• Josh Oldridge

COVID-19 Short Story Series: 1. Early Days

Updated: Jun 10

“What do you think you’re doing?” Sarah asked.

Ryan froze, poised with a hand around his knife, ready to scrape his leftover green bean into the brown mini-compost bin on the floor beside the foot-pedal normal one. “Couldn’t finish them all,” he said.

“Well you’ll have to have them later. Do you know how long I queued to get those things?”

Ryan exaggerated a sigh. “Come on, Mum. They’re covered in gravy and ketchup.”

“Not my problem. Put them in the fridge,” she said from the kitchen table, where she was sat next to her husband, who was also off work, watching the opening credits of Countdown.

“That’s disgusting,” he said, as a delayed reaction to the food.

“Thank you,” Ryan said. “Can I bin them then?”

“No!” said his mother.

Ryan’s dad, now transfixed on the introductions of contestants and the Dictionary Corner guest, said, without looking away from the screen, “Listen to your mother.”

Ryan groaned. He put the plate on the worktop, next to the sink. He took a tiny ceramic pot from a cupboard and picked the soggy beans up one by one and deposited them into the pot. He put the pot in the fridge.

“We can’t be wasting food anymore,” said Sarah, now in a calmer, but no less critical tone. “Especially fresh stuff. We might not get much of that regularly.”

“How’s that?” said Ryan. “Plants aren’t just gonna stop growing in fields.”

“But someone has to harvest them,” Sarah’s tone started to rise again. “I wish you’d have stayed at bloody college, you know. If you’re going to be like this.”

“I’m just saying. That kind of stuff’s not gonna change.”

“Oh! Here we go,” said Ryan’s dad, as the first letters were being drawn.

His mother looked him square in the eye as Ryan shimmied up onto the worktop and pulled his white Adidas hoodie down to protect his bum against the cool surface. “We don’t know what’s going to change.”

The Countdown clock started. Ryan’s mum and dad stared at the screen with ‘R W U A S C E I S’ along the bottom.

“WAR,” said Sarah. She laughed ironically to herself.

“SWEAR,” said Ryan’s dad.

Ryan reluctantly turned his eyes to the screen. “SWEARS. Ha!”

“What a snake,” said Sarah, smiling.

Just as the music was climaxing towards 30 seconds, right before the end of the round, Ryan’s dad boomed, “SAUCERS!”

He received congratulations all round. Even more so when one of the contestants won the round with the same word.

“Well done, love,” said Sarah.

Ryan’s dad chuckled to himself.

There was a knock at the back door.

“That’ll be Faye. I’ll get it.” Ryan jumped down off the worktop and went through to the utility room.

It was cool and still outside. The sun was on fine display, but struggled to make any great progress in warming the land and air. Even it seemed unsure of what to do. Should spring be postponed? Humans didn’t seem to be paying heed to its usual arrival. The provincial birds did, however, and were in clear afternoon voice at Faye’s back. Normally she stared at Ryan, radiant as he opened the door. But today she gave him a one-second smile and then her lips fell back level. Her thick-soled, triangular-looking black Reeboks everyone else at college also wore dragged on the lino. They’d meant so much when she got them, just a fortnight ago. Now she wasn’t sure they meant anything. She took them off and put them under the coats.

“You alright?” Ryan asked.

Faye nodded.

“Hands,” Sarah shouted through.

“Oh, yeah.” Ryan pointed to the sink by the door, which had a fresh bottle of soap by it and two towels folded beside.

“Twenty seconds,” Sarah shouted.

Faye pumped the soap and started washing her hands. Ryan sung to her. “Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to –”

“My birthday is in October,” Faye snapped.

“It’s what you’re supposed to do while washing your hands – sing the Happy Birthday song. Twice. You okay?”

“My hands are constantly so dry from all this hand-washing,” Faye complained.

“Is that it?” Ryan asked.

Faye flicked her hair to look up at him. She forced a smile. “Yeah.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll sing Happy Birthday to you every day for the next year. Just don’t be expecting a pressie each time.”

