Mike Golding is a member of the Lit and Phil. A former academic, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University in 2012, and has written the psychological thriller Bad Magic under the nom de plume of A. M. Stirling. He is now writing his third novel.
A Wing and a Prayer
A Wing and a Prayer
“How long is it since your last confession?”
Even after all these years he could still hear the priest’s voice. Now, as he lay in the dark, fumbling inside his sleeping shorts, he felt the guilt weighing down on him. Hearing Annie’s snores through the wall made him hesitate, but the temptation was too great to resist.
He was fantasising about Elena; a wide-awake dream that she was in the bed beside him; soft, naked and warm. Afterwards, he fell asleep, feeling dirty and ashamed. Impure in both thought and deed, Paul knew that he was a miserable sinner.
He and Annie had argued. They always did whenever there was an excuse for one of them to accuse the other of something. A chance for one of them to have a go. The marriage had been going bad for years. Putting on an act for friends, but most of all for themselves, they threw elaborate dinner parties. And in the summer, there were barbeques in the garden; the garden everyone admired.
During the first virus lockdown, they were forced into shared confinement. They weren’t husband and wife any more; they’d become cellmates. Being unable to carry on with their independent lives only increased the tensions between them. “When all this is over, we’re going to get a divorce,” she’d said, and banished him to the spare room.
They made arrangements to stick to their own parts of the house; she would have the sitting room and the television, and he could stay in his study as much as he liked. Wasn’t that where he spent most of his time anyway? They would have to share the kitchen. “But you’d better do your own washing up,” she said. “I’m not doing it for you.”
He resented that; he was always doing things around the house to stop it falling apart, cleaning moss from the patio and unblocking the drains. There had been a rotten smell in the bathroom last week. Wasn’t it him who’d lifted the manhole cover on the drive and found the dead rat lying there? He’d flushed it away with the Karscher power washer, and poured a litre of Jeyes fluid in after it. Who dealt with things like that? It was always him; Muggins.
And what was Annie doing? Sauntering around the garden in a straw hat with a trug on her arm, as if she fancied herself the lady of the manor. Or baking cakes and taking pictures of them to post on Facebook. She loved all that. Even though they weren’t really talking any more, she would read out the comments people had made if he was within earshot. ‘They look lovely, Annie. Mine look like rocks.’ That sort of thing. But she was eating most of them herself and getting noticeably fatter. Paul felt compelled to mention it.
“Oh, you had to bring it up, didn’t you?” said Annie. “You’ve always picked away at my self-confidence. It’s just male negativity. What if I don’t want to conform to your ideals of what a woman should be like?”
“I thought you wanted to be attractive.”
“You mean you want me to be attractive. Arm candy, isn’t that what they call it? Like that stupid watch you bought.”
She meant the Omega Seamaster, the 007 James Bond Special Edition, that as she never ceased to remind him, cost as much as a small car. He brought up her Botox injections. And how they hadn’t made any difference.
“Because you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
And that was it. The argument that sent him into the spare room. And the liberation of spending his time on his own, free to wander the streets of the city as often as he liked. Alone, he was able to assess the situation he was in, and what would happen afterwards. A divorce would wreak financial havoc, especially as their savings, locked into the stock market, were worth less every day. On top of that he had to put all of his lectures online and worried about his career when the crisis eventually came to an end. The future would bring about a cull of university courses and staff. He feared he would be out of a job. Early retirement was the best he could hope for.
He needed to see Elena. Although they had been colleagues for a couple of years, it wasn’t until they attended the Sociology conference in Krakow just before Christmas, that something actually happened. Like the bunch of academics they were with, being away from home meant being off the leash. After gluhwein and sausage in the Old Square, the pair had stayed up late in the hotel bar with the others. They’d been flirting and sharing jokes all evening, and they were both drunk when they went up in the lift together. She’d been like a giggly schoolgirl, flattered by the attentions of a senior academic. When they stopped outside her room to say goodnight, he tried to kiss her. It was such a clumsy attempt that he expected her to reject him. But she responded. That night he felt an intensity of passion he hadn’t experienced in years. He was in love.
