Behind These Walls
A Lockdown Story
By Rosie Seager
I cracked open a reluctant eye, immediately regretting it, and closed it against the sunlight streaming insistently through my bedroom window and into my face. Why must the world be so bright all the time? It never used to be – this is England – but with the pandemic had come a seemingly relentless wave of unseasonably warm and bright weather. It was so tedious.
I gave up on the idea of spending the whole day in bed, having tried without success to force myself back into the strange, dark world of my dreams, but I was irritatingly wakeful, despite my commendable attempts to induce total oblivion last night. I eyed the empty bottle of wine on my bedside table, carelessly knocked onto its side during my late-night stumbling but thankfully empty. I considered opening another one in an attempt to encourage more sleep, but I had never been great at day-drinking and would likely find myself wiling away the afternoon with my head down the toilet rather than slipping back into the fuzzy, wine-soaked slumber I was craving.
The problem was, any form of oblivion I could elicit was only ever going to be temporary. I would always wake up, eventually, and the whole monotonous cycle would begin again. I would wake, and after those few merciful, blissful seconds of nothingness before it all came crashing back in, I would be assaulted with a familiar stream of incessant, vitriolic thoughts that would attack from all sides, constant and unwavering through every waking moment of every day. So, I attempted to minimise the waking moments, but I couldn’t even manage that – a point which did not escape my inner critic.
No, it was time to accept that it just wasn’t working; I had tried. All those months ago – before I lost my job, before Jess finally gave up and walked out on me, before my friends got sick of my perpetual misery and left me as well – I had tried hard to claw my way back. I had exercised and eaten well, I had read books about how to be happy, I had talked to the people around me about how I wasn’t feeling myself, I had even seen a counsellor but he hadn’t really helped.
When my boss sat me down and explained, sympathetic but firm, that he just couldn’t keep carrying me any longer – my work had been slipping gradually for months, he had given me plenty of warnings and it hurt him to let me go but he had no choice – I tried to find another job. I got dressed, I went out, I walked the streets, knocked on doors and handed out my CV, I plastered on a smile and tried my best to make it reach my eyes, but nobody else wanted me either.
When Jess left, all the tiny scraps of hope I had been clinging to went with her; it was like something inside me finally broke and I had no reason to try any more. She had held on too, for longer than a lot of people would have. But the voice in my head had become so loud that it had drowned out her words, her insistence that I was worth something – despite my many and varied arguments to the contrary – that I had things to be grateful for, that she loved me. Eventually she had had to go, just like the voice had said she would. With tears in her eyes and visible pain etched on her face, she had taken her things, leaving only empty spaces behind – in the flat, in our ruined life, in me.
Since that day, life has been abstract, the days and nights rolling into each other without structure or purpose. I wake, I sleep, sometimes I eat but not often. I have become thin. I feel weak, but food doesn’t hold much appeal for me these days. Gone are the days of cooking for pleasure, of feeding my soul and my belly with colourful, delicious meals made with love and eaten with friends. I eat for no other reason than to stay alive, but this last little while I’ve been feeling like I don’t want to do that anymore.
My inner voice agrees – I’ve known for a long time that I’m worthless, I’m good at nothing, I offer nothing to the world, and now that there’s no one else around to live for, why continue this ridiculous cycle? My friends got sick of me moping about Jess, and who could blame them? Why would they want to spend time with me without her? She was the bright light in our relationship, I was just her shadow. They never really wanted to see me, of course they didn’t. They pretended to care, but when I stopped answering the door, they stopped knocking on it, eventually.
And now the country is in lockdown, no one could come even if they wanted to. We are all confined to our little boxes, hiding from a killer that wants to take us all. Life has suddenly become more finite than it has ever seemed before, our ongoing position on this earth is not a given anymore. We feel fragile, we thought we knew our place but we no longer have one, nobody does. I, however, gave up my place a long time ago, someone else is welcome to it. I’m ready to go.
I force myself to stand, my head spinning, my muscles weak, and drag myself to the bathroom. I splash cold water on my face and look in the mirror.
When did I get so gaunt?
You’re a mess, no wonder she left. She probably couldn’t stand to look at you anymore.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt the urge to look at my own reflection. The skin around my eyes has darkened with bruise-like smudges of fatigue, the rest of my face sallow and drawn. I stand up straight and look into my bloodshot eyes.
Who could love someone like you? You will always be alone. Just give up.
I pull on some clothes; my sense of style had deteriorated long before lockdown, although it seems that the world now shares my sartorial criteria of ‘comfortable’ and ‘clean’. These days I ignore the latter more often than not. I grab my shawl – I’m always so cold these days, despite the spring heatwave – as well as my door key and my cigarettes. No lighter – what have I done with it?
Who knows what I got up to last night, drunkenly ricocheting around my flat until I finally passed out, no longer capable of bouncing from room to room leaving a path of inadvertent destruction in my wake. I open the top drawer of the old pine chest of drawers Jess and I had picked up for a steal at a car boot sale during happier times, rifling through old bills, leaflets and take-away menus, pens, batteries and all manner of detritus that, like me, doesn’t have a place in the world. The fruitlessness of my lighter-hunt has made my need for a cigarette all the more urgent and I slam the drawer back into the chest in frustration, heading for the kitchen to see if any of the drawers in there will turn up what I’m looking for.
A loud bang from next door rattled the mirror on the bathroom wall as Megan stood, hands on hips surveying her sink. Nineteen hairs. She’d cleaned the bathroom this morning – less than two hours ago in fact – for what felt like the two-hundredth time since lockdown began, and now there were no less than nineteenhairs sprinkled around her freshly scrubbed sink.
She’d told him though – they had actually had a conversation when he’d stood up from the sofa, put down his Xbox controller and announced that he was off to trim his beard. She had literally said the words ‘please make sure you wipe the sink down after babe, I’ve just cleaned in there’ and he had dropped a kiss on the top of her head and said that of course he would. And now there were nineteen of his dark brown, slightly curling facial hairs strewn all over her sink. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and counted to ten.
It had seemed like such a great idea when the lockdown was first announced – they’d been curled up together on Megan’s sofa having shared a take-away, her head on a cushion in his lap, their hands linked and resting gently on her pizza-stuffed belly as they watched the update on the evening news. They had both been paying a lot more attention to the news than usual this week, tuning in every night to hear what the government announcements said and checking for updates throughout the day, calling and messaging each other with mounting unease. There had been rumours that the UK would go into lockdown like Italy had been for the last couple of weeks as Coronavirus cases soared into the thousands. And, it seemed, that night it had become official – Boris Johnson told the nation:
“From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
Until further notice, people were only allowed to leave their homes to shop for necessities, to exercise once a day, for urgent medical reasons or to travel to and from work if they absolutely couldn’t work from home, and there were strict rules around those activities as well.
Megan and Ben had only been seeing each other for a few weeks – they had met at a mutual friend’s housewarming party and clicked straight away, becoming quickly inseparable, calling each other every night, messaging all day every day and catching up in person as often as they could. Ben had moved back in with his parents after finishing uni, so most of their time together was spent at Megan’s flat when they weren’t out having drinks or grabbing dinner in restaurants, which they did fairly often since they both worked long hours and often didn’t have the time or energy to cook. Sometimes they would stay in and favour Netflix and take-aways, spending hours cuddled up together, marvelling at how amazing it was that they had found each other so unexpectedly and how much they had in common. Ben would stay over some nights, others he would go back to his parents’ place if he had an early start the next day.
After Boris’s announcement, Megan sat up and turned around to look at Ben, her eyes wide.
“So you won’t be able to come over? We won’t be allowed so see each other until who knows when? What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know babe,” Ben looked as dejected as she felt and directed his words at the floor, chewing his bottom lip. “Maybe I could still sneak round and see you sometimes – who would know?”
“But we can’t Ben – weren’t you listening? They’re not doing it for a laugh, it’s so they can calm down the virus spreading and help the NHS cope with it all. Plus, there’ll probably be police everywhere making sure we don’t break the rules – the army even! Bloody hell this is mental, it’s like a zombie apocalypse or something.”
Megan felt like crying, it was all getting a bit serious now, and she had already been feeling increasingly overwhelmed. They’d both been working from home for over a week; the lifestyle magazine she worked for and Ben’s insurance firm had both closed their offices early to keep their staff safe. It was weird, not going into work, and she didn’t like spending the days alone in her flat, not being able to have a laugh with the girls at work or go for lunch with them. It was hard to motivate yourself when you were working from your sofa, and Megan had been hoping it would all blow over after a couple of weeks so she could get back to normal, go back to the office that she loved so much and be able to do her job properly again.
And now she was being told that she couldn’t go out at all except to buy food or to exercise, and she wouldn’t be able to see Ben until God knew when. They’d seen each other almost every day for at least the last month and it had been so lovely, she couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing this wonderful new man for weeks and weeks. Her eyes filled up and she turned her head away; she liked him, a lot, but she didn’t want him to know how much. Not yet anyway.
Luckily, Ben was still absorbed in the grey-and-white patterned rug in front of her sofa – it was an eye-wateringly expensive designer one that she’d got for a hefty discount through the magazine – and hadn’t noticed the unsolicited tears threatening to fall down her face and expose her real feelings. It wasn’t exactly love, not yet – she didn’t think so anyway – but she hated the thought of not seeing him for even a day, let alone weeks. Or months! Who knew how long this lockdown would last for?
Ben suddenly roused himself from his immersion in the overpriced rug and broke her train of thought.
“What if…” he trailed off.
“What if I stayed here then?” he said hesitantly, watching closely for her reaction.
“Stayed?” Megan looked back at him, confused.
“Yeah, while this isolation stuff is going on. They said people from the same household can still hang out so we could decide to be from the same household, just until things go back to normal and then I’ll go back home. I know it’s a bit, like, full on to be living together already, but it would only be temporary. And I don’t really want to not see you for weeks, I’d miss you babe.”
Megan thought about this. Even if the lockdown did go on for weeks, if Ben was here with her, it wouldn’t matter, would it? She’d have company all the time, they could wake up together every morning and work from home together, side by side with their laptops on the sofa. She could cook him meals and show him her excellent domestic goddess skills (she made a mental note to find some YouTube tutorials on things she could make that didn’t instruct her to ‘pierce film lid before cooking’), they could cuddle up together every night and every day would feel like a long, lazy Sunday.
They hadn’t been together very long, and people said that living together was a pretty big deal, but this was an unprecedented situation; they both loved spending time together so surely a few weeks holed up in her flat would just be like one of the blissful weekends they’d spent joined at the hip over the last few weeks, only a bit longer. It was like a gift really, no work or family or social stuff to get in the way – just the two of them spending quality time together, all the time!
Imminent tears forgotten, Megan’s face broke into a huge smile and she launched herself at Ben and threw her arms around his neck, forgetting momentarily that she was supposed to be playing it cool.
“Oh my God, yes! Let’s do it babe!”
He grinned, pulling her to him and kissed her fiercely as they both rolled off the edge of the sofa, landing on the floor with a thud and a giggle and knocking Ben’s half-full glass over, sending a sizeable splash of red wine across the designer rug. They were both too preoccupied to notice as it soaked into the wool.
Now though, a month into lockdown, things felt very different for Megan. The first week had been wonderful; she had floated around the flat on a cloud of domestic bliss, her heart leaping each time she remembered that Ben was all hers and here to stay – for now at least – and she had captioned every photo she posted with ‘#blessed’. It was a bit of a shame that Ben snored quite so loudly; she had been having a bit of trouble getting to sleep, but it was a small price to pay to have this gorgeous man all to herself and to be able to shower him with kisses whenever she felt the urge (which was quite often). Besides, she had ordered some earplugs, so very soon she would be sleeping like a baby again.
