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April (Complete)

This is the complete version of the story I wrote in April 2020, one episode per day. Each part has already been posted but I wanted a complete version in one place. Here it is:

April

April liked to be alone. Not lonely, that was different, that felt unasked for, unchosen, but alone was fine. Alone had always felt safe. She didn’t know why it felt safe and, in a way, it really shouldn’t have. When she was fourteen she contracted a viral infection and had been sent to one of the Isolation Containment Units that had been built after the big Covid-19 outbreak in 2020; she’d picked up one of the mutations that seemed to surface every couple of years. Sent away to the ICU. Or, the ‘I don’t see you’, as they quickly came to be known. She didn’t feel special, it happened to lots of kids.

When she’d applied for University they’d asked her about it. There were rules around disclosure and changes to the privacy of your medical history, all for the greater good but there was no hiding your viral record anymore. They seemed as interested in how she’d coped with six months on her own as her physical health, lots of questions about how she felt she’d integrate with the student body, how she worked with others, what the experience had taught her. What had it taught her? That she liked to be alone. Was that it? She was savvy enough not to say that, primed as she was through endless rounds of re-integration therapy to talk up the importance of social connections, the work she’d done in remaking friendships, and learning to physically be with people again. We are social creatures. She’d nodded through enough sessions with a succession of earnest counsellors to be able to regurgitate that stuff by rote. Sometimes she’d even believed it. Sometimes.

They couldn’t really turn her down in the end. Her grades were outstanding: they would have been good but six months soaked in syllabus and then, more and more, off syllabus had set off fires in her mind. She’d found it hard coming out but not for the reasons they’d anticipated: she was bored, hemmed back in by a curriculum she felt she’d outgrown. In turn that had just made her withdraw more, retreat back to her safe place to be alone with Shakespeare and Sartre, Plath and Plato, Joyce and Nitetzsche and Austen and all the other dead intellectual heavyweights she counted as friends. She’d heard them whisper round school that she was intense, up herself, aloof, distant, but it wasn’t that. She felt as insecure as the rest of them but held it all inside, looked for answers in the past from people that had thought all this before, not people stumbling around in the present trying to figure it out for the first time. That’s how she saw it then. Now, sometimes, she has doubts. Same as her doubts about the difference between being alone and being lonely.

In the ICU she’d spent long days listening to music and had latched on to a bunch of bands from the 80s that no-one else seemed to remember. The Cure and Bauhaus and Sister’s Of Mercy. Nick Cave. She’d find one band, listen to them on repeat for days, and then the algorithms did the rest, leading her on to the next like a virtual version of an older sibling she never had. It wasn’t fool proof. She listened to so much stuff from the late 80s that her recommendations started to fill up with hair metal and house music. She never understood house until later, feeling it vibrate up through her feet in a club, watching a tangled mess of aloft arms, slack jaws, saucer eyes, from the throng on the floor. It wasn’t music to be alone with. The hair metal she never understood. But it did point her to the New York Dolls and so she always chalked it up as a win.

It wasn’t that she missed it. There had been hard nights, video calling parents in tears, scrawling out angry diary entries, sinking into a withdrawal deeper than being alone, sinking into depression. It wasn’t all literature, music, and a Zen like state of self reflection. She was a kid. A lot of them were. Most of the ICUs were stacked with either kids – Aggressive Virus Spreaders – or the elderly or people with poor auto-immunity. Some of the doctors had started calling them the AVS and the AV nots. She didn’t blame them, it had sounded pretty funny to her, even locked up, but some of the older patients had complained. She’d had a fairly dark sense of humour before isolation and nothing in the experience lightened it.

April was nervous. They’d told her when they’d offered the place that they couldn’t guarantee her accommodation on her own. In fact, she’d had to avoid requesting it, just in case it appeared as a black mark against her application: not adapting post isolation, unwilling to risk placing with other students. It wasn’t that. She just liked being alone. The lack of guarantees had proven prescient.

April hesitated at the door. There was a discrete plate next to the letter box identifying the house as the property of the University of Bristol. She pressed the buzzer, turned her face towards the small, circular security camera and waited. The intercom crackled.

“Hey, you must be April. I see you. Come on in.”

 

April, too

I didn’t know what to expect at the time. We all just got the notice that the Uni had put us in a house share which was fine for me; I grew up with two sisters so I was used to having my space occupied. All the usual safe guarding stuff was in place, so they’d given us names, a picture, and a link to check medical records – just the relevant bits, they still redacted where something wasn’t infectious – and I’d had a quick look. I was curious but not really bothered. I’d known people that had spent time in the ICUs and it hadn’t changed how I’d been around them. I don’t know, sometimes I thought we were all over-reacting but I guess I didn’t really see the ugly side of it so I kept that to myself. There were strong views on both sides and my opinion didn’t much matter. I was more interested in the names, trying to imagine these new house mates, my mysterious new companions for the year ahead. Leah. Cora. My namesake, April. Mostly I was interested in April.

The dates on April’s ICU were in ’24 so she must have been mid teens when it happened. Pretty rough. I’d been lucky and never picked anything up in the window when you got treated as a high risk to everyone else. Ages 8 to 18 they reckoned. Like I say, I knew people that got isolated – one day they’d be in school, the next they wouldn’t. The first time it happened it was a big deal and we all made a real effort to keep connected – Paul Jacobson was the one I remembered. He was just one of the class, I didn’t really know him or his friends but overnight he became the most popular guy in the school. Those first few times, when it was a big deal, we really tried with the people put on ice – that was what we called it, isolation containment. No-one ever agreed on what the E stood for. I don’t know when we stopped trying so much but after a while it lost its novelty, was just something that happened. People got iced and until they thawed we sort of forgot about them.

The other two, Leah and Cora, didn’t have flags on their records. It showed as clean the same as mine. I was never that comfortable with the language, the inference being that, you know, if you’d isolated you were dirty, but everyone said it was just a reference to being virally clean. Just a medical thing, nothing else. There wasn’t much else to figure out about the three of them. Nobody connected up on social anymore before they met, it was one of the weird things that happened afterwards, the more people’s personal history was made public the less they wanted to share. I still had a private Insta and sometimes dipped back into Twitter but mostly to remind myself why I’d never really bothered with it: getting called out as the toxic generation in an endless echo chamber wasn’t my idea of being social. None of my pending housemates had any kind of footprint online, other than the legislated stuff. Nothing public anyway.

I moved in first. I was back from my year out travelling a little early, there was an alert in Melbourne about a possible recurrence of Covid-32 and the FO advice was to come home. It was okay. I was on the last leg of my trip and felt pretty lucky, I’d made it across most of South America and had a few good weeks in Australia before anything had happened. I knew some people the year before who’d got caught in the big 31 outbreak and got stuck in local lockdown for three months. No one our age could afford travel insurance anymore so they just ended up loading on debt before they’d even started their studying. I was back unscathed and at a loose end so had asked if I could move up to Bristol a week early, try and get a sense of the place. Mainly I just wanted to bag the best room. The house buttressed up against a row of Georgian terraces but it had obviously been built later. It started a new run of more modern houses, individually painted to mark them out as separate: ours was green, our neighbour pale blue, before the rest of the run exploded in pink and yellow. It overlooked the Downs and that alone made my decision to arrive first worthwhile as only two of the bedrooms had that outlook, the other two facing back onto an unloved stretch of concrete instead of a garden and the rear of flats in an adjoining road. I picked the front room on the top floor. It was small but it had the best view.

The day the others were due to arrive I had made an effort to clean the place up for them. Got a bottle of wine for the fridge, picked up some flowers from a shop in Clifton which I haphazardly arranged in a cheap vase someone had left in one of the cupboards, and I pushed the ancient Dyson round. I’d never seen one before. It wheezed a bit. Maybe that’s why people stopped using them, maybe they were all banged up in ICUs, maybe it wasn’t that government contract stuff. It did the job anyway, if the job was to displace dust from one location to another; I managed to make it look presentable as long as you didn’t get too close to the skirting boards. If anyone got that close to the floor they’d probably be drunk so I decided it would be okay.

When the door buzzer rang I jumped up without thinking, surprised myself how much I’d missed company in the last week, how much I was looking forward to meeting some new people. Our intercom had a camera and through the small lens I could see a mess of black hair, dark upturned eyes, lots of mascara. It was April. I buzzed her in.

 

April and April

“How long were you in?”

We’d talked for a while before I asked her. I thought it came up naturally but as soon as I said it, as soon as I saw her eyes glance at the floor, I knew it’d been too soon. And now it was too late.

“I..,” she started.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked. It’s not my business.”

“It’s okay,” she said. There was a pause, her eyes now scanning the ceiling, a drawing in of breath, before she looked back at me. “I thought it was in the records but I can understand why you might want to know. I was in for six months. It was the 27 strain. I don’t know if you remember but it was a bad one.”

I nodded. I felt like I wanted to reach across and touch her hand. Something to signal that I understood but that felt too soon as well. Everyone was more guarded about their personal space now.

“Well, at the start they wanted me away from people for a good two months to be sure and then I turned out to be asymptomatic so they held me longer. Hardly anyone got off without symptoms on 27 so then they kept me to run tests. Just bloods and monitoring. Regular stuff. I got some scars to show off.” She rolled up the loose sleeve of her shirt, showed me the inside of her arm. It was criss-crossed with faint scratches and one longer, angry looking red line towards the crook of her elbow. She saw my face, I must have looked shocked. “It’s cool. It never hurt. The big one was just a new nurse, they all trained up on people a little less pale than me I think. Always took them a bit of time to work up a vein when they were new.” She laughed.

“Six months. Jesus. That must have been rough.”

“It wasn’t too bad. I’m pretty good in my own company and they gave you like the fastest wi-fi you’ve ever had. You never been in an ICU?”

I shook my head. “I got lucky. Tested every week and never seemed to pick anything up. I do remember 27, there were a few in our year that went in but nobody for six months. We all kept in touch with them….”

“At the start. You kept in touch at the start, right?”

She was smiling and I didn’t feel like it was accusatory, or at least not directed at me. I nodded. “Yeah, I guess. It was easier at the start. We were just kids. I like to think I’d be a bit more considerate if it was happening now.”

“It is happening now,” she replied. “Just not to us anymore. We’re clean, right? Too old to be a high risk spread and too young to be a high risk victim. There’s kids in ICUs every day.” She paused and seemed to note my look of apology. “I’m not blaming you. I’m not in contact with anyone in a unit, it is what it is. I guess we could all do more.”

