Covid%2019_edited.jpg

The Virus

by

Clare Babbidge

A hefty man’s flip flops smacked against his heels, the sound cutting through the murmur of the mass of people on the beach, just about resonating through a female journalist’s ears; his bald head burnt from the midday heat. The journalist was motionless, her eyes observing the enjoyment being lived out in front of her and not wishing to draw any attention to her recording sound bites through the small black microphone in her right hand. A beefy hand landed on her shoulder, startling her out of a trance like state, she prepared to enforce the two-metre rule that had seemingly been lost amongst all but a few on the beach.

 

          ‘Oi, are you here to interview people?’

 

          Stood erect and directly in front of her, she could feel the aggressive interfering with her personal space and instinctively she stepped backwards to at least save her nose from his malodorous breath.

 

          ‘I am sir, would you mind if I asked you a few questions for EMWCLAB Radio?’ her smile barely noticeable as she took advantage of the situation; hoping to get something useable for the evening bulletin.

 

          ‘No, I certainly wouldn't!’ interrupting his own sentence to take a swig of warm beer before he finished with ‘Missy’. The inflection on the Missy knowingly offensive, he looked down at her over his bare barrel chest. The interviewer small, took it in her stride, as if she had seen or experienced this sort of casual misogyny time and time again.

 

          ‘What do you think of the number of people on the beach today?’ direct, she wanted to get the conversation over with despite knowing she could predict almost every word he would say.

 

          ‘Let me tell you! All these people should be ashamed of themselves; we are supposed to be in lockdown!’ her eyes raised heavenwards as she waited for the onslaught that she knew he would dish out.

 

          ‘Why is that?’ she enquired, her delicate voice almost drowning in the  sea.

 

          ‘Are you stupid? There is a pandemic woman!’ his face as red as his scalp, he scratched his inflated stomach which if nothing else was helping keep a distance between the two.

 

          ‘But, if you don't mind me saying sir, you are here too’ she watched his face for a reaction, nothing but another swig of beer.

 

          ‘I am here with my family, my kids, grandkids... you know... family. Parents, that sort of thing,’ he looked at the unusually thin woman stood to his right, her arm looped through his, she swung an empty beer bottle in her hand.

 

          ‘Do you all live in the same house?’ the journalist was persistent and knew their crashing hypocrisy would not be lost on anyone; and that included her own.

          ‘Well...no but we are family’ the other woman stepped in closer, opening her mouth to reveal more gaps than she had teeth. ‘You are here too, lady.’ There was nothing more irritating than one woman putting down another woman.

 

          ‘I am here, you’re right, but I was informed that there was a lot going on and I wanted to see it to believe it. I am a journalist, so I’m reporting and if you hadn't walked up to me, I would have remained two meters away from anyone I spoke to’. The obese man looked over his opposite shoulder, perhaps noting for the first time he was part of the problem he was complaining about.

 

          Silence withered in the air, neither the man nor the thin woman, who was still hanging off him, really looked comfortable with it; her lips pursed, waiting for a thought to pop into her head.

 

          ‘Well,’ the thought finally popped, bubbling above her head, ‘they could have turned around and gone home.’

 

          The journalist tried not to react while weighing up how much sarcasm to use. ‘So could you, if you were unhappy about being around people and all.’

 

          The man looked the journalist up and down before throwing his empty beer bottle towards the sand, narrowly missing three small children making sandcastles; neither man nor woman flinched before he grabbed her by the arm and they walked away. No longer wishing to talk.

 

          ‘It’s my country, it’s my right to be here!’ he roared back at the journalist. The crowds of onlookers showed more interest in their ice cream than his attempts to prove how much he loved his country by littering beer bottles on children’s sandcastles.

 

          The journalist looked away, ignoring the faux nationalism and scanned the horizon before her gaze caught the seashore. Barely 100 yards from where she stood, discarded blue plastic gloves and face masks swayed back and forth with the cadence of the ocean. It was hard to see if the human race knew exactly what it was doing here on earth, what its purpose was; other than to destroy it.

 

***

 

A long promenade of shops and residential buildings overlooked the beach. The converted flats housed all sorts of people, but in one particular top floor flat a young woman sat, the windows and curtains closed to the heat and life outside. The bright ochre of her 24-inch monitor lit the room, six faces on the screen; chatting away about their lives in lockdown during some sort of work meeting. The girl, with no audio or video switched on, sat weeping. Periodically her face, buried deep in her hands, emerged to reveal her torment, some deep inner pain that could no longer be contained; all the while her colleagues were oblivious to the scene, a face popping up large to signify the person speaking. The woman, no more than 25 years of age was dressed in pyjamas, her hair long and unkempt, she had been holding onto something for far too long and the knocking on the wall did nothing to ease her loneliness.

 

          The knocking, rhythmic like the ocean outside, as a young furloughed couple made the most of the extra time they had together by making love loudly. The overzealous screams and grunts, a complete contrast from the silent internalised screams of their neighbour. What would the couple, in the heat of passion think of pain happening, only a bricks width from their pleasure? The couple, behind three weeks on their rent, are making the most of the freedom, before they believe they are sure  to be evicted and have to return to their respective parents’ houses. Nothing terrifies the young man more than having to go back to a house where his mother is routinely beaten by his step-father, so he welcomed any distraction. As they lay back on the bed, a shrill beep emanates from his mobile phone. Their landlord; has sent them an email.