She had loved working next to Ben, snuggled up on the sofa with their laptops, Megan writing articles for the magazine about mindful living and researching the latest trends in home-office chic, Ben on the phone to clients taking claim details or advising them on their insurance cover. She had made them both breakfast each morning and dinner every night, painstakingly preparing each meal as perfectly as she could, not wanting Ben to think she was a bad cook. For lunch they would take sandwiches up to the roof terrace and sit in the sunshine, the weather insanely warm considering it was only spring time. Part of Megan hadn’t wanted the lockdown to end; she was so glad she wasn’t spending this time all by herself. And they had bought so much food in preparation that she reckoned they could last for months if they needed to, topping up necessities from the shop around the corner. Yes, this lockdown wasn’t half as scary as she’d thought it would be, and Megan was feeling closer to Ben every day.
Halfway through the second week, Megan had started to notice that Ben hadn’t yet offered to cook for her. She had made all of their meals – even their lunchtime sandwiches – since Ben had moved in, and while he always thanked her emphatically and complimented her cooking, he never offered to return the favour. She wouldn’t mind so much if he cleaned up instead, but she had found herself doing the dishes as well, washinganddrying, and wiping down the kitchen while Ben lounged on the sofa watching videos on his phone or making video calls, usually to his parents or one of his two best mates. She had thought about bringing it up, asking him if he would help out a bit more around the house, but it had been so lovely these last couple of weeks and she hadn’t wanted to burst their romantic little bubble by nagging him.
During week three, Megan had decided to see what would happen if she stopped cleaning up after Ben – as well as the dishes, she had found herself picking up and folding his clothes, which he seemed to like to fling all over the flat, clearing away his coffee mugs – that one person could manage to use so many different mugs in one day was actually astounding – and, to her horror, restoring her toilet to its former level of hygiene after Ben had spent an inordinate amount of time sitting on it each morning, armed with his phone andhis iPad. Who needed twodevices on the toilet? She had reasoned that perhaps Ben wasn’t aware of how much mess he was making because she cleared it all up before he noticed, so maybe if she left it all, he would actually see it and start to pick up after himself.
By week four, the flat looked like a student house, Megan hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in almost a month– her earplugshad been delayed in the post –and she was ready to strangle her boyfriend. Her plan to inspire Ben to help with the housework by not doing any herself had failed miserably; there were dirty dishes piled up in the sink, every surface in the flat had some item or other of Ben’s strewn across it: clothes, shoes, cans of deodorant, various device-charging cables, work documents. Every coffee mug Megan owned had been used, and they also sat, festering, on every surface; the floor next to the sofa, the bedside tables, the windowsills, she had even found one in the bathroom! Every time she wanted to make a cup of tea she had to wash up a mug, and she’d given up making proper meals because the kitchen was such a health hazard, instead serving up beans on toast or microwaving ready meals from the freezer. It was like he didn’t even seeit – howcould he not see it? It was driving her mad, but Ben seemed completely oblivious.
Working from home together had lost its appeal too – what had been such a novelty to begin with was now a minefield of irritating habits. Where at first she had been impressed, listening to Ben chat away on the phone to clients, sounding clever and professional, she was now irrationally irked by his recycled jokes and smarmy phone-voice. His conversations with his colleagues annoyed her as well – full of pretentious buzzwords and cocky swagger, causing her to roll her eyes repeatedly behind his back. She found herself retreating to her bedroom more and more so that she could get her mind into her work without Ben’s constant chatter in the background.
One place Megan couldn’t neglect, though, was the bathroom. While the rest of the flat was doing her head in but still just about bearable, she absolutely couldn’t have a dirty bathroom and had kept it spotless throughout her cleaning strike. In fact, since it was the only clean room in the flat she had taken to escaping in here, spending hours in the bath with her book just to have a break from Ben and the infuriating mess. So now, as she surveyed her spotless sink, scrubbed to within an inch of its life only two short hours ago, with nineteen of Ben’s beard hairs taunting her from their various positions scattered across the porcelain, Megan felt rage rising in her like molten lava. She turned and stomped into the living room.
“Babe?” she snapped at Ben – who was sprawled across the sofa, phone in hand – the word sounding less like a term of endearment and more like an angry barb.
“Hmm?” Ben didn’t look up from his phone, tapping away at a message.
“Didn’t I ask you to clean the sink after you shaved?” She tried to keep her voice even, but she could hear it rising despite herself.
“I did babe.” Ben still didn’t look up. Megan took a deep breath.
“Can you come with me please?” She didn’t even try to supress the threatening edge in her voice now, and Ben looked up sharply, sensing danger.
“To the bathroom.” She held out her hand and he took it quizzically, and allowed himself to be led to the small bathroom next to the front door. Megan took him to the sink and pointed.
“Do you see those?” she asked, head tilted to one side.
“What, there’s like three hairs there.”
“There are nineteen hairs there, Ben,”
“Did you –”
“YES, I COUNTED THEM!” she yelled, “I counted them because I knewyou’d say there were only a couple there, and there aren’t. There are loads. This is the only room in this flat that’s not filthy, the rest of this place is disgusting and I can’t takeit anymore! You don’t do anythingBen! I cook your meals, I do the dishes, I hoover and dust, I pick up your clothes, I wash them for you, I keep this bathroom clean, and then you go and drop your hairs all overit! I thought if I stopped doing it all you might get the hint but… NOTHING!” Megan shouted, flinging her arm in the vague direction of the rest of the flat. Ben looked stunned, gaping at her wordlessly, eyes wide, mouth hanging slightly open.
“I need to get out of here,” she snapped, stamping towards the front door. Ben ran after her, grabbing her by the shoulder.
“You can’t go anywhere babe, it’s lockdown” he said pleadingly, but she shook him off and wrenched the front door open.
“Let me go!” She shrugged herself free, stormed out and slammed the door behind her, narrowly missing hitting Ben’s astonished face.
Cigarette lighter uncovered, I had made my way up the stairs and out onto the roof terrace. The view up here is impressive: a sweeping panorama of the city’s myriad rooftops and the streets below them. I sit up here often, and imagine what’s happening in those buildings, in those houses and flats. All those happy people, smiling, contented, loved. I wonder if Jess is in one of them, if she’s found someone to hold her like I used to, if she’s found someone good enough for her, someone better than me.
That wouldn’t be hard, would it?
I’ll miss this view. There’s little – if anything – I will miss, but if I had to pick one good thing out of my sad little life, this view would be it.
Not enough to live for though, is it?
I’ve been thinking about how I’ll do it – there are any number of ways but not all of them practical, and our current state of lockdown presents some extra difficulties. I don’t have any rope, although I suppose a scarf would do it. It seems very dramatic though, doesn’t it, a little showy for my tastes. Not nice for the person who’d find me either, but then I guess however I choose to do it, the aftermath will be a distressing thing to stumble across. With that in mind, though, it should be something clean. I won’t be here personally to apologise for the mess, and while I could leave a note and express my regret at having ruined the carpet, I’m not sure that would make adequate amends.The same applies to leaping from up here. Pills then, I suppose, but there’s a limit on how many you can get in one place and lockdown has made going shopping a lengthy and laborious process. While I could traipse around all the supermarkets in the area, I’m not sure I have the strength for such an exercise today. In fact, there’s not much day left.
I’m pondering the practicalities of queuing up for hours at multiple shops and supermarkets in order to purchase single packets, and how many shops I would need to visit in order to have enough for a successful attempt, when the door to the terrace flies open, and the young girl from number seventeen comes storming across the roof, stopping as she reaches the other side and clutching the railing. She throws back her head and lets out a long, loud, rather impressive scream. Pain? Grief perhaps? No, that’s definitely anger – I’ve released enough of my own rageful screams in the past to detect the notes of fury in there.
Scream expelled, she stares out at the city below, breathing heavily. I want to sneak away quietly, to leave the girl to her private anger and save her from the embarrassment of knowing I witnessed it, but I know that as soon as I move she’ll notice me, so I decide it’s better to get it over with and clear my throat. She whips around, eyes wide and immediately blushes a deep pink.
“Oh my God! I didn’t know you were there!” she looks mortified. “I’m so sorry, you must think I’m completely mental, running around screaming at the sky like a crazy person!”
I shrug. “It’s a free country.”
“But it’s not though, is it? That’s exactly the point, isn’t it?” her eyes get even wider.
I don’t answer, instead taking a drag on my cigarette and blowing out a long plume of smoke.
“It’s not a free country, it’s animprisonedcountry!” she continues, beginning to pace the length of the terrace, back and forth. She’s very pretty, with smooth, tanned skin and long blonde hair tied up in a scruffy ponytail with a leopard-print scarf. She has on pale grey pyjama shorts and a man’s t-shirt, a pair of furry slider slippers on her feet. Her toenails are painted pale pink and she wears a thin silver bracelet on her left ankle that catches the sun as she paces.
“We can’t leave!” she explains, “I can’t get away! If this wasn’t happening, at least I could go to the gym, or out with the girls, or to my Mum’s,” she counts these options out on her fingers. “And he could go out and see his mates, and to his parents, if it was real life we’d be okay, but this lockdown, him being here, it’s… constant.” She looks at me, her expression beseeching, but, not sure what she wants from me, I just blink and take another drag.
“It seemed like it would be fun, you know? Like, we never ran out of things to say to each other, it was like we were the same person sometimes, like soulmates.”
Like Jess and I had been.
Until you messed it up, just like everything else.
“But now, now it’s like everything he does just does my headin! He’s so messy, he doesn’t clean up, like, at all. And the COFFEE CUPS!” The last comes out as a high-pitched yell, her voice cracking slightly, and she stops pacing stares at me, eyes wild. “How can he use… So. Many. Coffee cups?”
I shrug again.
“Maybe we’re not soulmates after all.” She says sadly, resuming her pacing but slower this time. “Maybe it was just that… what do they call it? Honeymoon phase.” She stops and sinks to the floor opposite me, looking up with tears in her eyes. “But how am I meant to break up with him when he’s not allowed to leave?” At this, the floodgates open and she starts to cry, head in her hands, her shoulders shaking gently as she sobs.
I remain motionless, unsure what to do. I’m no stranger to strong emotions – I’ve cried my fair share of tears, but I don’t have the first idea what to do with my own, let alone someone else’s. That’s why I’ve decided to plan my exit – emotions hurt and I’m sick of living with the pain. I know that under normal circumstances the right thing to do would be to offer her some human touch – a hug, or at the very least an awkward pat on the shoulder, but even if social distancing wasn’t a thing, it’s been so long since I’ve touched another human I would worry that one of us might burst into flames. Plus, these days I’m about as far away from a ‘people person’ as you could get, I have no desire to make any more contact with them than is absolutely necessary.
Eventually, the girl’s shoulders still and she raises her head, wiping the tears from her eyes and dragging the back of her hand under her nose.
“Sorry,” she sniffs, “you’re out here trying to have a quiet moment to yourself and I’ve just come flying out and yelled at you about my boyfriend, and now there’s snot and everything.” She gestures helplessly at her tear streaked face, takes a deep, shuddering breath and releases a long, weary sigh.
I wave away her apology, taking my last drag and stubbing out my cigarette.
“Maybe I just need some time to figure out what I’m going to do,” she says “I guess this is as good a place as any to hide.” She smiles feebly and I stand, pulling my shawl up around my shoulders.
“Good luck.” I say and press my lips into a thin line – I lost the ability to smile long ago and this is the best I can do.
“Thanks. I’m going to need it,” she says, laying down flat on her back on the concrete paving stones, her hands behind her head, eyes closed to the sun as I walk back across the terrace towards the stairs.
I feel sad for her, the poor girl is clearly mixed up, and I have to admit that the thought of living with someone with bad housekeeping skills – especially a young male – is not one I’m fond of, but no time for sympathy when there’s self-flagellation to be done. My evil inner chatter is already in full swing.
At least she has someone who cares about her. You’ve got no one. You don’t deserve to have someone. What could you possibly offer anyone?
