• Josh Oldridge

COVID-19 Short Story Series: 2. Imminent Tide

Updated: Jun 10

“We are gathered here to say farewell to Graham Wallace and commit him to the hands of God,” said the greying vicar, three huge, colourful stained-glass windows at his back, beaming over golden candle holders, flowers, and the empty choir seats, producing a dramatic resonation of his words. He continued, “Graham was a generous man, a kind man, a man respected widely in our community and further afield.” The vicar looked up to show a concerned, empathetic, and true expression to the family and friends. And there was a clear divide between those today – family and friends. While the two pews closest to the pulpit were crammed with the former, friends of the late Graham Wallace were scattered around the rest of church more like an uncompleted dot-to-dot drawing than the uniform rows of sad nods and subdued smiles the vicar was accustomed to looking over during these ceremonies. He had been planning on asking people to sit a metre apart, at least. He hadn’t needed to ask.

At the very back, Ryan’s dad checked about him. He had been a customer at the DIY shop – a local institution – for more than fifteen years. But as he looked along the empty, dark wooden benches, he started to question whether even he ought to be there. Mr Wallace’s family would receive cards in abundance, no doubt, many including apologies over their no-show at the funeral – with or without reason, since there was only one – but this didn’t feel right.

“Many of us were loyal customers of Graham’s,” said the vicar, after formalities. “Indeed, the benches you sit on now were renovated last year with paint and varnish from his shop, brushes from there, and with the help of sandpaper and steel files – all from the shelves of Wallace DIY. The fact they’ve come out so well, despite the work having been carried out by yours truly, is testament to the care and attention in stocking only the high quality of products, which Mr Wallace insisted on.”

A murmur of laughs from the mourners – even from family members with wet cheeks and supportive arms over their padded-suit shoulders.

“In a busy world where quantity is often prioritised over quality …” The vicar looked up. The next line in his notes was crossed out; a revision he thought he best make during his final edit this morning. But, on seeing the effects on the number of people in attendance, he couldn’t help but read it anyway. “… which is one of the reasons we, as a society, have gone to seek cheaper, mass production overseas, causing rapid globalisation, which is the reason this horrible virus is roaming the land so freely and keeping us apart,” he moved back into the unremoved section, “it’s extra poignant, extra upsetting, that a man such as Mr Wallace leaves us now.”

Focused nods amid sniffles in the front two rows led the vicar to believe he was right to read out the crossed-out part.

In front of the big doors on the way out of church, two of Mr Wallace’s smartly dressed grandchildren held up plastic buckets. One was an official donations bucket, with a lid with coin hole, for a charity helping to fight bowel cancer, the disease which had taken Mr Wallace before his time, while the second was an open bucket – no lid – with a sheet of A4 with ‘Covid research’ printed in Arial in bold black ink and stuck onto the side with Sellotape. It was clear that, last minute, the family thought they ought to have one for it.

Ryan’s dad threw a few coins into each, after sanitising his hands on his way out of his pew. He then drove straight home. Before the ceremony, as some of those with whom he had shared a mutual friendship with Mr Wallace awaited the arrival of family members and the hearse, he had asked, and nobody said they were going to risk going to the wake.

---

Ryan stretched, but didn’t yawn. He felt refreshed. He checked his phone: 9am. The tent was bright and a perfect temperature. Faye rolled over to face him, but her eyes were still closed in sleep. She seemed a long way away, as though she’d slipped off the blow-up mattress. He smiled at how far across she’d travelled unbeknown. He slipped a pair of tracksuit bottoms over the boxers he’d slept in and unzipped the tent entrance, the soothing harmonies of the famous ‘Morning Suite’ from Edvard Greig’s Peer Gynt playing in his head, not that he knew or cared about the name of the composer or the piece of music. After two days of rushing around town and neighbouring villages buying and dropping off groceries to elderly people, and some family friends where someone in the household had asthma or another illness which made them high-risk, Ryan had decided to give himself the day off.

And what a day.

