• Josh Oldridge

COVID-19 Short Story Series: 3. Getting Through

Updated: Jun 10

Light pitter-patter, rhythmic: rain on the fly sheet. Viewed from inside, the tent was a shade of blue like that midsection in the ocean – not the darkness of the deep, not the flitting brightness of shallows, but in between, where the water is diluted only by a modest volume of light. The colour of sapphire.

Ryan rolled over and checked his phone: 7am. He turned onto his back and closed his eyes and listened to the pitter-patter, which made him feel warm because he was safe from the cold rain even though it was so close, and he thought of how the land needed the rain, farms needed it, the economy needed it, as one of the guests on the COVID panel show he watched the night before had pointed out. In times of national crisis, she said, we reassess and remember our true priorities, a key one being keeping people’s plates busy with food. Ryan settled back against his pillow, and thought about the dry land drinking up the water, of full plates, empty plates, new plates – those cheap white ones from Tesco that came in stacks he ought to be buying for university next year, not that university mattered now – and he thought about his breathing, how deep and soft his pillow was, like a hug to the head, especially comforting now that it had been a full month since Faye had left and a fortnight since his mum and dad had been last able to leave the house. He tried not to dwell on those things, and focused on the rain, his pillow, and appreciated his breathing.

When the rain gradually eased off and stopped, and the tent became flooded with light, Ryan shot up. He took his towel and checked for any movement in the house – there was none – before turning on the hose and rubbing a bar of soap over his body and the football shorts he slept in – since that counted as washing them – and over his shaved head, the hair recently belonging to it still lying in clumps in a corner of the lawn. The water beaded off his short hair. It was cold but he was used to it by now. Just as the neighbours, whose bedroom views peeped over the fence and into Ryan’s space, were used to seeing him at his outdoor shower.

Afterwards, with a towel around his waist and sandals on, Ryan took his leftovers from his evening meal and put them on the branch of the cherry tree, which was white and pink all along in early May blossom like a nougat bar. He lingered by the tree a moment. It smelled fresh like the edge of a clear lake. He ran his fingers over the cracked bark that had been made smooth by the recent downpour, and then moved slowly but purposefully around the garden, its long grass tickling his exposed toes; Ryan had read that keeping the grass longer was good for the insect wildlife and for the bees. The birds were used to his morning routine by now, and Ryan was used to the birds. They wandered along the branch the moment his back was turned, and nibbled yellow rice, the odd few grains of which were coated in remnants of jalfrezi sauce – an additional treat for sparrows with a high spice tolerance – and he took their tweeting as thank you.

Still no movement in the house.

eBay, as with the natural world, had become Ryan’s new lifeblood during lockdown. The hair clipper had arrived in two days, the sandals one, and the gas camping stove, which he now lifted out of the tent porch after slipping on a t-shirt, three days and, miraculously, free postage. The mini-chair he perched on as he lit the stove and watched his mess tin turn purple and blue and green at its base from the heat – three quid.

Small, stationary bubbles appeared in the water after a while, then they grew in size and number and floated gently upwards, and at last huge globes of air shot in all directions through the water and popped at random and the mess tin shook as the it came to the boil. He wrapped a sock around the hot mess tin handle, and poured the water out of its curved corner over a peppermint teabag in a camping mug purchased from a little-known online auction site. He watched the birds as he sipped his tea. The clouds turned brighter and shifted and dispersed. Still no movement from inside the house. When a new, different bird joined the rabble on the branch, briefly dispersing the usual crew, Ryan’s eyes shot wide open and he froze. Then he dipped carefully inside the tent to grab his book. The new bird – small with a pastel-blue back and black stripe over its eyes – ran up and down the tree bark. Ryan turned the page and checked the pictures against the bird on the tree, then turned the page and checked again, and so on until, with calm ecstasy, the picture of the bird on the tree aligned with the one on the page. He breathed a joyful sigh, adrenaline for some reasons coursing through his veins.

Then a group chat message turned ecstasy upside down. He was sat on his stool reading, eating an apple with his legs crossed beneath his towel, zen-like with his shaven head, awaiting some movement inside the house, when his phone vibrated. As Ryan scrolled through the message, his chewing slowed and his eyebrows gradually furrowed deeper and deeper. When he’d finished reading he looked up, breathed out heavily, and threw the apple core at the bottom of the tree trunk for the birds. He tapped the screen furiously with his reply, inhaling deeply and exhaling loudly, and then pressed send, stood up, and launched his phone at the wall below the kitchen window, whence it’s back popped off and the screen shattered and the freed battery lay on the concrete path that bordered the house.