As I descend the stairs, I become increasingly irritated – she should be grateful to have someone who wants her enough to stay with her! I have nothing and no one, and this girl – this beautiful, privileged girl – has someone who wants to spend all day every day with her, who clearly thinks she’s good enough, otherwise why would he still be there? There’s the small matter of a national lockdown, but he’s decided to spend it with her, while I sit alone, bereft in my flat as the days and weeks yawn, never-ending ahead of me. What would Jess have done if the lockdown had happened back then? Would she still have left me? Or would she have stayed and looked after me? Is she locked down with someone else now?
Of course she would have left you. Why would anyone choose to lock themselves up with only you for company?
I reach my front door, now thoroughly wound up; I’m angry at Jess, angry at the girl on the roof, and most of all, as always, angry at myself for always falling short, for never being good enough. I wrench the door open, storm inside and slam it behind me, so hard that the wall shakes and a framed photo of Jess and me that I haven’t been able to bring myself to take down falls and hits the floor, glass shattering.
Oh, the irony! Just like your relationship: destroyed.
June was pulled from her reverie by a loud bang from somewhere outside her front door, followed by the muffled tinkling of glass hitting the floor. It sounded like it was across the corridor – she sat quietly for a few moments, listening out for further commotion but all seemed quiet now.
She was sitting at her computer by the window, a shaft of sunlight streaming in and making her feel lovely and warm, and a bit dreamy. She resumed crafting her message, the tip of her tongue poking through her lips as she concentrated on methodically typing out the words.
She had been distracted during her Tribal Trance yoga session this morning, thinking about what she should say in her response to Derek – she knew she was supposed to be keeping her mind focused on her daily intention (‘I manifest happiness into my life and embrace my authentic self’), but it was difficult not to let her mind drift back to thoughts of Derek and the conversation they’d been having online over the past two weeks.
June hadn’t expected to meet anyone really, her granddaughter, Keely, had encouraged her to make a profile on the site, which was a bit like Facebook but designed for people who lived alone to find companionship. Before these strange times fell upon them, June would never have dreamed of signing up to a website like that, but despite her regular video calls with her daughter Stephanie and the two girls, she had been feeling awfully lonely, and Keely had suggested it as a way to socialise ‘virtually’.
“It won’t be quite the same as meeting people in real life Gran,” Keely had said “but it’s the next best thing. And who knows, you might find yourself a sexy toy boy!” Keely and her sister Kayla had fallen about giggling at this, but it seemed that perhaps Keely had been closer to the truth than she – or June for that matter – could have guessed.
At 63, Derek wasn’t quite the image of a typical toy boy, but he was five years her junior, which was quite junior enough for June. He had sent her some photos of himself last week after Keely had warned her about ‘catfishing’, although she still didn’t quite understand what it was or what it had to do with fish. She knew it was something about people pretending to be someone else, and so she made sure to ask him to send her some recent photos, and Keely scoured his Facebook profile thoroughly to make sure he was a real person. Keely had told her that he ‘seemed legit’, which she took to mean that he wasn’t a fish. He was young enough to still have his looks but old enough to have similar tastes to June’s in music and television. Plus, bizarrely, it turned out that they had grown up a few streets away from each other and had spent their teenage years hanging out in the same discos and pubs, albeit a few years apart.
June had been surprised when she discovered Derek’s first message in her inbox the day after she had finished setting up her profile. In her ‘About Me’ section she had put: ‘Looking for some new friends to keep me from going mad while I’m stuck inside with only my cat for company!’ although she had expected it to take longer to ‘meet’ people, and had pictured herself perhaps meeting some like-minded women with whom she could swap stories and maybe the odd recipe.
Derek’s message had been short but pleasant, complimenting her on her profile photo – she had chosen one taken at Stephanie’s 40ththree months ago, the photographer catching the image as she waved at somebody across the room, a big, bright smile on her face – and informing her that he, too, was worried about the potential for going mad whilst in lockdown by himself and would very much enjoy finding some new people to talk to, to keep the nervous breakdown at bay. He’d added a photo of an enormous, shaggy German Shepherd with his huge head tilted to one side and floppy pink tongue lolling out of the other, captioned ‘Ernie: my lockdown companion’. Ernie looked soft and silly and kind, and June immediately felt like she wanted to wrap her arms around his neck and bury her face in his fur. She adored dogs, but it just wouldn’t be fair – or practical – to have one in her small flat, so she’d settled for a cat instead. Stephanie and the girls had surprised her with Lexi, a tiny Persian kitten, for her 65thbirthday and they had instantly bonded; Lexi’s fluffy grey fur, big green eyes and button nose made her look like a cuddly toy, and though she now had a very regal, dignified air about her, she still loved to curl up on June’s lap and be stroked for hours.
June stopped typing again and sat back with a sigh, picking up her turmeric latte, a vivid yellow milk infused with turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, which was said to have excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Keely had read an article on how turmeric could help to prevent all sorts of illnesses and had bought June a packet of ‘Golden Milk Latte Powder’ along with the special glass mug with the rose gold handle she was currently holding (“rose gold is totallyon trend right now Gran”).
June was pleased that she had remembered to photograph her latte this morning so that she could post it to her Instagram account. There were all sorts of clever filters on Instagram that you could put onto your photos, so that the most everyday things could become like works of art almost instantly. It gave her such pleasure to look through her photos and see all the bits of her normal, ordinary life that she’d snapped, looking so vibrant and appealing. The twins had set up her account for her because she took so many photos, and they thought she would enjoy having a place to share them. She had always been a keen photographer, with quite an eye for framing things to look particularly unusual or beautiful. She used to use her camera a lot, but since Stephanie and the girls had helped her to find a smart new phone with a state-of-the-art camera, she found that she no longer needed it. She could now easily take high-quality photos at the touch of a button and had a camera with her wherever she went. Since the lockdown, though, she hadn’t been able to go anywhere and had taken so many photos of Lexi that her photo gallery was becoming a sea of blue-grey fur. An artistically framed picture of the sunny yellow drink would make a nice change, she thought, trying out different filters until she found the perfect one to make the colour pop.
She posted her morning’s masterpiece with the hashtags #goldenmilk #superfoodforagoodmood and #instagran (she still didn’t quite understand the point of hashtags despite lengthy explanations from both Kayla and Keely but everyone else seemed to use them so why not?) then scrolled through her feed – which admittedly didn’t contain many new posts since she had last looked, as she had only just learned how to ‘follow’ things and wasn’t quite sure what she should be following – and stopped at an advert for a brand of designer yoga clothing. Honestly, it was almost as if her phone could read her mind! She had only been talking to Kayla this morning about wanting some new clothes for her morning yoga practice, and Kayla had recommended this brand as being both good quality and ‘on trend’, and now, all of a sudden, she was seeing adverts for the very same brand! June shook her head at the coincidence. Perhaps it was the universe providing what she needed; like her yoga teacher had said: when you learn to tune in to your higher consciousness, everything you need begins to materialise in your life. Apparently Lululemon yoga leggings were what she needed in her life, so she clicked on the advert and started browsing the online shop.
June had certainly noticed some changes since she had started to pay more attention to her own needs; adopting a daily yoga practice, learning how to meditate, taking up a superfoods cooking course. It had been ten years now since David had passed away, and it was as if, just like that, she had finally given herself permission to stop grieving and start living for herself as well as for Stephanie and the girls. She had felt such enormous, all-encompassing grief when they had lost him to pancreatic cancer, that had it not been for her daughter and granddaughters she would probably have just laid down and died herself. For years she stayed alone in the house they had lived in since Steph was a child, refused to clear out David’s wardrobe or get rid of his things from the garage, and threw herself into running around after her daughter and the twins. Stephanie had divorced from their father when they were six and had needed June’s help to get them to and from school and their various activities, keep them fed and watered and see to the inexhaustible mountain of laundry while she held down her job as executive manager at a consultancy firm.
She and David had been married for 38 years, and were as close and in love when he died as they had been when they were teenagers. She’d known they were lucky – they both had – and had devoted herself completely to her husband and daughter – and, when they arrived, her granddaughters – as if nothing else mattered in the world. She would send up a prayer of thanks every night that her wonderful husband, usually snoring softly next to her, and three beautiful girls were as healthy and happy as she could wish them to be.
Then, all of a sudden, it was as if a rug had been pulled from under their feet, sending them reeling into a bewildering tumult of grief and loss. First Graham, Stephanie’s husband, dropped the almighty bombshell that he had been having an affair with a young woman from his office and was leaving Stephanie, walking out on her and the then five-year-old twins without a second glance and leaving all three of them shellshocked and completely distraught. Then, only a few short months later, David was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver before he was even aware that it was in his body. There was nothing that could be done, it was too late, and after six painful months of watching him fade into a frail shadow of his former self, he slipped away one night and left June feeling as though she would never again feel joy in her life.
The loss of her beloved husband made June even more anxious to look after and protect her girls. Stephanie became overworked, stressed and drawn, the shock and pain of losing the two most important men in her life in a matter of months etched constantly on her face. The twins were good girls; they were usually well-behaved but they withdrew from the world, retreating into their own private little place with their own special language, shutting out everyone and everything so that nothing else could hurt them.
June did her best to keep them all as happy as she could, cooking and cleaning, keeping the house stocked with wholesome food. She would run herself ragged all day, using all of her energy to keep her precious family safe and comfortable, then in the evenings she would retreat to the big, empty house full of memories and reminders of the life that she had loved so much, and she would open a bottle of wine and put on every television and radio in the house to try to distract herself from the aching loneliness that she’d felt every second of every day since her beautiful husband had left her behind.
A year ago, though, everything had changed. Stephanie had announced that she was sick of working all hours of the day and night for a company that didn’t value her, and that she was setting up an online business, coaching fledgling small businesses to set themselves up and become solvent. She would no longer be away from the girls all the time, and would be there to drop them at school and run them around to their after-school classes and meet-ups with friends. She could cook and clean and get on top of the laundry while working from home, meeting her clients via video call and only having to pop out to the odd site-meeting or face-to-face session.
“Isn’t it amazing Mum?” she had beamed. “All these years I’ve been slaving away at work and you’ve been slaving away here keeping the three of us alive, and now I’ve finally realised there’s another way, and you can finally have a rest and put some energy into doing the things youwant to do for a change.” Stephanie had been glowing with the relief of being able to see an end to her chronic stress, and the excitement of her new venture.
When June got home that night, she had closed the front door behind her, sunk to the floor and sobbed. With an almost primitive wail that sounded like it had come from somewhere else, she had let all the pain, fear and grief of the last nine years burst out of her, screaming, howling, swearing and beating her fists on the floor. She had shouted and wept so loudly and for so long, it was a wonder her neighbours hadn’t called the police. That night June had slept right there on the floor, so exhausted from releasing all that locked-up sadness and fury that she couldn’t even bring herself to crawl to the sofa to sleep. She had woken up, cold and aching on the hard floor in the early morning and known, right then that it was time. The thought of spending her days as well as her nights by herself in this big, cold house was too much. She would sell up, buy a flat and build a real, happy life.
It had been just over twelve months since that earth-shifting night on the hallway floor, and June hadn’t looked back. Once she had made the decision to let David go – laid to rest but never forgotten – it had been easy to pack up his things and say goodbye to the house she had clung to for so long. This flat was the first home she had ever had that was just hers, and she had taken great joy in decorating it in her own way. She had chosen simple furniture and dressed it up with bright splashes of colour – a huge turquoise cushion and a few smaller throw pillows in shades of blue and green scattered on the light brown sofa, an enormous canvas of a scarlet macaw covering one wall, its rainbow feathers rioting colour out of the plain white wall, a single wall painted magenta in her bathroom, the colour chosen by Keely and Kayla, and not something she would have chosen herself but she loved it despite her misgivings.