The sun’s gentle warmth caressed his skin. He breathed the fresh air. He looked over to a branch of one of the trees their tent lay between – where he and Faye had started placing leftover food from the meals Sarah cooked for them. A few sparrows were on the branch, hopping up to the stale pizza crusts and fluttering away with a mouthful to eat elsewhere before cautioning back for more, tweeting throughout. There were other birds too. Some colourful – more so than Ryan thought possible for British birds. This was quite a discovery. Inspired, he got on his phone. He found a pocket guide to garden birds in Britain on Amazon: two quid, delivery included. He bought it and smiled up at the sun. At least he could keep some people – delivery drivers, like him, kind of – working and circulating money.

He dipped back into the tent and took out the two bottles of ale and mini bottle of prosecco he and Faye had had the night before, after being gifted them, as extra remuneration, by some of the people they’d delivered groceries to. He went to the line-up of bins at the end of the path beside the garage and lifted the lid of the blue one.

A loud rapping of knuckles on a glass window made Ryan jump, and he lost grip of one of the ale bottles, which went cartwheeling through the air and found its resting place on a slab of concrete at the foot of the outcasts’ hosepipe shower, where it smashed into hundreds of pieces.

The creak and airlock release of a PVC window opening, Sarah poked her head out the kitchen window. “Did you wash your hands?”

Ryan pointed at the broken glass. “Why did you do that, Mum? You scared me to death.”

“Did you wash your hands before you touched that bin lid?” said Sarah.

Ryan stared at her, said nothing.

“That’s what I thought,” said Sarah.

“Shit.” A muffled croak from inside the tent. The sound of the shattering glass had awoken Faye.

Ryan hurried to the tent. “Are you alright?” he asked on his way over.

“There’s something wrong with my hand,” said Faye. “Argh.”

Ryan bundled in. Sarah hovered her hand over the window handle. She wanted to check on her son’s girlfriend, but from a safe distance. She was stuck.

“Are you aright, Faye?” she asked.

No response.

Sarah knew she shouldn’t think of this as priority, but her mind wandered to the broken glass. This was a perfect time to dash out and sweep it up – while those two were inside the tent, and therefore with no risk of Ryan touching the handle of the dustpan nor brush. She pulled two thin, clear plastic gloves from the cardboard box on the worktop, opened the utility room door, and stuck some trainers on.

“What happened? What is it?” said Ryan.

Faye’s eyes were tightly shut and her face was screwed up with pain. “I think I rolled off the bed in the night. Aw. It really hurts.”

“Do you think you slept on it funny?”

Faye nodded and rolled her head to face away from him to hide her pain. “I can’t even pick up my phone,” she said into the pillow.

“Do you need something? Ibuprofen or paracetamol or …?”

Faye rolled onto her back. She looked up at Ryan, whose young face had matured in the last three days, now he’d stopped shaving, since he would have to do it in the house, in the little sink in the utility room, under the beady eye of his mother, and it involved touching too many surfaces he then would have to clean. Faye looked up at him, bathing in the illuminated warmth of filtered tent light. “You’re the best in the world,” she said. “And I like your stubble. Becoming a true nomad.” She tried to smile but consternation blocked it.

Ryan caressed her shoulder a second and then left for drugs.

“Are you just watching us now, then?” Ryan asked, approaching his mother, who was squatted beside the broken glass. “Are we an experiment?”

“Stop!” said Sarah. “That’s two metres.”

Ryan laughed to himself.

“The whole country is an experiment,” said Sarah, sweeping. “Didn’t you hear? Course you didn’t. The world is watching us – to see how this pandemic spreads while people are so slow to react, to see whether things will be as bad here as in Italy. Or worse. We should’ve gone into lockdown after the very first confirmed case.” She rose to her feet, the dustpan level. She went over to the blue bin and opened it and tossed the shards in. “That’s what they’re saying on the Twitter. And I agree.”

Two days ago she made an account to keep up with the updates and have her own input. Ryan helped her through the window, talking her through how to sign-up from a few metres away.

“We need some Ibuprofen,” said Ryan. “Got any inside? And it’s just called Twitter, Mum, like I told you.”

“What’s she done?”

“Slept lying on her wrist. I think. Should be alright.”

Sarah nodded. “I’ll pass some through the window.”

