I don’t know about you, but I’ve started deleting – without reading – the endless stream of emails about you-know-what. Unpresidented times indeed (not a typo). New York. My most frequent holiday destination. I will miss you.
My nephew simply posted the following word to his instagram.
Kids who thought the next six months were full of revising, exams, prom, the obligatory Leavers hoodie then travelling, and possibly University, are suddenly homeschooling themselves. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials; stand aside and make room for the Quarenteens, folks. And don’t even get me started on how long it took to convince the oldies in my life that they had to stay in, and they could not just “pop out” for a haircut or a newspaper for the next three months!
We’re all pretending we knew what furlough meant before a fortnight ago. We’ve stopped ironing our clothes. We eat more biscuits and some have taken up jogging. The local police use drones to monitor dog walkers who are driving to the countryside where they shouldn’t be. Our beloved pharmacy and toiletries store, Boots, had a virtual queue of 200,000 people last Sunday just waiting to be allowed onto the website. The postie now knocks on my door and leaves the parcel on the ground. I have The Guardian Live update on constant refresh and BBC1 at 5pm has become the place to be for the latest news from 10 Downing Street. I can see a school playing field from my house. The children may be gone, but a family of foxes and an eagle have taken up residence, along with a tiding of magpies, who enjoy jumping and hopping around chasing each other. I hope that grey squirrel made it.
I’m lucky. I was already working from home so have continued to do so in my slowed-down bubble of first world problems. My worries and anxieties are trivial compared to most.
I’ve been keeping a daily journal for the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) of my thoughts, feelings, opinions, experiences and observations during the virus. Along with the other participants, these diaries may provide an insight into the personal, social and cultural impact of the Covid-19 outbreak. Who knows what will happen in the future? Life is very different now to what it was a month ago and will never be the same again.
“Mummy’s going to pick you up from nursery today,” said Violet, as she smoothed down her niece’s hair. Gently cupping the child’s face, she turned it upwards towards her own, and smiled. “Ooh. how I want to eat these little cheeks!” she said. The girl squealed with delight, as her face was showered with “mwah, mwah, mwahs and nom, nom, noms”.
The moment the front door closed, Rosemary burst into tears. Her sister, Violet was leaving today, so she couldn’t put it off any longer. She clapped her hands together, then raised her clasped hands to her mouth, pausing as if in contemplation or prayer. Breathing in deeply, she sighed then walked over to look out of the window. She could see her daughter skipping down the street hand-in-hand with her Aunt. They stopped as the girl pointed to a rainbow in the sky. It’s true what people said. Children were so resilient and a great comfort at times like these. Rosemary pressed play for the company of the radio, then began to busy herself.
It took over four hours to shower, dress, change the master bed, and put on two loads of washing.
Picking out the remaining flowers from several wilting bunches, she created smaller posies that fitted perfectly into two children’s drinking glasses. One for each bedside. She took a picture of one of these floral arrangements, with a slightly blurred family photograph deliberately in view behind. Then she posted it to all of her social media accounts and added the caption “Taking it one day at a time.” There was no way she could reply to all of the well-wishers and notifications right now, but if people saw this picture, at least they’d know she was doing ok.
Rosemary poured the cloudy water from the vases down the kitchen sink, picked out the slimy leaf debris from the plughole and looked at the grubby kitchen sponge. It needed to be thrown away but it was something he’d touched. Was it too soon to get rid of his toothbrush? Then she remembered she’d just washed some of his clothes. She went back into the bathroom and picked up his deodorant, shaving cream, razor, moisturiser and toothbrush and put them in his underwear drawer. There was still so much to do.
At around two o’clock, Rosemary decided to go to the Convenience Store down the road to get something easy and nice for tea. Pizza and ice-cream. Her sister had been so good to stay with them, but she had to go to work tomorrow and life had to get back into some sort of routine. The thought of speaking to her own colleagues made her clutch her stomach. ‘Not fit for work’ was written in spidery Dr handwriting on the sick note, so why did her boss keep ringing her on the pretence of checking whether she was ok, as a cover to ask her work questions? She’d had enough of people saying “how are you coping” and the endless platitudes of “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” without anyone actually offering something tangible that might make her life easier. Like the ironing or cooking a meal. This tired and angry person she was right now would be unprofessional at work, but it was too soon to fake it until she made it. No, a few more weeks away from people was what she needed. She had to face the parents and staff at nursery today. That was enough for now.
Living inside her own head, Rosemary had forgotten just how loud and busy this street was. Double glazing really does dampen down the noise. Hopefully, she wouldn’t see anyone she knew at this time of day. She approached the Convenience Store at the same time as a woman wearing a yellow jacket, who seemed to be in a hurry. “After you,” Rosemary said, then stepped back. The other woman nodded a thanks and walked through the sliding doors. Just then, Rosemary noticed a tiny white feather floating from the sky, right in front of her face.
