Read the winning entries in Worthing lockdown writing competition
Head judge Judy Upton said: “From emotional diaries to witty murder mysteries, amateur and professional writers across Sussex put pen to paper to explore their feelings about the lockdown and to share their love of the written word. I was hugely impressed by the breadth of subject matter and the truth, emotion and detail in all of these lockdown tales.”
First prize was won by Covid and Mrs Arbuthnot by Patricia Feinberg Stoner from Rustington; second by The Big Shop by Julia Macfarlane from Bognor Regis; and third by New Normal by Esther Reynolds from Staplefield.
Competition organiser Melody Bridges said: “The competition entries were carefully read by a panel of readers, as well as assessed by the head judge without their names so that the authors’ identities have not been revealed – until now!”
COVID AND MISS ARBUTHNOT by Patricia Feinberg Stoner
The day Miss Arbuthnot discovered social media the entire village groaned.
Enid Arbuthnot was the queen of curtain twitchers. Her cottage at the north side of the village green was ideally placed to give her a clear view of the activities of her neighbours. And she watched. She watched as Miss Jones trotted home with a carrier bag sagging under the weight of what were unmistakeably gin bottles. She watched as Colonel Brewster-Smythe gazed resolutely in the other direction while his decrepit beagle squatted to leave an offering on the grass. She watched as little Micky Beresford filched an apple from the greengrocer’s stall when he thought nobody was looking.
And Miss Arbuthnot did more than just watch: she wrote. No weekly postbag at the Gorehampton Gazette was complete without one or more missives from the lady. Reaching for her bottle of green ink, specially chosen so her letters would stand out, she would chronicle the misdeeds of her fellow villagers.
‘Children have been seen feeding bread to ducks on the pond. The RSPB specifically states that bread is bad for ducks.’
‘That new woman at Number 32 needs to wash her net curtains, they are a disgrace.’
And every week the letters editor at the Gazette would sigh and wonder if it was time to publish yet another letter from Miss Arbuthnot, or if he could get away with it for one more week. You had to strike a balance between keeping the old biddy happy and boring the pants off your readers.
And then Miss Arbuthnot discovered Facebook.
Everybody blamed the vicar: well-meaning soul that he was, the Reverend Cedric had put a small paragraph in the parish newsletter extolling the virtues of The Gorehampton Village Pump. It was a Facebook page newly set up by Professor Mainwaring, with moderators Clarissa Mainwaring, Jenny Stokes and James Montague. Here, enthused the vicar, you will find all the news that is relevant to our little community. Has Miss Jones’ poodle gone missing again? Has a bunch of keys been found on the Green? Is someone looking for a window cleaner? Ask your question, share your news, air your views. Log on and you’ll discover a quick and easy way to keep in touch with all things pertinent to Gorehampton.
Miss Arbuthnot despised Facebook on principle. ‘I don’t ‘do’ the Internet,’ she would say to anyone who would listen. ‘It’s full of trolls and people who want to steal your bank details. I don’t see the need for it.’
On the other hand, Miss Arbuthnot was a committed reader of the parish newsletter. Anything the Reverend Cedric wrote must be, well, gospel. And if the vicar thought that Facebook, and in particular The Village Pump, was a Good Thing, it must be so. And so, for the first time in her life, Enid Arbuthnot went online.
There were difficulties. She almost gave up when Facebook wanted to know her email address. Miss Arbuthnot didn’t ‘do’ email. But then she noticed that there was an alternative: she could set up the account using her phone number. After much tooth-sucking she decided to risk it in the interests of communication.
Navigating her way to The Gorehampton Village Pump, Miss A gave a gasp of delight. Here was the platform she had been waiting for. The breathless waiting for Thursday, when the Gazette came out; the frequent disappointment when her views didn’t feature on the letters page - these were things of the past. Now all she had to do was type - laboriously, with two fingers – press Enter and, as if by magic, there it was on the page!
Twice or thrice daily the villagers were treated to Miss Arbuthnot’s opinions on everything from the freshness of the bread at Denny’s Bakery to the briefness of the shorts on Mrs Jenkins (‘At her age she should know better’). Strangely, only about a third of her posts actually appeared on the Pump page. When she complained to Professor Mainwaring he would explain kindly: ‘It’s the Internet, dear Miss A. You know how unreliable it is, things get lost.’ Miss Arbuthnot understood completely.
