I met Paul the old-fashioned way. It’s unimaginable to think we used our fingers. Left, right, left, right, left, right. Right? We were in phase four of the Government’s plan. Or was it five? First, they stopped public gatherings. Then the schools closed. Armies of white-masked faces marched their raw sanitised hands to work until they were told to stay home. They celebrated their freedom behind closed doors, until they were told not to leave.
No one thought about the low-risk millennials who lived alone. Who worked, slept, worked, slept, and only communicated via Slack. Statistically, loneliness was still killing more people back then. Dating apps became an escape, ‘seeking fun, flirty, uninfected …’ read the profiles, optimistically.
Paul and I messaged our way through mandatory quarantine. Notifications helped us navigate the uncertainty: Did you hear about John Travolta? Have you tried bleach? Squished between breaking news and supermarket shortages, Paul’s dick pics would become a firm reminder that hope still exists.
When the quarantine became permanent, we knew the likelihood of meeting was fading. From their isolated chambers, the Government sent updates by text, ‘Wash your hands. Don’t shake hands. No hands touching handles. Keep your hands to yourself.’ It was too late by the time they discovered the virus thrived on screens. While we were scrolling with our freshly washed fingers, we were transferring millions of life-threatening germs.
Paul and I finally met around phase twelve. Drones now patrolled the streets to monitor our movements. Paul secured a fake permit to visit, insisting we bathe and cover our bodies with hand sanitiser before we made love. After that, he moved in. Each morning we’d follow the virus checks online: no cough. Check. No temperature. Check. No difficulty breathing. Check. No red-eye, brain fog, hallucinations … Check. Check. Once, Paul developed a dry cough. By day three I ran upstairs and held his toothbrush in my mouth. By day five the coughing stopped.
Every morning, we’d watch the latest public health announcements. After the phone screen scandal, they turned on fingers. Without fingers, you couldn’t touch. Without touch, you couldn’t transfer. When there weren’t enough people to make the programs, they’d play hand-washing demonstrations on loop. Not that they were needed now.
Sometimes, Paul and I would climb onto the roof, wrapped in kitchen foil to deter the drones. Looking out you could see the virus blooming over the city. Paul would pick out shapes in the cloud which always seemed to resemble things we had lost. We couldn’t go up after dusk because of the mass migrations of swarming bats.
The Government banned dating apps when they became a hookup for infected people. A desperate fingerless fumble. ‘Seeking someone with nothing left to lose …’ read the profiles.
One morning, I came downstairs and Paul looked pale. He smiled at me and I saw a shadow slide over his face. ‘You should have swiped left,’ he said.
‘I can’t,’ I replied, holding up my bloody hand. ‘I can’t.’
Spit it out
George chats to everybody but listens to nobody. Parading down the narrow street, he nods to the passers-by who quickly cross to the other side before he steamrolls past. ‘Suit yourselves,’ he calls out, ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with this wee man.’ In a salute to no one, he stretches a short arm above his head to reveal his belly bouncing, belly bouncing, belly bouncing down the street.
Turning onto the main road, he calls out to the passing police car, ‘Alright boys? Nice work if you can get it.’ Tired eyes glare out of tinted windows as he protrudes a brown-nailed thumb in the car’s direction. Anxious feet shuffle backwards as he takes up the pavement outside Sainsbury’s. ‘What’s everybody waiting for, eh?’ His belly rumbling, belly rumbling, belly rumbling as he passes by. Just too closely passing by.
‘Afternoon, afternoon, after-nooooon,’ he calls out to the queuers in turn. His gloves pucker as he squeezes them on with a smack. Twack. Swinging his arms to build momentum, he moves his way along to the end and positions himself behind an elderly gentleman. ‘Afternoooooooon,’ he coos into his hearing aid, ‘what’s it today sir, more bog roll?’ The man turns, startled. ‘Stay back,’ he snaps, ‘stay back …’ Leaning in, George puts a PVC finger to his lips and whispers, ‘Close but not close enough to break the rules, eh?’ The old man holds his breath. Louder, so the whole queue can hear, George proclaims, ‘No need to panic, mate, I’m symptom-free, me.’ White-haired knuckles sweat under their plastic blue protection. The old man doesn’t breathe until he leaves the shop.
By the time Geroge gets inside, the packaged pie shelf is empty. ‘I don’t believe this,’ he bellows. ‘Oi, oi!’ He staggers over to a startled-looking masked teenager stacking milk into a fridge. The teen looks up with alarmed eyes and pulls the milk trolley between them. ‘Mate,’ George hollers, ‘where are all the pies?’ Young, alarmed eyes blink blankly at him. The stacker mumbles. George steps forward until his chest rubs up against the cold metal grate of the milk trolley. ‘You what, lad? Spit it out.’ Suddenly, George freezes. ‘Spit it out! Spit it out!’ He shrieks, his belly trembling, belly trembling, belly trembling in the aisle.