The weeks of the lockdown hadn’t diminished his feelings for her. He sent her a text. He imagined his message of love floating through the ether towards her like an eager carrier pigeon. Afterwards he checked his phone every five minutes, but she didn’t reply until the next day. She agreed to meet him; a few terse words he imagined had been tapped out in haste.
The next day he cycled over to the park and waited by the bandstand, watching for her amongst the stream of passers-by. He waved when he saw her running towards him. She wore tight black jogging pants and her ponytail swished the air. How beautiful and athletic she looked. He imagined that she was as impatient as he was for their meeting and went to embrace her. But she held up her hand.
“Not too close, Paul,” she said, stepping back and beginning an ankle stretch.
“But I want to kiss you. Hold you.”
“Well, you can’t.”
She stretched the other ankle, looking around as if she thought she was being watched. As she pulled her right foot up behind her, he told her how desperate he was to see her. How being in the house with Annie was driving him crazy. Their marriage was rotten, he said. And that was the end of it.
“Aren’t you finding that with Stephen?” he said. “It’s made me realise how much I want to be with you. How much I love you. Can’t I kiss you?” He told her he was going to get a divorce when the crisis was over, and they could be together.
“The thing is, Stephen and I are getting on so well,” she said, pulling up her left foot to stretch the other quad. “Spending more time together has been wonderful. I remember now why we fell in love in the first place. And I’m glad of that. So no, I won’t kiss you. I don’t want to take the risk of catching anything and taking it home. That would ruin everything. The memory of what we did, you and I, well that’s bad enough. I can see now that it was wrong. We broke our vows. I betrayed my husband, for God’s sake. I can’t forgive myself. I only agreed to meet you so that we could say goodbye. You must leave me alone, now.”
And she set off running, leaving Paul standing there with his mouth open.
As Annie put on more and more weight she started to huff and puff her way up the stairs. Earlier in the crisis Paul had tried to get her to come out with him during the allotted exercise hour (although he stretched it to two; who was watching?) but she complained; he was walking too fast; he had taken her too far from the house. He knew that if she became infected, she was at a greater risk of having complications than he was. In fact, he thought he would survive, and was much more cavalier than he should have been, less anxious than Annie who, it seemed, wanted to huddle up in the house like a frightened rabbit waiting out a storm.
It fell to Paul to go out for food; arranging a delivery from any of the supermarket chains was a nightmare. After a few attempts he gave up, and did the shopping on his own.
“I bet you’re not even wearing a mask or gloves,” said Annie. “I think you’re hoping to get it, just so you can give it to me. I’ve got asthma. I can’t breathe properly.”
“You’re just unfit,” he said. He wanted to say fat, but he didn’t dare. He didn’t need the grief, the avalanche of wailing and moaning that would pour from her mouth. Not again. But until she’d said it, he didn’t realise there was a possibility that the virus could be weaponised, become a means of murder. It was unreliable for a start, but it was invisible. And worth a go. After all, what else was there? Elena’s rejection had ruined his hope for a bright new future. To be locked up with Annie until the bloody crisis was over, well that was too much for him to bear.
Annie had been right: Paul didn’t wear a mask, and didn’t until the government made it compulsory, and even then, he wore it around his chin. Every morning he checked himself for symptoms; he’d actually managed to buy a thermometer, a glass one with mercury that he had to slip under his tongue. But his temperature remained at a stubborn thirty-seven point five degrees Centigrade, and he had no cough. He was as fit as a fucking fiddle.
And so he began to go to the smaller shops in the scruffier neighbourhoods because he knew they were crowded, and it was virtually impossible to maintain any semblance of social distancing. It was then that he saw the old man with the sandwich board, two sheets of hardboard crudely painted with white emulsion paint. On the front he’d written in black gloss, ‘Jesus Is Your Vaccine’ and on the back, ‘Jesus Died For Your Sins. Repent.’ It’s too late for that, thought Paul.
