round the clock. There would still need to be a complex arrangement of work practices for every part of the building. James chuckled, imagining himself with a gigantic roll of yellow tape marking spaced out squares like the little grocers round the corner.
Then there would be the lists; who could work well at home, who needed to be in the professional environs of the impressive MPJ building? Cassie in her peaceful little home with only the geckos to disturb her was hoping to stay put. Those with young children or doing home schooling would surely be glad to get back, but couldn’t until schools were open again. James himself was more than happy to go back and his mother would be very happy for him to go back. If business in general got moving again he could carry on looking for his post divorce flat.
He pictured Cassie coming round to view his new place. From what he could see on Facetime her home looked delightfully haphazard and she herself described it as a mix of her late aunt’s furniture and Ikea. They could both cycle to Ikea and she could help him choose some unmiddleage, unsensible furniture and fittings. His ex wife had been proud of the fact that she had never set foot in Ikea; meatballs, mashed potato and refillable coffee cups would not be her idea of a meal out. Cassie would probably think it a good laugh and not be offended that he couldn’t afford a more sophisticated date. Not that it would be a date, they were just friends after all.
As if she had read his thoughts James’ computer pinged into life. Cassie was calling him on Facetime, she was early.
‘Good timing Cass, I need a break, you won’t believe what I am supposed to be doing.’
‘James, haven’t you heard? Two deaths from work, one of them the boss’s daughter.’
He tried to take in what she was saying. ‘How, what happened?’
‘Covid of course.’
‘But we haven’t even heard anyone from MPJ was ill.’
‘I think both families were keeping it quiet, it hasn’t been officially announced, one of the girls in my office called me. It really hits home, this is real James.’
It didn’t feel real to James. He didn’t know the boss had a daughter and Cassie hadn’t said who the other person was. But then it came to him that if it was someone from her department could she get it…’
‘Cassie, don’t worry, they must have caught it elsewhere, you would have it by now if… we’ve been off work for seven weeks.’
Her face cracked into the familiar smile. ‘I know, despite the figures, the hundreds dying each day, over thirty one thousand already dead and now close to us, but I still don’t think it could possibly happen to me.’
James laughed, glad to be back on lighter ground. ‘Same here and it won’t.’
‘You didn’t mind me calling early, interrupting work, I just wanted someone to talk to, it’s the first time I have felt alone since all this started. The girl that called me was just being polite as I’m their supervisor; there’s a little group of them, been there years; they’re all going to Zoom tonight over a glass of wine, shed lots of tears for their friend…’
‘I’m in the same boat, new boy who hasn’t got any friends yet.’
Cassie smiled again, a smile that always lit up the computer screen.
‘You know what James, it sounds awful and I’m not one to get excited about going out shopping, but I just have this sudden longing to go to Ikea and wander round their make believe world, eat a plateful of comforting meatballs and mashed potato.’
Cassie logged off her computer with relief, another work week at an end. She rotated her shoulders and stretched her back, longing to get out on her bike; she smiled to herself, it was like being a child again, out on your bike when you have done your homework and chores.
It wasn’t quite the freedom of childhood, she mused as she pedalled and picked up speed. The roads were quieter, but there was the added hazard of pedestrians suddenly darting across the road to avoid other walkers. Quiet lanes and cycle paths were busier than they used to be and passing other cyclists or overtaking while keeping a distance was awkward. She wondered where James rode, she had never spotted him among the other cyclists out and about. Perhaps they wouldn’t even recognise each other in their safety helmets.
Cassie braked suddenly as a child wobbled off its scooter onto the road in front of her. The seemingly unaccompanied child lay sprawled near the gutter with no sign of getting up. She glanced back up the road; the parents were chatting across a garden wall to someone standing at their front door, two more children were clambering on the wall. No one in the family had noticed anything amiss, if indeed this child of indeterminate sex and age actually belonged to them. What to do now? If Cassie helped it up she would be breaking the two metre rule of social distancing, but what if a car came speeding along? Delayed shock set in and the child suddenly started bawling. The parents looked up and came rushing along the pavement. Cassie’s relief was replaced by annoyance as they glared accusingly at her.
‘Lucky I managed to brake in time’ she stammered as she hopped back on her bike to distance herself.
James laughed as she related the story to him later, seated at the computer, glass of wine in hand. ‘Not a relaxing ride then.’ ‘No, I was really looking forward to blowing away the cobwebs, the week I’ve had. I almost wish we were back at the office, almost, not quite.’ ‘I think I would opt for returning to the office, at least you are in your own home. I feel like an overgrown school boy.’
