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.
When the government shut things down and people started panic buying pasta and toilet paper, someone in the street started a WhatsApp group. It was something for everyone to huddle around, like a cosy, community campfire. Robyn joined in; she knew very few people in the street. From what she knew of them, they were an idealistic bunch, young families and a pair of retired progressives, who’d put up posters for the Labour Party in the recent election. Everyone agreed it was a dreadful result, but all that could be done now was to rally round and help each other.
The group was useful. Robyn offered eggs and some bread flour when someone posted they couldn’t get any. She herself got some seeds and a little compost from a neighbour. They were left on her doorstep by someone she had often seen, but never spoken to, and they waved through the window at each other, a cheery distant wave. She dug out old jigsaw puzzles, counting the pieces to make sure they were a viable gift to the community, and offered to buy things for other people when she dared to make a dash around the supermarket.
But despite the bright spring weather, the daffodils and blossom showing in the park opposite her house, a miasma of fear lurked beneath everything. Robyn was no stranger to uncertainty. Some days she felt the terror more, and because she was alone, she felt that more too, and stood at the gate with her mug of coffee in the mornings, hoping for a brief conversation with whoever passed by.
The man next door, whose wife worked for the health service, out with his young daughters in the pram would always stop, but his view of the situation was depressing; he saw no way out of it. He knew for a fact that if they put you on a ventilator your chances were slim. People like Robyn, and she knew he meant old, should stay in, he said, until there’s a vaccine.
“But that’s not going to be for…” She was unable to finish her sentence and gripped the top of the gate. “It’s a lovely day,” she said.
“Wind’s cold,” he said, pulling up the zip of his padded jacket. “If you go out, wrap up.”
Robyn had the radio on constantly, listening for a glimmer of hope that the government was eventually getting a grip, that the crisis was moving on, coming to some kind of resolution. And when that became too much, as it always did, she picked up the phone and called one of her friends who lived on the other side of the city. But because there was no gossip they always talked about the same thing; the bloody terrible unending nature of the situation. And anyway, since Richard’s death she had lost faith in them; they had tried and failed to fill the gap in her life, and without physical contact they were just ghosts in the ether.
Perhaps she had made a mistake by selling up and moving here, to a smaller house and garden. But she had needed the money, and the park opposite the Edwardian house, with its trees and well stocked beds was some compensation. But like the phone calls and the virtual get togethers, when she drank too much Muscadet during the hesitant, pixelated transmissions, there was something lacking, and she began to wonder if it, whatever it was, had ever been there.
Perhaps she should have bought a flat, something she could lock up and leave. But it was too late now, and she felt trapped. Here in the city there were too many memories, triggered as she made her daily walks, trekking from one neighbourhood to another, through streets she had lived in years ago, in flats with friends or the houses she and Richard had bought.
The kids were scattered. They tried with Skype calls, with the grandchildren coming close to the screen after being told to ‘say hello to grandma’, but really, she spent every day alone. It was as if she had arrived at the end of her time, living only in memory. And, if she dared admit it to herself, the end of the world.
Another day. The sun was shining, casting the long shadows of trees across the bright grass in the park. Robyn stood at the bedroom window and watched an aged couple shuffling along the path, early risers like herself. She knew she was withdrawing from the world. It seemed pointless to take a chair out into her front garden and wait for someone to pass by. It was pointless, she thought, to sit there and wait, because she had nothing to say.
She became more aware of her appearance, and tried to make an effort, wearing make-up and her best spring coat when she went to the local supermarket. But one day, she turned into the dairy aisle and finding it too crowded, was gripped by a fear of the virus. And what she looked like seemed so unimportant. Now, when her friends rang her, she was loath to let them go and yet always so relieved when she put the phone down.
“It’s so boring,” she said to everyone who called. “I’ve read myself blind.”
When she was weighed down like this, suspecting more than a mere low mood, but the familiar clinical depression that had dogged her life, she looked at the WhatsApp group posts. Here she saw the cheery messages, the kindness and warmth, the hope of young mothers trying to chivvy each other along.
She became obsessed with the group and offered her jigsaws again. “I’ve counted all the pieces,” she confessed. “Twice.” She left a box of books outside her house and told everyone to help themselves. There were grateful messages, for an Agatha Christie, and from someone more discerning, who had taken all of her Elizabeth Bowen books.
Her hair became more unruly; it had needed a cut before the whole thing started. Now it stuck out from her head, and when she looked in the mirror, she thought she looked like a madwoman. She forced herself to shower and change into clean clothes every day, to wash and to iron, to keep some sort of focus. But it was harder and harder as the days drifted together, like seaweed washing up on the shore, tangled and fetid.
Her daily walk - she made the same outing every day now - took her to a Victorian cemetery. She wandered aimlessly amongst the sun-dappled gravestones, reading the inscriptions. Many of the stones had fallen, pieces broken off and overgrown with ivy. Here and there were simple wooden crosses, weathered and without inscriptions. The dead gone and forgotten.
This was the week she was supposed to go on a guided walking tour of Crete, to see the wild flowers. To be with a group of strangers with whom she had no history, was a chance to have a new life experience without the baggage of being ‘the widow’. She was tired of being pitied and yet she was always prone to tears when, at some social gathering or another, someone she hadn’t seen for a long time would ask her how Richard was.