His shoulders relaxed back. He immediately felt a touch better. He concentrated on his breathing to calm it back to normal. Then he noticed a curtain twitch upstairs.

---

The slowness of Sarah’s movements made her look as though she was caught in a lag on a Zoom call. She turned the cord on the kitchen window blinds slowly, slowly, and tried to smile at her son, who was now wearing a mask, stood in the back garden facing the window. Sarah’s face was pallid and she had dark bags and deep wrinkles beneath each eye. A languorous hand reached out and opened the window, the other holding onto her dressing gown.

“Did you sleep?” said Ryan, muffled behind his mask, which he’d paid a premium for since he was late in taking things seriously.

Sarah coughed, blinked slowly, and in a quiet voice said, “Couple of hours.”

Ryan looked down at the grass, considered how lucky he was to be living out in the garden in a tent, thought about his breathing. “What about Dad?”

“I heard him in the night,” Sarah said. “He’s asleep now.”

Ryan nodded. The birds at his back chirped. “Do you want me to do you some breakfast?”

Sarah managed a little smile. She nodded and said, “Thanks.” She left the window open and traipsed over to sit at the kitchen table.

Ryan went to the garden shed and took another mess tin, this one with a red tinge, along with the kettle. He filled the kettle at the hose shower and boiled it in the tent porch, and poured the water over the mess tin, swilled it, whilst wearing gloves and his mask, and tipped the water on the grass. He did this before and after meals as an extra precaution. He took a large bag of oats from the big plastic box in the porch of the tent, which he called the pantry, and mixed a measure with some water in the red mess tin, then fired up the gas again and made the porridge. His mum sat at the kitchen table with a tissue in one hand, the turned TV off.

When it was ready, Ryan stirred honey into the porridge and topped it with a handful of sultanas, evenly distributed to make it look appetising. He took the sock again to protect his hand from the heat, and placed the mess tin on a heatproof mat just inside the windows by the kitchen sink. He tapped on the glass, gently, to inform his mum it was ready, then went and put the sock in his laundry basket in the shed. He threw his gloves in the bin and washed his hands for twenty seconds, by which time his mum had made the whole distance from table to window. They locked eyes. Sarah nodded her thanks, then looked at the concrete path. She pointed at the smashed phone. “What happened?”

“Oh. It was nothing. Something just annoyed me.” Ryan smiled. “It’s fine now.”

Sarah coughed.

“Are you feeling any better at all?”

“Just a little bit.” Her face laboured into a smile as she closed the window. She used a tea towel to transport her tin of porridge to the table. She had tried to make food, make the porridge – she hadn’t been affected as badly as Ryan’s dad – but it had pained Ryan to watch her through the window as she stood stirring it. And so for the last week Ryan had been doing it for them. But he had to be careful with his quantities. Porridge, like beans, was one of the items which regularly didn’t show up in their weekly supermarket delivery. It seemed a fortnight’s notice and perhaps a heartfelt letter to the supermarkets were needed to reserve just one tin of beans. Maybe, he thought, he should have added to the delivery note that he was camping.

Ryan now made a portion of porridge in his mess tin and turned his laptop on, since this was his only way of communicating now with Faye. He did a workout on the grass and then took another shower. He delved back into the tent and perused the row of novels and core textbooks comprising his library section. He had to make up these names for sections of the tent, now. It felt so roomy and sometimes cold ever since Faye’s family insisted she go home to be with them during lockdown. Ryan selected a novel by Virginia Woolf, which Faye had studied and recommended. He read that for a couple of hours, then switched to an essay by Emerson on self-reliance, all the time with a view of the kitchen window in case he was needed. Then he checked the time on his laptop and took his chair and a John West tuna pasta salad from the pantry and went round to the front of the house.

---

He didn’t have to wait long before Faye rounded the street corner and came toward him and the house, wearing a white t-shirt with a huge black Adidas logo on the front and shorts, a Tesco carrier bag swinging in one hand. She smiled and sat cross-legged on the pavement in front of Ryan, a car’s length apart as he was pitched up in the centre of the little front lawn.