A few minutes earlier, Patricia (the woman in the yellow coat) was leaving an almost-identical block of flats on the other side of the same street. She too was preoccupied with troubles of her own. Her phone buzzed and there was a brief flicker of hope that this call was from her boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend – but it was her mother. She double-pressed the button at the side of her phone and lowered her arm. Stepping down onto the pavement, a man on a bicycle whizzed past, missing her by millimetres. She shouted “Oy you! Watch where you’re going!” Further along the pavement, the same cyclist grabbed a phone from a woman’s hand then rode away. Patricia stared as the woman tried to run after him, then she faltered when she realised it was futile.
Patricia turned to hear a woman swearing at a man who was trying to stifle a laugh. Apparently a bird had pooped down the back of the collar of the woman’s blouse, between the fabric and her skin. “I can feel it sliding down my back!” That poor woman was stood in the exact spot where Patricia would have been if she’d not spent the last ten seconds watching a brazen daylight robbery. Reaching into her pocket she felt for a couple of coffee shop napkins and handed them to the couple, saying “there you go. Sorry. It’s not much.”
She briefly considered joining the group of people who were hurriedly crossing the road but thought better of it as the green man was flashing. What did her dad used to say? “First in this queue instead of last in that.” She pressed the button and waited for the cars to pass and the green man to appear again. Just as she put a foot forward into the road, a man grabbed her and pulled her backwards away from the kerb, out of the path of a speeding van that had jumped the lights.
A homeless man sat on the ground a few meters away from the shop doorway. “Spare any change please, Miss?” he asked hopefully. “Sorry, mate, no,” she said, then changed her mind and fumbled around in her bag. She brought out half a packet of cigarettes and offered them to him. “You can have these. I’ve given up.”
“Thank you Miss. Good luck to you, Miss,” he replied. Here was a man with nothing, who was kinder to her than her own boyfriend – her ex-boyfriend. Strangers cared more about her than her ex boyfriend did. Her arm suddenly prickled with goosebumps as if someone had lightly stroked it, but there was no-one there. It was exactly like the secret pang of joy when you think of a new lover. Her eye caught sight of a white feather slowly zig-zagging down, then it gently settled on her right shoulder.
Hurrying into the Convenience Store, Patricia asked for a lottery ticket but changed her mind at the last moment and spent the money on a scratchcard. In a nearby coffee shop toilet, she rubbed off the silver coating on the instant win ticket with a 2p coin. One four-leaf clover emerged. Two. Three. Four.
No way! She’d only won ten thousand pounds!
She put her hand out onto the wall to steady herself as she felt her knees buckle. Brushing the bits of silver, then blowing them away, she checked the card again. She tried to read the back of the card for details of how to claim, but it was difficult because of the low-level lighting in there, designed to discourage drug-taking.
The woman in the post office seemed genuinely pleased for her and wished her well. Patricia noticed that the woman’s hand was shaking as she slid the cheque through the little window slot. In the bank, she was taken into a side room, which made Patricia feel special, until she realised it was a sales talk about investments and upgrading her account. She made her excuses and left. Next was coffee – although what she really wanted was a proper drink to steady her nerves. Caffeine wasn’t going to help her racing heart. Her apologies for using the loo without buying anything weren’t necessary, as the barista claimed not have noticed her earlier. While she sipped her perfect coffee, Patricia made an appointment to view a flat the next morning, and booked a hotel room for two nights. She needed time to think. This was a second chance so she literally couldn’t blow it.
A few days later, the local paper ran a story about a young widow who’d scooped the double rollover lottery jackpot. “I’ve always felt that I had a guardian angel watching over me. My husband said he’d always look after us. When I saw that white feather, I knew it was a sign from him. We might have lost him but he’s still with us in spirit and in our hearts. I feel so blessed.”
Meanwhile, the occupants of one of the flats above the branch of Tesco that sold the winning tickets, were still finding tiny feathers from a split pillow. Duck down was so light and impossible to catch, clogging up the vacuum cleaner. Even opening a door in the flat was enough to puff up the delicate feathers into the air where they would drift out of the window into the street below.
By the time the police arrived, Mrs Jones was sat on a low garden wall, next to what was left of her car. A couple of kids on bmx bikes were watching from a short distance away. The man who saw it all happen was sat in his car still talking into the handset.
That beautiful red union jack mini was a write-off. Crumpled against a concrete lamp post, a perfect arc of skid marks visible in the road. People drove slowly past, phones ready, craning their necks to see if there was any blood.
As she was being breathalysed, a teenage girl briskly walked up, held out her phone at arms length, took a photo, then ran off. Her friend followed, shouting, “Was that Mrs Jones? Was it? Wait for me!”
Still gently sobbing, Mrs Jones was grateful for the quiet routine of the police station. She listened patiently whilst the Police Constable spoke to the Custody Sergeant. Fortunately, he was one of those rare officers still working in a public-facing role in his fifties. Mrs Jones was relying on his age and experience for his empathy of her situation.
“Arrested for dangerous driving. She said she saw a mouse in the car and panicked. Drove through a red light and into a lamp post. Breathalyzer negative. No injuries. Car towed. Scene clear. CCTV requested,” said the PC, closing her pocket notebook.
The PC then lightly touched Mrs Jones on the arm and said, “My Sarge will look after you now. Don’t worry. It’ll get sorted out.”
