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époque press
pronounced: /epƏk/
definition: /time/era/period

Effie Black
Short Story

TW

She can feel it travelling through her face. The cold. Starting from the side that’s pressed hard against the ground. The side where at first she felt the tickle of the grass, but now, with the force and the cold, she doesn’t feel much of anything. And it’s spreading, that cold. Maybe now it’s reached the right edge of her chin, or maybe a little further. She imagines the cold area glowing blue and expanding, like a body of water. And the warm area, where she can still feel things, glowing pink and red and alarmed, as it’s slowly swallowed up by calm.

BANG: She jumps out of her skin, eardrums aching, pulse racing. Another street, another siren, another speeding vehicle. Are there more now? There must be, she supposes. And are they louder? They seem louder, now their noises make her wince.

This must have been what it was like when they came for him, she thinks. This must have been what the neighbours heard.

She can smell the sweetness of the grass, and the peatyness of the soil, and something tangy, something that doesn’t belong to the earth, like sweat and breath and unwashed hair. When the cold crosses her nose, those smells will still be here, but she wonders if she’ll lose the ability to detect them. If she’ll find out what it was like.

BANG: It makes her nauseous, that smell of decay again. They were glorious only a few days ago. They’re still thoughtful today, these lilies. One of many thoughtful things that keep arriving and reminding her. But they’re no longer glorious. They’re dead and rotting instead. She gags on the smell as she throws the rot away.

The thing is, she’s not sure she would even have wanted to view it. But after it was wrapped up and flung into a makeshift emergency morgue, then left for weeks before an overwhelmed coroner finally got to it, she no longer had the option. They just had to seal up the rot and throw it away.

Her hands, held fast against the ground, went numb ages ago. She removed her gloves because she wanted to be part of it. And it’s working. She’s closer. She bends her fingers and digs the tips in, and she realises they’re not completely numb, then, because she can feel the dirt collecting under her fingernails, and it feels real and safe and good.

BANG: She’s winded and she can’t speak. Which is silly, because it was just a joke. She hopes no one remembers and then gives her that look. But of course, someone does remember, and then they all do. And then there’s the guilt and the pity, and her face flushes, and it’s even worse. She doesn’t blame them. You’ve gotta laugh, right? Hadn’t she been making jokes about coughs and bumping elbows and two-metres before? She must’ve been. But somehow the jokes don’t feel funny anymore. They feel the opposite of funny, now. They feel like violence.

From where she lies, if she rolls her eyes all the way upwards, she can see the lavender she planted. It was the start of this, the lavender, just a few seeds in a card someone kind sent her. And now look at it. Not huge, not yet, but so much more than it was. She did that, without even really doing much. She gave it a chance at life. It’s very calming, they say, lavender. And maybe they’re right.

BANG: Her panic rises with them; the numbers. Every day the numbers. Up and up they go. All happening again. Just like before.

In which day did he “count”? It was a special bank holiday, and then a weekend, and there was such a backlog, so many to process, that it could have been weeks, literally weeks, before he figured in the figures. She’ll never know his number.

If she rolls her eyes right down she can see the beginnings of that strange flower. She’s certain she’d never seen it before that Spring. But of course she must have seen it hundreds of times before, she simply hadn’t been paying attention. Love-in-a-mist. Like an alien come to earth, and apparently hiding in plain sight in every one of her local green spaces. She gathered some of its seeds from a dried specimen in a park. And now here are their babies already, the flower’s and hers, together, taking root in her garden.

BANG: The big guns maim her further. People can become immune to numbers. Even her. They know that. So they wheel out personal stories, the human face. This one, so similar to hers, slices deep. A woman on the screen, devastated by loss, and an English voice that doesn’t match the wailing Italian speaker, dryly saying, “We were too late. We tried, but we couldn’t save him. I should have been there with him, but he died all alone. How can I ever forgive myself?”.

She thinks maybe she can hear the doorbell, but she chooses to assume it’s next-door’s. The ear on the ground hears nothing. There’s so much going on under there, she knows. She could have guessed it before, even when she never used to touch this place, but now she’s seen it for herself. She can’t hear it though. The earth insulates her from it.

She thinks about plugging her other ear, the one that can perhaps hear a doorbell, with earth, so she can’t perhaps hear it anymore. Smothering her eyes with soil so she can’t see. Filling her mouth with dirt so she can’t speak. But she won’t do that. She’ll just stay here, like this, for a little while longer.