Winter passed, and with the advent of March came Lockdown. Covid 19 had reached the UK and the little village of Gorehampton on Sea was taking its precautions. People were nervously self-isolating and, inevitably, relying more and more heavily on social media to maintain some semblance of normal life. At the very end of March this alarming announcement appeared on the Gorehampton Village Pump.
‘Scientists now suspect that the spread of Coronavirus is due to excessive use of virtual communications. All screens, including computer screens, may have been infected. We strongly urge our community to wear protective masks and gloves when visiting the Pump.’
Miss Arbuthnot wasn’t surprised. She knew all about computer viruses. She immediately closed her laptop, and closed it remained for the duration. And, just to be on the safe side, she turned her television to the wall.
‘You are very wicked,’ scolded Clarissa Manwaring. ‘You know some people are going to take this seriously.’
‘Just a harmless April Fool joke,’ replied her husband. ‘We all need a laugh in these trying times.’
‘But it’s not April Fool,’ she objected. ‘Today is the 31st of March.
‘Ah well,’ said the Prof airily, ‘It’s bound to be the first somewhere. International date line and all that.’
Covid 19 raged through the UK for weeks. Thousands died. The Queen addressed the nation, confusing some people who wondered if it was time to order a turkey and look out the decorations. People queued politely at Tesco and searched online for flour and flowers. The Prime Minister went into in intensive care and the nation held its breath; he recovered and life, of a sorts, went on. By early June there were signs of the green shoots of recovery and by September it was all over.
Of Miss Arbuthnot there was no sign. Parish council meetings proceeded smoothly without her lobbying. Duck feeding went un-tutted and the ears of the Women’s Institute were spared her enthusiastic but tuneless rendering of Jerusalem. Even the Village Pump noticed her absence.
‘Don’t you think someone ought to tell her it’s all over,’ said Clarissa Mainwaring, one morning over breakfast. ‘I know she’s a tiresome old busybody, but we can’t have her in lockdown forever.’
‘Can’t we?’ said her husband. ‘Oh well, I suppose we can’t. I’ll tell her. Eventually.’
The Big Shop by Julia Macfarlane
It’s the Big Shop tomorrow and therefore the scariest day of the week. Once a week, I don the disposable gloves and the DIY face-mask and head into Sainsbury’s. Not that I dispose of my gloves afterwards, they are too precious for that. Mine will be washed and hung out to dry as carefully as if they were diamond-studded, before going back in my bag for next time.
But for now, to prep myself for the next step in the Big Shop, me and the dog are setting out for our afternoon walk. This needs just as much planning – for a start, who gets the low-tide walk, the best walk – me or Colin? I won today. Low tide will be about half past four and if I set off now – four o’clock - we can walk through the trees to get to the beach.
“Harness on, Charlie!” Charlies bounces up and is dressed with about the same difficulty as I recall wriggling toddlers and winter coats. Next, a fleece for me, check the pockets – poo bags, yes, dog treats, yes. Front door key – check. Mobile phone pushed into pocket with key. Homemade face-mask slung around neck, to be pulled up quickly when walking in joggers’ wakes, or if someone gets too close. And finally, my ancient Sony MP3 player and trailing earbuds to stop my brain overflowing with the stress. Listen to the music, listen to the words. Although, don’t dance to the beat or sing along, not outside. Keep the insanity this side of the front door, please.
Lead and ball-thrower in hand we leave the house. The sky is Bognor blue, not a flight trail in sight. Check the alley is clear to ensure we don’t have to pass anyone, and stride through as fast as possible. Into the trees, or the woodland walk as our estate agent optimistically called it a decade ago. We sniggered at the time – a woodland walk! It’s a line of trees either side of a footpath between houses. But I have come to appreciate these huge trees, marking an old path to the beach, since long before our housing estate invaded a farmer’s fields.