She opened the back door and stepped into the white plastic tray just inside containing a shallow layer of liquid, then took her trainers off and put them on a mat in the utility room. She put the dustpan and brush under the sink and binned her gloves, then washed her hands, dried them, and pumped hand san on and rubbed that in while searching the cupboard they kept first aid stuff in. She quickly opened the kitchen window, deposited the tablets on the outside windowsill, and closed the window promptly.

But in that second it was open, she heard her son ask her something.

She opened the window again. “The tray?” she said.

“Yeah, the one you stepped in. What’s it for?” said Ryan, stood in the middle of the garden.

“It’s a shoe dipping station.”

“A shoe dipping station?” He smiled. “I’m guessing you’ll have to get that taken away every week or so by waste management and disposal technicians.”

Sarah stared at him a moment through the glass. “What’s that?” she asked.

“A binman, Mum. Or binwoman. Like that’s just a tray of disinfectant, isn’t it? Not a fucking shoe dipping station.”

Sarah gave her son a wry smile. He seemed to be changing, living outside. His sarcasm was stronger, but he seemed more self-assured. Maybe one led to the other. Still, this was not a time for jokes.

“You’re still not taking this seriously, are you, Ryan?”

“Mum, I’m living in a tent. I’m not sure how much more seriously you want me to take it.”

There was a pause in conversation. Ryan looked over his shoulder, to where birds were regaining confidence and tiptoeing towards the pizza crusts along branches bathed in sunlight and with white blossoms at their extremities.

“You have to admit, though,” said Ryan, turning back to his mum, “it does look like those foot baths for cattle.”

A smile teetered on Sarah’s neutral lips.

“Have you grown hooves now or something?” Ryan asked.

Sarah suddenly burst into a laugh. “How dare you?”

Ryan smiled. “Mum, it’s scary. Things are gonna get worse before they get better. A lot worse. But, honestly, I really don’t think there’s any point worrying about things you can’t change. You’re doing all you can already.”

Sarah gave her son a smile. One of genuine warmth. She started to feel unsure about the thing she had booked for delivery that afternoon, but she told herself it was probably necessary. Definitely necessary.

Ryan swiped the ibuprofen and got back to Faye.

---

They were watching Netflix, a wildlife documentary, in lieu of the recent bird interest – the WiFi signal just reached and was just good enough for an okay connection – when the text came through just after lunch.

‘Stay in the tent for the next ten minutes. People are coming x’

His mum didn’t usually send him kisses. It seemed coercive. No matter. He obeyed.

Sarah had given the people from the event facilities hire company very specific instructions. Though Ryan’s dad itched to get involved, he was told to stay on the living room sofa in front of the TV. From there, dressed in jeans and jumper after he’d had to immediately remove his black suit and white shirt he wore to church to be washed and disinfected, he watched the two men unload and wheel out the Portaloo from their loader van, and his wife stood in front, watching to check the men had on gloves and masks, as she had requested. They were clean and efficient. They disappeared from view as they wheeled it around the garage – a tight squeeze – and then reappeared at the kitchen window, where Sarah watched and directed their placement of the big blue box. Sarah smiled and waved at the men once it was set. She mouthed, “Thank you,” through the closed window. She messaged her son.

The first thing she messaged was that he could come out. The second thing she sent was:

‘No more utility room I’m afraid. Too high risk’

The young couple emerged from their tent to see what had taken place.

The first thing Ryan said upon observing the garden newcomer was, “Oh my God. It looks like a big blue coffin stood up.” The second thing he said was, “Fuck you.” This he directed at the window, where his mother watched from.

Ryan swiped his trainers from the tent porch and marched towards the side of the garage, his middle finger pointed at the kitchen window as he left the garden.

“Where are you going?” Faye shouted.

He left and said nothing.

“Ryan! Wait!”

Faye went inside and closed the laptop lid. The tent at midday was stifling. She picked up a black Reebok trainer in her right hand and flung it out the tent. Then the other. The ibuprofen was wearing off. Using her right hand each time to pull out the tongue and then guide her heel in, she put on her shoes. Cradling her left wrist in her right hand, she grimaced and ran out of the garden to catch up with her boyfriend.

Ryan had quite a stride on. He didn’t turn around even as Faye closed in on him, despite the loudness of her feet pounding the pavement. They were already almost out of the housing estate and on the A-road out of town. Faye walked alongside him. They said nothing. Every few steps she had to do a little skip to keep up. She thought it might be best to try something. She let out a little yelp of pain.