Faye’s face was placid as she dried her hands on one of the bright white towels.

“I know what’ll cheer you up: let’s use your English Lit skills to destroy my parents at Countdown.”

They went through to the kitchen.

Sarah smiled at Faye. “You alright, love?”

Faye nodded.

“SALT,” said Ryan, looking at the TV screen.

“That’s terrible,” said Sarah.

“Erm. SALUTE,” Faye came in with.

“Six. Nice,” Ryan said.

The big Countdown clock had ticked past halfway when Ryan’s dad quietly uttered, “ABSOLUTE.”

“Bloody hell,” said Sarah. “Eight!” She turned to Ryan. “Your dad’s on fire!”

Ryan’s dad chuckled to himself again.

“You sure you’re okay?” Ryan asked.

“Oh, yeah. It’s just … I’m a bit worried about my grandad.” Faye’s bottom lip quivered, but she held it together.

Ryan’s arms quickly gathered all around Faye and she hugged him back, tight.

“Talk about social distancing,” said Ryan’s dad.

Faye laughed into Ryan’s hoodie.

“Do you want a cup of tea, love?” Sarah got up from the table and filled the modern-retro kettle, with the handle over the top, by its spout.

“Oh. Yes, please. Thanks,” said Faye.

“Here, come up while it boils,” said Ryan. Faye followed him out of the kitchen and upstairs.

“Is there one in there for the Countdown champ as well?” Ryan’s dad asked.

“Of course there is, love.” Sarah leaned against the worktop as the kettle roused and gurgled, and checked her phone to find out the latest updates. Whilst scrolling through an article on BBC News she put a hand up to her mouth, but made sure not to touch it. “Oh God,” she whispered.

Up in his room, Ryan took clothes from drawers and laid them out on the bed. Faye sat on a chair in the corner and watched.

“Have you spoken to your grandad today then?”

“Yeah.”

“How is he?”

“I don’t know, really. He says he’s okay. But I don’t know. It’s just horrible, isn’t it? Imagine working your whole life for time off, then being told you have to stay inside. Could be up to, I don’t know, didn’t they say a year? It’s so, so awful.”

Ryan said nothing, but gave Faye an understanding smile. He turned away from her and slipped down his black jeans to replace them with the pair of sports shorts he’d laid out. He switched on the little TV on his chest of drawers and went straight to Channel 4.

“What do you think will happen to our uni applications as well?” Faye asked.

“Hang on a minute, this isn’t Countdown. Erm, not sure. I think they might be giving us unconditional offers. Anyway, let’s not worry about that. Does your grandad need anything?”

Faye shrugged. “He says he doesn’t.”

“I’ve got an idea. Do you wanna come watch me play football?”

Faye looked up at Ryan, who now turned the TV back off. “You’re playing football?”

Ryan nodded. He whipped his hoodie and t-shirt off and put on a blue England away jersey.

“Not really,” Faye said.

“We can go see your grandad on the way.”

“We can’t see him. I’ve just told you –”

“We can – through the window, or from a distance. It’ll be alright. We’ll drop him a gift.” Ryan laughed to himself. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? but the first gift that comes to mind right now is hand san.” He swung a small holdall with a big white Nike tick on the side onto his shoulder. “What time is it?”

Faye took out her phone. “Half-three.”

“Ideal. Football is at five. We’ve time to go to your grandad’s then footy … if you did wanna come?”

“You sure? Aw. Yeah. I’ll bring my book and wait in the car while you play then.”

Ryan’s mum shouted from the bottom of the stairs that the tea was ready. Faye kissed Ryan on the lips and they ran downstairs. Their entrance was greeted by studio audience applause. Faye thanked Sarah for the tea and she and Ryan shared sips whilst leaning against the worktop.

“Your dad’s still on fire at this,” Sarah nodded at the TV.

“I bet he is,” said Ryan. “And where was he exactly one hour ago?”

Ryan’s dad turned and looked gravely up at his son. Then he burst out laughing. “You got me.”