There was an awkward silence. I broke it by pushing back my chair and offering to make tea. I hovered by the kettle, waiting for it to boil, whilst we continued talking.

“How come you didn’t know I wasn’t in a unit?” I asked. We’d all had our records shared.

“I didn’t look,” she said. “It’s not important to me.”

“Because you’re immune?” I started.

“Not that. It’s just not important to me. And they don’t know about immunity. They said I was so unusual in how my system responded to 27 that they thought I might be okay against all strains but I don’t think they know.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought this all up. It was clumsy. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“Honestly, it’s okay.” She smiled, held out her hand as if she sensed my earlier desire to physically connect. I crossed the room as the kettle clicked, at boil, behind me and touched her. She gave my fingers a squeeze and released. “Listen, all of this is hard. No-one gave out rules for how you’re supposed to navigate this stuff. I don’t take offence and I get why you’d be curious.”

“Thank you. I thought I’d blown it on day one.”

“No way. You kidding? Us April’s have got to stick together, right?”

“Too right. About that. Isn’t this going to get confusing?”

“What? You want me to be April 27 or virus April or something?” She raised her eyebrows, tilted her head. I thought she was joking. “I’m joking,” she clarified. “Just in case you haven’t figured me out yet. My sense of humour can be a little dark.”

“Let’s just play it by ear, then. Anyway I suppose it’s not a problem for us. It’ll just be the other two that might get mixed up.”

Almost on cue the buzzer rang. We both looked up and April indicated that I should go and answer it. I looked into the intercom camera for the second time that day and saw a short, slim woman, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, finger still poised over the door bell. A gloved finger. Disposable, surgical gloves.

“Hey,” I said into the intercom. “You must be Cora, right?”

There was a brief moment of static. “Yes, I’m Cora. Can you let me know which April you are? I’d prefer to be let in by the one that never isolated.” A slight pause. “No offence but I just like to be careful.”

I looked across at April to see if she’d caught the exchange. She shook her head, smiling. I couldn’t tell if she found it funny or insulting. She stood up and went across to the kettle to finish up making the tea. Pulled out three mugs. Just as I pressed the button to let Cora in April spoke:

“Let her drink some first but please let me tell her that it was me that made the tea.”

 

Cora Forever

Cora liked to walk the beach in winter. She usually waited for the flag to be changed over to red and she could hear it being slapped by the wind; if it was flapping out its warning then it kept most people away. Most of the newcomers anyway. The tide was going out, waves rising, breaking and leaving behind swirling, foaming eddies as the water receded. She always felt like the sea was breathing and the change to low tide was her favourite, those deep inhalations as water pulled away from the shore. If she closed her eyes she could feel her own breath align with the tide.

They’d arranged to meet in their usual place. It was half a mile down from the town but worth the walk to miss anyone not already put off by the weather. It was still dry but the clouds over the Firth were dark and she’d lived here long enough to know that they probably had an hour before the rain came in. She quickened her step and picked her way across the low dunes, grasses snaking around her ankles, down to the harder sand near the tideline. Her phone vibrated in her back pocket. It was Rob. Two words: they’re here. Cora broke into a run.

He was standing close to the water looking through binoculars across towards the Black Isles. He turned back to look at her as she approached, grinning, and gesturing towards the sea.

“I thought you were going to miss them.” He handed her the binoculars and pointed her in the right direction, guiding her gaze by holding her from behind and leaning his head in close to hers. “Have you got them?”

Cora took a moment to adjust to the focus, the sea magnified in the lenses, the small undulations of the waves exaggerated to vast, heaving swells. The sky was becoming progressively overcast and it was difficult to pick out much detail between the blue-grey of the sea and the encroaching clouds.

“I don’t see anything,” she said, almost lowering the binoculars but she felt his grip on her arm tighten slightly, a silent encouragement to give it a little longer. And then, in a line, breaking surface, three dolphins stencilled on the horizon. She held her breath, steadied her hands, and tracked them as they leapt, skimming the waves with an ease and grace that made her want to laugh or shout or scream. “I see them,” she said. “I see them.”

When the dolphins disappeared Cora twisted round, letting Rob pull her into an embrace, resting her head on his chest. Neither of them spoke and all she could hear was an asynchronous call and response between the ebbing tide in one ear and his heartbeat in her other. Gradually his pulse quietened, slowed, and she pulled her head up and kissed him.

“Your heart beats faster for the dolphins than it does for me,” she said.

“Does not,” he said. He bent to kiss her back but she wriggled free of his arms, laughing.

“Prove it!” she shouted. “Prove it or it’s just dolphins you’ll be kissing for the rest of the winter.”

Rob made a half hearted attempt to catch her but she was too quick. He watched her bouncing on the spot on the sand, ready to spring away from him: he’d spent the last two years chasing her and didn’t think he would ever tire of it. Chasing is good but being caught is better. That was what she’d said that night at McKendrick’s party just before she’d kissed him the first time. He could still remember the taste of her that first time, cherry brandy that she’d regretted the next day. No other regrets, though. He still had that text in his phone.

He found a stick back in the dunes and broke off the end; it was sharp enough to serve as a makeshift pencil in the sand. Cora watched, bemused, as he attempted to draw the shape of a large dolphin, bending over to make incisions in the beach.

“It looks like a shark,” she called.

“Does not,” he said. Pointedly he drew a large cross over his drawing and next to it etched out CORA FOREVER in large capitals, surrounding it with a roughly sketched love heart.

“It’s a bit cheesy,” she said.

“I give up,” he said, standing up and breaking into a sudden fit of coughing. Cora ran back to him, concerned, and rubbed his back until the coughs passed. “It’s nothing,” he said, noting the worry on her face.

“You sure? I heard one of the new families that came up from London had a case, the daughter maybe. She’s isolated now. It’s not right. We had nothing here until they started to come to get away from the towns.” She looked out across the water, the wind had picked up now and was whipping the waves, white-capped, spray rising into the air.

“It’s nothing,” he said again. “I was tested last week. Next one’s in a few days.”

“Just be careful, alright?” she said. She grabbed his hand and pulled him back towards the road at the top of the beach. “Come on, weather’s coming in.” They retreated up the beach as the rain started to fall, leaving behind CORA FOREVER as the only marker that they’d been there that day. The tide turned, inexorably, inevitably, in the night, the sea bit higher up the beach and washed it away.

 

April, Cora and Aps

April moved seats so that she was as far from the door as possible. She wanted to give Cora some space; it wasn’t the first time that people had been uncomfortable around her.  She could hear voices in the hall, a soft Scottish accent lowered so that the words were inaudible. The other April speaking at a more natural volume but with a forced politeness, insisting that Cora came in and that there was nothing to be concerned about. I judge my own risk. April heard that.

April knew what Cora would be doing. Sure enough when they finally came through into the kitchen she was holding her phone, eyes moving from the screen to take in the room, and then back to the screen again. April’s arm was still exposed from where she’d shown her namesake her scars earlier but she wore her MedLet on her right wrist. She rolled up the sleeve and held up the black band, a pale green light emanating from a small face on its outer edge.

“Your phone would have lit up from the street, you know, if I was showing symptoms,” said April. She paused. “Hi, I’m April. But I think you alredy know that.”

Cora sighed and held up her hands. Still ensconced in their gloves.  “Look, I’m sorry. I just like to be careful. I know it’s not the best way to meet people.”

“I guess it’s more honest than those air kisses our parents told us about, right?” said April, smiling. “Listen, I wouldn’t ever put anyone at risk. I never skip a test. I wear my MedLet with pride. My CT is zero.” April knew that Cora would already know her contact trace number: your records showed your viral history and the number of people they thought you’d infected. If you’d had any of the strains it was very unusual to show a CT of zero. Some people liked to see their whole sequence of contacts but most stopped at the straight CT number because they didn’t want to know their CD rate: contact deaths. The official messaging was always the same: it’s not your fault as long as you followed the guidelines but it was hard not to feel culpable.

The other April had busied herself distributing the tea that they’d made just before Cora had arrived. She put two of the mugs on the table and took a sip of her own. Nobody else moved to drink theirs. There was an uncomfortable silence. April rolled her sleeves back down and muttered that she need to sort out her room, unpack. She left, circling Cora, allowing her to step further into the room so that there was always a distance between them.

The two of them left in the kitchen picked up some halting small-talk. Cora’s journey had been long but uneventful; they had both picked Bristol for science courses, April for Chemistry, Cora for Zoology; they had done similar A levels; neither of them had lived away from home before. Cora had no siblings. April did. They got on to nicknames and April let slip that her sisters had always called her ‘Aps’ for short and that maybe the house should do that, save the confusion with two of them having the same name. Cora nodded. She didn’t particularly want to be known as Cor. Only one person had ever called her that. Sensing that Cora had quietened again April – Aps – felt obliged to show that she wore a MedLet as well although she felt sure that she would have done her homework and known that she’d never been in isolation. She remembered something.

“You were never in ICU, were you?” Aps asked.

Cora lowered her gaze but Aps caught the momentary look of sadness in her eyes. “Not ICU, no, but I was in soft isolation once. Just a month. Precautionary, never had anything. Doesn’t go on your record. I don’t really like to talk about it, if that’s okay?”

“It’s not really okay, is it?” came a voice from the door. It was April.

“It’s not something I like to talk about.”

“But it’s okay to come in with all your I judge my own risk and your gloves and your suspicion? It’s okay to refuse to meet me at the door until you’ve run your checks, got the all clear from MedApp?” April saw the untouched tea on the table. “It’s okay to refuse the drink? Let me guess? You’ve got your own mug, haven’t you?”

Cora looked at the floor. “It’s not like that. I just…”

“Just want privacy the rest of us don’t get to have, is that it?” April was shaking her head. “Come on, I’ll leave it alone but at least tell me I was right about the mug.”

The air in the room seemed to have been sucked out. April was staring at Cora, Aps  had turned away, went to rinse the remnants of her tea out in the sink. Cora was slowly shaking in her chair, picking at her fingers until she suddenly peeled off the gloves and lay them on the table. She looked up at April, eyes pricked with tears but she didn’t break her gaze.