I can name them all: jigsaw-leaved turkey oak followed by a waving sycamore, and a horse chestnut with an under-canopy of elder - frothy white bouquets competing with thick pink-frosted candles. Tiny, purple violets edge the path. Queen Anne’s Lace is everywhere and around a bend, the stink of Alexanders’ green umbels. Maybe by mid-winter I will be glad to fill my belly with these pungent medieval pot-herbs. A woodpecker’s drumming directs my view upwards, there he is, red head pounding away his love call. Nature carrying on, heedless of the disaster sweeping over humanity, is strangely comforting. I am blessed to live here and I know it.
The music on my player is on random and Peggy Lee makes way for a Prodigy track. The contrasts make me smile and snap me out of scary thoughts about where the world is heading. The phone rings. I pull it out and tuck my earbuds into my T-shirt top, where the beat continues to vibrate – like a late-night hotel disco several rooms away.
“Hello? Hi, Mam, how’s it going?”
What news can she possibly have; my sisters and I locked her down two weeks before the rest of the country and none of us can believe she has actually complied. She is on Week Nine, bless her, and the strain has been getting to her in the last few days.
“I’ve been out for a little walk.” She has been threatening this for days, building up her excuses as to why it is necessary: cramp in her legs, fear of fear-of-going-outside kicking in, everybody else is going out, etcetera, etcetera. I have sent her homemade facemasks knowing she will go out, because at 89 she is more obstinate and illogical than your average teenager ever was.
“Tut, tut, Mam, what will Evelyn say when I dob you in?” I chide her. I promised myself at the beginning that I will not tell Mam off no matter what she does, scared that my bullying, aggressive words might be the last time I speak to her; so I will accept that she has gone out against our authority and just try to make sure she stayed as safe as possible.
“ Get lost with your dobbing me in,” she jokes back. “I’ll tell her when I see her.” This said, with a hint of defiance. Evelyn is the only one of us living close enough to Mam to visit her during the lockdown but you cross her at your peril - she is the Miss Trunchbull in our family – and she is not even the eldest.
“Did you wear your mask?” I ask.
“No!” Mam snorts. “I was only going around the block. I wore my cream scarf, just in case.”
“OK, that’s good enough, I suppose. Did you meet anybody?”
“No, not a soul, but I went past the doctor’s so I popped in to see if I could have some more batteries for my hearing aids.”
“Mam! That’s the worst place you could have gone! Evelyn could have got them for you. Did you even need them?”
“Well, no, not yet, but I will. There was nobody in.”
“Apart from the pharmacist who must have served you.”
“Well, they know what they’re doing. Shut up!”
“I thought you were just going round the block?”
“I was. Then I popped down The Parade - ” The street of local shops – two blocks away.
“Just to see. There were quite a few out. Why should I be the only one stuck at home if the rest aren’t?”
“BECAUSE there are people out there who have the virus. Mam, it’s a horrible disease – you don’t want to catch it.”
“I know what it’s like. I watch the telly. I was careful.”
“No, you weren’t...”
“I only went in two shops –“
“You did WHAT?”
“I wore gloves. I had my black gloves on because I was pulling my shopping trolley, and I swapped them for my rubber gloves to go in the shops.”
“Why would you even do that! What was the point?”
And on it goes. And I break all my promises and tell her off, and swear at her for being an idiot and she gets tearful and rings off and I feel like a right cow.
By this time, I am at the beach. I have crossed Sea Lane, dragging the dog away from the many message board scents, not even noticing if I have passed other people too closely, too busy snarling into the phone at my stupid, stupid mother. But I won’t dob her in to Evelyn, because I am not completely evil.
The sea is exquisite, a turquoise expanse to the horizon. I never knew until we moved here that British sea could be this colour. I take a deep breath, tell myself to calm and throw the ball as far as I can. Charlie, unclipped, races down the steep pebbled bank to the wet sand near the water’s edge, and I scramble after him. The beach is quiet at this end, a few fellow walkers, the odd family guiltily sitting on beach towels. I turn left, heading towards the Mulberry harbour fragment, the wreck of Dorothy’s house dropped from the sky. I check the puddle in its interior, believing that one day I will see an octopus in there, if not a pair of red shoes. So far, not yet but we have to live in hope, don’t we? In normal times, I would have slipped out of my shoes to paddle barefoot along the tide’s edge but Colin has decreed this unsafe. “What if you cut your foot on something? We don’t want any unnecessary hospital visits.” I obey, my dread being that I bring the disease home through my own carelessness.