Sarah stared, confusedly, at her son.

“Look in the top corner of the screen, Mum. It’s on Channel 4+1, this. He’s watched it on normal telly, memorised some of the winning answers, and now he’s showing off.”

His dad got up – one hand holding his tea, the other in the air, guilty – and went through to the living room before he could be berated by his wife.

“Where are you going? Get back here!” Sarah said.

“I’m going to watch squash on BT.”

“You’ve never watched squash in your bloody life.”

“It’s the only bit of sport on. I need my fix. I need something.”

Sarah shook her head. She said to Faye, “He’s supposed to be doing a bit of work from home.”

Faye smiled.

Then Sarah turned to her son. She looked at what he was wearing. “And where are you going as well? I hope you’re not going to play football.”

Ryan looked at Faye for some reassurance.

“Oh my God,” said Sarah. “You kids need to start watching the news. If you knew what –”

“We aren’t kids, Mum. And you need to stop watching it. At least, not as much as you are.”

Sarah switched the channel over to a 24-hour news station, so that she had support for her case at her back. “If you understood what was going on you wouldn’t be going into no man’s land willy-nilly, for a game of football, for God’s sake.”

“No man’s land? What’s with all the war stuff? The rations, the paranoia. We aren’t at war, Mum.”

“Ha! See,” said Sarah, “you didn’t hear what Boris said, did you? We’re to treat it like war.”

“Treat what like war? Mum, you can’t shoot a virus.”

Sarah sighed, exasperated. “Of course you don’t care. In war it’s the fit and able who die. People your age. With this it’s the older ones. Why should you care? I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

“It just isn’t true though, Mum, is it?”

Ryan marched off with Faye’s empty cup. He washed it up and then filled a sports bottle with water and took long gulps whilst looking out at the square lawn with a tree in each of its four fenced-in corners. But he downed the water too fast. It caused a reaction in his throat which made him cough up what he’d attempted to swallow. Faye went over and slapped his back until it went. Ryan stood back upright, red in the eyes and with little unintentional tears in each, and wearing a smile of relief that the coughing had stopped.

Sarah was not smiling.

“Oh, come on, Mum, you must know that’s nothing. I just drank my water too fast and it made me cough.”

Sarah raised her eyebrows and looked back to the TV screen.

“It makes you think you’re ill though, doesn’t it? Seeing all this on the news and all over Twitter,” Faye said. “I mean, I feel fine. But seeing it all makes me think I’m getting ill.”

Sarah, who had clearly heard, continued to stare at the TV without speaking.

Ryan smiled. “Come on,” he said to Faye.

“I really hope you’re not going to play football,” said Sarah.

Ryan stared at the lino, one hand on the door through to the utility room.

Sarah looked across. There was a shine in her eyes, as though she was on the edge of tears. “If you are, I really hope you stay away from anyone.”

“Mum, football, by definition, is a contact sport. You expect us to set up huge poles across the pitch and hang onto them at a set distance apart like a human version of table football?”

“Ryan, please don’t play football.”

Ryan sighed. “It might be the last chance I get for … I don’t know how long.”

“Ryan, please.”

He sighed again. “Alright. Alright. But we’re still going out. We’re taking some stuff for Faye’s grandad.”

Sarah looked between the pair of them, then Ryan went slightly red and opened the door.

“Thank you for the tea, Sarah,” said Faye.

“You’re welcome, love.”

--- --- ---

Ryan drove his little Hyundai i10 through the quiet residential roads, past restaurants and pubs with chalkboards advertising lunchtime deals and daily evening specials outside but with no people inside, and past a couple of fuelling stations with big posters stressing the requirement to use gloves on the forecourt on each pump and a blown-up version of the same notice on a fold-out sign at the station entrance. Yet despite the quiet roads and establishments, it was hard to find a spot in the carpark of the supermarket on the edge of town.

By some minor miracle, they found paracetamol; that was a gift to be cherished, neither of them underestimated that. But there was no hand sanitiser on the ravaged toiletries and cosmetics shelves.