“I was in soft isolation because my boyfriend died. He picked it up. He should have been alright, he was healthy, no underlying conditions…” She punctuated each syllable of un-der-ly-ing-con-dit-ions by stabbing her finger into the table in time with her speech. “He should have been alright but he wasn’t. I was in isolation when they cremated him. Alone. He was alone. I was alone. So, now, you just leave me the fuck alone.”

April started to try to say something but Cora stopped her.

“And, yes, of course I’ve got my own fucking mug.”

 

Leah

Her father didn’t understand and his English was good enough that it wasn’t the language barrier that separated them on her decision. He will come around. Her mother had tried to bridge the divide, like she always did, but perhaps she felt like this one was all her fault. Leah didn’t blame her but she didn’t want to stay either. She loved them but it wasn’t enough.

The ferry was back running after the temporary lock-down and she wanted to ride the loop around the lake one last time before she left. Ciao Lia. Andrea was running the boat today and smiled at her as she embarked, waving away her offer the fare. Gratuito. She touched her fingers to her lips by way of thanks. She’d helped out last summer, it had been a good season uninterrupted by any significant outbreak. There’d been a stretch of two months that had almost felt like the kind of summers that her father had told her about; the ones he’d been chasing after when he dragged them back from England. The town had needed the visitors. The subsidies weren’t enough.

The boat was almost empty so she slipped through the door at the stern. Pooled diesel spills on the surface caught refracted rainbows and she stared at them, lost in thought, until they abruptly disappeared in a surge of spray as Andrea gunned the throttle. She inhaled, wanting to hold that smell, rust and oil and the dirty water around the dock, in her memory. It reminded her of when they’d first arrived. An eight year old girl, bouncing in excitement, one hand on the rail, the other clutching her father’s hand as they watched the picture-perfect rows of yellow and orange houses loom larger and larger as they approached their new home. She remembered the mountains framing the town and asking if they were living in a fairytale. Am I the princess, papa? He had ruffled her hair and laughed. Sempre. Sempre. She hadn’t realised he had meant it quite so literally. She rode the ferry across to Varenna, on to Bellagio, and then back.

When she’d told him she thought that her choice of University might soften the blow. He knew Bristol, it was where him and mum had met, they’d even settled there a couple of years after she’d been born. He’d worked as chef whilst mum had juggled looking after her and studying for an accountancy qualification she never finished. They’d always wanted for him to open his own restaurant – I will show them the real Italian food – but it was tough to save in those early years. After the vote in 2016 something changed. Leah never understood why he stopped learning English, why she spent so many evenings lying on her bed listening to raised voices downstairs, or why, one day, her parents sat her down and told her they were going to move. We’re going home. She’d always thought that was an odd thing for her mum to say: she was from Clevedon.

At first it’d been everything her father had promised. He’d taken back on running the family pizzeria, making good on his boast to show off the authentic cooking of his homeland, mostly to tourists but respected enough locally to generate a steady flow of covers even in the off seasons. Leah had gotten used to everyone spelling her name Lia and had quickly picked up Italian. In some ways those first couple of years were the closest her and dad ever were, their conversations running faster and faster as she raced ahead of her mum in her understanding. She even learned to swear in Italian before English, listening to him with his brothers watching Inter on the TV, shouting words she only deciphered by sharing them in the playground to delighted laughter and then explanation. It was the sort of explanation that involved graphic mimes with fingers poked between a circle made with the other hand which, eventually, had meant that her mum had needed to explain a number of other things to her. It was also the end of her being allowed to watch I Nerazzurri. Or, at least, to watch them with her father’s commentary.

It was only after the outbreaks that things changed. The first lockdown in ’20 had hurt the community – they lost friends, the visitors stopped coming, businesses closed – but they’d all assumed it would end. That things would return to normal. The town would bear a scar, they’d always remember, but eventually they would settle back into being the bustling summer hub on the banks of the Como that they’d been before. But then the mutated strains began to appear, each time they thought they’d dampened down the embers there’d be a fresh fire. It was years before the region even settled down into what they now understood as their regular rhythms: open for business, temporary lockdown, open for business, lockdown. At least we are healthy. Her parents put a brave face on it and, somehow, the three of them never fell ill, physically at least, but the staccato patterns of their new existence took its toll on them all.

Leah had decided to leave after the lockdown in ’27. It had been strain 31 or 32, she had given up keeping track, and she’d resolved to take up a place at University in England. In the end she’d deferred for another year, thinking that the promise of helping out in the restaurant and on the boats for one more season might placate her father. It just seemed to make her eventual departure harder, as if he’d read her postponement as a cancellation and felt twice as betrayed when she followed through on her plan to go.

Back from her farewell ferry trip she packed and prepared to leave. He was out and she didn’t expect him back before she had to get the train to Milan. Mum would walk her to the station. The last thing she packed was an old photo of the three of them, taken just after they’d first arrived, down at the front with the lake shimmering behind them. Mum and dad flanked her on either side, the three of them holding hands, smiles radiating in the late summer sun. She kissed the picture and, instead of placing it in her case, she flipped it over, grabbed a pen from her old desk, and wrote on the back of it.

Perdonami, papa. Your princess. Sempre.

 

Aps and Leah

The night Leah arrived April and Cora still weren’t talking, they’d spent a couple of days avoiding each other either holed up in their rooms or ghosting out of the house early in the morning and slipping back in quietly after it got dark. I saw them both, separately, as they ocassionally surfaced for food or a drink and, with me, they were pleasant enough, if a little guarded. I didn’t push it. I hoped with some time that things would settle down and we could all start again. Otherwise it was going to be a very long term.

I liked Leah immediately. She’d arrived at about nine having spent the whole day in transit. Some of it was the actual travel but most of it was the usual series of checks through health security at both borders. Apparently everyone on her flight had been held for an extra set of precautionary tests for a couple of hours after someone showed a slightly irregular temperature. I made a mental note not to bother sharing this detail with Cora. It was tense enough in the house already. Leah seemed to have registered that the atmosphere was a little strained, I guess she picked up my awkwardness when she asked where the others were, but she didn’t press it when I said that they were keeping themselves to themselves at the moment. I think that was why I liked her. She seemed to pick up a lot that was unsaid and had the grace to wait to understand more without being pushy. I guess I envied that in her because it was so unlike me.

She had short, dark, almost black, hair. Audrey Hepburn short. She didn’t look like Hepburn but her hair was kind of similar. I commented that I thought it suited her and made the comparison but she looked confused and said she didn’t know much about old movies. I found a picture online and showed her on my phone; she found it hilarious and just said: I wish. I thought she was being modest, she had high, narrow cheeks and beautiful, laughing eyes that I would’ve killed for. She caught me looking at her but didn’t seem bothered by it. She smiled and it was me that broke eye contact.

We opened the bottle of wine that I’d originally bought for all of us and talked. She teased me a little when I told her about my year travelling, pretended to be upset that I hadn’t visited Italy. I didn’t want to admit that I’d avoided the hotspots in Europe, too many people I’d known had been caught out in lockdown and lost any time they might have been travelling. Like earlier she seemed to silently clock that this was what had happened and let it pass. She told me about her home. I told her about mine. It wasn’t really a fair contest: after she’d played her sun-kissed-banks-of-Lake-Como card I was always holding a losing hand. It definitely trumped a commuter belt town in the Home Counties where the most controversial thing that had happened in my lifetime was when they gave Aldi planning permission to open on the old leisure centre site. Most controversial outside of the Viral Health Act provisions, obviously, but I tried to ignore all that stuff that I couldn’t control.

After we’d seen off two thirds of the bottle some music started playing, audible through the ceiling above. April’s room. It was the first time I’d heard anything like that since the incident with Cora but she’d almost always had a pair of headphones round her neck when I’d seen her. Maybe her bluetooth had dropped out or something. Maybe she wanted to hear something vibrating in the air instead of right there inside her ear. I always preferred music through speakers, I liked to feel it through my body. It didn’t matter what it was, I wasn’t a massive bass-head or anything, I just liked the physical sensation of it. My parents had shown me some old video of when they used to go to festivals, before the restrictions, and it looked like heaven. Looking at them, arm in arm, swaying in a crowd to some 90s band everyone had forgotten left me feeling, I don’t know, left me sad. It seemed strange to grieve for something that you’ve never had but that was how I felt.

Leah looked at me, tilted head, questioning. No sorrow tonight. It’s my first one here. That was all she said before she stood up and, slowly at first, began to move to the music filtering down from above. She closed her eyes, tipped her head back, and danced. After a moment she opened one eye, almost comically, fixed it on me and commanded me to join her. I got up a little unsteadily, it was a while since I’d drunk this much, and the pair of us shuffled in an uneven circle in the middle of the room. The song changed, it was one that I recognised. April must have liked it as she turned it up. I was pretty sure it was The Cure. Close To Me? Was that it? I was spinning now. Maybe the room was spinning.

Leah snatched up the wine and took a swig, passing it across to me. One of the last things I remember was how intimate that had felt, drinking from the same bottle. Intimate and trusting. I drank, tried to take a step back in time with the music, stumbled and fell over, upending the rest of the bottle on my face. Both of us started laughing, neither of us could stop and when Cora and April appeared in the room to see what all the noise was they found us lying on the floor, shaking, faces contorted in manic smiles. I think they were so surprised that neither of them realised they were standing right next to each other. There was something infectious about the laughter. They both cracked and all four of us were left helpless, howling and cackling with uncontrollable glee.

We’re housemates now, okay? Like I said, Leah seemed to know what to leave unsaid but she seemed to know when to find the right words too. That was the start of things being good. They didn’t go bad until much later.

 

Some Kandi Talking

“Who’s this again?” Cora was lying back on the sofa, watching the reflected sunlight from April’s Medlet dart across the ceiling. The music was a dark, droning dirge filling the room. It felt like sinking into the warm honeyed embrace of every one night stand she’d ever had; seductive, noisy, edgy, maybe not that healthy but the kind of mistake you knew you were going to make again anyway. After Rob she’d made a few mistakes.

“It’s The Jesus & Mary Chain,” said April. “Happy When It Rains.”

Cora turned her hands in front of her face, moving them in slow circles in a gentle nod to April’s default dance move. “Another one of those songs? And, happy when it rains, really? Is that, like, your theme song?”

April leant down over Cora, her face looming closer and closer until it blocked out the rest of the room. She stopped about an inch from Cora’s face. “Embrace the darkness, my friend, embrace the darkness.” They both smiled. “Is that my mascara by the way?”