“How are they today?”

Ryan peeled the foil lid off his cold ready meal. He took the plastic spoon included and started mixing the contents. “Alright.”

Faye nodded. She had brought a couple of sandwiches and an Alpen bar. “Are you doing Callum’s Zoom quiz tonight?”

Ryan shook his head. “If I hear what the capital of Indonesia is once more I think I’ll scream.”

Faye laughed. “I know what you mean. … Wait, it’s Jaipur, isn’t it? No, hold on, I think that’s in India. What is it again?”

“Jakarta,” said Ryan, scraping together a forkful of his food.

“Shall we go there when this is all over?” said Faye.

“When this is all over. I wonder when that will be. Maybe never.”

Faye looked down at the pavement. “Don’t say that.”

“Is your grandad alright?”

Faye looked up again, smiling. “He’s good, thank you. Yesterday he was having a little trouble and we feared the worst. He said his vision was going hazy and his throat felt funny. Turned out the eye thing was only a bit of juice that squirted out from when he was peeling one of the oranges me and mum dropped off for him. He was rubbing it into his eyes and making it worse. He makes me laugh. And we think the throat was just because he’s not used to eating oranges as his only fruit. He had a little moan about that to us. But that was all they had in the shops.”

Ryan smiled. “That’s good. That’s funny.”

“Did you see Erin’s TikTok?”

Ryan finished his tuna pasta – there were less than ten good mouthfuls in it – and folded the foil up and rested it on the grass. He held his empty hands out. “Don’t have a phone.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to it?”

“Well, did you see on the group chat? Becky’s invite.”

“Oh,” said Faye. “Yeah, I did.”

“Yeah. That. Threw it against the wall. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry in my life. I mean, we’ve all got to make sacrifices, but having a gathering – I don’t care what she says, people aren’t gonna stay two metres apart – I just took it as a massive middle finger. Fuck her eighteenth. There’s people turning fifty during this that can’t celebrate. Fuck Becky.”

Faye looked at the pavement again. She rested her sandwich on the Tesco bag.

“Wait,” said Ryan. “Are you going?”

“Well, I was thinking –”

“Are you kidding me?” Ryan stood up.

“It’s hard. I hate being at home. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have even considered it. I’m sorry. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Really all I wanna do is be here with you.” Faye wiped a tear from her cheek.

Ryan sat back down. “Are you alright?” he asked. And then, after a silence, he said, “You’re crying and I can’t even hug you. That sucks so bad.”

“Yeah. God …”

“What?”

She smiled up at Ryan, chewing. “I miss you so much.”

“Same.”

“I hope it’ll be over soon.”

“Same,” said Ryan. “We just have to see this through. All of us do.”

“I just want to give you the biggest hug in the world.”

“You mean, you want to slap my bald head?”

Faye laughed. “Yeah. That too.”

Ryan grimaced. “Man, I’m still so hungry.”

“We could go into town,” said Faye. “There is always Aldi. I think a couple of cafes and takeaways are even open.”

“That would be nice.” Ryan turned and looked at the house as he considered. “But I don’t really want to leave in case they need anything. I don’t think I can.”

Faye pulled a sad but proud smile. She nodded. “I understand.”

After a while she said, “Do you want my Alpen bar?” She held it out toward Ryan.

“I can’t, can I? I can’t touch it … just in case.”

Faye swung her arm limply back down into her lap. She looked sullen, then suddenly jumped up. “But you don’t have to touch it – not if I throw it straight out the packet.”

Ryan smirked. “Okay. How?”

Faye snapped the bar in two within its packet. She then carefully peeled back the packaging whilst keeping it level, then held it behind her ready to fling like a catapult. “Ready?”

Ryan, smiling, nodded, stood up, holding his hands out like a cricket wicket-keeper.

Faye launched the half cereal bar out the packaging without touching it, and Ryan’s eyes shot wide open as he leapt to try to catch it, his fingers splayed as his he went down to his left hand side. But he couldn’t stretch enough, and the dry, half yogurt-coated bar settled on the grass. Faye awaited Ryan’s reaction. When he burst out laughing, she followed. “Sorry,” she said. “Five second rule?”

Ryan looked at her and turned up his nose and shook his head. “I’ve got a better idea for it.”

“Branch?”

“Branch,” said Ryan.

“Our branch. I miss our branch.”