“Less like war, it’s more like the apocalypse,” said Faye.

They bought a net of clementines, some other dried fruits and foods, and a pack of 100 napkins with shooting stars, hearts, and pastel-coloured cartoon unicorns on, since there were no toilet rolls or tissues. They put these in the empty shoebox Ryan’s new football boots had come in and he now kept in the back of his car, but not the pack of green beans Ryan bought to make a point. Those he threw in his Nike bag on the backseat so he wouldn’t forget to bring them in when they got back to the house.

Faye nursed the box. She ripped a blank page out of the back of her copy of The Tempest, which she was still supposed to read for college, and wrote a little note on it while Ryan drove around the outskirts of town to her grandad’s. Before they reached it, Faye rooted around in her handbag and pulled out the half-used bottle of hand sanitiser she kept for personal use. She stared at it. Her expression turned severe. Then she placed that in the shoebox too, beside a box of 80 Yorkshire Tea teabags, and exhaled deeply and smiled.

They parked up on the kerbside in front of the lawn of the little detached bungalow, despite the driveway having room to accommodate two of Ryan’s car. Faye squeezed out a measure of the hand san and rubbed it into her hands and then escorted the box around to the side of the house, under the pergola her grandad had built years earlier to house his perpetually immaculate Toyota, and placed it on the step in front of the door. She knocked on the door, then darted back along the driveway towards Ryan’s little Hyundai.

Almost a full minute later, the door handle moved and Faye’s grandad appeared, scowling. He looked at the shoebox and bend down to pick it up in stages, his mouth agape throughout.

“Grandad,” Faye called along the driveway.

He didn’t hear her.

She moved slightly closer, but looked back at Ryan for confirmation that she wasn’t getting too close. Her grandad continued to investigate the box, and seemed to be reading the note in it. She shouted again. This time he looked along the driveway and noticed his granddaughter.

“Hello, dear.” His eyes creased at the corners with unrestrainable joy, his mouth still open.

“Are you alright, Grandad?” Faye shouted.

“Hmm?”

Her grandad waved at Ryan sat in the car. Ryan waved back and smiled.

“Are you both coming in?”

Faye looked back towards the Hyundai. Ryan put the window down.

“He asked if we’re coming in,” Faye said.

Ryan’s face dropped. “We can’t. Can we? We just can’t.”

Faye pressed her lips together. Her eyes strained and squinted with something similar to pain – only deeper, more brooding.

“Are you coming in?” her grandad repeated. “I’m not bothered about all that stuff on the telly.”

Faye looked at Ryan again. Ryan sighed. Faye fumbled with her sweaty hands as she rubbed them awkwardly together. “We can’t,” she shouted.

Her grandad stared at her. His slippers moved down off the step onto the driveway. Faye retorted instinctively. “We can’t come in, Grandad. I’m sorry.” She looked back at Ryan. Ryan shook his head.

“I’ll call you,” Faye shouted to her grandad. She put thumb and pinkie of one of her hands to ear and mouth respectively. “I’ll call you, Grandad.”

She turned and jogged back and got in Ryan’s car. She sat down and looked back at her grandad, who was still stood staring after her under the pergola next to his Toyota. She wondered how long that car would remain stationary.

Faye pointed to her phone and then at the bungalow. Her grandad at last realised what she meant. He nodded and even put a thumb up and smiled. This was better than nothing. Ryan started up the car and Faye scrolled through her contacts to xxGrandadxx. She tapped on the contact to start ringing.

“Yeah,” she said as they drove. “I just wanna give you a big hug, Grandad … I can’t. Well, I’d have to have a bath in hand sanitiser before I did, but there isn’t enough of that stuff left for me to do that … Did you get your seeds? I’m sorry, we weren’t sure what time of year you plants carrots, but we thought it might be a good idea. … Okay …” She smiled up at Ryan as houses whizzed by at his window. “Yeah. I’ll tell him to drive safe. Yeah, I’ll tell him off for you if he goes a single mile per hour over the speed limit.”

Ryan shook his head and laughed along with Faye.