“Well, you have so much I figured you wouldn’t notice…,” replied Cora.

When the others arrived home a couple of hours later they were still in the lounge, Cora now sitting up cross legged, April sat on the floor in front of her, head back in her lap. Cora had braided a few strands of her hair, interlacing them with purple ribbon. April’s eyes were closed and she was softly mouthing the words to a song none of the others knew. I’m not like them, I can pretend.

“Well look at you two,” said Leah.

“April’s been educating me on all the miserable music that we were lucky enough to miss in the late 80s. Now I know why our parents fucked us up so badly,” laughed Cora.

“It’s miserable music you can dance to,” protested April, opening her eyes. “Not this one so much but all the other stuff. And you’re more than capable of being a fuck up on your own without blaming your parents.” Cora poked her tongue out in response.

“Is this Nirvana?” said Aps. She’d come in behind Leah, laden with shopping bags. “That guy that shot himself. You know, the one on the tee-shirt.”

“I’m sure that’s just how he’d like to be remembered,” said April. “Yes, it’s Nirvana. Kurt Cobain is your man. Icon of alienation and isolation.” She flicked off the music streaming on her phone, thumbs flying as she searched for something. She held up a picture of him, blonde hair falling round his face framing blue eyes, a pensive frown.

“He sounds more like he’s your man to be honest,” said Cora. “I like ’em a little sunnier. He’s hot though, I’ll give you that.”

Aps snatched up the phone to look more closely at the picture before rummaging back through one of the bags she’d carried in. She fished out a flyer which she passed over to April as she handed back the phone. “I knew I’d seen him today. I picked this up for you, April, thought it looked like your sort of thing. They were giving them out in the Union.”

The flyer was postcard sized and filled with a picture montage of bands April recognised. Pixies, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr, Stone Roses, Sisters, Mudhoney, Violent Femmes, Cure, Cult, Pulp, Oasis, Blur, the Stones, the Beatles. Kurt’s face was lost in there somewhere, the same shot that had appeared first on her phone. She had seen him today. Emblazoned across the top it read: Kandi Klub presents Club George. Down the bottom were details of the venue: The Thekla, Saturday nights, room limit 100. She shook her hair loose from Cora’s fingers and stood up. “We have to go. Seriously, we have to go to this.”

Cora, curious, plucked the flyer from her and examined it. “You sure they stick to that room limit? Someone told me about The Thekla. It’s that club on a boat, down in the harbour.”

“They have to stick to it,” said Aps. “They’d be shut down within a week if they mess around with that. They’ll have checks going in as well.”

“Come on Cora, it’ll be fun,” said Leah. “I mean, we won’t know any of the music but you can just pretend we’re partying in April’s head for a few hours.”

“So there’ll be dry ice and a strobe?” said Cora looking at April.

“You better believe it,” she replied.

 

Heart of gold

Blame it on Bobby Gillespie. Blame it on the Scream team and Andrew Weatherall. Blame it on the Stones and acid house if you want to go back to the source. It didn’t really matter where you placed it but, afterwards, April knew exactly when they all came around. The precise moment that this one off tourist visit to an old indie disco moved from an exercise in humouring their friend to an essential, no the essential, part of their week. They wanted to get loaded. They wanted to have a good time.

They’d been in the club for about an hour before the DJ cued it up. April knew it instantly, the sleazy drawl of ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’, Primal Scream flirting with Exile era Stones before the full blown affair they’d have later. She knew what would happen as well. She knew the DJ would mix into Loaded during the breakdown, line up the horns across the two tracks, fade out the rock and roll and… wait for it, the drop into those skittering, circular drums once Weatherall had chewed up the original track and spat it back out as a floor filling, killing masterpiece. There was a reason songs had hooks and she knew they were hooked from the grins, from the telepathic agreement to move to the dance floor, exerting its own inevitable gravitational pull now, and she knew from the way Leah leaned in and shouted in her ear: I thought you said it was miserable music you can dance to. She wanted to tell her that was true but there was joyous, mindless, switch-your-brain off, don’t think it, don’t fight it, feel it stuff too. She just nodded her head and raised both hands in the air, span in a circle.

It became their escape. Each week, once they were past the health screen on the door, they descended the steps down into the old boat, moored up, set fast in the harbour, and it felt like stepping out of real life for a while. April liked to disappear into the fog of dry ice close to the stage, dancing on her own to the early songs – the miserable stuff as the others called it – whilst her friends squeezed round a table drinking beers, shouting across at each other over the noise. April would float between their table, swigging at an offered bottle, and back to the floor depending on what songs were playing. Within a few weeks the others knew when it was best to leave her to dance: Freakscene, Add It Up, Velvet Roof, You Got It. Any of those they just sat back and watched her spin and hop, face submerged under her black, cascading hair. Later on when the happy stuff started they all joined her.

They’d never had any trouble before. There had been some pretty low key attention, a few yelled conversations while dancing from some boys they’d gotten used to seeing there every week. Everyone tried to respect the distances you were supposed to keep now; it was kind of accepted it was harder in a club but that was why they had the room limit and the checks on the door. There was one guy that the others were convinced was interested in Aps; they’d catch him looking over or nervously skirting around their space while they danced but all it took to send him scuttling away was for one of them to beckon him over or catch his eye. Leah had taken to winking at him, an over the top, entirely unserious piece of salaciousness. He would always run a mile. Cora wasn’t sure but she thought that maybe Aps wanted them to leave him alone so she could start a conversation more naturally. But it wasn’t going to happen. This was always going to be their night and no-one else was really invited.

There was just that one time that the bubble burst, that reality crashed in. Leah had clocked them when they came in, three guys that immediately hit the bar, loud enough to be heard over the PA. They looked like they’d be drinking for a while, all in suits, ties removed. She didn’t know what the door policy was but the club sold itself as a broad church; she figured it would have been odd to turn them away just for looking too straight, too regular.

It was Cora that had wanted another drink. She signalled to the woman behind the bar  and shouted for a beer when she leaned over to serve her. One of the guys, pin stripe, white shirt, top three buttons undone, moved up the bar and leant in to her shoulder. “Let me get that for you.”

Cora stepped away, holding her hands up to try to indicate both that she was okay and that she didn’t want him in her space. She smiled, warily, and said: “No. Thanks. I’m good.”

He moved up the bar, stopping just short of her, and tried again. “Come on, I’m just trying to be friendly. Let me buy you a drink.”

Cora was about to step away again when she became aware that his friends, the other two, had moved behind her during the exchange. She felt boxed in. One of them touched her back, leaning in to her ear to tell her that his friend was a good guy, give him a break. She felt small and exposed, started silently weighing the distance from the bar to the toilets. The guy offering her a drink took another step, smiled, and ran his hand across her shoulder, pulled her in next to him. “I’m Adam. Pleased to meet you.” Cora tensed and moved to duck away but felt his grip tighten, heard the three of them laughing.

And then April hit him.

Everyone had a slightly different version of it later. The way April told it she had heard the music change to Pulp’s ‘Babies’ and wondered where Cora was. It was the tune guaranteed to get her on the floor. The four of them would shout ‘my god’ in unison with Jarvis at the end of the song and then shuffle away in their own approximations of his louche moves. She’d spotted her trapped at the bar and decided to shoot first, ask questions later. She hadn’t hit him that hard but her fingers were covered in so many rings that she’d left a small imprint of a skull in his cheek. The way Leah told it she’d heard the yells after the first punch landed, saw April clawing Cora away, and had run across to join them. In the confusion she’d kneed one of the others in the balls. The way Aps told it she had just been about to start talking to her shy admirer when all hell had broken loose at the bar, he’d slunk away, and she’d arrived just in time to join in the stage where security was separating them all. The men were asked to leave.

Later, when it was calmer, it hit the point where the DJ played out the happier stuff. They all knew the Primal Scream mix up by now and they all stood up to dance.

It was the part of the night where all their accounts matched: the four of them, arms linked, in a circle, singing to each other: you’ve got a heart of gold, you can’t be bought or sold, you’ve got a heart of gold, baby.

 

Blame it on Bobby Gillespie. Blame it on the Scream team and Andrew Weatherall. Blame it on the Stones and acid house if you want to go back to the source. It didn’t really matter where you placed it but, afterwards, April knew exactly when they all came around. The precise moment that this one off tourist visit to an old indie disco moved from an exercise in humouring their friend to an essential, no the essential, part of their week. They wanted to get loaded. They wanted to have a good time.

They’d been in the club for about an hour before the DJ cued it up. April knew it instantly, the sleazy drawl of ‘I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’, Primal Scream flirting with Exile era Stones before the full blown affair they’d have later. She knew what would happen as well. She knew the DJ would mix into Loaded during the breakdown, line up the horns across the two tracks, fade out the rock and roll and… wait for it, the drop into those skittering, circular drums once Weatherall had chewed up the original track and spat it back out as a floor filling, killing masterpiece. There was a reason songs had hooks and she knew they were hooked from the grins, from the telepathic agreement to move to the dance floor, exerting its own inevitable gravitational pull now, and she knew from the way Leah leaned in and shouted in her ear: I thought you said it was miserable music you can dance to. She wanted to tell her that was true but there was joyous, mindless, switch-your-brain off, don’t think it, don’t fight it, feel it stuff too. She just nodded her head and raised both hands in the air, span in a circle.

It became their escape. Each week, once they were past the health screen on the door, they descended the steps down into the old boat, moored up, set fast in the harbour, and it felt like stepping out of real life for a while. April liked to disappear into the fog of dry ice close to the stage, dancing on her own to the early songs – the miserable stuff as the others called it – whilst her friends squeezed round a table drinking beers, shouting across at each other over the noise. April would float between their table, swigging at an offered bottle, and back to the floor depending on what songs were playing. Within a few weeks the others knew when it was best to leave her to dance: Freakscene, Add It Up, Velvet Roof, You Got It. Any of those they just sat back and watched her spin and hop, face submerged under her black, cascading hair. Later on when the happy stuff started they all joined her.

They’d never had any trouble before. There had been some pretty low key attention, a few yelled conversations while dancing from some boys they’d gotten used to seeing there every week. Everyone tried to respect the distances you were supposed to keep now; it was kind of accepted it was harder in a club but that was why they had the room limit and the checks on the door. There was one guy that the others were convinced was interested in Aps; they’d catch him looking over or nervously skirting around their space while they danced but all it took to send him scuttling away was for one of them to beckon him over or catch his eye. Leah had taken to winking at him, an over the top, entirely unserious piece of salaciousness. He would always run a mile. Cora wasn’t sure but she thought that maybe Aps wanted them to leave him alone so she could start a conversation more naturally. But it wasn’t going to happen. This was always going to be their night and no-one else was really invited.