Stephanie and the twins had secretly taken the memory card out of her camera and had some of her most beautiful photos blown up and framed – a cluster of trees in the autumn taken with the camera pointing straight up their silvery trunks, with leaves in vivid shades of green and orange; a retro-style push bike with a chipped white basket, propped up against a bright yellow wall that she’d noticed as she wandered through town one day; a picture of the twins at the beach when they were ten, taken from behind as they walked towards the water, looking at each other and laughing at some long-forgotten joke, their faces tanned and freckled, their long red-gold hair floating in the sea breeze.
As she surveyed her beautiful living space now, June picked out the symbols of her new life: the rolled yoga mat propped in the corner by the window, the shelf packed with jars of exotic herbs and spices she’d discovered as she learned to cook bold and exciting new meals in her evening superfoods course, the shiny new silver laptop that Kayla had helped her choose when she’d got sick of June asking her to come and fix the ancient old PC she’d been using since before the girls were born. She had embraced this new way of living with everything she had, and she felt braver, stronger, calmer and more alive with every new day. The twins, marvelling at this sudden and unexpected change in their usually quiet, self-effacing Gran, had taken great delight in helping June to come out of her shell more and more all the time, introducing her to ever-changing – and challenging – trendy new styles of yoga and taking her to the hairdressers to ‘update her look’, which had resulted in the grey-streaked, dark blonde shoulder length style she had had for as long as she could remember being transformed into a bright, choppy blonde bob which had taken several years off her and made Stephanie break out into a tearful grin when June had come to visit straight from the hairdressers. They had convinced her to come along to a meditation lesson held at the new gym and ‘wellness centre’ that had popped up round the corner and signed her up for the superfood cooking and nutrition course at their local college.
When the lockdown was announced, a month ago now, June had leapt into action, deciding that if she could no longer pop round to see the girls or go to her classes then she needed to find new things to do to keep her occupied. In the absence of her yoga classes, she had ordered herself a top-of-the-range yoga mat, found some online courses and promised herself she would practice every day. For the last few days, she had been trying out ‘Tribal Trance’ yoga, which was, on reflection, perhaps a little too adventurous for June, infused with bursts of tribal dance and ‘primal movement.’ June found it fun – it was rather freeing to give over to your primal nature and leap around like an animal – but she was a little concerned that she might break a hip as she flung herself around her living room. She had downloaded a meditation app – the first time she had managed to do so without asking the twins for help – and was thoroughly enjoying trying out all the different styles. She felt so relaxed and clear-headed afterwards, ready for anything; it was amazing that one’s breathing had such a dramatic effect on mood.
The girls had talked her through downloading ‘Zoom’ so that they could talk every day, and they had settled into an enjoyable routine of sitting down with their lunch together over video call every day, June filling them in on what she’d been trying out in the kitchen and on the yoga mat, and Keely and Kayla showing her their latest ‘Lockdown List’ achievements: paintings, sketches, home baking, Keely’s progress in learning to do the splits, Kayla’s short stories and isolation-inspired poems.
She had been sceptical about the digital world at first – one read so many terrible things about the effects of social media on society – but found to her surprise that she loved the sense of connection, and was amazed at how many of her friends were already on Facebook. She had connected with people she hadn’t spoken to in years; after David died she had retreated into her own private world and did her best to shut out the real one, much like the twins had done, and it was wonderful to rekindle friendships she had thought were gone forever.
The latest app du jour was called ‘Tik Tok’, the girls were obsessed with learning dances from it, spending hours filming themselves and starting over and over again until they had both mastered it well enough that the video was fit for sharing – once the appropriate edits and filters had been applied of course. They had begged June until she had agreed to have a go at learning a dance, and had done their best to teach her over Zoom, but despite her newfound boldness as a result of the tribal dancing, June found that she did not have the co-ordination, short-term memory or ‘coolness’ to keep up with the Tik Tok stars of the moment. It was terribly good fun though, and she had managed to master a few simple dances, though none that she was ready to film and share with the world quite yet.
It was incredible to have this new world of apps and social networks to occupy her time and keep her connected to the outside world, but despite this, and despite the daily calls with her girls, June still felt very lonely at times. Sensing this, Keely had convinced June that she should sign up to the Friends4Life website and see if there were any other people isolating alone that she might make connections with.
It seemed there were, and since Derek had first appeared in her inbox, June had forged varying degrees of friendship with three other people: a lady in her late fifties named Beverley who lived in Sydney; Marie, another lady who lived in a huge property just outside Manchester, and while not exactly isolating alone she had confessed that she couldn’t stand her husband – nor he her – and they barely spoke to each other, so she may as well have been living alone. Then there was John, who was 66, collected novelty umbrellas (he boasted a collection of over 300) and didn’t seem able to talk about much else.
Derek was certainly the new friend with whom she had the most in common. Since he’d sent that first message two weeks ago, they had carried on the conversation daily, slowly getting to know each other through little snippets of their lives, memories of their misspent youths listening to Queen and The Who and sneaking out to meet their friends and get drunk in the evenings.
June told Derek of her time with David and her new lease of life since moving to the flat. Derek told her about his own marriage, the painful divorce that had driven him to drink, and how he had become sober and turned his life around. Before lockdown, Derek had helped to run a gardening programme at his local community allotment, teaching young people the value of growing your own food, showing them how to plant, nurture and harvest the vegetables and having big outdoor cook-ups where they learned how to prepare and cook them together. June sent him some of her photography, and pictures of the watercolours she’d been trying out after finding an online workshop. Derek sent her photos of Ernie as he bounded through the mud on their long walks through the woodland behind their house, and of the rainbow coloured piles of home-grown vegetables he would bring home from the allotment.
June was enjoying the exchanges, she felt safe; building a friendship through her laptop was uncomplicated, she didn’t have to worry about getting tongue-tied, she could choose when to reply to Derek’s messages and had time to consider her responses, and she didn’t have to worry about what she looked like. A month in lockdown had made June a lot less conscious of her appearance, and she hadn’t paid much attention to her wardrobe choices or the state of her hair for quite a while now. She had decided that an online relationship was the way forward – all the companionship without any of the anxiety.
That was, until this morning.
After her morning meditation on the roof terrace, June had come back down to the flat, filled Lexi’s bowl, and, before she got stuck into today’s Tribal Trance video (‘Sweat with Intention’) she had decided to open her laptop and check her messages. This had become like a little reward; throughout the day she would busy herself cleaning the flat, experimenting in the kitchen or with her watercolour paints, and every now and then when she’d finished a task she would sneak a look at her laptop and see if Derek had replied. When she saw his name in bold indicating a new message, her heart would give a little flutter of anticipation, and she would open it eagerly, excited to read his response.
This morning, though, Derek’s response had caused the little flutter to turn into a hammering thump. Having commented on the photos of the dragon fruit smoothie bowl and watercolour sunset she had sent him, Derek delivered a paragraph that, while very flattering, filled her with dismay:
“It’s just wonderful to have met someone like you in these strange circumstances, June. You’re an amazing person, so full of energy and life! Our conversations really have kept me going over this last lonely month. I wonder if you might like to ‘meet’ me in a video call this evening?”
June snapped the laptop closed as if Derek could already see her through the webcam. This was not something she was ready for – talking via private message was one thing, but face to face? What if she got nervous and couldn’t think of anything to say? The beauty of written conversation was that she had time to craft her responses, to re-read them and remove anything that made her sound – what was it the girls said? Lame. What if it was really awkward when they were face to face? What if there were uncomfortable silences? What about her hair?
June hurried to the bathroom and surveyed herself in the mirror. The choppy bob that had looked so lovely when she had first had it done had grown out a bit, and had been scraped into a stubby ponytail for the past four weeks. She was so often doing yoga or housework, painting or cooking so she’d pull it back to keep it out of the way. She was wearing a buttoned shirt that had been David’s many years ago and had at some point become her ‘messy jobs’ shirt, faded over years of being washed and covered in blobs of paint and streaks of bleach.
These things could be changed of course, she could put on different clothes and attempt to do something more glamorous with her hair, but that wouldn’t stop her from embarrassing herself in any manner of ways when put face to face with Derek. It was too soon! She was going to have to put him off somehow. But how? How could she feign a prior engagement in the middle of a national lockdown?
I sit on the sofa, staring at the bottle of vodka on the coffee table. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this, but the light has changed since I sat down, the room getting darker as the sun moves around the building. It’s a big bottle, alitre. I picked it up at the corner shop yesterday but didn’t get around to opening it, favouring drowning myself in wine for that particular solo party. Now though, I’m looking at it differently: perhaps in the absence of other supplies, I could use it to achieve my goal. I’ve read up on this in the past – not for research reasons exactly, more a morbid curiosity, but now I think it might be the solution I’m looking for. If I drank it over the course of the evening, it would likely get me very drunk and possibly make me quite sick, but if consumed all in one go it would probably do the trick. The thought of it makes me feel queasy; I’ve never been a great vodka drinker but times are getting tough and it is more economical than wine when chasing oblivion. I suppose it wouldn’t matter much though, once I’d got it down, I wouldn’t know much more about it.
I look around the flat, the mess, the neglect. The fallen photo frame is still lying on the floor near the front door, glass fragments scattered around it. It will probably stay there now. If I cared about myself at all I might be worried about stepping in it, but as my inner judge and jury like to remind me so often, I deserve everything I get.
I took pride in this place once; when Jess and I moved in we spent hours trawling around garage sales and car boots, picking up cheap bits of furniture that we planned to sand back and paint but never got around to, filling the place up with bits we collected: edgy artwork we’d find at small galleries and student exhibitions, photos we’d had printed as surprises for each other held in cheap plastic frames, junky ornaments that were still just about on the cool side of tacky. We once had a large metal flamingo that Jess had inexplicably come home with after a drunken night out in the city. She couldn’t remember exactly where she got it from, but we guessed she must have liberated it from someone’s front garden on the way home. We named it Kevin, and she took him with her when she left, along with half of the life we had collected together. What little decorative efforts remained in the flat, I had mostly destroyed during my wine-fuelled rampages over these past few weeks. I would usually wake up some time in the afternoon feeling sick to my stomach and hopelessly wretched, and stagger out to survey the inevitable damage I had caused, of which I usually had no memory.
I look around, now, at the empty shelves, the piles of broken things kicked into the corners of the room, the unoccupied surfaces. The kitchen is almost bare, I don’t really use it. The sofa was the only nice piece of furniture I had left, but now it bears the scars of my decline, dotted with marks and stains, spilled drinks and cigarette burns. I sleep on it most nights, aside from the rare occasions I manage to stumble to my perpetually unmade bed.
So, that’s the plan then. A bottle of cheap Polish vodka is where this will all end. My stomach churns at the thought. One last cigarette, maybe two. One last sunset, and then it will finally be over. I scoop up my cigarettes and lighter and walk past the ruined photo frame, our grinning faces staring up at me as I head for the front door. I stop, and on impulse I pick it up, shaking out the rest of the glass onto the floor. I look at our easy, happy expressions and I’m suddenly gripped with overwhelming grief, which swiftly turns into a fierce rage.
She should know how much she’s hurt me, what she did when she walked away. She should seewhat she’s reduced me to. In the absence of her physical form I make do with the photo. I find the nail it had been hanging from in the debris on the floor, and hammer it back into the wall with the heel of a heavy-soled shoe.
When I come back from the roof, it will be my turn to leave, and Jess will be watching over me, front and centre when I do it.
Ash woke with a start, jerking upright with a loud snort and staring around him wildly in the fearful, bewildered manner of the accidental napper. There was rhythmic banging coming from the next flat and he’d been dreaming that someone was urgently knocking on the front door, but dream-Ash was stuck, paralysed in one spot, unable to get up and answer it.
