Short Story // Lockdown
It’s not that bad, because we have a garden. Sometimes I think about those who don’t. Imagine them trapped inside their walls. Unable to stand beneath the sky…
It is mostly concrete. A quarter patch of grass. Narrow border of soil. Not a huge space in all, but we appreciate the safety of its enclosed rectangle. The grass is often overgrown, soil-bed a mess of weeds and shrubs that we can’t (or haven’t tried to) identify. But then, every year, the most beautiful daffodils come up searching for the sun and stay all spring and it’s a miracle they can even live in those conditions.
In the beginning, bulletins focus on statistics: how many infected in this country, how many deaths in that.
Then unease steps into our lives and makes itself known each time we reach for a door handle, hear a nearby cough,
or come close to another person.
Collectively, it builds into a steady sense of foreboding. Always present. Like a permanent storm.
I am thankful for the opportunity to work from home. To avoid people. Places. Pull my family together under
First day is fine. Dipping a toe into the new routine. Then the scratching throat begins.
As each day rolls in, so do more symptoms.
Head cold. Temperature. Tiredness. Intermittent coughing.
I spend the next week sleeping, sleeping, sleeping; dizzy, nauseas. It feels like a kind of flu.
My taste and smell disappear.
I probably have the thing that everybody fears, but no chance of getting tested.
I surface to see the children, my wife, to get some fresh air in the garden. We live close to a road and it seems if you look long enough, you’ll see an ambulance pass by.
My daughter is three. Calls me to meet her new pal. And there, huddled inside a daffodil, is a large bumblebee.
‘He’s sleeping, let’s leave him alone.’ I say to her.
He’s gone, I think to myself.
The following day on the sofa, my mind sways as though at sea.
I think of the bee and glance through the glass. See the dark dot of him, still inside the flower.
I go out. Nudge him with a finger. Watch his legs move.
‘He’s alive. Come see!’
It is then I became all-knowing dad and fetch a spoon of water and sugar, because you always hear hero-stories of sugar-water saving tired bees, and so today, even though I’m like a three-legged dog, there is still time to be a hero.
We kneel together, my daughter and I. Coax him onto the spoon. Wait.
He doesn’t drink the sugar water. Topples down into the grass.
I can’t manage to lift him with a stick.
And my energy is spent. So I give up.
May is in her eighties. Lives alone. One day she passes the window. Heading for her car. But after a while she doesn’t drive out. Everything is seed enough to grow worry. So I go…
Part of me expects to find her collapsed, lifeless, but I see her white hair foaming either side of the head rest. I approach the passenger side.
She leans across. Opens the door a smidgeon and says, ‘Stay back!’
Good old May.
And she is fine. Self-isolating. Just out to turn the engine.
A bird-feeder hangs on our wall. Has been empty for a while, so we scatter bread in the mornings. It is soul-settling to see them. But a new fellow arrives. We watch him run the wall, stop to peer into the garden, calculating…
Eventually he finds a route. Onto the coal bunker. Down onto the concrete. He takes a piece of bread in his mouth. Scuttles back onto the wall. One last flash of his bushy tail and he is gone.
Our other neighbours are dead. We live beside a graveyard. And a church.
Every day we go for a nature walk into the church grounds, around the carpark, down through the sparse cemetery.
The three-year-old brings her scooter. The baby rides in her pram.
My body feels weary, cumbersome; like a boat without its sail. But I’m determined to get better.
To see what nature we can collect, that is the guise of our purpose; when our reality is a wider space and to breathe
It is spring. Days mostly blue-skied and a little welcome warmth from the sun.
Both the girls develop a high-temperature on the same day.
The baby is teething. Could be that?
But the three-year-old?
The children are better again. High-temperature lasts a day. The relief is unfathomable.
But their mama feels unwell now. A cough.
And so our world shifts again.
Squirrel and Bee
The next day I find the bee lying in the grass. Lift him into a daffodil and watch as his black needle of a tongue emerges to suck on the yellow petal. Maybe he’ll make it after all…
Mr. Squirrel keeps appearing too, every day, between nine and ten o’clock. Has taken to staring at the window as if to say, bring me more food.
I am not better, but improved. My self-isolation is over.