Ryan’s eyes flicked across. Cars passed them on the 40 road, uninterrupted, since nobody was pressing the button and waiting for the traffic lights to go red and the green man to guide them across, since there was nobody else on the pavements.

“You alright?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah. I’m okay. Still hurts. A lot. But it’s okay. Are you alright?”

Ryan shrugged, still marching.

“Argh,” said Faye. She screwed up her face and Ryan stopped.

“I’m sorry, I left the tablets in the tent,” he said.

“It’s okay.”

“Should we take you to the doctors’?”

“I think it’s okay,” said Faye.

“Here,” said Ryan.

She held out her left wrist. It was slightly kinked downwards, and her fingers were static – halfway towards forming a fist – but there was no bruising.

“Can you move your fingers?”

Faye’s fingers grew out and closed back to her semi-fist a couple of times.

“Can you clench a fist?” Ryan asked.

Faye furrowed her eyebrows and stared at her hand, but her fingers didn’t budge. She couldn’t move them inwards.

“Are you trying?” Ryan asked.

“Of course I’m trying.”

“Try again.”

“I am!”

Still nothing was happening.

“I’m calling the doctors’ for you,” said Ryan.

“I don’t think I … shouldn’t we dial 111 for a non-emergency?”

“That’ll be chocka, won’t it? I think they only want people with the virus to call 111. There’s A&E,” Ryan suggested.

“I don’t know. It’s not serious,” said Faye. “And you have to wait in A&E, don’t you. At least with the doctors’ you have a set time so you’re not in there too long.”

Ryan considered this a moment. It was true – the longer they waited the longer they were potentially exposed to the virus. If his mum found out they’d been inside a hospital she’d flip. Seeing a doctor was permissible. Not permissible – necessary.

He asked Faye which of the two doctors’ surgeries in town she was registered with and Googled the number, since Faye had left her phone in the tent in the rush. They continued walking, out of town, towards the wood where everyone went dog-walking or to feed the ducks or to satisfy a small urge to experience the natural world.

The answer machine lady said, “You are currently in position number,” and then she put on a different voice to say, “6,” and then reverted back, “in the queue. Please continue to hold …”

Ryan continued to hold as they walked. By the time they’d reached the turnoff into the carpark at the entrance to the wood, with its information board with sketches of butterflies and a map on, and a wooden handrail over the boggy section at the start of the trail, he was in position number 4.

There were no cars in the carpark despite the clemency of the weather.

Birds were loud overhead in overhanging trees above the woodchipped footpath. A few bees were even hovering about. Along one of the trails they spotted a cat, presumably from nearby houses, slinking around with a mouse between its jaws. In the absence of humans, even only for a couple of days, nature was starting to reclaim ground.

They were at the farthest part of the wood – a mile from the carpark as the crow flies – when Ryan got through.

“Hello, yeah. Can I make an appointment, please?”

The receptionist asked for his details.

“It’s for my girlfriend.”

Ryan gave Faye’s details.

The receptionist asked whether she had any of a list of symptoms. Temperature, cough, etc.

Ryan said she didn’t, and that the problem was nothing to do with that.

“Oh,” said the receptionist.

“It’s her wrist,” said Ryan.

“You’ll have to call back next week,” said the receptionist.

Ryan looked at Faye, his face a shade of red with anger and from the sun.

“We are only able to deal with people who have possible symptoms of the virus at the moment. I’m sorry. Try calling next week. Bye.”

“But –”

Dial tone.

“Fuck!” Ryan shouted. He launched his phone between trees into undergrowth. His shoulders moved quickly up and down with heavy breathing.

Faye put a hand, her good hand, on Ryan’s shoulder to steady it.

Ryan put his hands to his eyes, which he wasn’t allowed to do at home anymore, and turned into Faye. She hugged him while he released a small portion of tears.

Then they went searching for the phone.

“Maybe your mum’s right,” said Faye. “With the Portaloo and things. Maybe we shouldn’t be going inside at all.”

“Can you call me?” Ryan asked.

“I don’t have my phone.”

“Oh yeah. Fuck’s sake.”

Ryan kicked some tangled brambles about, hoping to see the reflection of a screen.