There was just that one time that the bubble burst, that reality crashed in. Leah had clocked them when they came in, three guys that immediately hit the bar, loud enough to be heard over the PA. They looked like they’d be drinking for a while, all in suits, ties removed. She didn’t know what the door policy was but the club sold itself as a broad church; she figured it would have been odd to turn them away just for looking too straight, too regular.

It was Cora that had wanted another drink. She signalled to the woman behind the bar  and shouted for a beer when she leaned over to serve her. One of the guys, pin stripe, white shirt, top three buttons undone, moved up the bar and leant in to her shoulder. “Let me get that for you.”

Cora stepped away, holding her hands up to try to indicate both that she was okay and that she didn’t want him in her space. She smiled, warily, and said: “No. Thanks. I’m good.”

He moved up the bar, stopping just short of her, and tried again. “Come on, I’m just trying to be friendly. Let me buy you a drink.”

Cora was about to step away again when she became aware that his friends, the other two, had moved behind her during the exchange. She felt boxed in. One of them touched her back, leaning in to her ear to tell her that his friend was a good guy, give him a break. She felt small and exposed, started silently weighing the distance from the bar to the toilets. The guy offering her a drink took another step, smiled, and ran his hand across her shoulder, pulled her in next to him. “I’m Adam. Pleased to meet you.” Cora tensed and moved to duck away but felt his grip tighten, heard the three of them laughing.

And then April hit him.

Everyone had a slightly different version of it later. The way April told it she had heard the music change to Pulp’s ‘Babies’ and wondered where Cora was. It was the tune guaranteed to get her on the floor. The four of them would shout ‘my god’ in unison with Jarvis at the end of the song and then shuffle away in their own approximations of his louche moves. She’d spotted her trapped at the bar and decided to shoot first, ask questions later. She hadn’t hit him that hard but her fingers were covered in so many rings that she’d left a small imprint of a skull in his cheek. The way Leah told it she’d heard the yells after the first punch landed, saw April clawing Cora away, and had run across to join them. In the confusion she’d kneed one of the others in the balls. The way Aps told it she had just been about to start talking to her shy admirer when all hell had broken loose at the bar, he’d slunk away, and she’d arrived just in time to join in the stage where security was separating them all. The men were asked to leave.

Later, when it was calmer, it hit the point where the DJ played out the happier stuff. They all knew the Primal Scream mix up by now and they all stood up to dance.

It was the part of the night where all their accounts matched: the four of them, arms linked, in a circle, singing to each other: you’ve got a heart of gold, you can’t be bought or sold, you’ve got a heart of gold, baby.

 

Lockdown: Leah

The lockdown started on Good Friday. They’d all seen the pulsing amber light on their Medlets, all checked the subsequent notifications on their phones. It was community based, nothing national, the sort of thing that cropped up every few months. More often than not they were false alarms.

“Looks like we’re spending Easter in here, together,” said Leah.

“How convenient, I’d been giving up staying in for Lent,” said Cora. “What is it? Standard trace and erase?” She mimed pointing a gun with her fingers, hands clasped together, brought them up to her lips and blew.

“You’ve been watching too much VSI,” said Leah.

“I love that show,” said Aps. She’d joined them in the kitchen, still in her dressing gown, hair bundled up in a towel. “You know the ‘erase’ is an anti-viral delivered through an injection? They just gave them those stupid dart guns in VSI to make it more dramatic.”

“Next you’ll be telling me real hazmat suits aren’t skin tight and cut to the cleavage.”

“Sorry to spoil it for you. Male Med Police officers don’t regularly have to strip to the waist because their suit’s been compromised either,” said Aps. “And I think they took a fair bit of license with the decontamination showers.”

“True,” said Leah. “I thought the point of a shower was to get clean. Some of those scenes are downright dirty.”

“We’re watching it tonight, right?”

“God, yes,” said Leah.”

In the end the three of them sat up watching old TV shows. April stayed in her room until later, finally coming down to join them as the credits rolled over some hospital drama she didn’t recognise. The others had gotten used to her taking time out to be on her own; just need some time back in my coffin was her stock response if any of them asked if she was okay. It was getting late and the room was dark save for the images on the TV. April lit the pair of candles they had set up above the fireplace and then flicked on the fairy lights that they’d draped around the picture above it. When they’d moved in it had been something the University had left, a picture of balloons lifting off over the Clifton Suspension Bridge, but they’d replaced it with a Rothko print that Cora had picked up in the village. A swathe of red paint with a careless blue rectangle at the bottom. As the weeks had passed they’d each started to stick photos on it, usually just mini print outs of pictures of their nights out.

“April bringing the vibes,” said Cora.

April bowed her head. “I will be your guide through this enforced vigil. I will tend the flames and be the keeper of the holy fairy lights from Wilkos.”

“We used to sit up at home on Good Friday,” said Leah. “It was the most Catholic my dad got. Nothing for the whole year, no confession, no mass, not a whisper, and then Easter would come around and it was like he’d had a visitation. I bet him and mum are sitting there now. He will have dusted off the painting of Saint Pio. It’s the only time he takes down his signed photo of the Inter squad from 2010.”

“You must miss them,” said Aps. “Has he come around yet?”

“It’s complicated,” said Leah. “I do miss them but me and dad are still barely speaking. He’ll appear sometimes in the background on mine and mum’s video calls. Ciao piccola. That’s about as much as I’ll get, maybe a wave, and then he’s gone again. I don’t know. When he gets his mind set he’s pretty hard to budge.”

“Like father, like…,” started Cora. Leah pulled out the cushion she was resting on and flung it across the room at her.

“Hey, I am not at all like that!”

“So, that whole performance last month when you made us stop the Uber because the driver had a Britain Rising tattoo on his neck and we had to walk home across the Downs at half one in the morning, wasn’t, you know, a bit like that?” said Cora.

“Not at all. He was an asshole. You guys need to take that stuff seriously. I know you think all these little far right nationalists are a bit of a joke but that’s how they start. They nearly ruined Italy. Dad hated what happened after all the first waves of infections. Everyone was scared and they took advantage of it, no-one really stopped to work out what we were signing up to,” said Leah.

“You were close, weren’t you,” said April suddenly. She’d taken her usual position on the floor, legs curled up underneath herself.

“Yes, we were. It’s a cliche but I was his princess, he was my papa. He taught me everything about his home – the language, the culture, food, football – and he used to take me out boating on the lake, just so we could talk I think. It was like he wanted to infuse Italy in to me, like he thought he had to make up for the fact that I wasn’t born there. And I loved it. I still love it. In all sorts of ways it is my home but it just got… I don’t know, it just got small.”

“You should call him,” said April. “Not tonight, not whilst he’s enraptured with Saint… what was his name again?”

“Pio,” said Leah. “He’s a biggie. Stigmata, healing, the works. Actually, with the whole stigmata deal you’d probably like him…”

April grinned. “I am a multi-denominational goth. If you insist on labelling me a goth.” She looked down at the long black dress wrapped around her legs, intricate lace detail decorating the hem. “Okay, I am looking pretty gothy today. But I’m interested in all faiths, all creeds, and all peoples, bleeding wrists not essential. Seriously, you should call him. While we’re in lockdown. Call him.”

It was late. Aps had already been yawning for the past half hour, so, one by one, they turned in for bed. Leah was last up, pausing to switch off the fairy lights, leaving their mosaic of pictures scattered across the Rothko illuminated just by the candles. The faces of her friends flickering in and out of view in the dancing light. One of the photos was a passport sized shot of Menaggio, one of hundreds she’d taken from the lake that summer she’d helped out running the ferries. The sun was slipping down past the mountains behind the town leaving it bathed in a warm, darkening orange glow. She touched the image with one hand, executed a half-remembered sign of the cross with her other, and whispered good-night.

 

Lockdown: Cora

The second day was always the hardest. There were too many memories bound up in day two, too many things had happened, too fast, that each time she was locked down now Cora knew she would relive them. This time almost too slowly to bear. Day two was the last day she’d spoken to Rob.

‘That’s some cosy looking isolation, wish I could join you’. That first morning he’d called her from the ICU in Inverness, pretty much as soon as he’d cleared the decontamination process and been admitted. They’d talked. They’d both kept it light. People went into isolation all the time, people came out all the time. Cora hadn’t seen inside one of the units before and so Rob gave her a mock tour of the room, flipping the camera from front to back on the tablet they’d given him and walking it round. From some angles you might have thought he’d moved to some new student digs, was settling into a one of those small halls-of-residence bedrooms, maybe ten square feet, bare walls waiting to be covered in posters, single bed, a chair, a desk. The details gave it away though. If you saw the bottom of the bed you could see the metal frame and the hydraulics that would lift and move its mattress; you’d see the wheels locked by brakes; you’d see pristine sheets tucked tight under the corners with a precision that didn’t belong to a first year undergraduate. If you saw the floors you’d see them flow up and into the walls, all nooks and crevices that might host dust or debris sculpted away in the design. If you were shown the tiny wet room adjoining, separated by a hanging, plasticky curtain, then you’d see the pull cord next to the toilet marked emergency, and you’d see the fold out shower chair attached to the wall. Most of all, as the camera swung around, Cora saw the medical monitor, a black LCD screen criss crossed with lines and numbers she didn’t understand. 

Cora had some old video on her phone of the day they’d gone up to Fort George. It was the footage she always came back to when she missed him; she liked to see him move, it was how she remembered him, full of energy and life. It was just a couple of sequences of them goofing around: Rob marching across the wooden slatted bridge at the Fort entrance and swapping salutes with a party of young kids being shepherded out by their teacher; Rob sitting astride one of the cannons overlooking the battlements out to the sea, her calling ‘if only’ and then the film shaking, briefly flipping to a view of the sky, as he jumped down and ran across to lift her in a hug. The video stopped but the memory ran on in her mind.