He had only closed his eyes for a minute, lulled by the squashy embrace of the threadbare sofa – which, despite being older than he was and in dire need of re-springing, was still surprisingly comfortable – and the sleepy, stuffiness of the flat, warmed by the afternoon sun. The weather had been amazing lately, unprecedented amounts of warm, sunny weather, unheard of at this time of year and frustrating considering they couldn’t leave the confines of the flat except to get supplies or walk around the nearby streets.
At least there was the roof terrace though, and it was easy enough to social distance there since no one seemed to use it much, apart from the lady from next door who would go up there to smoke. She didn’t seem overly keen on conversation though, her expression aloof, her body language closed, so Ash would just look up from his book and raise a hand in silent greeting whenever their roof-time coincided. Not that he had huge amounts of time to spend reading in the sunshine – Sam didn’t like it up there so he could only sneak away for the odd hour here and there when Sam was absorbed in his TV shows (either The Simpsonsor one of the three Back to the Futurefilms) or reading his Harry Potternovels in his bedroom.
Back to the Futureturned out to be the catalyst for Sam’s first Coronavirus-related meltdown; the local Cineworld was showing all three movies back-to-back one Saturday, and Sam had been talking about it for weeks. Ash had been preparing him for just as long, making sure he understood that Saturday the 21stMarch would be different from a normal Saturday – after Sam woke up and had his shower, breakfast and screen time, they would go to the cinema instead of to the ‘Saturday Friends’ weekend day centre, and they would eat lunch at the park instead of at Saturday Friends like they usually did.
Ash had planned his approach carefully, reminding Sam often of the movie date, going over and over the day’s itinerary and asking him repeatedly if he was really sure he wanted to go (always an enthusiastic “Yes!”) and making himself a list of things they’d need beyond the usual necessities for a day away from the house – including Sam’s heavy-duty ear defenders so that the cinema’s sound-system didn’t freak him out. Ash’s main concern was that eating their lunch at the park across the road from the cinema might present some issues. Sam either ate lunch at home or at one of the two day centre groups he attended, so this change – despite Ash carefully preparing Sam for weeks in advance – could result in a meltdown if Sam was having a ‘red day’. The whole exercise was a gamble, but Sam had seen the poster advertising the movie marathon as they walked home from the park one day and had been so excited that Ash was willing to give it a go despite the possible outcome. It was good for Sam to have a challenge every now and then, even though the consequences could be painful for both of them.
As it turned out, though, Sam’s meltdown wasn’t brought on by the change of lunch venue, but because the movie day was cancelled the Wednesday before they were due to go.Ash had received an email from Cineworld advising that all of its movie theatres were being closed because of the pandemic. Ash’s heart had sunk as he read it; not only was this news disconcerting – if a company that size was prepared to close its doors and lose out on vast amounts of money then things must be getting serious – but as he pictured Sam’s reaction to such a sudden change of plan he had felt like launching into a meltdown of his own.
He had decided that getting it out of the way would be better than delaying the inevitable, plus it would give Sam time to get used to the new plan for the coming Saturday – Saturday Friends would probably be cancelled too, so best to assume they’d be staying at home all day. Ash had braced himself and knocked on the door of Sam’s bedroom, poking his head into the room. Sam was sitting on his bed, feet tucked up underneath him, reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Princefor what Ash reckoned was about the 350thtime. Sam read so quickly he could sometimes get through the whole series in a less than a week and would start again from the beginning as soon as he reached the end of Deathly Hallows. He was calm and content when he was absorbed in his favourite stories – he knew what was coming and it made him feel safe, secure in the knowledge that things would happen in the exact order that he expected. Ash had walked across the room and perched on the end of Sam’s bed.
“Hey mate. What’s Harry up to then?”
“Making the Draught of the Living Death potion for Professor Slughorn so he can win the Felix Felicis and get good luck.” replied Sam, not lifting his eyes from the page.
“Ah yes, I like that bit. Hey Sam, I’ve had an email from Cineworld about Saturday.”
“We’re going there to see Back to the Future.”
“Yeah, well we weregoing to do that mate, but you know how I told you the other day that there’s a bad illness going around and lots of people are really sick?”
“That’s it Sam, yeah. Well Cineworld have had to close down for a bit because they’re worried more people might catch Coronavirus if they get too close together.”
“But it’s not closed on Saturday Asha. We’re going there on Saturday. For Back to the Future.” Sam had looked up from his book and was staring fixedly at him now; Ash could see the first signs of anxiety building and steeled himself.
“Yes, it’s closed on Saturday too, I’m sorry buddy but we can’t go any more, nobody can because the cinema won’t be open and the movies aren’t going to be showing. People are getting really worried about the Coronavirus and they’re saying that people aren’t going to be allowed to be together in big groups for a bit, so I don’t think Saturday Friends will be happening either. But you and me can watch Back to the Futurehere on the big TV together as many times as you want, with all the lights off just like at the movies. And all the blue popcorn you can eat!”
Blue popcorn was a very specific brand of salted popcorn that came in a blue bag – it was one of a very limited list of foods that Sam would eat, and once, when the corner shop had run out Ash had bought a different brand of salted popcorn and put it in an empty ‘Blue Popcorn’ bag in an attempt to pass it off as the real thing. Sam had eaten one piece and immediately begun to scream that it wasn’t Blue Popcorn, continuing to do so for the entire trip to the big supermarket, throughout the finding of and paying for the bona fide Blue Popcorn, right up until Ash opened the bag and gave him some to taste. Satisfied that this Blue Popcorn was authentic, Sam had immediately calmed down and spent the journey home contentedly staring out of the window, counting the colours of the cars they passed. Ash never made the mistake of trying to smuggle in counterfeit brands again.
Now, the ‘rumble stage’ was beginning – Ash could see the impending meltdown revving in Sam, who had started ‘flapping’ his left hand, repeatedly tapping his four fingers onto the palm. He had stood up from the bed and started pacing the room, repeating: “Fix it Asha, fix it Asha, fix it Asha,” as he walked the length of the room, turned and walked back, over and over.
Ever since they were small, Ash had been there for his little brother, doing everything he could to prevent and manage Sam’s meltdowns – often there were things he could do to stop one before it went into full swing, like getting Sam his ear defenders if they were somewhere with lots of background noise, passing him his tablet and headphones with one of his favourite shows ready to distract him, politely asking people to move back if they were standing to close to him – and Ash had said the words: “it’s okay Sam, I’ll fix it,” so many times over the years that “Fix it Asha” had become a kind of mantra to Sam, who chanted it to drown out noise, focus on his own emotional responses, and as a monotonous plea to his brother to make things right for him again.
Ash had sighed and steadied himself for the inevitable. “I can’t fix this one for you mate, I wish I could. We have to do what the government says, and they’re saying we’re not going to be able to leave the flat for a while. There’ll be…” Ash had hesitated, but reasoned he may as well kill all the disappointment birds with one big stone. He took a deep breath, “…no cinema and no Saturday club for a while. And Spectrum is going to have to close for some time as well.” ‘Spectrum’ was the name of the day centre that Sam went to on a weekday, it was attached to a Special Educational Needs school and was centred around adults with learning disabilities.
Sam’s pacing had quickened through Ash’s announcement, and his chanting had increased in volume; “FIX IT ASHA, FIX IT ASHA,” but on hearing that all of his usual daily activities were cancelled indefinitely, his control had crumbled completely and the overwhelm had become too much for him. He had screamed and thrown himself backwards – Ash had stood up in preparation for this and caught his brother as he had so many times before, as Sam bucked and kicked at him, his screams now indecipherable bursts of rage, frustration and despair.
Sam’s world was strictly regimented, every hour of every day planned with military precision to make sure he knew exactly what would happen and when. He got up at the same time every day, he showered and ate breakfast – two slices of white Warburtons Toastie bread, toasted on setting number three, with raspberry jam spread right to the edges, no butter, cut into four equal squares – at the same time every day. He watched his shows for an hour and then if it was a weekday Ash drove him to Spectrum. He would be offered a choice of activities each morning and afternoon, and for lunch he would sit in the same spot next to his friend Louise, and eat his plain boiled rice, steamed broccoli and mixed beans from a plastic box with special sections so that none of the food touched. Ash would pick him up at three o’clock and they would go to the park for a walk – taking the same clockwise loop around the park each day. Once home, Sam would read Harry Potterin his room while Ash got their dinner ready – more plain rice for Sam, but this time with green beans, dry lentils and baked puri, a type of Indian biscuit made with masala flour that their mother used to make for them as children. Ash had been making them for Sam for so many years now that he could do it with his eyes shut.
On a Saturday, Ash would take Sam to Saturday Friends instead of Spectrum. On a ‘green day’ he would usually be happy to talk to people and engage in the art, music, writing and exercise sessions on offer. He would usually take himself into his favourite corner, sit on his favourite chair and read Harry Potterif he was having a ‘yellow day’. On a ‘red day,’ rumbles were frequent, Sam was easily overwhelmed and almost constantly on the edge of a meltdown. Those days were exhausting for Ash; despite his every effort to ‘fix’ things for Sam, there was no rhyme or reason for them, which made this virtually impossible sometimes. They did the same things in the same way every day, and yet one day Sam’s mood would be up, the next it would come crashing down into a cacophony of chaos and disorder. It could be to do with his sleep patterns; some nights Sam would spend half the night awake, anxious about all the things that could go wrong for him tomorrow or in the future. Other times perhaps he picked up on Ash’s mood, sensing his subtle emotional shifts and feeling uneasy if he sensed that his brother was irritated or stressed.
Sundays started like any other day, but instead of Spectrum or Saturday Club they would stay at home until their walk around the park, and after that Sam would usually spend the rest of the day in his room watching The Simpsonsor Back to the Future, giving Ash some time to himself. Sometimes Ash would have a friend or two over – as long as this was run past Sam with plenty of notice, and under the ongoing disclaimer that if Sam was having a red day or changed his mind about being okay with it, they could be turned around and sent home upon arrival. Ash didn’t have many friends – he had been looking after Sam on his own since he was seventeen – but the handful of close friends he did have were a godsend, supporting him in whichever ways they could. Sometimes that was bringing a few beers round and helping him to wind down, other times it was coming over with emergency supplies of Sam’s favourite foods if he was having a bad day and Ash was unable to get out of the house.
Sam’s meltdown had lasted for just under an hour – Ash had held him as tightly as he could while his arms and legs flailed and he screamed and kicked, trying in his blind panic to get out of Ash’s grip. At some point they had ended up on the floor, Ash’s arms and legs wrapped around his brother as he writhed and howled, his face pressed into a pillow that had fallen from the bed amid their struggle. At times he would start to relax, his shouts becoming quieter, his body becoming still and Ash would release his grip a little, but he knew better than to let Sam go completely, as the meltdown would inevitably amp up again as quickly as it had started and the struggle would continue. Eventually Sam had calmed and remained still long enough for Ash to relax completely, and like they had so many times before, they dozed on the floor, still tangled together. Eventually Ash had woken up, pulled his aching limbs out from underneath his brother and helped Sam to get into bed, collapsing into his own as soon as Sam was settled. Sam’s meltdowns exhausted them both, and the best thing either of them could do in the aftermath was sleep, and hope that tomorrow would be a green day.
That had been almost five weeks ago now, and mercifully, after a few further meltdowns in varying degrees of severity, Sam had – amazingly – settled into a different, yet apparently acceptable, new routine. After his shower and breakfast each morning, he would watch his shows for an hour as usual, and then he and Ash would sit at the kitchen table together, Ash tapping away at his laptop and Sam using the plethora of creative, lifestyle and movement resources sent out by Spectrum and Saturday Friends. He had been painting every day, and was producing some really incredible artwork, using his favourite colours to paint perfect, geometric shapes in precise, ordered patterns. Ash had put a few of them up around the house, and he thought they could really be worth something; their strong colours and perfect symmetry had something really satisfying about them.
