The young woman is talking on her mobile, walking right down the middle of the road in the middle of a global pandemic that seems as though it ought to be happening in another time, another place. She is anxious, tugging at her dogs lead, frowning, out for what everybody has suddenly started calling their “permitted walk”. It doesn’t seem real. The news reports are like science fiction.
“Gran you know you have to stay inside, all right? Mum’s fetching your shopping. You’re fine.”
She stands still, listening to the reply. Her gran is clearly not fine.
The phone is set to speakerphone and more details of exactly how and why her gran is not fine radiate out, indistinctly into a silent street. Her head drops.
“You’re not stuck at home- you’re safe at home and……….”
Her voice trails away. She wants to say it is better than being dead, she wants to say this will all be over soon, she wants to say that there are people just like her gran dying, but she can’t. Her gran doesn’t need to hear that, she watches quizzes and news programmes all day- she knows it already. She wants to tell her gran that she will give her a massive hug but she can’t and anyway her gran doesn’t do hugging.
“I’ll come and stand outside your window in a bit, OK? I’m bringing you some eggs.”
It doesn’t sound like much. No need to bring toilet rolls, gran has four large packs of those. She is not selfish, just afraid and anyway people keep bringing her them. She needs her gran to stay where she is. She needs her to cope- there is no other option. She says “love you” and ends the call before her gran gets round to mentioning Boris Johnson. It rings almost straight away.
“Mum- what are you DOING?”
“Walking. Down the middle of the road if you must know.”
“Because I can.”
“Dad wants to know about the shopping. He’s looking for a bag now.”
Her husband has suddenly become an expert in shopping. Not something he had shown an interest in before, until his hunter gatherer genes kicked in at the thought of shortages. It is annoying- especially when he won’t pull a trolley, doesn’t cook and hates having to take instructions from a shopping list and be told how to walk around the supermarket but what can she do? There are no delivery slots.
“What does he want to know?”
“About green beans.”
“What about green beans?”
“Flat ones or runner ones. Tell him it’s written on the packet.”
“You just put green beans.”
“Well I’m telling you now aren’t I? Does he want to know where they are?”
“Dunno. When will you be back?”
“I’m taking some eggs to your grans then I’ll be straight home.”
The phone goes dead. She walks along the road enjoying her hour of sunshine. People had been saying that you could hear the birds better and it is true- you can! Strange, it’s not as if it was ever that noisy here. Maybe being just a little bit afraid was teaching her to listen. Perhaps the birds were celebrating being rid of people- enjoying the blue sky and the sunshine and choosing where to build their nests. Ironic really- what they were actually doing was telling each other to back off. Hedgehogs would be enjoying themselves. There must be hedgehogs everywhere, waddling around, glorying in being able to cross the roads as slowly as they liked without being mowed down. This weather too. Beautiful, day after day. Maybe that was something to do with fewer cars. Maybe. Maybe not. She had seen a photo on the web of dolphins in a Venetian canal, believed it for at least half an hour, and almost re-posted it. Fake news. Strange world.
When the young woman reaches the bungalow the old woman is watching out for her. Gran always does that these days. Always has. She is used to being alone but she misses seeing people. There are just the bin men now, the dog walkers and the joggers who are going too fast to take any notice of anybody. She misses waving at the kids as they go to and from school, stealing the rhythm of their day as a way of being part of a world that has backed off from her. Not even her own grandchildren go to that primary school now, but they once did and she remembers. One day the children will wave back at her again, sending life chattering through her open window. Until then she will wait quietly. She will do her word searches, eat her biscuits, watch her quizzes and decide who she does and doesn’t like. She is meant to want them all to win, but she doesn’t- not if they are too full of themselves. And that programme in the morning with the smug couple who want you to think they are married where they sell houses over and over again. It’s enough- just about.
The young woman holds up the eggs. A hand is raised and the window opens.
“Just pop them in the porch love. Thank you.”
When she returns to the lawn her gran has opened the window a bit further. She looks at her carefully, trying to reassure herself that nothing is wrong. Gran is standing up, looking alert and she has a mug of tea in her hand. Everything looks fine.
“Have you had something to eat this morning?”
“Course I have. Since when have I been known to starve myself?”
They both laugh. This is true. Her gran has never been known to go without cake- even if these days it is sometimes “shop bought”. This was always a term of abuse coming from her gran but needs must. If there is no flour there’s no flour. It saves her having to admit that it is not only flour but energy that is sometimes in short supply.
“Our Jack hasn’t been round.”
There is a short sceptical silence. He wouldn’t, they both knew that, but it was best left unsaid. At least there was very little chance of him catching viral pneumonia while hidden in the depths of his bedroom. Social distancing came naturally to him. Her oldest son had always been hard work. It had taken years to get a diagnosis and even then a lot of people who came across him either didn’t believe it or seemed to expect it to have no consequences. There was a lot of talk about “mental health” these days (whatever that meant) but not much action. Meanwhile Jack was still in his bedroom,unwashed, with his computer, his Lego technic and an answer for everything if his mother dared to enter the room. The likelihood of him talking to anyone else was minimal- especially from a distance standing in the middle of a lawn.
“How’s he doing?”
“He’s not so bad.”
She used to say fine but that had become too obvious a lie. If he was fine then where was he?
This was safe ground. Katie was always fine- sometimes too fine for her own good.
“She’s OK. She just rang me- she was sorting her dad out to go shopping.”
“He’s a useless article.”
This might have seemed like an insult to Pete if she didn’t know that it was her gran’s default position on all men.
“Not really. So long as you’re all right.”
“I have to be don’t I?”
This is horribly true.
“I’d better be on my way- I’ll ring you later. He’ll be wanting me to admire the shopping when he gets back.”
Gran watches her from the window until she is out of sight.
There was something about almost empty streets that made her imagination run wild. Instead of just registering people walking about she noticed each one in turn, waiting for them to move away as she passed and reminding herself that this was no longer a slight. It was surprising how many of them she had never seen before. She watched them as they passed not sure whether to say hello, spoke cautiously if she felt brave and then felt like a stalker if they didn’t reply. Two women were having a conversation at a gateway, standing far apart. Loud voices talked about shopping, gardens, baking, jigsaws and “bloody kids”. There was a world continuing on, one that she wasn’t part of. Death was not mentioned. It was kept at a safe distance, far away in news reports, distant facebook updates from people that she had never met and ever changing statistics. For now.
The white candles had died off on the horse chestnut tree at the end of West Road. When had that happened? It felt like winter still, but with warmer weather. She would be home soon.