All through that first day they’d been in contact. There were times that he’d have to dial off, the hiss of the door decompressing signalling the arrival of a masked nurse or doctor. She never saw what they did, never really saw them at all, not properly at least. All she could see was just a pair of eyes behind protective goggles. In those gaps whilst they couldn’t speak she imagined their lives, sketched out a fictional version of these people that she had never met, these people that were looking after Rob. She gave them names and friends, lovers, family. She sent them on holiday, stripped them out of their scrubs and put them in swimming trunks and bikinis, let them splash in a hotel pool or swim some stretch of deserted shoreline. Somewhere hot. She made them endless cups of tea. She stole into their houses on Christmas Eve, after they went to bed, and padded out the pile of presents under their trees. She knitted them scarves, gave money to their favourite charities, watched them cheer on their football team (she always made it Caley), listened to their dreams, and whispered hope in their ears when they got scared. The first couple of times it was the same nurse. Cora had managed to blurt out her thanks before he’d made Rob switch off the camera, he’d waved to her briefly and said sorry that he had to cut them off. The others never had time to acknowledge her but that was okay. She understood. She was the one with all this useless time and so she imagined them all, talked to them all, thanked them all.

However many lockdowns she’d been through Cora knew that they’d all, always, be about that first one. When they’d taken her to soft isolation – no symptoms, all screening clear, just a precaution – she’d been so numb that she could barely process what was happening. There was someone inside of her screaming, scorched in agony, but she had hidden her away. She wasn’t for anyone else to see. Nobody could help her anyway. Everyone said the same thing, that it would take time, that it would get better with time, give it time, take your time, time heals. She didn’t believe it then and, now, she knew that time didn’t change how you felt about what happened: you just learned to carry the pain better.

The second day they only spoke once, early in the morning. Contact was restricted during the night so that patients could rest. Cora hadn’t really slept, impatient for the time that they were allowed to restore their link. She was tired from her restless night and from keeping up the face they’d both, undiscussed, agreed on as their way to see this through. When her phone started to vibrate she almost dropped it in her eagerness to answer. She slid the ‘call accept’ button on the screen and Rob’s face appeared. All her pent up anticipation melted into anxiety. He looked pale, stubble on his cheeks standing out in contrast to his grey-white pallor. He was coughing almost as soon as the call started and seemed to need a few moments after each sentence to catch his breath. She told him to rest, to not speak, just lay down and listen to her voice. She stumbled over repeated reassurances that everything would be okay, that he was in the best place, that he was young and healthy and there was nothing to worry about. It’s just a bad strain, this one, everyone’s saying it. Just a bad one but we’ll get through it. Just lie down and rest. She didn’t know whether she was saying it all for him or for herself. They spent a few minutes in silence. Rob had rolled on to his side on the bed and had propped up the screen against the wall, facing him. It seemed to help his coughing and she watched his chest settle into a steady rise and fall. They stayed like that until she heard the door open in his room and a gloved hand reached over to switch off the screen. 

She’d never told him that she loved him. That was what she remembered in lockdown now. That second day, in those few moments on that call, she hadn’t told him. She knew that he’d known, he must have known, but she hadn’t told him. On the days that she was kinder to herself she knew it wasn’t anybody’s fault, that neither of them could have known that they wouldn’t speak again, but she didn’t always have days when she was kind to herself. And she never had them during lockdowns.

 

Lockdown: Aps

I hadn’t told the others yet that he’d started messaging me. I don’t think they’d noticed us talking in the club, it was the week after April had hit that idiot that had been harassing Cora at the bar. They can’t have noticed because there’s no way they would have kept their mouths shut. It had seemed to happen quite naturally in the end, I’d turned away from the bar and bumped in to him, spilling most of my drink over his arm. It seemed natural although I was a bit suspicious that he’d finally decided that the only way he could work up the nerve to speak to me was by forcing us into a collision. He’d insisted it was all his fault – it wasn’t – and bought me another drink. I think the others were dancing to Marilyn Manson but I didn’t like the heavier stuff.

“His real name’s Brian,” he shouted over the noise.

“Your name’s Brian?” I shouted back, mishearing.

“No. I’m James,” he said, leaning in slightly closer to be heard. “Marilyn Manson. His real name is Brian. Kinda funny isn’t it?”

I shook my head, decided to have some fun with him. “Not really, James. My name’s Bryony and I’ve got a brother called Brian. It’s been in my family for generations. My dad can trace us back to Brian’s in the seventeen hundreds.”

For a moment I thought I had him. He looked down, raised his palms in apology, and was just about to stammer an apology when he caught the smile on my face, noticed the eyebrow raised in what I hoped gave me a look of arch amusement and not one of someone who’d had half a botched face lift. He laughed and apologised anyway. He spent quite a lot of the conversation apologising but I found his gentle nervousness kind of sweet. Unthreatening. And he had kind, green eyes that peered out from under a mop of curly brown hair. I wasn’t sure if I fancied him but there was something about him that I liked.

We’d swapped numbers at the bar and he’d left with a bunch of friends before the others reappeared from the dance floor. He’d messaged me the next day. I thought that was kind of sweet as well but I left an industry standard two days before I texted him back. Since then we’d been in touch pretty much every day and just before lockdown I was going to suggest we meet up, it was becoming evident that I’d be waiting quite a while if I wanted him to make the first move. It was still sweet and way preferable to the guy in the first term that had started sending me unsolicited dick pics but I did want him to show a bit of courage. Some backbone. Just, you know, no other kind of bone.

Lockdown had brought a different intensity to the messages. I figured he’d done the same thing as me and was using his laptop to write instead of his phone and it had meant that our exchanges grew longer. It felt almost old fashioned, like we were in a Jane Austen novel. Was that right? Were they the ones where formal gentlemen wrote stately letters of courtship to regal ladies? What did I know. I was a chemist and checked out of English at GCSE. Anyway, we moved from half sentences, emojis and gifs to paragraphs and punctuation. I had a suspicion that he was looking to hit me with some poetry.

On the third night he sent me a link to a livestream happening in a couple of hours. Phoebe Bridgers. I knew her a little bit, my eldest sister, Hannah, used to make me playlists to, in her words, educate me when I was younger. She tended to have songs that she’d regularly string together in sequence, little patterns that she was obviously pleased with, or maybe she just forgot that she’d put them on some of the other mixes for me already. One went from Fiona Apple’s cover of ‘Across The Universe’ in to Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Motion Sickness’ and then out to the whole of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ album. It was a great record but I wasn’t sure if she meant to add all of it or just made a mistake. I never asked her because she got a bit prickly if I questioned anything to do with her music. I always thought she was a bit snobby about it; she still hasn’t really forgiven me for going to that Little Mix reunion gig last year.

It was pretty late by the time the stream started but it was coming from the East Coast in the States so we must have been a few hours ahead. I had my screen divided between the music and a chat window with James. I didn’t really notice at first but after the first few songs I realised that he wouldn’t message me whilst she was singing, like he was at a real gig and didn’t want to talk during the songs. If I was honest I was finding him a bit too intense. It was getting a bit claustrophobic in the house as it was, I knew Cora was particularly finding it tough, and I was looking for an escape, a connection. In a way it wasn’t fair to try and judge how this might go when things went back to normal, everyone coped with the lockdowns differently, but then I guess that these periods of community quarantine were part of ‘normal’ now so maybe it wasn’t so unfair after all. I think I just wanted to imagine that if we ever really watched her play in concert that, at some point he’d reach for my hand and not let go until we were both clapping her back for an encore. It was late and I was tired. I left the laptop running but crawled into bed as she was finishing up another one I knew from my sister. It was another sad one but that was Hannah. I drifted off with the song’s coda whispering me down into sleep: anyway don’t be a stranger, don’t be a stranger.

 

Lockdown: April

April used the time on lockdown like she’d always done: she read and studied, listened to music, drank wine in the evenings. She sensed the slight edginess in the rest of the house but just shut it out, retreated behind her thoughts, and bunkered down with books, a bottle, and Bowie. That first one, six months in the ICU, had been the hardest but even then she felt like she’d coped okay… and that was before she’d added alcohol to her distractions. They frowned on that when you were fourteen. This one was only four days old, routine community contact trace, would probably be over tomorrow.

There were tests coming up at the end of term so she read back through her notes on the set texts. It was probably adding to the tension the others were feeling, particularly the scientists who rarely passed up an opportunity to point out the imbalance in workload between their courses and April’s. She was prepared to cede the point to Cora and Aps but not Leah. Surely Psychology didn’t count? Pseudo science at best. Leah had spent an hour after that comment trying to explore what had happened in her upbringing that might explain her suspicion of trying to understand the workings of the human mind. It hadn’t convinced April any more of the scientific basis of the discipline. She was content to tell her that spending six months in solitary in your formative teenage years was enough time inside of your own head to not need anyone else to try and explain it to you. She mostly believed it.

The tests didn’t bother her. They never did, she’d always excelled at them. All of them except the ones that had been carried out on her. Those ones she seemed to have consistently failed or how else to explain why they’d kept coming back to carry out more? She looked at the faded red lines across the inside of her arm, faint fractured traces of her time in containment. She knew they’d been looking for a vaccine. They never quite came out and said it but she heard enough snatches of conversation between consultants and doctors and nurses to piece it together. Her parents knew more than they were letting on, too. They just kept telling her that there was nothing to worry about, they just wanted more tests because they thought she was special, thought she might help them figure out more about the mutations. April had never asked them much about it after she was released – sorry, reintegrated – because she’d stopped believing they would tell her anything she hadn’t worked out for herself. She didn’t even blame them but when she was older she did wonder exactly what they had known.

They’d talked a lot about her scars in the few months after coming out. Once a week with a dermatologist and twice a week with a therapist. We need to heal your psychological scars as well as your physical ones. Maybe that’s why she was a bit dismissive of Leah’s academic calling. Too much time having her thoughts and feelings prodded and pulled by well meaning strangers. Why don’t you use these crayons to express how isolation felt to you? Have you tried writing a story to explore that? You can change how you’re feeling, April, tell me, what do you believe about yourself? She’d preferred the dermatology. Lie back and let them apply some balms directly to the surface of her skin. None of this scratching around under it.