The music has shifted to an aria from Madama Butterfly and Renata Scotto’s voice weeps into my ear. My eyes fill as her voice sings out her longing for Pinkerton, and her dreams of a family safely together again, her voice soaring upwards to join the seagulls wailing overhead. Too late, I realise a dog-walking friend is approaching.
“You Ok?” she asks and I try to say “Fine,” but I am too choked up with Madama Butterfly’s coming self-sacrifice to even speak and start to laugh at myself instead. When I finally manage to say, “Just opera getting to me,” she looks as if this has underlined my mental fragility rather than explained away my tear-streaked face. Lunatic credentials fully confirmed.
Back home and dinner over, I have to prepare for the Big Shop tomorrow. All week, we add things to the shopping list, which is in full view, magnet-pinned to the fridge – items are added as we use them up. I compile meal ideas for the next week and add any needed items to the list. I have other lists: the stuff in the freezer, the food in the cupboards and fridge with their use-by-dates, and the new list, the big list, of what is in the upstairs stockpile.
Thanks to Boris Johnson’s easing of the lockdown I feel like a novice surfer who survived the first wave as it swept around me but on the horizon is the next wave, the massive wave, the one that will probably seriously knock us all off balance; the one that Johnson and his “science” is wilfully ignoring because the 1922 Committee want the economy to start up as fast as other countries even though we locked down later than them. And this is not a redundancy situation – last in, first out, - this is lives and deaths – oh, so many deaths – and I don’t want my family – any of them – to become just another statistic in the excess death league.
The phone rings as I am on Phase 2 of the Shopping List – taking the first shopping list and placing the items in order, roughly where I will find them as I work my way through the shop. The list is longer than usual because we have decided tinned veg – we never eat tinned veg – should be stockpiled, ready for the Autumn and the failed harvests, because we are firmly in post-apocalyptic scenario here.
“Hi, Mam, are you okay?”
“Have you heard from Evelyn today?”
“No, mam, should I have done?”
“I rang her but there was no answer.”
“She’s at work. She might not be able to answer. Can I help?”
“No, I just wanted to remind her that I’m getting low on corned beef.”
“Couldn’t that have waited until she asks for your shopping list?”
“I might forget before then. And Maude down the road says she couldn’t find any this week when she popped in.”
“Why don’t you keep a running shopping list, like I do. Hold on, Maude did what?”
“She just popped in. In the garden. We were careful.”
“Mam, that’s not allowed. How often have you been doing this? What’s wrong with talking over the phone?”
“It does no harm, we’re both self-isolating.”
“Well, you’re obviously not, if you are seeing each other in gardens.”
“We were careful. She brought her own cup.”
“Really - and how did that work?”
“I made her a cup of tea in it and she took it home to wash.”
“So you touched the cup?”
“That’s not how you catch it, touching a bloody cup!”
“That’s exactly how you catch it. Jeez, Mam!”
“I am sick of being told what to do. You lot treat me like a child!”
“Then stop behaving like one. Act like a grown up if you want to be treated like one.”
When did this happen? When did the roles reverse? I remember my promise to myself – I can’t have two rows with her in the one day.
“Mam, can you promise me you won’t do this again, not until it’s safe. Just be careful. We love you and this disease is horrible.”
“I know. I’m just lonely.”
“I know. I know, Mam. We’ll be up to see you as soon as we can. I promise.”
“OK, love you, pet.” But I can hear the tremble in her voice and I know she’s putting the phone down to have a good cry, and it’s all my fault – again.
Once my shopping list is complete, I check my brown bag has my charged-up phone in it, my face mask, gloves, purse and shopping list. Stiff drink, spot of Netflix, off to bed with the alarm set for seven o’clock.
I never sleep well the night before the Big Shop. But the alarm does actually wake me, and I breakfast – having toast so there is enough milk for Colin’s breakfast – wash my face, brush my teeth, check my brown bag again, collect the bags-for-life and I am out of the door and into the car.