Annie became more determined to remain confined to the house and garden, more and more withdrawn from Paul, and more and more outgoing on social media, or calling her friends on the phone. “Oh, he’s all right,” he heard her say, one day as he passed the sitting room door. She joined some kind of Bible study group on Zoom, and he heard her praying with a remote congregation every morning.
But Paul’s religious education had only filled him with guilt and despair. He hadn’t believed in God since he was thirteen, and he wasn’t going to start now. Annie’s remote prayer meetings fuelled her sense of righteous indignation. The virus, she told him, was God’s judgement on Mankind. And he berated her for allowing herself to be drawn into a world of medieval superstition.
She’d become friends with a woman called Margot from the faith group.
“She had a vision,” Annie said to Paul. “She saw angels flying over the city. It’s like Noah’s Ark and The Flood,” she said. “It’s to cleanse the world of sin.”
“I’ve heard it all before,” he said.
After Elena’s rejection, and the loss of whatever hope he had for a future, he wondered how long things would go on the way they were. How tired he was of it all. And he had not had actual sex for weeks. Months. His need for physical intimacy got the better of him. He started to become aroused in Annie’s presence. And she had her own sexual needs. Paul hadn’t been meeting those for some time. He began the slow process of seducing his wife, making her a mug of tea every morning and taking it to her in bed, and complimenting her on her cakes. He even knelt to pray beside her, asking, as she did, for God’s forgiveness.
One Saturday night he prepared a romantic dinner. He wanted it to be extra special; he even went shopping at Waitrose. They had asparagus to start, followed by baked sea bass with lemon caper dressing, with iced hazelnut zabagliones for dessert. Combined with a little alcohol and the coincidence of their sexual needs they were soon humping away on the sitting room floor. Old passions and their previous physical predilections came to the surface. Their climaxes were simultaneous and very loud, forcing one word out of Paul, the one word he never meant to utter, “Elena!”
He woke up in the spare room two days later with a persistent cough. He tried to get up to find the thermometer, but he was pulled back down onto the bed by a burning fever, and his skin glistened with sweat. He called Annie, but either his voice was too weak or she chose to ignore him. With great difficulty he got as far as the bedroom door, and called her again. She came to the top of the stairs and wanted to know what the fuss was about.
“I’ve got it,” he said. “I’ve got the bloody Covid.”
“Well, that’s brilliant,” she said. “You were slavering all over me the other night. Slavering like a dog and covering me with germs. Now we’re both going to die.”
“Help me,” he said.
“And why should I?”
But she did. She brought him effervescent vitamin C drinks and Paracetamol. His symptoms eased a little, but by the fourth day he was having trouble breathing. Unable to call out, he crawled to the bedroom door and lay against it until he heard Annie moving along the landing.
“I can’t breathe,” he said. “You need to call someone. I need to be in hospital. I need oxygen.”
“Who’s Elena?” she whispered through the door.
“No-one,” he said. “It was nothing serious.” But he knew how trite that sounded, how Annie would know that a thousand men a day said such a thing to the women they betrayed.
“We should pray, Paul.”
And they did, with the bedroom door between them. Paul went along with it until his breathing made it too difficult to continue, and Annie relented and called for an ambulance. But when it eventually came, it was too late.
After Paul died, Annie was authorised to have a test for the virus. She was asymptomatic; utterly free of symptoms and thus the consequences of the disease. In her own mind she’d been chosen. Preserved for a higher purpose.
When she had a video call from Margot, Annie told her that she and Paul had prayed together. “He didn’t want to before, but I think he saw the sense in it at the very end.”
“There are no atheists on a sinking ship,” said Margot, her beatific smile freezing on the screen, as the video signal stuttered and failed.
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