‘No, sorry, no pies, supplier’s sick,’ the stacker mumbles again, pulling the milk float closer towards him. Not listening, George moves on towards the fruit and veg section. He fingers the peppers, fumbles the leeks, and feels up the tomatoes before finding the bananas. At the self-checkout he swipes his shopping: one banana. Beep. One bottle of Buckfast. Uh-urgh.
The machine flashes red and asks for ID. ‘You’ve got to be feckin’ kidding me!’ he roars. ‘Do I look like a wee wain?’ The woman next to him leans her body in the opposite direction like a tree in the wind. The milk stacker returns and timidly keys in his code before fleeing. Two packets of bacon-flavoured Walkers. Beep. Beep. One microwavable chicken tikka-a-a-achoo. George sneezes, spraying the screen with a fine yellow mist. ‘Only a sneeze, don’t get your knickers in a twist,’ he calls out to no one in particular. Passing the milk stacker gasping for breath at the exit, he leans in again. ‘Don’t panic lad, it will all be over before we know it.’ His belly laughing, belly laughing, belly laughing its way home.
The streetlights glow red by the time George reaches his front door. The spring evening is cold. He shivers and takes a deep inhale of cool air as his belly draws, belly draws, belly draws itself into his zipper. Quietly walking up the unweeded path, he slips down the side of the house and opens the garage door. Fumbling for the light, he pulls it on to reveal a small camp bed. From floor to ceiling, the walls are piled with supplies. One side spilling over with loo roll. Another with tins. He takes two new gloves from a bulk stash and slips them on. Chucking a crisp packet onto the bed, he shuts the garage door and walks back to the house, his belly groaning, belly groaning, belly groaning with hunger.
Popping the Sainsbury’s bag on the doorstep, he reaches behind the empty plant pot and produces a disinfectant spray. He spritzes the chicken tikka, the banana, the remaining crisp packet, and the Buckfast. When he is sure everything is perfectly clean, he rings the bell with his now-gloved finger, sprays the buzzer, and returns the disinfectant. Taking two large steps back, he waits. Slowly, behind the peeling paintwork, a stained plush belly bulges out of the darkness followed by hollowed eyes sunk behind a pale white mask.
‘Alright, Mum. I, um, got your tea for you.’
The woman stares at him blankly. Slowly, she submerges a small arm into the Sainsbury’s bag and rummages. ‘Where’s me pies, George?’
‘No pies today, Mum. Sorry, I know you like your pies.’
Picking up the sanitised banana, she pulls her mask down from her withered face. George instinctively lurches back.
‘Is that the best yous could do, George? Yous never listen. Yous never listen.’ Her belly tightens, belly tightens, belly tightens as she draws in saliva and spits.
‘Wait!’ Claire screamed as she applied her lipstick. Her pale face stared back at her, helplessly. Feigning a smile, she re-dusted her quarantined cheeks with a sparkling, sun-kissed glow. She could hear the party starting; voices were beginning to swell, newcomers buzzing in, Beyoncé booming. She’d lost count of the number of social events they’d attended. Invitation after invitation. How about Thursday? Tuesday? Let’s do this again next Monday. But Saturday. Saturday was special. Here we go, her right eyebrow exclaimed. She quickly fished out a pencil and redrew it with shaky fingers. Here we go, again.
She shimmied past the sofa, glancing nervously at the poorly potted plant propped awkwardly behind Dave. ‘Hope you haven’t started without me,’ she cooed from the kitchen. ‘I need wine.’ Reaching her outgrown shellac into the over-stacked fridge, she could feel her heart beating anxiously. She grabbed a bottle, fished out a glass, and returned to the sofa. Plumping up the pleather cushions, she leaned over to the plant and tugged on a leaf to pull it closer. Squeezing in next to Dave, Claire stroked his arm softly and whispered.
‘You alright, babe?’
Dave stiffened. ‘We’re late. Come on.’
‘We’re always late Dave, remember, it’s our thing!’
‘Not now, Claire. She said it starts at 7.30, so it starts at 7.30.’
Taking a large glug of wine, Claire pouted her painted lips and pressed unmute.
‘Oh, hi everyone!… Helllllooooo?’
Claire could feel Dave getting warm under his pressed shirt.
They waved vigorously until their hands blurred. ‘Guys, look! We’re here.’
A sea of pale faces blinked back at them, blankly.
‘Soooo, how’s everyone doing?’ a voice called out from somewhere.
There was a collective silence.
‘Where’s the birthday boy?’
‘Oh, he’s coming. I sent him to the shops,’ replied the host.
Claire noticed a few of the faces had started whispering.
‘Wine is still an essential, right?’ another voice croaked.
Nervous laughter rippled through the air.
‘Is everyone here? Go Saturday, guys. Oh my god, there’s like fifty-seven of us …’ added the host, hastily.
Claire stared at the host’s glowing, happy face. Makeup free, again. Her perfect apartment walls were softly lit, accentuating the perfectly framed inspirational quotes adorning the walls. It took letting go to realise I’m holding on …
What the fuck? Claire mouthed as her face became enlarged on the screen. Red with wine. Blotchy. Glitchy. Her nose shone. She recoiled.