And now that mama has it, she must self-isolate. Her taste and smell have gone…
The fridge is nearly empty. Freezer too. And we need baby-formula. I’ll have to go.
We’ve lived here thirteen years and it is only now that I look properly at our surroundings, to try and find new ways to occupy a three-year-old.
‘Do you want to come up the field with dad?’
Doesn’t take much to excite them.
And so we head down the lane, through the open gate and walk up a hill. This particular day is grey, but a new adventure stirs something in my bones and it is pleasant, invigorating even, to stand upon this new hill, looking down upon our lives, the house, the graveyard.
A railroad of people outside, so it takes a while to even get into the building, where shelves are sparse.
It feels peculiar being around others again. And there is a strange air too, one filled with tension – an air of survival, of every-man-for-himself. It unnerves me.
Seeing empty shelves in the baby aisle can do nothing only intensify the dread.
I manage to get some nappies, but no formula. Will have to check how much we have left at home. Regroup.
I leave with a trolley half-filled. A dizzy head.
Whenever I feel improvement, it doesn’t last long. Old symptoms fade and new ones appear. I imagine my immune system chasing this tiny monster around my body.
But my taste and smell return.
Things change every day in the outside world. In only a few weeks, the black lines on every chart head for heaven. Governments stand up straighter.
A furry rival
A second squirrel starts to visit the garden, usually soon after the first. Then the inevitable meeting. At first, one chases the other. This happens for a few days.
Then the kids are at the window, palms flat against the glass.
The gate is manned. They wave me in. Direct me to lane four.
All staff are masked.
I stop by a desk and have to use my phone to talk to the girl. She is eight feet away.
They post a self-test kit through a gap in my car window. Direct me forward to the testing area.
It’s been three weeks since that scratch in my throat, I wonder whether it’s even worth the test at all.
Cotton bud. Swab my mouth. Into my nose. Place it into the tube and seal it. Drop it off at the exit.
The weather warms as days flow by. I take to opening the bedroom window at dusk, watching the stars come out, searching for the moon…
And then. A shadow moving across the field. Pointed ears. Tail outright.
It arrives via email.
TEST 1 – Positive.
TEST 2 – Positive.
My God, I’ve got the thing that everybody fears.
They open up testing to a wider profile of people. My wife heads for the drive-thru…
I see him again a few nights later. Call my wife and she sees too.
I decide to make friends with him. Google what foxes like to eat – fruit, insects.
The following night I rummage the fridge – find lemons, an apple, a kiwi. I go to the bedroom window, the place where I watch dusk descend, and toss the fruit into the field.
What a fantastic plan. He will come right up close to eat the fruit. We’ll get a great look at him…
I wait for an hour, until dusk settles so thick I can barely see the field. No sign of the fox.
‘What did you throw out for the fox?’ My wife says.
‘What sort of fruit?’
‘Lemons. Kiwi. Apple.’
She laughs at my meddling. Checks her phone. Laughs some more.
‘Foxes hate lemons. It says here. If you want to scare off a fox, throw out some lemons.’
FOR GOODNESS SAKE.
My wife’s arrives via email too.
TEST 1 – Positive.
TEST 2 – Negative.
Five weeks. The time it takes me to get better. But still, there are days when the fatigue returns for a visit.
A Sense of Freedom
That first day at the seaside, our three-year-old runs the promenade. Smiling and free.
The baby is one now. Babbles HIYA to everyone, to this new and strange life of masked people.
I realise then, that there is hope. And it is to be found in the curiosity of our children collecting seashells, popping seaweed, stick-scrawling in the sand.
In these steadfast and majestic mountains of Mourne. In the ocean and animals and forests. In the sky. Upon the wind.
And it was there all along.
Reaching to us.
Jamie Guiney is a writer from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His short stories have been published internationally and he has been nominated twice for the 'The Pushcart Prize'. Jamie is a graduate of the Faber & Faber Writing Academy and has twice been a judge for short story competition 'The New Rose Prize.' His work has been backed by the Northern Ireland Arts Council through several Individual Artist Awards and he has also been chosen by Lagan Online as one of their New Original Writers.
Jamie’s collection of short stories, The Wooden Hill, was published by époque press in November 2018 and was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award in 2019.