BANG: Her chest throbs in agony. Actually throbs. It’s too much to bear, seeing her face. But she must, of course, see it, be there for it. Try to bear the agony.

She’s stopped being who she was. For now, she’s duty. For now, she’s pain. The tears are always there, even when she’s pretending they’re not. And she only said it once, but once was enough. Every time she sees her, she hears it again, her Mum’s voice saying, “We failed him”.

She’s pushing down with her hands, her feet, her knees, her head, her hips, her core. Bits of her she didn’t know she could push with. With everything. Putting all of her anger, so much anger, into it. But the earth simply meets her, absorbing it all, until she’s spent.

BANG: Her stomach burns, red and hot and furious. Wasn’t this supposed to be about something else? But even here, on this stupid show, they’re discussing what should have been done differently by the people who got things wrong and seem to be doing so again. Only the bigger players are mentioned, of course, not the individual doctors who got it so irrevocably wrong for him too. Although it was just the beginning and they were trying their best.

She could murder every single one of them and not feel the least bit bad about it.

Her clothes are wet from the dew or last night’s rain or maybe even her sweat from all the pushing, and her hands are covered in dirt. And yet here, alone, in this small, square patch of earth that is hers, she feels clean. She sucks in as much air as she likes, and blows it out loudly, without fear of the consequences.

BANG: It’s a slap in the face, that look. They try to hide it, but she sees it every time. They’ve unwittingly touched something that was his, and when they realise, mild panic flashes through their eyes while they do the maths. Some, appreciating it’s been a few months now, move on quickly. Others invent an excuse to nip to the loo or whip out the alcohol gel. She wants to scream at them, “How can you be scared of a dead man’s stuff?”. But then she remembers how long she waited to touch anything of his, and she alcohol gels her hands for good measure.

In front of her is the slim black box, so out of place here. Facedown and silent, like her. If and when she decides to get up, maybe she could leave it behind. Let the ground swallow her portal to the outside world up for good. Would that be so bad?

BANG: Her heart sinks when she sees the name on the screen. Her again. It’s sweet, really. Her reaching out, showing she cares. But they never usually speak this much. They spoke just yesterday; what can either of them possibly have to say to one another today?

At least it’s not him though. Everyone says she should speak to him. That he lost someone in this mess too. That he’ll understand.

But she doesn’t want anyone to understand. She wants to be left alone.

The shadows around her are getting smaller. She remembers measuring her shadow at school when she was very young. She was so much closer to the ground then. Caterpillars, like the one in front of her now, were an important part of her life. Butterflies and tadpoles and frogs and snails and worms and bees and spiders and ants and stinging nettles and doc leaves and trees and bushes and grass and all those sticky plants that ended up on her clothes, too. Turns out they’d been here waiting for her all along, even though she’d left them behind.

BANG: It hits her anew. She realises this person doesn’t know, and that she’ll have to tell them, and she’s struck all over again. A big funeral would’ve dealt with this in one go. Instead, it happens in torturous dribs and drabs.

It’s worse when they cry. When they were just his colleague or his neighbour or his postman, and yet she has to comfort them. One of them told her dead people can visit us as bees, so she should watch out for bees resembling him. Another said she was certain he’d inhabited the robin that’s been stopping by her garden.

She nods along, forcing a smile, knowing full well he’s not a bird or a bee.

He’s dead and he’s buried and he’s part of the earth now.

The ground is still pleasantly cool beneath her, but the glowing red “feeling” side of her face is fighting back, as the sun pushes the calm blue cold back down. She feels peaceful here, being warmed from above.

That’s definitely her doorbell ringing, no doubt about it. The landline’s ringing too, which is unusual, and must mean her silent screen has been lighting up the grass beneath it already.

But she ignores it all. She simply stays still, stays here, for now, and for however long it takes, returning to the comfort of the sun and the sky and the earth, and nothing more.

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Effie Black has an Undergraduate Degree, two Masters Degrees, and a PhD in science. Effie started writing fiction relatively recently, taking a 6-session City Lit evening course in 2019, where she produced a short story, ‘Small p’, which was published by Litro.

 

Of the story featured here, Effie says:

 

‘My father passed away from COVID early in the pandemic, and this story is my way of documenting some of the thoughts and experiences I had, grieving, and withdrawing, during an incredibly unusual time.’