‘Was that you Claire? What was that? ‘
‘Oh, you know, I just wanted to say, it’s really …’
‘Great. It’s been really great, for us,’ Dave interrupted. ‘I’m having this really meaningful time of reflection …’
Someone coughed. A collective Ohhhhhh rose up.
‘Anybody lost their sense of taste yet?’
‘Only Dave,’ someone else smirked.
Claire reached for her glass. She looked over to Dave who was smiling, laughing, gesturing into the camera. She realised this was the only time he’d be like this today. Not that he hadn’t already spent most of it on a screen, scrolling through newsfeeds in bed, Instagramming his lunch, group messaging with his mates on the sofa until she’d slipped out of the room, unnoticed. Dave had all those things. What did she have? Her job, her friends, and her freedom to buy Kettle chips whenever she wished were gone. She couldn’t lose her Saturday night too.
‘I need more wine!’ She dangled the empty bottle at the screen. Fumbling her way into the kitchen, she peered at the street soaking in the last of the evening light. An old couple strolled past, blue plastic glove in blue plastic glove. She imagined them discussing the perils they would go to for each other in the Co-op, how they couldn’t live if one got sick, were they sure they had enough loo roll? Imaginary, meaningful, lasting words flowed from under their masks into the eerily empty street. As the light faded, Claire noticed how brightly the houses on the street shone. Never before had so many windows been alight with possibilities. Sparkling from the inside.
When she rejoined Dave, the party had gone quiet. The birthday boy had arrived and was laughing about a private joke with a group she didn’t recognise. She looked around the other faces listening in, drinking, nodding along. She realised how tired everyone seemed – it was only 8.10 p.m. but the majority of people were yawning. Dave leaned in and muted the microphone and smiled at her.
‘At least you could try to look like you’re having fun, Claire.’
‘I’m tired, Dave.’ She put her hand on his knee. ‘Can we go to bed?’
‘What, from your busy day doing nothing? It’s not even fucking nine on a Saturday night, Claire. Get a grip.’
He moved away from her and unmuted them. Clicking the controls, he changed their screen background to Deal or No Deal. Noel stared back at her unapologetically.
‘Whoa, nice one Dave,’ someone shouted.
‘Oh my god, how did you do that?’ someone else chipped in.
And so the conversation began again. Claire stared at the group of floating heads all staring at each other on a screen. Staring at their pale faces staring back at her. Staring at the prospect of every Saturday night to come.
And outside, the empty streets were sparkling.
Spirits in the Sky
Where do the birds sing now? Now that you’ve gone. Their chorus glorious in the early morning light. That sweet tweet tweet. Waking up the nights that never seem to end. Will this ever end? Now you and the birds have gone.
Sixty-seven days crossed off a kitchen calendar. Crossed off a life. Trying to live. How old were you, I wonder? You were not strong either. Tall and spindly, bent like me. Spirits in the sky. Quaking. Shaking. Waving to passers-by. Passing by as life passed by. Every day a little busier, until one day the world was full again and nobody waved back.
They were cruel to take you, when so much has been lost. I’ve been counting the numbers. The more they rise, the more I fall. I’ve lost touch for things I cannot hold. I watch the small man and woman in the house across the street. But they do not see me. A ghost behind glass. Waiting. Tapping. Scratching silently from my window. Watching from my life after life. I forget who is safe.
They were cruel to cut you down. Gatherings are not allowed, but they gathered in their garden to celebrate your death. Hushed voices and glances down the street. From my window I could see through their open door as you leaned to bow a brave goodbye. One, two, three. I stood and counted. Four, five. They stuck to the rules in this collective killing. Up to six people are allowed. If you have a private outside space and a mass supply of plastic fingers.
They were cruel to chop you into pieces. I am safer here. Up here. In my world with no outside, no one is allowed to enter. The postman leaves letters on the stairs and I hide until he is gone. The delivery man pops shopping in the hall. I collect it at night and stay up listening to the groups of teenagers howl as they prowl in the dark and I wash plastic packaging in vinegar. You used to watch me. My shield. But now, I shield alone.
They must have been planning it. Waiting for the announcement we all knew was coming – that nothing is truly sacred. I saw the short man and the woman get into their large car with glee. They wound down their windows and lit cigarettes and puffed their way up the road. You waved at me in the wind.
I am sorry I could not save you. I can’t save any of this. Some say, when we go back to normal, things will be better again. But now I can’t hear the birds. That sweet tweet tweet. I watch the rubbish blow down the street as the passers-by pass by, too close by. For sixty-six days I had hope that things could be better. But now I see that people just want their lives back. And you and I? We’ll keep on quaking, shaking, waving until we fall. Back to an earth where the birds won’t sing.
From the metaverse to motherhood, Katie Harrison is a creative director specialising in brand storytelling. Her short stories have been published by Open Pen, Shooter, and The Selkie. And the houseplant book she ghostwrote beat Alan Titmarsh on Amazon. She lectures in Narrative & Voice at Central Saint Martins and was awarded the British Council’s Nature Writing Scholarship. You can find her on Instagram @katiesreadingroom or splashing in the Scottish sea.