She put up a post about the trip on the WhatsApp group feed. How much she had been looking forward to it, the first time she would have been away since Richard’s death, and how she wanted to test herself, to see if she had the strength to travel alone. It was a bit of a whinge, she knew that, but she wanted a little sympathy, wanted to feel the warmth of the community campfire.
But what she got was this: ‘We’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. Travel and tourism are just another example of indulgent consumerism. Not only does flying contribute to global warming, but mass travel and air pollution have probably contributed to the spread of the virus. It would be a shame if we didn’t learn the lessons of this crisis. We will all need to reconsider our travel choices when all this is over.’
When Robyn read this she felt as if she had been shamed, and that everyone in the street thought that she was not only part of the problem, but the cause. Miriam from number fifteen was the author of the message. Robyn knew her and her grim-faced husband Alan from sight. They were often seen pushing a wheelbarrow to their allotment, and before the virus came, they canvassed their neighbours to put up posters for the Labour Party in the recent elections.
Robyn went and stood at her gate hoping to catch them, wanting to say something. To post a reply, to make her hurt known publicly, was to open herself up to more abuse. She lived on a pedestrian street, and she watched the walkway, poking her head out beyond the hedge. But she knew that if she saw them, she would slink back into the house, crawling with a shame she didn’t know she had.
That afternoon she walked to the cemetery again, to sulk amongst the monuments to the forgotten dead. The sun was shining and the birds were singing, their song evermore intense in the last few weeks. She made her way through the streets strewn with litter. They were not quite deserted; an Eastern European family with their furniture spilling out onto the pavement, glowered at her as she passed, and cars, BMWs and Mercedes with dark windows, crawled by as if the drivers were searching for something.
Robyn felt accused even here, amongst strangers. She began to think that it, whatever it was, would never be over. A week ago she had gone into the corner shop and the woman behind the counter was nervous and bewildered. “They was eating bats,” she shouted, shaking her head. “Bats!”
Perhaps it was a dream. Or a punishment for mass tourism and the eating of bats, and all the other excesses of humankind. Or a bizarre social experiment into which she had been recruited without her knowledge. Worse still, perhaps she was the only participant, a lab rat running around a maze, pressing this switch or that with her nose. And then she thought she might be dead and was in purgatory, or whatever Catholics called it, waiting to be judged. Perhaps Miriam and Alan were agents of the deity.
She was relieved to reach the cemetery. Walking towards a patch of sunlight, she began to read the inscription on one of the gravestones. Here were buried an entire family, a child who had died at three days, another at six months, another at five years. One made it to eighteen. The parents themselves lived into their seventies. So much sorrow, she thought, was inscribed into the stone.
A cackle made her turn. She was surprised to see a man sitting on one of the fallen gravestones, surprised she hadn’t noticed him before. His bright checked shirt, his wild hair and unshaven face, startled her. He was drinking from a bottle, cheap white cider, and looked up at her, his eyes dull, his face wild. He began to talk, or what might have passed for talking if Robyn could have understood what he was saying. He raised his voice, pointing at her, and tried to stand.
Robyn was frightened; he was like an irrational beast with his mouth hanging open. Unable to get to his feet, he fell back onto the gravestone, one hand clawing at the air; a pathetic attempt to grasp at something solid. He still barked at her, and she realised how much she was frightened by his display of madness, not just from a fear of violence, but of the contagion of another’s irrationality on her own fragile state of mind.
Leaving by a gate at the other end of the graveyard, so that she didn’t have to pass him again, Robyn walked home another way, through a different set of streets, struck by the sudden beauty of a tree bright with pink blossom.
Turning a corner she came upon a small crowd, a mixture of races, milling around two fruit and vegetable shops, one on either side of the street. At first this gathering of people looked like a chaotic bunch, but Robyn noticed the orderly, spaced out queues, and the signs on the windows of the shops warning customers to keep their distance from each other, and to be quick. The human activity, the resilience of it, after her despairing encounter with the drunk, steeled her to want to survive, to hang on to the hope that she could still have a life when the plague had been defeated.
It was the evening in the week when the people of the country stood outside their front doors and clapped for the health workers. Given that the health service itself had been continually under threat by the government meant that for Miriam and Alan the event was, in effect, a demonstration against the government. At the appointed hour they would stand out on the walkway banging cooking pots with wooden spoons, and looking around. Robyn always thought that they were checking to see who was, or who was not, joining in. Like good party members, she thought.
Instead of leaning over her gate and clapping, just enough to show her face, Robyn stepped out onto the walkway with her porridge pan and her old wooden spoon. As Miriam and Alan banged their pots, she began to bang hers. And as she beat out a fierce rhythm, she walked towards them. They noticed she was closing the gap between them and began to walk backwards.
Robyn knew how she must look; her hair was particularly wild today and she had a glint in her eye, and the closer she got to Miriam and Alan, the more she imagined the smell of alcohol drifting towards them. She’d drank half a tumbler of gin for Dutch courage, swilling it round her gums like mouthwash. Banging her pot louder she began to shout above the din, not words, just a crude guttural utterance.
“Keep at an appropriate distance, Robyn,” said Miriam. “Please observe the government guidelines on social distancing.”
“Fuck the government,” said Robyn.
She kept advancing and the couple kept retreating, back through their gate and up the path to their house. Robyn stood staring at them, still banging her porridge pan until they disappeared behind their front door. Everything was settled now. “Stay away from me,” she’d said. “Leave me alone.”
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