Every lunchtime they would use Zoom to call Sam’s friend Louise from Spectrum. Louise had found the transition into lockdown very difficult as well, and they had both found comfort in speaking to one another. While they couldn’t sit side by side with their lunches like they usually would, they could still talk to each other while they ate, bringing back some semblance of normality for them both. After the call Sam would retreat to his room to read or play games on the Spectrum website.
At three o’clock they would go outside and walk their new route around the neighbouring streets. The local park had been closed, which Sam struggled get to grips with at first, but after a relatively mild meltdown and much reassurance from Ash, he had conceded to a new walking route and had surprised them both by preferring it to the park, as he could recite the house numbers as they walked past. This had become a comforting daily exercise for Sam, as the numbers were reliable – always there, always in the same places. It seemed that despite his initial fear at the uncertainty, lockdown was more than manageable for Sam. Routines were easy to stick to, there were less people on the streets when they did leave the house, and, free of the day-to-day stress of getting Sam to where he needed to be at the appropriate time to avoid disaster, Ash was more relaxed than he had been in years.
Now, having roused himself from his accidental nap, Ash yawned, stretched and stood up, heading for Sam’s room to check on him. Sam had gone to his room after lunch and would probably be thirsty by now, in fact Ash was surprised he hadn’t come out and woken him. Ash knocked, poked his head around the door, and stopped dead. Sam’s immaculate bedroom was empty – bed neatly made, Harry Potterbooks lined up in series order on the shelf, his tablet placed in the centre of the otherwise empty bedside table, wireless headphones sitting on top – but no Sam. Ash had been past the bathroom on his way here from the lounge so he knew Sam wasn’t in there, and he never went into Ash’s room, although Ash immediately skidded across the hallway to check. Empty.
Panicking now, Ash wrenched open the front door and checked the corridor in both directions – no Sam. Heart hammering, he grabbed his keys from the hook by the door and ran down the corridor in his socks, yelling Sam’s name. Sam never left the flat without Ash, he didn’t think he had for as long as Ash could remember. He would get too overwhelmed, there were too many unknowns, too many unexpected things that could happen to confuse and terrify him.
Ash reached the end of the corridor, whipping his gaze in all directions, desperate to catch a glimpse of Sam’s bright green t-shirt, but nothing. He turned and jogged back towards their flat, and as he reached the front door, he stopped. He could hear distant voices floating in through the small window at the end of the corridor. He turned raced back the way he had come, sprinting through the door to the stairs and leaping up them, two at a time until he reached the roof terrace.
There, crouching at one end of the long, polished concrete bench was Sam, his face calm and relaxed as he stroked a large, impossibly fluffy grey cat. The cat was perched on the edge of the bench, on which sat the woman Ash had seen up here smoking sometimes. She had a shawl wrapped around her despite the warm weather, and was talking to Sam in a low, calm voice. Sam was nodding, every now and then giving her a short response, never taking his eyes off the soft fur of the big cat, who looked to be enjoying the attention, rolling over and presenting him with its fuzzy belly to stroke.
Ash stopped where he was, breathing heavily and overcome with relief, not wanting to disturb the scene in front of him. Sam loved cats – was bordering on obsessed with them – but he very rarely spoke to new people, especially without Ash there, and yet here he was, having an actual conversation with one of their neighbours. Sam looked up and spotted Ash standing there, and his face lit up.
“Asha, look, It’s a Persian. There are seven colour categories of Persian cat and this one is a Black Smoke Persian. It’s a female and her name is Lexi.” He pointed at the silver name tag hanging from the cat’s sparkly collar.
“She’s lovely isn’t she?” Ash smiled. “Where did you find her?”
“She jumped through our window Asha!” Sam’s eyes were wide, his face incredulous. “You were sleeping and she went to my room and jumped on my bed and went to sleep too. Then she woke up and scratched the front door, and I opened it and she ran up here so I did too. She’s showing me her belly which means she likes me.”
“I think you’re right buddy!” Ash smiled at the woman on the bench, who was looking at Sam with an expression he couldn’t quite interpret, something like fondness, but with an edge of something else, something sad. He started to step forward and hold out his hand but suddenly remembered the social distancing thing and dropped it to his side, taking a step back.
“Sorry! I, er… well, you know,” he held his hand up again and shrugged, laughing awkwardly. “I’m Asha, Ash. This is my brother Samir, everyone calls him Sam. We’re from number fifteen. You’re next door, aren’t you? I’ve seen you up here before.”
“Yes,” she said, “sixteen.”
She seemed reluctant to say more, turning to look out at the city below, but then turned back and added: “Just pondering the meaning of life.” She looked back at him and offered something that wasn’t quite a smile.
“There’s a lot to ponder at the moment, isn’t there?” Ash returned a tight smile of his own. I’m not sure life still means what it did a few weeks ago.”
She tilted her head as she took a drag on her cigarette. Sam usually hated being anywhere near cigarette smoke but he was so absorbed in gently patting Lexi’s crazy grey fluff that he hadn’t seemed to notice.
“What does it mean now, do you think?” she asked.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve cracked the meaning of human existence,” Ash looked down at his socked feet and scratched his chin, “but I certainly see this as a message, a warning not to waste it. We’ve all been forced to stop, and it’s helped us to see what’s really important.”
She kept her eyes on at him, her face serious.
“What’s important to you?” she asked as she inhaled her last drag, leaning over to stub out the butt in the overflowing ashtray behind her.
“Well, him for a start,” Ash said, nodding towards his enraptured brother, “but then he always was. I’ve learned these last few weeks that he can adapt to things much more easily than we both thought he could. Sometimes the transition is painful, but even the most inflexible person can make changes when they have to. No matter how firmly you believe something can’t be changed, if the outcome is worth the pain of trying then you should give it a go.”
“It must have been difficult for Sam, everything changing overnight like that.”
“Well, I imagine you would have heard the consequences of that through the walls.” Ash looked embarrassed, but she shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it. We all have our demons.”
“That’s true. Sam has more than most. It was tough, yeah, but once we got through the initial shock we just had to get used to the new normal. Bit like everyone else really” he said with a shrug.
The abrupt arrival of the cat, followed by Sam, had unceremoniously broken my quiet contemplation. I had been looking out over the city, trying to absorb every corner, every rooftop, every alleyway. It was the last time I would experience the cityscape that I’d watched over so many times before and I wanted to imprint it into myself, to take it with me somehow. The sun would be setting in the next little while and I had figured that would be as nice a time as any to take my last few breaths of fresh air before I went back to my sad little flat for the very last time.
All of a sudden, a streak of blue-grey had come flying past from behind me, jumping onto the railing on the wall opposite the bench. I’d seen this cat before, it would occasionally saunter onto my balcony and sit, silently judging me through the glass door before resuming its slow sashay towards the next balcony. I didn’t blame it, I judged myself relentlessly and had much cause to do so, the cat was only echoing my own thoughts.
It was a ridiculous creature, one of those insanely fluffy things with a turned-up nose and huge green eyes. I thought most cats of these breed were seriously ugly, but I had to admit this one had a certain charm. I had expected it to afford me its usual scathing judgement and then move along, but this evening was not usual, it seemed. Having appraised me for a minute or so, it had jumped down from the railing, walked across the terrace and leapt onto my lap. I was startled, unused to physical contact with a living being – human or animal – but not half as startled as when it had stood on its back legs, put its front paws on my shoulders, looked into my face for a moment and then licked me, right between the eyes before curling up in my lap.
I had sat blinking, completely rigid, unsure what had just happened or why, but before I had a chance to decide how I felt about this unsolicited contact, a flash of green caught my eye and I had turned to see the younger man from the neighbouring flat standing near the door to the roof, his gaze moving slowly from me to the cat.
“Is it yours?” I had asked.
“No.” He was hesitant, looking intently at the cat but clearly unsure whether to come any closer.
“It’s very friendly,” I had said, considering myself to have good authority on the matter, “I think it might like a pat if you want to.” I had nudged the cat from my lap and onto the bench and slid along until I was a good two metres from it, so it was safe for the man to approach.
He had walked towards us slowly, not taking his eyes off my new feline companion, now languidly stretching at the end of the bench. He had knelt and began to carefully stroke its fur, a small smile on his lips.
Momentarily distracted from my evening’s plans, I had watched him for a while. I had the sense he didn’t want to talk, but after a few minutes he had said, without looking up: “Cats only move half of their body at once when they walk. They move both right feet and then both left feet. Camels and giraffes are the only other animals to walk in that sequence.”
Lighting a cigarette, I had raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?”
“Yes. And they can rotate their ears 180 degrees.”
“Do you like cats?”
“Yes. People who like cats are called ailurophiles. Abraham Lincoln was an ailurophile.”
He had become less agitated as he rhythmically stroked the cat from head to tail and recited facts; it seemed to calm him, and the cat had seemed to sense that it was helping him, flicking its ears in irritation every now and then but allowing him to continue.
“What do you like about them?” I had asked.
He had kept his eyes on the cat as he stroked, head to tail, head to tail. “They only like certain foods and they don’t like loud noises. They like to be on their own. Sometimes they want to be close to people but they don’t always like to be touched. Sometimes they don’t mind, but if someone touches them and they don’t like it then they’ll bite or scratch or run away and they won’t get into trouble. They can do what they want when they want and nobody tells them not to.”
“Do you wish you were a cat?”
“No. If was a cat I wouldn’t be able to tell Asha when it’s a red day and I would have to eat meat. And I wouldn’t be able to read Harry Potter.”
This seemed like pretty sound reasoning. He was completely calm now, his body relaxed, his face free of the wariness he had shown when he arrived. I had seen him around the building, occasionally bumping into him and his older brother on the way in or out of their flat. I had heard them, too. He was clearly very troubled, and sometimes the world would get too much for him and he had to let it know that he was not okay. He would scream, sometimes low and guttural, sometimes piercing, and I would hear the sounds of their struggles as his brother tried to calm him down and make the world feel safe for him again.
At once I could relate to his rage and his fear of the world, and was oddly envious of him. I had troubles of my own and would drink and rampage through the flat at all hours of the night and day, cursing the world, myself, and my pitiful little life. But I didn’t have anyone to calm me when I raged, to make my world feel safe.
Suddenly, he had looked up sharply, and, seeing his brother standing by the terrace door, broke into a smile.
June stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, still contemplating her predicament. She put a hand to her face – she was a healthy colour from her morning meditations on the sunny roof terrace and her walks around the block during this wonderful warm spring, and while she used to always wear a bit of make-up, since the lockdown she only ever saw Lexi, and the girls on their video calls, so she hadn’t been bothering, and had grown used to seeing her face without it.
She pulled the elastic out of her hair and shook it around her face. The sun had lightened it even more and she smiled at the effect, and now that the anxious frown had momentarily left her face, she noticed that she looked sun-kissed and relaxed. She took a step back, unbuttoned her shirt and let it fall to the floor, revealing the vest top she had on underneath. Since she had last taken a good look at herself in the mirror, her arms had become more toned, the skin around her face had grown a little firmer and she had a glow about her that she hadn’t noticed until now. She looked healthy, happy, confident. She took a deep inhale, pushed her shoulders back and down, put her hands on her hips and looked herself straight in the eyes.
“I am strong,” she told her reflection, and exhaled.
“I am beautiful on the inside,” Inhale, exhale.
“I am beautiful on the outside,” inhale, exhale.
“I deserve happiness.” She kept her gaze strong, daring her reflection to challenge her statements.
She turned on her heel and marched back out to her laptop. Before she could lose her nerve, she opened it to Derek’s message, sitting in her inbox where she’d left it, and hit ‘reply.’
“That sounds wonderful Derek,” she typed quickly, “I’m having courgette spaghetti and ‘beetballs’ for dinner, how about you have yours ready too and we’ll have a meal together? Shall we say eight-thirty?”