Were you to put a stress meter on me, I am sure my levels would be high. I can feel my heart beating in my chest. Traffic is light but busier this week than others. I pull up in my usual place in Sainsbury’s car park. It is not quite eight o’clock and the queue of shoppers waiting to enter is only four people. I reach for my brown bag to put on my face mask – and my bag is not there. I check the back seat; I look under the shopping bags. It is not there. I must have left it at home. Please God, don’t let it have been left in full view on the drive. How on Earth have I managed to do this?
I race home, on the wrong side of every speed limit. The house is empty – Colin having left for his dog walk duties. My bag is in the hall, right by the front door. I grab it and race back to the supermarket. Unbelievably, there is no queue at all and I am allowed straight in.
The fruit and veg aisles are pandemonium – too many people, too many staff members ignoring the customers as they pack for the other luckier customers who managed to get a Click & Collect or even a Home Delivery slot. None of the staff wear face-masks or gloves but more customers do with each passing week. I have gone from feeling like a fool for wearing them to not even noticing I have them on. I hang back waiting for the aisle to clear but people push past me and I realise there is no option. I wade through, grabbing needed items, not caring about Use-By dates, organic origins or air-mile guilt, just wanting to be out of the tsunami of invisible breath droplets.
Further into the store, it is quieter as the throngs have spanned out. There are more empty shelves than ever. Some things have been on my list for weeks without success: wholemeal
flour, macaroni, golden syrup – what are people doing with all the golden syrup? At the end of today’s shop there will be fifteen items I failed to find. They will go straight onto next week’s list. Mam’s friend is right, the tinned meat aisle is almost empty, and the bags of flour down to a few lonely stragglers; there is yeast now but baking powder is still missing. Mango chutney and hoisin sauce have been absent for the last two weeks.
My trolley is full and it comes to £175 – ouch! My bill used to be about half that for just the two of us, which we used to think then was exorbitant. We ate well – organic, free-range, wholemeal - we entertained and we also ate out at least once a week. Colin enjoyed choosing the wine from the local off-licence and a couple of times a week we popped into the corner shop for missing items. But now, one shop a week – the Big Shop – and if I don’t buy it here, we don’t get to eat it. And we are certainly not doing takeaways – if the food hasn’t been produced in factory conditions, I’m not risking it.
And so home: to unpack, to add to my lists, to fill another shelf upstairs with the tinned veg we are now collecting. My mobile rings as I am balancing on a chair in the bedroom.
“Hello? Hi, Mam, what are you up to?”
“Nothing much. I’ve got a bit of a cough.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Have you had a drink?”
“What if it’s the Virus?”
“It’s not possible, Mam, it doesn’t come on that quick. You said you only went out for the first time yesterday.”
“I did and I know it takes five days! I’m not daft! I’m just telling you I’ve got a bit of a cough and I feel awful.”
“Have you rung Evelyn?”
“John answered. He said Evelyn’s having a duvet day, whatever that is.”
Evelyn doesn’t do duvet days – that’s more my department. Evelyn does pushing through and getting on with things, mind over matter and don’t be a wimp.
I stare at my neatly stacked tins, at my carefully typed lists and realise I do not have anything under my control and the roar in my ears is the sound of curling white foam about to break over my head.
Bile rises, scorching the inside of my throat. I close my eyes; the nausea rolls and crashes like a wave, and I heave the contents of my stomach into the toilet bowl.
I go to call out to my husband, but realise he is not here, has not been here in two months. He got out and found a place just in time. I don’t know where he is now, Sheffield, York, he always wanted to live up north.
I realise with sudden clarity that I’m gripping the edges of the toilet bowl, and my hands are shaking. I haul myself up, into the kitchen, lean unsteadily against the sink to pour myself a glass of water. The glass slips out of my grasp and bounces. Again. I take a sip, and feel it travelling all the way down to my stomach.
I have the house to myself for the first time in twelve years, but it’s the house that’s making me sick.
It’s June, but the sky is full of dark clouds and I can hear the crack of lightning somewhere.
I wrap myself in a blanket - the one he brought back from a lads trip to Morocco, and told me he’d have rather been in bed with me - and curl up on the sofa, close my eyes.
Margo’s small feet stick and peel on the lino, slapping down the hall. She perches on the other sofa,
looks at me unseeingly, little ice blue eyes scorchingly cold, turns her head away again. I hear the babble of the TV. I watch her serious face watching some crappy cartoon.