“The Duty Solicitor has just gone into an interview, so it will be about an hour. I’m going to have to put you into a cell for a bit,” said the Custody Sergeant.
“Um. Ok. Oh, I need some things from my bag though,” she said.
“What sort of things?” asked the Custody Sergeant. He’d heard it all before.
“Um.” This was no time to be coy. “I’m going through the change and I’m flooding, so I need a few sanitary towels. I need to take my pills in an hour and I have to eat a biscuit soon because stress makes me hypoglycemic and I can’t take tablets on an empty stomach or I’ll vomit.”
The Custody Sergeant studied her face for a moment. He remembered how it was for his missus a few years back. How the bleeding got so heavy that she couldn’t leave the house some days. When she sneezed, it looked like a crime scene.
“What pills do you need?” he asked.
“I’m due to take two ibuprofen, two paracetamol and codeine and two tranexamic acid in an hour,” she replied.
“I just need to make a quick call to the Doctor.” he said.
A few minutes later, he handed her a clear plastic evidence bag containing four sanitary towels, six tablets, plus the remains of a packet of hobnobs from her handbag.
After an hour in the cell, a different police officer brought her a cup of tea. “Your solicitor won’t be long now,” he said.
“Oh it’s ok. I don’t want to be a nuisance. I know you’re busy,” she replied.
The police officer turned to leave, then paused, “You don’t remember me do you? I was in your class at Hill High School and in the army cadets with your Davey. How is he these days?”
“Oh, I’m sorry love, my Davey passed away two years ago. He had a few problems with heroin and ended up homeless,” she said. Mrs Jones was used to this, having to offer comfort to those who only just found out.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. We were good friends for a bit, me and Davey. We got up to all sorts, like teenagers do. I joined the army straight from school and we lost touch. I remember he was well into his music and motorbikes. I did 12 years and then joined the police,” he replied.
Mrs Jones already knew this.
A couple of hours later, she had been interviewed, charged, bailed, and was home in time for Emmerdale. She surprised herself at how little shame she felt.
The next day, Mrs Jones was walking through town and saw Fred, one of the homeless guys she often chatted to, sat on a bench near the fountain in Town Hall Square. His worldly possessions were neatly packed into a rucksack on the ground. He was watching the pigeons scratting around for bits of discarded food, as he absentmindedly picked at the edges of a paper coffee cup.
“Hi Fred.” She said, cheerfully. No matter how many problems she had, they paled into insignificance with what was going on in his life. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday?” she said.
“No, what?” said Fred.
“I got arrested for dangerous driving.”
He sat up straighter. “Are you ok? Was anyone hurt?” he said quickly.
“No, I’m getting a bit of a bruise and my neck’s a bit stiff though.” She drew a diagonal line from neck to waist to show where the bruise was.
She stuffed her hands into her pockets, then said hesitantly, “I saw him though. I talked to him. He remembers Davey from before….” Her voice trailed off, then almost immediately she composed herself.
“He’s on afternoons all week. You still want to do it?” She asked.
“Yep. I’ve made up my mind. I can’t spend another winter outside. He’s as good as anyone, and he deserves it. Those who think they haven’t done anything wrong when they have, deserve it more,” said Fred.
They held each other’s gaze for a second longer than they usually did.
“His collar number is 1471” she said. “They never even searched me, probably cos I’m a doddery old woman. They even put it in a bag for me. It’s in the mattress, in the seam at the top. Cell number two.”
“Well, then,” said Fred. “Consider it done. For Davey.”
“Well then, yourself. Take care,” said Mrs Jones. “Oh, I got you these.” She pulled out a new packet of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and offered them to him.
“Thank you. That’s really kind. God bless. See you, Mrs Jones,” he said, as she turned away, her hand raised in an it’s nothing/don’t worry about it/goodbye gesture.
Two months later, Mrs Jones and Fred are sat at a table in the visitor’s room at the local prison. “This is nice, isn’t it?” said Mrs Jones, “to be out of the cold.”
Fred’s cheeks have plumped out and his limp is less pronounced than before. Even though he’s just about to officially start a life sentence, his spirits have lifted.
“Three meals a day, a room to myself with a telly, no-one kicking or pissing on me while I’m trying to sleep, hot showers, proper toilets, books, people to talk to. I might even get some qualifications. This is luxury. If I’d have known what getting lifed off was going to be like, I’d have done it years ago.”
She smiled. They both got what they wanted.
The one who gave her son his first cigarette. His first can of beer. His first joint. His first ecstasy tablet. His first wrap of speed. His first shoplifting spree. His first joyride. His first fist fight. The one who started it all. He was gone now.
Killing a police officer meant that Fred was given a longer sentence, but the tariff didn’t matter. It would be a life sentence. Years of living on the streets had taken its toll on his body. Fred would die in here, but it would be in the warm with a full belly surrounded by people who were paid to care. He wouldn’t be alone.
“They put me in cell number one at first, so I puked on the floor, and they moved me. I think after the sentence next week, I’m getting transferred to a prison up north,” said Fred. “Will you still come and visit me?”
“Course I will, love,” she said, having absolutely no intention of ever seeing him again.