She completed her reply with a winky face (the twins said they were called emoojis, or something that sounded like that) and closed her laptop with a satisfied nod.
She stood, feeling proud of herself and mildly exhilarated, and looked around for Lexi. It was past her dinner time, and June was surprised she wasn’t fussing and winding around her legs by now. She looked around the flat and then checked the balcony – no sign of Lexi. She knew her little princess had a habit of wandering along the balconies and visiting her neighbours, but she was usually home in time for dinner and it worried June that she wasn’t today. She decided to check the terrace, and grabbed a packet of Lexi’s treats to shake as she searched, in case that tempted the little rascal out from whatever she was currently sleeping under.
She searched the corridor then headed up the stairs towards the roof, checking under the stairwell for signs of grey fur. Usually June only came up here in the early morning to do her meditation practice as the sun was rising, and she had always had the roof all to herself. This evening, though, to June’s surprise there was a veritable party going on.
“Oh!” she said, and stopped abruptly, remembering just in time to keep two metres from the man standing closest to the door. It was one of the Indian men from flat fifteen, the older of the two brothers, with the beard and the kind eyes. The younger man was there too, sitting on the floor patting her little escapee, who was perched on the edge of the bench and lapping up the attention.
“Well, that solves the mystery of the missing moggy!” June said, beaming at the younger man, who was obviously captivated by her little Lexi.
“Sorry, she seems to have a little side line going in breaking and entering,” the older brother said. “She broke into our place and Sam fell in love and then followed her up here. I was having a nap and missed the whole thing, almost had a heart attack when I realised he was missing. I’m Ash, by the way.” He remembered not to hold his hand out this time.
“June, number thirteen. I’m so glad she’s found a new friend, she doesn’t take to just any old stranger like that. She likes you!” the last was directed at Sam, and he rewarded her with a shy smile, eyes staying firmly on the cat. She was about to proffer the bag of treats for Sam to feed to Lexi, but then remembered the risk of contamination and wasn’t sure if it was safe, so she kept hold of it.
She looked over, then, at the woman on the bench. She was in her thirties, rather pretty, with large, sad eyes and long dark hair. She was very thin – her cheekbones looked like they’d been carved into her face and her eyes were almost hollow. She had a threadbare shawl wrapped around her bony shoulders and had pulled her feet up onto the bench, hugging her knees up to her chest and hunching over them.
“You’re opposite me, aren’t you?” June asked, “number sixteen?”
The woman nodded.
“Isn’t it strange” said June “how we all live so close, close enough to touch each other – if the walls weren’t there and we weren’t, like, trying to stop the spread of a highly contagious disease I mean – and yet we literally never speak to each other. It’s a terrible shame really. Actually, it totally sucks!” June was conscious that she was starting to sound like the twins when she spoke. Perhaps it wastime to have some face to face contact with a man closer to her own age, albeit through their computer screens.
Ash laughed, and June was pleased to see the girl’s face soften, if only momentarily. “If there’s one thing I’m going to take away from all this,” June gestured vaguely around herself, “it’s that I need to connectwith people more,” she continued.
“I lived such a… a smalllife for such a long time, and I just didn’t see the valuein people. We can learn so much from spending time with people, from meeting new people and sharing our stories. I’ve met more new people in the last few weeks than I had in the last few years!” June laughed. “Okay, they’re all online but they’re still living, breathing people with stories and histories and things they can teach me. I didn’t realise before, but I think that’s sort of our job, you know. Our purpose. To connect with other people, to collect stories and to use them to find our own paths in life.”
June became suddenly conscious that she’d only just met these people and was getting awfully profound rather quickly: venturing into her spiritual side over the last few months had invited so much rumination on the big picture stuff that she’d become quite philosophical in the way she spoke sometimes, too. She was about to apologise, but she stopped herself when she noticed the way that the woman on the bench was looking at her. She looked a little startled at first, but then she sat back, uncurling herself, her dark eyes never leaving June but slowly relaxing somehow.
“That’s a really cool way of looking at life, June,” said Ash, smiling widely and showing a great many straight, white teeth. “What’s your story then?”
Just then, they heard giggling echoing up the stairs, and the young girl from number seventeen spilled through the door to the terrace, clutching a bottle of expensive champagne and two glasses.
The terrace is becoming inexplicably crowded all of a sudden, in the space of five minutes I have been dragged from my solitude – my last hours of contemplation, my final, lonely moments with only the sounds of the city for company before I say goodbye to this life that I loathe – into a sudden and bewildering congregation of five other people and a cat. I have been pounced on and licked, gifted several pieces of uninvited cat-related knowledge, had more conversations with my neighbours than I had had since I moved in here – in fact, I’ve had more conversations with humansjust now than I have in many months – discussed the meaning of life with a man who up until now I’ve only ever waved at from a distance, and now this mysterious lady has arrived and presentedme with the meaning of life, or at least her version of it. My head is spinning and I want to lie down, but under the current circumstances I have to make do with furiously sucking down lungfuls of smoke and trying to keep up with the rapidly unfolding events.
I have only ever encountered this lady – June – in passing as well, affording her a curt nod or a ‘hi’ when we occasionally pass in the corridor. Until this evening, I have always been short to the point of rude to my neighbours, for fear that if I show any hint of friendliness they might try to engage me in conversation – like they are doing right now – and I would rather walk over hot coals than make small talk with strangers.
June lives in the flat opposite mine, and while our encounters are rare and brief, for some reason I have recently begun to notice her more each time I see her. She has an air about her that draws my attention, more so lately it seems. Early one morning, I came up to the roof, unable to sleep and in need of that incongruous combination of fresh air and nicotine, and saw her sitting on a mat on the terrace, legs crossed, face turned to the rising sun and an expression of what I can only describe as absolute peace. She looked so serene that I was loathe to disturb her and backed away quietly, retreating to my feed my habit on my tiny balcony instead.
This evening, as she speaks so freely and philosophically about her experiences, she seems to glow, as if there is a soft light shining from within her. She is at once wise and innocent, a mature, worldly woman, but at moments she seems to have the aura of a teenage girl. Her smile lights her face in such a beautiful way, and I’m surprised at how captivating I find her.
I do not like people. I do not connect with people. I particularly do not connect with happy people, people who talk about life paths, or people who meditate at sunrise. And yet, something is compelling me to pay attention to this bright, cheery meditating lady. My inner voice is quiet for the first time in a very long time, and its absence, combined with the strange feeling that her words stir in me, make me sit up and listen.
Megan stopped short in the doorway so that Ben walked straight into the back of her with a muffled “OOOMPH”.
“Oh wow! Hello… everyone!” she said, still giggling. “Did we miss the invite? What’s the occasion?”
“No need for an occasion,” smiled the older lady from flat thirteen, “just having a good old chinwag about the meaning of life, as you do. You, on the other hand, have champagne, so I’m venturing that youmight have an occasion to celebrate?”
Megan grinned and twisted her head to look up at Ben, who had followed her onto the terrace and now had his arm around her shoulders, holding her tightly to him.
“Not exactly,” she smiled, her face flushed with alcohol and good spirits, “just celebrating having come to a…” she stopped, searching for the right words, “a mutual understanding.” She laughed and held up the bottle.
Ash read the label and raised his eyebrows. “Must be quite an understanding, to be cracking open a bottle like that!”
Megan laughed again. “Well, now’s as good a time as any – I got this for my twenty-first, but what’s the point in saving it? For all we know this is the end of the world! Besides, I had a pretty crap day, well most of it, anyway,” her eyes flicked to the lady on the bench with a sheepish grin, “and now I’m a bit drunk, so what the heck!”
Megan hadn’t meant to get drunk, but as she had lain on the terrace after her outburst earlier, she had gone over and over her feelings about Ben so many times that she had become even more confused than she had been before. She cared about him so much – had even felt like she was falling in love before their fateful decision to isolate together – but now, all the irritation she’d been suppressing was making her resent him, to the point that the sight of one more dirty coffee cup might cause her to commit murder.
She had tried to consider all the good things about Ben: he was clever, good looking, made her laugh, and told her every day that she was gorgeous. He even picked up a bar of her favourite chocolate every time he went food shopping.
But the mess though! The snoring! Her sink!
Restless, she had stood up crossly and stomped across the terrace and down the stairs, but just as she’dreached their front door and was about to go back in, she had changed her mind and carried on down the corridor in her fluffy slippers, heading for the corner shop.
There was a queue outside, three people, all wearing face masks and standing two metres apart. Megan had joined the queue, keeping her distance and with a flash of inspiration, had pulled the leopard-print scarf from her hair and tied it around her face. It was probably not the most effective material but it had to be better than nothing. The queue had moved fairly quickly, two people were allowed in the shop at any one time, and once inside, she’d grabbed a six pack of ciders and paid using her banking app, tapping her phone on the side of the card machine. She had walked back to her building slowly, relishing the novelty of being out in the world, and as she walked toward the entrance, she’d noticed the outline of the big grey cat that visited her sometimes, picking its way along the balconies at the front of the building. It was a gorgeous little thing, and she loved it when it would come and sit with her on her own balcony, staring at her lovingly with its pretty green eyes.
Once back inside, Megan had decided she couldn’t face being cooped up again just yet, and had taken her ciders back up to the roof. She had sat on the long bench looking out over the city, wishing there was someone there who could tell her what to do. Two ciders later, her thoughts had become a little more abstract and she was no closer to reaching a solution, but nature was calling and she needed to go and sort things out with Ben somehow. She had picked up her remaining four ciders and the two empty bottles, and padded back down to the flat, weaving slightly as she walked, with no real sense of a plan.
As she opened the front door, Ben had appeared, red-faced and flustered. “You’re back! I’m not quite finished yet. But that’s okay! Obviously. I mean, of course it’s okay that you’re back. In your own flat.” He was agitated, rambling, and trailed off with a nervous laugh.
“Eh?” Megan had responded, hiccupping softly.
“Let me take those.” Ben had said, relieving her of her armful of bottles, taking her by the elbow and leading her into the flat. She’d stopped and blinked, eyes very slightly unfocused, struggling to take in the complete transformation of the living area. It was spotless – every surface cleared of debris and dust-free, no clothes strewn around, not a single coffee cup in sight. The kitchen sparkled, dishes vanished back into their cupboards, floor swept and half of it washed, the mop and bucket sitting in the middle of it. The carpet had been vacuumed, the sofa cushions plumped, expensive rug immaculate aside from the red wine stain – now faded to a soft pink blotch after Megan’s many attempts at removing it.
Megan had turned to look at him, mouth open. She had been about to speak when he held up a hand.
“Wait! I made you something.” He’d tiptoed into the kitchen, trying not to ruin the freshly mopped half of the floor and had come back with a plate which he presented to Megan with an expression of hesitant pride. On the plate was a very large, rather misshapen, vaguely heart-shaped cookie. A wobbly red outline of icing had been piped around the edges, and the letters “M + B” had been messily spelled out in pink.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Ben had looked sheepish, “I wanted to make you a cake but then I found a tube of cookie dough in the cupboard and thought it might be safer than attempting to bake something. I found the icing when I was looking for cake ingredients. It’s a peace offering.”
Megan’s heart had softened at the look on his face combined with this hilarious and incredibly sweet attempt at creating a masterpiece in confectionary. She’d looked from the cookie to Ben, the beginnings of a smile playing on her lips.
“I’ve been a total idiot,” he had carried on “taking you for granted, not pulling my weight. I guess I’m just so used to living at home and Mum doing everything – I know, Mummy’s boy,” he’d looked at the floor, embarrassed, “but you’re not my Mum and it’s really bad of me not to cook or help with the housework. It’s your flat and I’ve just come in and made a massive mess. I’m not surprised you want to kill me.” Megan hadn’t corrected him.