 

***

 

Their landlord, at home in the suburbs, is surrounded by the fruits of his decades of sacrifice and labour. He sits in his conservatory, looking out over the three acre garden. A glass of Chardonnay rested on the mahogany arm of his chair; his wife sits in a hammock reading a bulky novel by an author no one really knew the name of. The landlord is a nice man, evicting tenants is his worst nightmare, but he has a mortgage. He has several mortgages and cannot sustain long term defaulting on rents. Not usually a day drinker, he hoped the wine would help with scribing the email he wanted to write to all his tenants. Music blared over the six foot fence from his neighbour’s garden. The young man, still in bed, showed his phone to the girl who couldn’t believe what she was reading. The landlord wouldn’t be evicting the couple; he hadn't forgotten what it was like to be young and struggling. No matter what happened with the virus, they would sort something out between them; mostly because he understood the value in having good tenants. The couple embraced, and carried on with the knocking on their neighbour’s wall.

 

***

 

Putting his iPad down on the table, satisfied he had made the right decision, the landlord considered calling the police on his neighbours; a house filled with generations of the same family celebrating what he knew to be one occupant’s 71st birthday; the sound of Abba’s dancing queen made his blood pressure spike. Shooting a look at his wife, she sensed his anger and glanced from her book as he walked inside the house towards the telephone without a word being uttered between them. The birthday girl was in her garden dancing away, swinging one of her young grandchildren by the arms, while various relatives gathered by a bar-B-Q clutching beer bottles. The drone of conversation could be heard from an upstairs bedroom window, wide open allowing a draft and noise to drift into the room. A teenage boy paced around the bedroom, while his family were downstairs, his brow furrowed, he avoided eye contact with the man talking through his laptop screen. The man, sat in his kitchen, was the boy’s school teacher; the teacher was attempting to keep him calm; his exam results this year will be predicted and he has no idea if he will get a place at his chosen university or not, his dream of being an architect hanging by a thread, the teacher offers him the best words of encouragement he could.

 

***

 

Somewhere behind the teacher as he sat staring at the screen of his own laptop, his front door closed. The teacher’s wife returned home from a night shift in an intensive care hospital ward where she was a doctor. Her face ashen, she collapsed by the door with exhaustion; tears flowed heavily from her eyes as her husband, torn between the teenager pacing and his wife on the floor in tears, stood rapidly, almost tipping his wooden chair backwards, scratching his head and struggling to choose between the two. The doctor’s elderly mother was in a care home. She had vascular dementia; no one in the family had visited for over two months and it was breaking her. The telephone call today that, yes, there were three confirmed cases in the home and they had no protective equipment, but neither could they have visitors, not even doctors. Stranded were the generation that survived the war; left to die alone while a care worker does her best to comfort her. Head and neck slumped low to her knees in a hard chair, the doctor’s mother has no idea who anyone is.  

 

***

 

The care worker, tired, has only been in the UK for a few years and is worried about her immigration status. Her application for right to remain was taking forever to reach a conclusion. She walked the corridor on her way to bring the elderly woman her lunchtime meal, sitting by her side feeding her, one small mouthful at a time, her mind wandered to her husband at home; working. They had met at university in Paris. He had rushed from a team meeting on his laptop monitor to answer the front door. A tall delivery driver stood by the garden gate; his luminous tabard glared through the glass of the door. Nadeem was the same delivery driver who had been numerous times before and knew the man working from home by name. He greeted him personally, with a wide smile, before taking a photo of the package on the floor. The two men exchanged niceties, before the man working from home returned to his laptop screen, the call still active showed only one participant other than himself. A face of a colleague he hadn't noticed before while the others were chatting; a static photo of a young woman.

 

***

 

The young woman, remained alone and moved the mouse to end the call, as she saw her colleague standing in front of the laptop camera with his distinctive Amazon parcel. She opened the curtains and looked over all the humans on the beach, wiping her tears with the sleeve of her jumper she observed all manner of body shapes and skin tones. She hung her body lazily on the windowsill and glared through the glass; life being lived by others. Nothing made sense to her any more, anxiety worse than it had ever been, it took her 30 minutes to prepare herself to be anonymous in her team meeting. Her photo was bland and out of date. Usually only used for her security pass, but now it was the only thing that signified her presence; nothing more than pixels on the screen and nobody the wiser as to what was really happening in her home. No reality, no atoms - hydrogen, oxygen or carbon. None. Nothing to touch as she was alone and isolated. She hadn’t left her flat for four days and rather than connecting her, the meetings felt intrusive. Daily, she felt violated in her own home from the pressure and hadn't spoken to anyone in person or in a meeting for over two months. Her left hand flicked the switch to her radio, allowing Elton John to sing ‘Passengers’ to her through tiny speakers, while she watched a young child trip over on the pavement below. Her mother rushed to pick her up and dust her off, the girl in the window felt sad, who would pick her up, if she fell?

 

***

 

The woman with the microphone looked up at the top floor flat. Her bright blue eyes, watery from the sun and sad, caught the figure in the window. The solitary woman, with her hands cupping her face, the journalist was reminded of her sister, an actor who had been out of work for over two months and would be for the foreseeable future. Nothing would be the same in the new normal. The journalist’s heart sank making her nauseous and she hoped the woman in the top flat wasn't a mirror of her sister in her London flat. The radio faded out Elton and the chimes of the jingle signified the start of the news bulletin:

 

          ‘Our reporter, down at the beach, tells us of hundreds flocking despite the lockdown...’

 

          Her microphone by her side, she plodded towards her car and wiped the tear that rolled softly down her cheek.

Clare Babbidge is a 44 year old civil servant living in Cardiff, having relocated from Portsmouth after leaving to study for a degree in Business Administration. Currently she can mostly be found working from home while her adopted city is in lockdown and avoiding people with a persistent cough.

Previously her short story “The Flood” was published in the 2016 anthology “One Hundred Voices”.