“Sorry about the napkins … No, I know you won’t be hosting any parties, they were just for … I don’t know. Blowing your nose or, well, anything really.”

Her grandad laughed at the napkins. Then he thanked Faye for everything. He thanked her, and thanked her, and she told him it was nothing as she tried not to cry.

--- --- ---

Ryan left the car right beside the green-fenced 4G football pitch, near the halfway line, Faye’s choice. He put his boots on, turned to Faye for a quick kiss, and then jogged out. Faye turned a few pages of The Tempest, but found herself drawn to the game each time the ball rattled against the fence. After twenty minutes she gave up on reading entirely and turned all attention to the football. It filled her with a disproportionate level of pride and warmth to see Ryan focusing, running hard, and playing well; and a similar level of sadness when she thought how this could be the last time he played for months and months. Perhaps even a year?

When the game was over and the caretaker locked up the pitch, a few in Ryan’s group went to shake hands, then thought better of it, and laughed, and Faye laughed too but only briefly. Really it was sad. Very sad.

She heard the clacking of Ryan’s boots along the carpark tarmac and pretended to have her head in her book.

“How did it go?”

Ryan, sat on the driver’s seat with his back against her as he yanked off his boots, turned his flushed cheeks her way. “It was amazing. So good.”

“Good.” Faye smiled.

The sun was arcing down towards the horizon now.

“Did you get some reading done?”

“Yeah,” said Faye. “Quite a bit actually.”

“So you didn’t see my goals?”

“Aw. No.”

She had seen them. She had cheered out loud both times Ryan found the net. But her cheers were stifled by being inside the car. She allowed Ryan to indulge himself by talking her through his goals on their journey back to Ryan’s parents’ house. He was in his element. They were happy.

But as they pulled in behind Ryan’s parents’ car on the driveway, they could both sense immediately that something was amiss. Flittering in the breeze, a little note was attached to the front door, and a length of yellow hosepipe attached to the tap at the side of the garage ran around the house to the back garden. His parents didn’t normally get the hosepipe out until June or July, for sprinkling dry grass.

He approached the note on the front door. The sky was losing its brightness but the birds were coming back into voice for the evening session.

‘Ryan, I knew you’d go to football. You’re outside now. Sorry. It’s for your own and everyone else’s good.’

Ryan crumpled up the note and tried to insert his key into the lock of the front door. It wouldn’t go in. Someone had left a key in the other side to block him.

A curtain ruffled to Ryan’s right. “Go around back,” said Sarah, her voice muffled by the glass. Behind her a TV flickered with another gameshow Ryan’s dad was watching in the living room.

“For real?” said Ryan.

“It’s for …” Sarah halted and let go of the curtain. She called her son on his phone.

“It’s for your own good,” she said.

Over the phone, she directed him to go to the back garden, where she and Ryan’s father had spent the last hour pitching the family tent, unused for almost a decade, between the two trees at the far side by the fence, which separated them from another house’s garden. Ryan went inside the tent. A cable out of the window at the back of the garage fed in and gave them power by way of a 4-socket adaptor. His phone charger and laptop were in the tent, along with a lamp, which he turned on to illuminate the blue flysheet. A blow up mattress was covered in his usual bedding and his clothes – a week’s worth, at least – were folded and spread along the side of the tent next to a stack of History textbooks for college. There was even a plastic washbowl with his toothbrush and toiletries in. More or less his entire room had been transferred over.

He came outside and removed the phone from his ear for a second to mouth some swear words at Faye, who was stood waiting outside, about what was going on.

“I’ve just got back from football, Mum. I’m sweaty as anything.”

Sarah, now at the kitchen window looking out at her son and his girlfriend, pointed towards the garage. The hosepipe. It was looped over a hook above the window, the end pointed downwards over an outside drain.

“It’ll be cold, but you’ll get used to it,” Sarah said.

“Mum,” said Ryan. “What the fuck?”