“But that’s it! I will be the perfect house guest from now on, Megs, I swear to you. I’ll cook for you – I mean, I’m a rubbish cook but you can tell me how not to mess it up – I’ll clean, I’ll keep my stuff tidy. I’ll clean the bathroom. Oh!” He had stopped and grabbed her hand, pulling her, still holding the plate bearing the heart-shaped cookie, into the bathroom.
“Ta daaa!” he’d spread his hands out, pointing them at the bathroom sink which was positively gleaming, and contained not a single hair.
Megan had looked from Ben to the sink and back, and suddenly, overcome with pent-up emotion and cider, she’d started to laugh. Ben had looked at her, confused, which only made her laugh even more. She’d thrust the cookie plate into his hands, clutched her sides and crossed her legs, tears streaming down her face as she snorted and guffawed with laughter. Eventually she had got control of herself and managed to stand upright, wiping the tears from her cheeks as occasional aftershocks of giggling continued to erupt.
“I do mean it Megan,” Ben had looked concerned, “I’m not just going to be good for a bit and then turn back into a slob. This is a solemn pledge that I, Ben McDonald, hereby assume the title of Chief Cleaning Operator of Flat Seventeen, and swear that there will never be another beard hair left in your sink.” He’d looked down at her and placed one hand on his heart. “Promise.”
Megan had rewarded this speech with a hiccup and a huge smile and had taken the plate from his hands, balancing it on the edge of the bath and putting her arms around his waist, pulling him to her in a tight hug. He’d squeezed her back, his relief palpable.
“Megs?” He’d said into the top of her head.
“Hmm?” she had answered. Ben had hesitated for a few beats.
“I love you.”
She’d smiled into his chest, hugging him even tighter. “I love you too.”
And then: “Ben?”
“I really need a wee.”
Ash had nipped back down to number fifteen and grabbed himself a beer, along with Sam’s water bottle, and his tablet and headphones. June had taken Lexi back to her flat to feed her, and returned with a glass of white wine and large turquoise cushion to sit on. I had decided – a first for me – that I would prefer to stay sober for now.
I remain where I am while the others come and go, eventually taking their various seats: Sam sits cross-legged on the other end of the long bench where Lexi had been stretched out earlier, Ash perches on the edge of a large concrete planter close by. June sits on her cushion opposite me, a couple of metres between herself and both me and the two brothers. Ben and Megan sit on the paving opposite Ash and Sam, and next to June, spacing themselves an appropriate distance away from everyone, and pop their champagne.
“It feels wrong, not being able to share this” says Megan, pouring it out into the glasses Ben is holding out.
“I thought the same,” June nods, smiling sadly, “I was about to grab some nibbles to bring back up here and then remembered we wouldn’t be able to share them. It’s such a terribly strange time, and I do wonder how many parts of life that we took for granted before this will be forever changed. Will it change the way we share food with one another?”
“I hope not,” says Ash. “Food’s such a huge part of pretty much every culture, isn’t it? Mind you, Sam wouldn’t be fussed – he’s never been one for sharing food!” He looks over with affection at his younger brother, who is absorbed in Back to the Future IIwith his headphones on.
“How’s he been coping with all this madness?” asks Megan.
Ash starts to talk about how they’d been planning a big day at the cinema when the lockdown was announced, and as they settle into an easy conversation, I notice June’s eyes on me.
I turn my attention to her; she’s looking at me with me in a way that I can’t quite interpret. There’s an intensity about it, as if she’s trying to decide something.
“How have youbeen coping with all this madness?” she eventually asks me, while the others continue to talk alongside us. I contemplate telling her that I lost the will to care about anything a long time ago, but I settle instead for a vague sort of shrug.
“It’s tough, doing it alone isn’t it?” she says.
“I’m alright, I lie.
She finally redirects her penetrating gaze, looking down at her hands as she continues.
“I went through a very dark time after I lost my husband. There were times that I felt like I couldn’t carry on. When I was with my girls – I have a daughter and twin granddaughters – I was okay, but as soon as I was alone, that voice in my head would start up and you would not believe the way it spoke to me.”
Pretty sure I would.
“I would say the most…evilthings to myself. I hated the person in the mirror. I stopped even considering the idea of my own happiness, about looking after myself. I mean, I fed and watered myself but I didn’t carefor myself anymore.”
I’m taken aback, unused to exchanging anything beyond a gruff greeting with strangers, let alone having one regale me with tales of their innermost struggles. I wonder if I’m meant to offer up some kind of response, but June doesn’t seem to require one.
“Some nights, when I was alone in my old house, I would sit up all hours of the night and think about what would happen if I just stopped existing.”
This is beginning to get uncomfortably close to the bone. I shift uneasily in my seat and busy myself lighting a cigarette.
“Sometimes I would go as far as thinking about howI could stop existing.” She looks up again, catching my eye and holding it until I have to look away.
“Even though I love the girls more than I can even put into words, I considered leaving even them when things got really bad. But one day I realised something that changed everything.”
I keep my eyes resolutely on the paving stones beneath my feet, every instinct telling me to escape this conversation, but how? Here I was, minding my own business, planning my quiet exit from this wearisome mortal plain and now this confusing lady with her strange glow and her piercing eyes and her mind-reading, is telling me things that I haven’t asked to hear.
“I suddenly realised that what I had been longing for, for so long, what I thought I might get if I allowed myself to stop existing, was relief, from the pain, from the horrible voice, the judgement, the suffering. But actually, if I did the things I had been thinking about doing, I would be denying myself the feeling that I craved so much. Because you see, you don’t getthe relief if you… go. You only get to feel things when you’re alive. So it would all be for nothing. I would have suffered for all that time and would never have got to feel the relief when the suffering ended.”
Somewhere in the midst of this outpouring of words, my eyes had found hers again and now it’s my turn to stare. I don’t understand how she knows, how she can see through me so completely. Have I inadvertently written my plans for the evening on my forehead? And why does she care enough to come crashing into my psyche like this?
“The thing is, that voice – it wasn’t me,” she carries on.
“It wasn’t me that thought all those horrible things about myself. If I could hearthat voice, then I couldn’t bethat voice, could I? I had to be the person listening to it. So, I started trying to listen to what thatperson thought. It was much harder to hear, I had to train myself to listen out for it, to turn down the cruel voice for long enough to hear it. It doesn’t say much, but when it does, it tells the truth. Thatvoice wanted me to live, to change things so that I could start to find that relief that I wanted so badly.”
My own cruel voice hasn’t said anything for a while, probably shocked into a dazed silence by these revelations just like I am.
Wait. Did I just…
“I know we don’t know each other, and that you haven’t asked to hear any of this,” June carries on
You’re not wrong there, June
“But I see you around, every now and then, and I don’t think you’re okay. You remind me so much of myself – before – and something has been telling me that I’m meant to help you. It’s almost like you sort of glow, as if I’m supposed to notice you. I’ve had no idea how to tell you all this, but us all ending up sitting together like this, well, it seems like now is the time.”
I’m still rendered utterly mute, completely unable to offer an answer, her words hitting me from all sides and leaving me reeling – with shock, with amazement, with incomprehension. I’m trying to come up with some kind of reaction to this unfathomable turn of events, when I notice that the others have all stopped talking.
The sound of distant clapping has begun, floating up to us from the city below. At first, a few sounds of faraway applause can be heard, steadily increasing as more and more people join in, claps and cheers, whistling and clanging as people hit pots and pans with wooden spoons.
“Oh, I completely forgot – it’s Thursday!” gasps Megan, jumping up and starting to clap herself.
I’ve been vaguely aware of ‘Clap for our Carers’, a collective gesture of appreciation of the superhuman efforts of the NHS in dealing with the relentless onslaught of patients contracting, suffering with and dying from the disease every day. I haven’t experienced it before – too wrapped up in my own self-absorption, keeping all of my pity for myself.
“We’ve been coming up here every week,” Ben says, standing up to join Megan and adding a loud whistle through his fingers to the commotion below.
Ash glances quickly at Sam, who is thankfully still absorbed in watching his movie, the sound turned up loud enough to drown out the noise.
He stands as well, and June jumps up from her cushion, her sprightliness belying her years. They both turn to face the city skyline, holding their hands high and clapping along with the others.
I am suddenly sitting alone, behind four strangers, staring at their backs as they come together in a heart-squeezing unity with the rest of the country, born from disaster, from grief, from pride and from an unshakeable hope that we will survive the unimaginable crisis unfolding around us.
I slowly get to my feet, a surge of emotion rising from somewhere inside me, and as I start to clap my hands I feel something snap in my mind and I begin to cry, pouring out a mixture of shock, sadness, fear and confusion, as well as what feels like a kind of joy, an elation that makes my body feel suddenly light and my head throb with an energy I can’t remember ever having felt before. There is something else, barely there but felt with a certainty I couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
June turns and, seeing my tear-streaked face, smiles – seemingly incongruous yet somehow appropriate – starting to move towards me but then stopping as she realises that she can’t come any closer.
“It will be okay,” she says quietly, with exaggerated enunciation so I can understand, while the others are still busy clapping, raising their voices to hear each other over the noise.
“I know.” I reply hoarsely, meaning it.
“Meet me up here?” she says, and I get the feeling it’s an order rather than a request. “Tomorrow morning. Sunrise is around five-thirty.”
If anyone had requested this of me at any point in my life before now, even an hour ago, they would have been met with at best mocking laughter, at worst a derisive comment or foul language. But now, something that I don’t understand has happened and things are suddenly very different.
I nod, meaning that, too.
“I’ll teach you how I find that quiet place,” she places a hand on her heart “where you can listen to your real voice.”
I wipe my face as the clapping dies down and the others move back to their seats, all of them smiling broadly, moved by the collective display of gratitude and positivity. June remains standing and looks around at everyone.
“You know, I haven’t been up here on a Thursday evening yet – I’ve always gone out to my balcony – but that was wonderful! How about we make this a weekly gathering, Thursday night drinks and clapping on the roof?”
“Yes!” says Megan, eyes shining, “This has been wicked! I feel like I’ve suddenly got a whole new family!”
“Aww babe,” Ben throws an arm around her shoulders and squeezes her to him, “that’s so sweet!”
Ash grins at the tipsy couple as they hug, overbalance and fall back onto the paving, giggling.
“I think so too,” he says, “after living so close all this time it’s been really nice to finally get to know you all a bit. It gets pretty lonely sometimes with just Sam and me, so we’re in! Sam’s keen on routine so if we do it every week he’ll be here like clockwork.” He looks at June “And I think he’d be even happier if Lexi came too.”
June treats him to a burst of her pretty, sing-song laugh.
“I’m sure she can be persuaded. Right, as magical as this has been, my lovely new friends, I have a date,” she says, bending to pick up her cushion and wine glass. As the stands upright and is greeted with eight raised eyebrows, she laughs again.
“Don’t worry, it’s a virtual one. I’m having dinner with my new friend Derek at a fancy online restaurant called ‘Zoom’. See you next week!”
And with that, she’s off, stopping briefly as she passes me and mouthing, “five-thirty?”
I nod, smiling. Apparently I can still do it after all.
As June disappears through the terrace door, Megan, Ben Ash and I all look at each other and laugh, and as the conversation turns to the pitfalls of online dating I look around at my unlikely bunch of new companions: Sam smiling down at his tablet as Doc and Marty argue about using the sports almanac to profit from time travel; Megan, flushed and giggly as she animatedly tells a story about an eventful Tinder date she went on once before she and Ben met, Ben watching her closely and grinning with an expression of pure adoration, and Ash leaning against the planter box, smiling broadly at Megan’s story and occasionally flicking a glance at me as we all laugh along with her.
I think of the bottle of vodka, sitting where I’d left it on the coffee table and I know, with complete certainty, that I will be feeding it to my drainage system as soon as I get back to my flat.
I have no idea what has happened to me this evening, or why, but one thing I do know, is that my new friend June is right. It really is going to be okay.