For a moment Cassie felt a twinge of jealousy, imagining James at work, joking and flirting with the ladies of his department, probably younger and more interesting than her. She dismissed those thoughts and tried to be sympathetic. ‘But it can’t be easy for your mother either if she’s used to living by herself.’ ‘That was before lock down, how would she manage without me?’
Very well, thought Cassie. She was feeling more and more sympathy with the mother and irritation with James. Surely moving back home had not been his only option after the divorce. ‘Are you in your old bedroom?’ ‘No, no, thank goodness, this is Mum and Dad’s retirement home, downsize, nice quiet little town.’ ‘Quiet… that doesn’t sound like anywhere near here.’
James laughed. ‘I’m over the other side of the water, funny we don’t know where each other lives. Stuck over the other side of the water now, ferry hasn’t been running for weeks; I enjoyed that commute to work, bicycle on the boat.’
Cassie found herself feeling relieved. James was at a safe distance in more ways than one, at least while lock down continued. He would remain safely inside her computer screen, no decisions needed yet about whether to meet up. Those blue eyes could not lure her against her better judgement… into what she wasn’t sure… ‘So where did you grow up?’ she steered the conversation back onto safer ground, away from the present or his failed marriage. She sat back and sipped her wine, ready to enjoy one of his funny stories.
Tom turned into the quiet road and parked outside number nine. An old lady was standing in the front garden wielding a pair of secateurs, the only sign of life in the street. He wondered if he had the right address, there was a lot of shopping for one old lady living alone and how was she going to carry all those bags inside? Well, not his problem, Tom was just glad to have a job. What a lark, this coronavirus thing was a blessing in disguise. People assumed he had lost work because of the world wide pandemic, not because he was a loser who had never held down a job for more than a year or managed to float a business successfully. What he did have was a clean driver’s licence and enough muscles left to heft trays out of the van.
‘Good afternoon.’ The woman stood firmly behind a large bush as if that would shield her from the virus.
Tom nodded as he pushed his barrow up the garden path. ‘Just ring the doorbell, my son will be down in a moment. I hope we have free range eggs this time.’
As Tom retreated to the front gate the door opened and a tall fortyish chap stepped out. Tom chuckled to himself, imagine being quarantined with your mother at that age, but he looked fit so surely he could get the shopping for her. The mother was still talking. ‘How many deliveries have you done today?’ ‘This is my thirtieth’ he lied. ‘Oh wonderful, a true hero; not that I need a delivery, quite capable of doing my own shopping.’ ‘Er hmm, well we have all had to change our routines Madam.’ ‘How wide an area do you cover?’ ‘The whole town… anyway I must…’
The son was hovering on the doorstep, obviously waiting for Tom to get back in his van and remove the threat of infection.
‘Mother, let the poor chap get on his way.’
James sighed, he supposed his mother’s only social life these days was shopping deliveries. She had practically raced to the front door when his Amazon parcel arrived, eager to wave and thank the bloke before he slipped out of the front gate and into his white van. Perhaps he should order some things on Amazon for her, just for the fun of getting parcels of her own, though he couldn’t think of anything she might want or need with a house full of books and CDs, a bedroom full of clothes and a bathroom full of toiletries. Maybe Cassie would have some ideas. ‘There’s enough shopping for a year, James.’ ‘We might need it, I couldn’t get any more delivery slots, you’re not vulnerable enough.’ ‘I am not vulnerable and you know I prefer to do my own shopping.’ ‘We could order some things from Amazon, they never turn you down and you can get absolutely anything.’ ‘I can’t think of anything I need.’ ‘How about something fun for your birthday, as I can’t take you out for dinner or the theatre.’ ‘James, you have never taken me out to dinner or the theatre on my birthday… or any other time.’ ‘Erm, no, not when Dad was still alive.’ ‘…and you were still married…’ ‘Next year then, in the meantime you could take up a new interest.’ ‘I have plenty of interests, or did until we all went into lockdown.’ ‘Something you could do indoors, I could help you set up a vivarium for example.’ ‘You may be forty four, but I can still see through you; the only one who wants a vivarium around here is you, but surely even Amazon can’t deliver geckos.’
Not for the first time James felt himself descending back into childhood, he had to get out of here, get his own place, but when were things ever going to return to normal? He envied Cassie her solitary life in her little house with the large vivarium; it sounded as if she had always been single, though she hadn’t really said. But she would laugh and sympathise with his predicament. Strange that neither of them knew where the other lived; perhaps it would spoil the on line nature of their friendship, put pressure on a perfect relationship. He looked at his watch, an hour till he could log off from work and log on for a Facetime chat with Cassie.