“Oh!” said Ryan. “I didn’t tell you – we got a new bird on our branch, called a nuthatch. It was amazing. I’ll have to send you a picture.”

“Ryan.” Faye pointed to the house. “I think your mum is downstairs.”

Ryan stood and swung round quickly. He saw movements through the living room blinds. “Right, I best go. It’s been a nice lunch. I’ll send you that picture.”

“But you’re still hungry.”

“I’m fine.”

Faye nodded. They looked at one another from a safe distance. Faye bit her lip. She put her arms out as though to hug him. Ryan looked around the quiet street, checking to see if anyone could see him, then held his arms out anyway. They each made a ring with their arms and pretended to pat each other’s back.

“Best long-distance hug ever,” said Faye.

Ryan blew her a kiss, then picked up his chair and half Alpen bar and empty tuna pasta packaging and darted round the back to see what his mum wanted. Faye left.

But when Ryan stood in the middle of the grass at the back and looked through the kitchen windows, his mum wasn’t by them. He cautioned closer. Still no sign of her. Then he just made out a light in the next room. She was in the living room, on the sofa, and the semblance of light he could see was in fact coming from the TV. She still looked badly, she looked pallid, she was still in her dressing gown, but this was a good sign. The TV hadn’t been on for a week, not in the living room or the kitchen. Ryan smiled and went to the tree to scatter the Alpen bar on his and Faye’s branch.

Twenty minutes later, a rap on the window made Ryan jump up from his seat. He threw Faye’s copy of To the Lighthouse into the tent and picked up his mask, then ran to his usual standing patch near the window.

“Someone’s …” Sarah said, her hand holding the handle of the open window. “Someone’s here for you.”

“Me?”

Sarah nodded.

“At the front door?”

Sarah nodded again.

Ryan was taken aback. Nothing was due from eBay and their next home delivery was three days away. He rounded the garage and saw, standing by the front door, a man in a polo shirt with a logo on the breast wearing a cap and a white mask covering the entire lower half of his face. He was holding a large bundle wrapped in white paper in his gloved hands.

“Ryan?” said the man.

Ryan nodded.

“Delivery for you. I’ll put it down here. Just wait for me to get to my car before you collect it, yeah?”

“But I haven’t ordered anything.”

The man shrugged. “You’re Ryan, right?”

“I’m not the only Ryan on this street.”

The man checked the slip attached to the bundle and looked at the house number on the wall beside the front door. He nodded to himself. “But I’m guessing you’re the only Ryan living at this house. It’s definitely the right address. I’m gonna put this down now, mate, it’s burning my arms.”

The man put the package on the front step.

“Could you check who it’s from?” Ryan asked, as the guy was walking back to his still-running car.

The man got in the car but left the door open. He released his mask from one ear so it hung down by his chin. He checked the order details on his phone. “Someone called Faye ordered it,” he said, and shrugged.

Ryan looked at the bundle, then at the delivery driver. A large smile broke out on Ryan’s face. He shook his head. “Thanks a lot.”

“Welcome, mate. See ya.”

The driver zoomed away. Ryan waved him off, then approached the package. He took it round to the back, to his seat, and carefully unwrapped it. Two cardboard boxes lay within it, along with two red sauce sachets. One box contained a chicken fillet wrap with salad, and the other a large portion of chips with chip shake. There was enough for him and the birds.

Before eating anything, Ryan pointed his smile up to the clouds. He breathed in and out and closed his eyes, and thought about how much he loved that girl. Yes, he thought, this is how we’ll get through; this is going to end and it will be worth the sacrifice. He thought about that first embrace with Faye once things were back to normal, he couldn’t help but shed a happy tear into his chicken wrap when he pictured her in his arms.

Then he devoured the chicken wrap and half the chips, and afterwards went to the shed and got the lawnmower out, and notched it down to its lowest setting – though not to ruin the flowering weeds that the bees loved, but to spread love. Ryan cut the outline of a heart-shape into the grass, pointed toward the house, the kitchen window, so that every time Sarah came downstairs and looked out she would see it.

Then Ryan looked up. There was an unfamiliar noise. The kettle was boiling in the kitchen. This was the first time it had been on for over a week. Sarah was making her own drinks again. She looked out, at her son and the heart-shape in light-green from the short grass. And, at her back, trying to smile too, there was Ryan’s dad.