There had been one therapist, when she was about seventeen, that had stuck at it longer than the others. She was never quite sure whether her parents moved her on to someone new or if, privately, they waved a little white counselling flag and gave up. She won’t talk about how she feels. You can’t administer talking therapy if someone won’t talk about how they feel. The persistent guy was called Dr Lau. Anthony. She liked him despite herself. He’d said to her early on that she was probably going to get fed up with him repeating the same questions, making the same points, regular as a metronome. She hadn’t known what that was and when he’d told her she’d said it sounded a bit like a drum machine; she’d just gotten into the Sisters and told him about the one they used, Doktor Avalanche. It’s settled then, I will be your drum machine and you may call me Doctor Avalanche. She couldn’t really take him seriously when he called himself that but when she thought about it now she wondered if that had been his point. He had gotten her to talk.

What else makes you happy? That was one of his sessions. It was shortly after she’d told him about the Sisters, with probably a more detailed account of Wayne Hussey’s exit than he’d necessarily wanted for clinical purposes, and this was his follow up. Even then she was savvy enough, guarded enough, to recognise what this was. He’d patiently taken notes as she’d enthused about the early singles, listened intently to her make the case for them as punk band, really, not a goth one. It was all in the spirit of the thing, that was her point. She could feel herself speaking, in the moment, and there was nothing self-conscious about it, no division between thought and word, no accompanying bone dry commentary from internal April. And she knew that was what he wanted because she knew he thought that would be the source of her truth. That would be the route to all the insecurities and anxieties and issues that they all thought must be there from the six months locked up on her own. For a moment she had felt out of control but only for a moment. She composed herself and reeled off a pre-prepared list of things that she always said made her happy: her parents, her friends, school, shopping. Avalanche just nodded and made some more notes.

It hadn’t all been a lie. Not in retrospect at least. If she was speaking to him now and if she was honest with him now then she would still say ‘friends’. She hadn’t expected to enjoy sharing a house as much as she had and she couldn’t imagine not seeing Cora, Aps, and Leah every day now. What else would she tell him? Holding a sip of purple-black Shiraz in the roof of your mouth, letting the cherry and tobacco flavours seep into your tongue and down your throat. Reading the description of blank, silent snow drifting into the warm office of William Stoner in John William’s novel. She knew all her therapists would have a field day with that one. So you enjoy the metaphorical encroachment of winter into a place of comfort and security? The ridiculously grandiose choral introduction to This Corrosion; so huge and confident. Wagner and Jim Steinman’s beautiful bastard offspring. Dancing. That made her happy. Particularly on her own. Imagining she could see herself suspended as a sequence of snapshots, frozen through a fog of dry ice by the pulses of a strobe. Listening to the others talk, sitting just on the periphery and observing their lightness, their ease, their grace. She was sure that’s not how they saw themselves necessarily but that was what she saw. Their joy. That made her happy.

All of that stuff’s external, isn’t it? Things you observe or consume or experience. Avalanche would have said something like that. What about you? Inside you. What makes you happy from in there? That was where he’d been going with that line of questioning, that line of attack as she would have seen it then, and that was why she’d put the shutters up again.

She wasn’t sure she knew the answer, even now. She wasn’t entirely sure there was one.

 

No kiss and tell

“So how was it?” asked Leah as soon as Aps let herself in to the house.

“I am not taking questions at this time,” said Aps, slipping her denim jacket off and slinging it across the bannister in the hall. The last couple of weeks had been warm, late Spring looking like it was going to full bloom into Summer, and they’d all been grateful that lockdown had been short.

“Oh, you so are,” said Leah, grabbing her by the shoulders and guiding her into the kitchen. “Check you out with the strapless dress and the perfume and the hair cascading just perfectly across those exposed shoulders. It must be getting serious. Tell me everything.”

“Are you hitting on me?” said Aps, smirking. “It wasn’t for him. I dress to make myself feel good.” Leah raised her eyebrows and nodded sarcastically. “And anyway this is just an old halter my sister didn’t want anymore. Nothing special.”

April had heard their voices and set aside the essay she was working on to join them. She  stopped in the doorway to the kitchen and turned to Leah throwing her arms up in exaggerated surprise. “Leah, who is this pretty, pretty lady? You did not tell me we were expecting a guest?”

“We’re really going to have to do some more work on those gestures,” said Leah. “You need to give it the full Italian. Like I showed you. I’m only half Italian and even I can give it full.” She stood up and threw her arms explosively, catching the lightshade above the kitchen table, leaving it swinging in the ceiling.

“Hey, I’d quite like to get the deposit back when we leave,” said April, reaching up and grabbing the shade, stopping it from moving. “I’m prepared to sacrifice fully playing out a stereotype for that.”

“It’s only a stereotype because it’s true. I can say that, you can’t.” said Leah. “We’re an expressive people.”

“Expressive is not my strongest suit,” replied April. “Anyway, I think we’re getting sidetracked. You were going to introduce me to this mysterious, beautiful stranger. She looks sort of familiar. Like someone I used to know… just, I don’t know, just shinier.”

Aps ran the tap and poured herself a glass of water, listening to them continue their performance. She said nothing until she was reasonably sure they’d finished.

“Alright, I’ll spill,” she said. The others pulled up chairs.

“Wait, I need to prepare myself,” said Leah. “What are we talking, here? Is this all going to be strictly rated PG, mild peril, moderate swearing, or are we settling in for an 18?”

“Well, spoilers, there’s no scenes of a sexual nature,” said Aps. “There may be violence soon though if we make it to a fourth film.”

“I’m not going to pretend I’m not a bit disappointed at the lack of adult themes in this story but impending violence sounds interesting. Continue,” said Leah.

“There’s not that much to tell. It was nice. He was nice. Is nice. Listen, I do think I like him, he’s sweet and attentive and he’s pretty funny when he remembers that he doesn’t have to be nervous,”

“How many dates now?” asked April.

“If you don’t count the online chat in lockdown then this was number three. So there’s nothing to stress about, right? It’s early days. There’s something there. Or at least I think there is. Maybe he doesn’t feel anything. Maybe we’ll just be friends.” Aps smiled at them.

She had enjoyed the time with James again, a walk across the Downs and a coffee in Clifton. He’d told her about a couple of bands he wanted to see over the summer, they’d talked a bit about what it must have been to like to go to Glastonbury, what it must have been like to be in any big gathering outside of a place where all the usual health checks could be run on everyone attending. They’d talked a bit about their families, his parents were both in medicine but he didn’t have the grades and was studying Politics. He’d started to talk earnestly about the balance between individual freedoms and what was good for society but had stopped himself. Aps thought he’d misinterpreted her reaction, mistakenly thought she wasn’t interested but he’d changed the subject even after she’d said that her listening face looked a lot like her bored face. She told him about her sisters, joked that he’d probably get on better with her eldest sibling. They could make playlists for each other.

“Surely he took the hint when you said he might prefer your sister?” said April.

“Not so much,” said Aps. “The stupid thing is that I think he is interested, he’s just pretty shy and pretty bad at picking up signals.”

“Do you want us to intervene?” said Leah. Aps looked genuinely horrified.

“God, no. There’s a reason I haven’t suggested he comes back here. It’s taken me three dates to get him to hold eye contact for more than three seconds. I’m going to stick with it a bit longer. You have to promise, by the way, to behave on Saturday. He’s going to the Kandi and I said I’d see him there.”

“I’ll keep them in line,” said Cora. The others didn’t know how long she’d been there, she must have slipped in whilst they were talking and was stood leaning on the doorframe. “He sounds promising. Quiet and slow can work out good. Take it from me, Rob was like that early on.” She said it quietly, eyes down, but she lifted her head back up and smiled at Aps.

“You know we wouldn’t really freak him out, don’t you?” said Leah, contrite. “Unless you want us to, obviously.”

“Don’t worry,” said Aps. “I’m going to let him take it slow I think.” She paused. “Or I might see how many drinks he has Saturday and then just push him into a dark corner and kiss him.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Leah. “We’ll cut off his escape route.” She caught Aps’ frown. “Sorry, not that he will want to escape, of course.”

“Nobody would want to escape the pretty lady,” said April, clutching her hands together and shaking them in front of her face.

“Still not enough,” said Leah. “More expression.”

“They’ll be carving that on my grave,” said April.

 

Kiss and no tell

I woke up and I could hear a shower running next door. I knew I was in his room, in his bed, kind of naked in his bed. None of that was a surprise. I hadn’t been so out of it that I didn’t remember, it just took me a bit of time to piece it back together. I tried to see if my clothes were in reach or if I was going to have to risk ducking out from under the duvet before he reappeared from the shower. I couldn’t see them.

So, last night. From the top. We’d met as planned at the Kandi Klub and as promised the girls had left us alone to talk. I had occasionally caught a glimpse of Leah pulling faces at me over his shoulder but nothing that he would see. He’d seemed a bit more sure of himself than usual which I’d hoped was him finally relaxing around me, the whole shy-nervous-sweet thing was starting to wear thin. I thought there was some chemistry but I didn’t usually like to really judge until I’d kissed someone. Someone said that was a bit shallow but I never thought so; I wasn’t judging him, I was judging us, together, whether or not we were going to be a thing. Okay, I was probably judging him a bit. I’m a spectacular kisser.

He’d had a couple of drinks already and I topped him up. He wasn’t drunk but he was definitely looser, it was the first time we’d danced together. Or, you know, sort of awkwardly facing each other in amongst our circle of friends who were also dancing. I don’t think you can dance together in an indie club anyway. It wasn’t even the sort of place that stuck a slow one on at the end. The DJ usually faded the lights up to Daydream Believer so the most you might manage is holding hands, lifting them in to the air, and swaying in a mass singalong. Anyway, we danced. After a while I beckoned him off the floor, gestured that we should get another drink.

I was probably a bit buzzy from the couple of beers I’d had and the dancing. As we walked toward the bar I’d grabbed his hand, met with no resistance, and guided him off to a table back under the stairs that led down from the entrance. I sat him down and he looked, momentarily, a bit startled, like he’d sobered up very quickly and remembered that he was Mr shy-nervous-sweet. I didn’t really want him to remember that, it was no good for my purposes, and so I leaned in and started to kiss him. He tasted faintly of beer but I assumed I did too so that was okay. I’d closed my eyes so I couldn’t see if we’d managed to banish the unsure guy between us but from the movement of his lips, the push back from his tongue, I was pretty sure we had.

I don’t remember that much about the taxi, other than it was unusual to get one. Most nights me and the girls would walk back home, grab something to eat on the way. He’d suggested it straight after I’d suggested that maybe I should go back to his. I thought I should spare him running the gauntlet with my housemates and, to be honest, I sort of preferred it this way round. It meant I could leave when I wanted to, either that night if our flickering chemistry didn’t catch light, or the next morning. Assuming I could find my clothes.