Her dad hasn’t been back for her since the lockdown, the bastard. I wonder if she feels unbalanced, like the very centre of her has been flung far into space and there’s nothing left there now. I sure as hell do.
Nico rings in the third week. It’s not the longest we’ve ever been apart, but each day drags like I’ve got shackles round my ankles. Thick heat, languid, slow hours. I let him talk for a bit; there’s something lodged in my throat, and every time I go to speak, my voice threatens to break like a prepubescent boy. If he knows I’m struggling, he might not come back.
‘I think we both need time apart,’ he tells me. ‘I definitely just need some time. Alone. To think things through. This is a perfect opportunity to do that. We’re not supposed to be travelling around anyway.’
This is our new normal, the new standard. New bullshit. Phone calls and headaches.
A little while later; ‘You’ll be alright. You and Margo. You’re her mother after all. Don’t bring her to see me just yet. You and her need some good time together.’
Despite the fact he was obviously right, I hated being told what I needed.
The next day, my headache has abated and I feel bizarrely light-headed and unsteady on my feet. It’s the house. It must be the house. It’s playing with me. I need to get out. Fresh, liquid air.
The weather has settled, so I drag Margo out for a walk, tying her laces with hands fluttering madly.
The air outside is no better; it sticks to my skin, an instant coating of sweat. I inhale deeply, thick, syrupy air.
He liked thick, syrupy, lukewarm coffee which he downed in three, long gulps.
‘Thanks a latte,’ he’d tell me, as if that was still funny after all these years.
Before I realise where we’re going, we’re walking along the country road that takes us to the lake. It was here, when we first moved here all those years and hours ago, it was here we walked to. Him and me, and baby on his back. We promised to make it a weekly occurrence. Take a picnic, some wine, keep this day free and sacred. But we never went back. My feet still remember the way. We trace the edge of the lake; Margo complains of sand and grit in her socks.
The lake surface is still, blue-grey like glass. It’s cloudy; but there are breaks in the clouds now where the sun flashes through, obliterating the moisture in the air.
I remember this time last year, in Trento, or Bolzano, or were we even in Italy? All I remember issoaring slate grey peaks, marbled with snow, but we could have been anywhere.
I pick up a flat, smooth stone and flick it across the surface. It bounces twice. I find one for Margo, but she doesn’t seem interested.
Pick a stone, find your stance, flick your wrist. I’ve found that skimming stones is largely hope and luck based. I look back at Margo; she crouches down at the top of the bank, stick in hand, carving indecipherable patterns into the damp sand.
‘Come on,’ I tell her. We carry on along the footpath, though this part of the walk is unfamiliar now. It’s got lost in the tangle of memories and years that have become as one in my mind. We arrive at a meadow, wild grasses in faint hues of purple and red and green swaying languidly.
I promptly sit; my legs are beginning to tremble with the exertion and lingering sickness. Margo wanders a little way, stripping grass stems of their seeds and scattering them across the path.
‘Come and sit here,’ I tell her. She turns back to me, but I can feel her reluctance. She plucks something from next to her, picks off the seeds one by one. ‘Come on,’ I tell her again. She looks down at her feet, starts taking small steps towards me, lets her long, glossy blonde hair fall across her eyes so she doesn’t have to see me. She sits a little way from me, screened by the long grass.
‘If we wait, we will hear the trees breathing in,’ I tell her, something I vaguely remember my mother telling me, or did I read it in a book? I don’t know whether she’s listening. I’m not sure she’s ever listened.
The weather began to change after he left; it turned fickle and hating, changing it’s mind every hour, rain, then sun, then thunder and hail and cloudy thereafter. The headaches started then as well, burning behind my eyes, waves of nausea.
When I couldn’t focus on reading, or the TV, I found I was staring at my phone, willing it to light up and vibrate with the picture of him on our honeymoon, leaping over a rocky beach on some archipelago in Indonesia. Or was it Thailand? He wasn’t looking at the camera, wasn’t looking at me. He does that when we’re by the sea, as if I vanish in proximity to water, or something calls him from far away.