“I’ll do all your washing, just leave it in the basket in the utility room. That’ll be our crossover area – we’ll leave the toilet in there just for you as well. And I’ve put a bar of soap by the other outside tap for your handwashing. And I’ll make meals for you … and Faye, if she’s here. I’ll put them by the back door. I’ll text you when they’re ready. I’m sorry. We have to take this very seriously. I don’t think you are.”

“Mum, how long is it gonna be like this? … Mum?” He turned to Faye. “She’s gone.”

“Did she say how long it would be like this?” Faye asked.

Ryan shook his head. They both turned to the illuminated, big blue tent. At least the birds circling above and in the trees were chirping away; that was nice. And the air was not too cold. Spring was imminent.

“Do you want a lift home?” Ryan said.

Faye shook her head. A smirk rose on her lips. “I want to see you use your new shower.”

Ryan looked at the hose setup and blew a raspberry. “Is she crazy, or what?”

Faye shrugged. “Maybe she’s right.”

“Yeah. No, yeah, maybe she is. She usually is.”

“Can I stay here tonight?” Faye asked.

“You want to isolate with me?”

Faye nodded silently, knowingly.

The kitchen lights flicked on and soon the TV in there did too. Bold headlines in white and red dominated the screen and print text moved along the bottom. Sarah watched from the kitchen table in horror. She called her husband. They comforted each other by confessing to anxiety they felt over the air of uncertainty which hung over their jobs. Their food supplies. Their whole way of life. The nation. Everything. Together they revisited recent bank statements and utility bills, and discussed whether they really needed the car right now, since they were both off work, and whether they could put one of the TVs on Gumtree. Ryan’s, since he was outside for the foreseeable. And should they get more pasta, just in case? Even if it was only another 5kg bag.

Ryan got into the tent, which he could just about stand up in, and stripped off. He sprinted out, shower gel in hand, and turned on the tap for the hose. Now that the sky was purpling, it was dark enough for the sensor on the light at the back of the house to kick in. He shouted and shivered and rubbed his body quickly. He grimaced and laughed. Because he still had boxer shorts on, Faye felt it okay to film him, and giggle, and post on Snapchat. Curtains stirred in neighbouring houses as people glimpsed the necessary absurdity.

Ryan jumped around and towelled himself dry on the grass beneath the back light, then went inside his new abode and put on too many layers of clothes. It felt good to dress up against the cool temperature. Too comfortable. He lay on his new bed and checked his phone. He saw the video of himself in his shower, and playfully rebuked Faye, who sat in the corner on a pillow reading under lamplight. There was a message waiting on Ryan’s phone, too. Sarah.

He left the tent and came back with two plates with foil over.

“Bon appétit,” he said to Faye, as he placed them on an arrangement of textbooks they were now using for a table. The foil revealed a piece of chicken each, a handful of chips, peas, and, on Ryan’s plate, the soggy, reheated beans.

“You enjoy those,” said Faye. They both laughed. “This is cute, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded.

After the food they washed their hands under the second tap, and then settled down in the tent. Ryan posted an offer to pick up groceries for anyone who needed food or anyone who knew someone who needed food, or anything else for that matter, on Facebook. He said it didn’t matter about fuel money at this time. Faye got through a full act of The Tempest, making notes throughout.

“Are you alright?” Ryan asked.

Faye said she was just fine. “It feels more real, somehow,” she said. “Reading under lamplight and kind of outside. I’m really enjoying this. I mean, I feel like I shouldn’t be, with everything else going on.”

Ryan said she had to do what she had to do, and told her not to feel bad about it. He informed her of replies to his post; people in need of help with groceries; work for them the next day.

“We’ll go see your grandad as well,” he said, excitement for the prospect of doing good in his eye. “We can get him another gift, or just share a cup of tea through the window.”

Faye said nothing for a while, and just stared back. Then she closed her book and went to lay down on the duvet with him. She kissed his cheeks and mouth. “I love you,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?” Faye finally broke into tears. They were nervous tears, sad tears, but also kind of happy tears, even if that seemed untimely given everything going on outside the tent. Ryan held her close.