“She’s treating us like animals. Like dogs,” said Ryan. “I thought we were only gonna be out in the tent a few days. Now we won’t even have a proper sink. How long for?”

Faye, who could only search with her eyes, her hands occupied – pain in one and the other gripping the painful one to soothe it, said, “I do think it’s the right thing to do. I’m sorry. She told me, Ryan.”

Ryan stopped kicking and scratting in the brambles and ivy-covered woodland floor, mixed with stray chippings from the trail.

“You were in the loo the other day, after we came back from doing deliveries. She poked her head out the window and told me,” said Faye. “They got it cheap on a month rental or whatever. It was supposed to be going to some festival that got cancelled. Your mum said the 4-pack of toilet rolls it came with was more expensive than the rental.”

Faye laughed to try to make her boyfriend lighten up.

His shoulders finally relaxed. “I get it. She is right. I dunno why I’m so angry at that.”

Faye smiled, but then did a long blink as pain shot through her left wrist.

“I’m not angry at that, actually, I don’t think,” said Ryan. “I … I love my mum. I really do.” A little snicker escaped from him as he heard his words in the quiet wood. “You know what I’m angry at? The way it is. The world. Fucking media and everything like that. It’s got a lot to answer to, I think. Yes, I should be more cautious, should’ve been for a while longer. But how could I know? All the time they make things up, or try to make you care more about things that don’t matter. When there’s no real news they fabricate things. Political divides. Arguing constantly and interpreting facts differently to persuade you to do this or that. Just fucking interpreting those facts completely wrong even, sometimes.

“Then something important like this comes along and you think: is this real? Should I really stay inside all day or are the media lying for some other motive? Is a political party up to something behind the scenes? Was it invented in a lab in China to wipe out anyone less able to add to the economy, like some people were suggesting? Is it just a mild cold you get for three days, and they’re just scare-mongering to prolong a news story? We just don’t have a real clue. Why aren’t they honest all the time? It makes me so angry. They have a fucking responsibility.”

Faye stared at her boyfriend like he was a stranger, with some animal instinct, like a cat bumping into another, fully alert. Birds chirped and swooped overheard. The foliage was warm from an afternoon in the sun. All around on the woodland floor, groups of daffodils nodding.

She stepped around the undergrowth they’d been looking through and put her hand to his face, and tilted her head and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him for a long time, with long rolls of her tongue.

Ryan looked around: no-one else in sight. With his hands, he enquired over the necessity of Faye’s jacket. It wasn’t needed. Then he enquired over her t-shirt. She grabbed a hand as though to rebuke it, but then moved it onto the waistline of her jeans – they were not needed. He pulled her jeans down and whipped his top off. They found a patch of soft grass under the trees off the trail and away from the brambles.

“Should we do this?” Ryan asked.

Faye nodded. She was on her back, between his knees. They repositioned so that he was between hers.

---

They didn’t hear the phone, surrounded by tangled grass and prickly undergrowth, as it rang each minute for the next twenty.

Afterwards, Faye and Ryan lay on their backs staring up at the clouds and treetops while their panting steadied. Ryan carefully took Faye’s left hand, assessed it. Still no bruising.

“Does it still hurt?”

Faye nodded. “It feels a little better.”

Ryan put his right hand next to hers to compare pinkie size.

“No wonder you’re hurt,” he said. “Look at that size difference. It’s like my finger is a hundred-year-old redwood and yours is a … a silver birch sapling.”

A giggle full of warmth came from Faye. She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Very impressive tree knowledge. You watch one nature documentary and look at you go.”

The phone rang.

Ryan jumped up and rooted around. He found it, receiving only a few prickles from brambles. “Mum?”

“Where are you, Ryan?”

He could tell instantly she’s been crying.

“You’re supposed to be at the house. Where the bloody hell have you got to?”

“We’re just on a walk, Mum.”

“Get home. Now.”

Ryan looked at Faye severely.

“I need you to come home, Ryan. Right. Now. There’s been … they’ve confirmed three cases in town. It just came out in the past hour. I saw it on the Twitter. One of them was Pete Williams’ wife.” Sarah sniffled and sighed. “Ryan, Pete was in church this morning with your dad.”