Sometimes I stare at my phone for so long, it does ring, but when I pick it up I feel a stab when I see it’s an ancient WhatsApp group, reignited by our common struggle. Stay alert, Sharon from your college music class might send you a motivational quote captioning a picture of a minion at any hour of the day or night.
As we sit and wait for the trees to breathe, flashes of memory pierce through my resolve. Last year, driving, just driving, miles and miles, endless unfamiliar motorways, petrol station coffee, always Radio 2, cruise control, and foot down, just the road and me. I lived so fast my body couldn’t keep track, burn out, burning up, burning hot coffee to keep the exhaustion at bay. I worked stupid hours, for little pay, for what?
Now, there’s suddenly...nothing. There’s just Margo. At the end of every rainbow day...there’s Margo.
Still eight, still brooding or scheming, never sure which. I want to leave. I could leave, but there’s nowhere to go. The entire world has been locked down, quarantined. Even if I got in the car, set a destination, what would I do? I’m inextricably tethered now.
‘Margo, why don’t we go visit your dad?’
‘We’re not allowed to drive anywhere,’ she says haughtily.
‘I know, but it’s your dad. He’s family. We can see him.’ She doesn’t reply and my suggestion was spiteful at best. I know he’d be angry, us turning up on his new doorstep uninvited. He’d tell me to go home at least, maybe leave Margo with him for the remainder of lockdown.
Stay at home, stay miserable, stay out of your depth, stay isolated and lonely, stay safe.
She’s studying a grass seed in great detail, anything not to look at me.
For the first time in years, I don’t want to leave her.
Another headache. Sunny days in Cardiff, lingering by the canal, watching moorhens delicately pick over twigs and shrapnel for their nests in an exhausted, caffeine-dry haze. I didn’t want to go home just yet. It feels like a dream now. It was surreal.
But locked down, no place to go, this land feels all at once familiar and alien. There’s the gently sloped hills of my childhood, but paths that lead to places I don’t recognise.
Walks are an almost daily occurrence now, nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. Margo always trails a few paces behind. The weather flits between dry and hot, dark and cloudy, and my headaches strike when it does, pain behind my eyes that reminds me of Nico. On those days, I stay indoors and watch Margo scatter wild grass seed in the flower beds from her bulging pockets.
My mum hasn’t called me in over a month, but suddenly there’s her in her wedding photo, lighting up my phone screen. I hesitate. Margo is lying in the meadow, and I want to be there too, but I also feel the pang of awkwardness bubbling up inside me.
‘Allie, how is your homeschooling going? All the other mums are posting wonderful things on the Facebook.’ Her voice is dismissive. There’s some sort of insult hidden in there, but she’s an expert at hiding these things.
‘We’ve done plenty,’ I say. ‘I’m just not on Facebook much anymore.’
‘Why ever not? It’s proving a marvellous place to share the positive things that are going on.’
I don’t have an answer for that, but I do know the longer I scroll, the longer I need to spend staring at the wall, calming my overstimulated brain.
I just mumble, because I know she’ll need an answer.
‘You should really take a look at your friend Claudia’s posts. She’s a wonder really. Her husband’s a key worker you know, and she’s still having to work from home, yet she’s managing to school her children marvellously. She has two, and a baby! Amazing really.’
I watch Margo picking grass seed, and filling up a bottle cap to feed to her plastic pony. I didn’t realise she brought those with her. I didn’t realise she still had that damned purple pony.
‘You know, the other day, they used dish soap to make bubbles, put food colouring on it, and pressed paper onto the bubbles to make the most wonderful paintings.’
I hang up. Stay alert. Screw Claudia and her most wonderful paintings. Save lives.
The day after he left, I became convinced he’d left me a forwarding address. I searched through the drawers in the hallway, digging through clutter accumulated over the years.
Our existences were intertwined, so reliant on the compliancy of the other. In the end, it hadn’t taken much for us to implode, and the detritus of a life shared had been flung far. The possibility of piecing it back together was remote too. I existed in the liminal space between disaster and resolution.
The days wound on, ceaseless, hour after hour, and still Nico didn’t call. He didn’t text. He didn’t even see my messages on WhatsApp. I wondered if this would become our new normal. Me ignored. Margo forgotten. Nico...living the life he always wanted before me.
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