I remember how it started. I’d asked for the tour, before his housemates got back, and stopped him in his room. I kissed him again and asked if he minded if I stayed over. From that point on I kind of led him through it, unbuttoning his jeans, slipping my shirt off over my head, guiding his hands to my hips. After that it wasn’t so elegant, both of us fumbling at our remaining clothes, removing everything and doing that thing where you’re both sneaking a look but both racing for the security of the duvet at the same time. As I reached to kiss him again I must have caught him with the edge of my MedLet, enough for a short intake of breath, so I whispered an apology and took it off, put it on a table by the bed.

And that was it. Last night, from the top. I’ve missed a bit out obviously but, sad to report, it was quite a short bit in the end. Sweet but short. I don’t want to sound mean but the sex took less time than it took him to get the condom on. I wondered if we’d talk for a bit and he’d be one who might come back around for another go but he fell asleep almost instantly. I toyed with the idea of leaving then but I wasn’t sure if I could find everything in the dark without waking him and I didn’t want to have a conversation about wanting a main course but just getting a starter. I guess I do sound mean. I’ll dress up his performance for the girls though, I’m not that mean.

The shower stopped running and I listened to the sounds of him doing whatever it is that boy’s do in the bathroom. No toilet flushing, thankfully. He came back in, fully clothed, rubbing at his damp hair with a towel. He seemed to clock that I was a bit uncomfortable and picked up my clothes, which I now saw folded in a pile on a chair by the bathroom, and passed them to me. It was weird that all my bravado from last night was as easily undone by the thought of him picking up and folding my knickers away.

He left me to get dressed. I said I’d call him.

 

Aps arrested

I had thought about walking the long way home in the early sunshine, taking an extended morning after walk of shame or stride of pride depending on your point of view. I wasn’t ashamed to be honest but it hadn’t been a night to take much satisfaction in either. The amble of ambivalence? Whatever. My desire for a shower trumped all.

I was half way back when they stopped me. Two police officers approached from Redland Park, I didn’t think much about it until they got a little closer and I realised they hadn’t shifted their gaze from me. They were wearing the mask attachments on their helmets, I’d only really seen that in footage of what they did during lockdown, patrolling. You didn’t see it on the streets; if they needed masks you were usually indoors.

“We need to take you back to the station, Miss Daniels,”

I’d read about the CCTV and ID bank upgrades but it still took me by surprise to be addressed by name. “I don’t understand…,” I started.

“We’re placing you under arrest under the Viral Health Act, 2024….” It was the guy that continued talking, reading out my rights, but I didn’t hear the words. I felt exposed, rubbed at my arm and wished that I hadn’t taken my jacket off. It was the other one, the woman, that placed a firm, gloved hand on my shoulder and began to escort me up the street. They didn’t say much and I was too shocked to make much sense, just repeatedly asking what I had done. “We’ll tell you more when you’re secured from the public, Miss Daniels.”

They had a car parked around the corner on Whiteladies Road. I sat in the back, a screen sealing them off from me. It must have been soundproof because I could see the guy talking into a walkie-talkie but I couldn’t hear him. She drove. No sirens, no flashing lights, just me sitting in silence as we passed the University. I thought there was a police station down near the Royal Infirmary so I assumed we were going there. I only knew where the Infirmary was because directions to the nearest hospital had been in the student welcome pack we’d all got, part of the viral awareness literature that had been pushed on us since we were at school but updated a bit now we were older. Mainly stuff about risks through fluid exchange, the old romantics. I was feeling a little calmer, the strange quiet in the back of the car had helped me gather my thoughts. It must be a mistake. Or something silly. It’ll be fine.

In the station they took me straight to a temporary ICU. I didn’t even know they had them but so many places had isolation units for emergencies now that it didn’t surprise me. Technically it wasn’t a cell and they didn’t seem to lock the door but someone stayed outside the whole time, I could see him through the porthole window. They told me that someone would attend to me soon and to make myself comfortable. I paced up and down for a bit and tried to think through what I needed to ask, what I was entitled to. Most of my police procedural knowledge was from that night me and the girls had watched those VSI re-runs and I was pretty sure screaming for my attorney wasn’t going to help. I didn’t have one, for a start, unless Jane Atkins, a girl I’d met in the first term who was studying law counted, and I had a nagging feeling they weren’t even called attorney’s in the UK. All the times someone had asked for a phone call on the show seemed to have worked though so maybe that was legit.

Eventually a woman came in, asked me a few health questions, and requested to take a blood test.

“Listen, you can refuse,” she said. “But then I just have to get a warrant processed as part of your arrest and we do the test anyway and all you’ve achieved is some time and pissing everyone off.”

I let her scratch into my arm, it didn’t seem like a big deal. She even managed a thin smile and a muttered ‘thank you’. As she was finishing up, blotting a small piece of cotton wool onto the place she’d made the incision, deftly taping it down, she moved her hand down my arm and tapped my bare wrist.

“You know why you’re here, right?” She tapped again and looked at me and I realised I wasn’t wearing my MedLet. The good parts of last night came back to me, the kissing parts, the undressing parts, the taking off my MedLet part.

“It’s just a mistake,” I said quickly. “I haven’t got any symptoms, I’m not hiding anything. I just stayed at a friend’s house last night, I must have taken it off to sleep and forgotten it. You can’t be serious?”

She smiled, glanced up at my slightly disheveled hair. “Well I hope your ‘friend’ was worth it because, unfortunately, failure to wear a health monitoring and tracking device is serious and can carry a big penalty. Let’s hope you’re not carrying. You might just get a caution if you’re clean.”

“What do we do now?” I said.

“I need some time to run the test diagnostic. In the meantime you wait here.”

My earlier calm had evaporated now and all I could think to lean on were some of the lines I’d rehearsed in my mind earlier. “Can I make a phone call?”. She nodded, said to use my own mobile but she’d wait while I just made one. I didn’t know who could help or what anyone was allowed to do. I called Leah and burst into tears when she picked up. She listened as I explained what had happened, forcing the words out through sobs and shortness of breath. There was no hesitation on the other end of the line.

“Hang on, Aps, we’re coming.”

 

To the station

Fifteen minutes. That was if the traffic was good. Could be twenty. Leah looked at her phone again, checked the time, flicked open the Uber app. Still showing five minutes away which, based on the last ten minutes, was a lie. Say it was five minutes that meant a minimum of twenty until they could get to Aps. She thought about ringing the driver. April and Cora were over by the window, pulling back the curtain to keep an eye on the street. A black Tesla pulled up outside. The five minutes wasn’t a lie. The latest five minutes at least.

None of them really spoke in the car and the driver had taken this as his cue to turn his radio up, some rock station that April vaguely recognised as something she’d tried when 6 Music had been decommissioned. Some song none of them knew pushed them out onto the pavement outside the police station; a blast of pounding noise and someone singing about gambling. As the Uber door shut behind them and they were left with just the traffic noise on the street, a muffled don’t forget the joker shouted from the radio in the car behind them, Leah realised she had no idea what they were supposed to do.

In the moments after Aps had called it had all been clear. Our friend is in trouble: we go and help her. Nothing to contemplate, nothing to consider, no doubt. How do we get from here to her? The problem was as simple as that but now that problem had been solved, what now? None of them had dealt with this before. Leah was uncomfortably aware that the others were looking to her to guide them. What? Just because she called me? She wondered at that: why had she called me? But now wasn’t really the time. Leah led them inside, through a revolving door. If it wasn’t for the sign announcing The Bridewell Police Station it could have been any other office block, glass panelled walls demarcated into rectangles by red, steel strips. Beyond the initial door there was a decompression zone that was pretty common in large buildings, an expanse of space ended by a series of health screen machines that you had to proceed through to be allowed access further inside. Standard temperature check and cross reference to the national viral health register.

Leah cleared the health screens last. She should have expected it; her EU registered status always took longer to clear now in the UK, there were just more cross references back to the Italian database where her main health records sat. April and Cora were already at the enquiry window as she caught up.

“…we just want to make sure she’s okay,” Cora was saying to a dead pan police woman. She was ensconced behind a screen, mainly some sort of frosted glass that you couldn’t see through but with a clear window through which her head was visible. They were speaking through an intercom. She looked bored.

“What are they saying? Can we see her?” said Leah.

“No, you can’t see her,” replied the police woman, Inspector Martin from her name badge. “She’s still being processed under the terms of her arrest.”

“Can you at least tell us what she’s been arrested for?” said April. “It must be some kind of mistake.”

There was just a shake of a head in response and a gesture that they should all move to sit in the waiting area, a stretch of moulded plastic chairs bolted to the floor. There was a vending machine but most of the numbers displayed against its range of drinks had been scratched out. The three of them sat down. April got up again, walked up to the machine and looked at it.

“Anyone for a hot drink lottery?” she said. The others shook their heads. She swiped her contactless card and punched three numbers: two, two, three. Nothing. She tried again: one, one, two. This time the machine stirred, dropping a cup and filling it with a squirt of some unidentifiable black liquid topped off with hot water. It passed as black coffee and April cradled it back to join Cora and Leah.

“What do we do now?” said Cora.

“We wait, I guess,” said Leah.

“But we can’t do anything.”

“But we came. I think that’s all we could do,” said April. “We’ll be here when she gets released.”

“If she gets released,” said Cora.

“When,” said April. She blew across the top of her coffee and took a sip.

It was three hours before Aps was released, on a caution. In that time they discovered that 112 was definitely black coffee, 114 might have been a cappuccino, and 220 was the worst cup of tea that any of them had ever tasted. Talking about the drinks was the only thing that had distracted them from worrying about their friend. When she emerged, escorted by a woman dressed in blue scrubs, surgical mask hanging loose around her neck, she broke into a run and the four of us collided in the waiting area, Aps clinging to us in a desperate and grateful embrace.

“I lost my MedLet,” she said, repeatedly, as we held her. “I left it at James’s.”

None of them asked the questions they wanted to ask about that. They could all keep until later, for when it was safe to laugh about the whole thing, and start the enquiry about last night. They all bit their tongues about whether there had been any biting of tongues.

“What now?” said Cora. “Can we go?”

“Yes, it’s all sorted, I’m free to go.” Aps held up her wrist to show them a new MedLet, issued in the station, its warning light softly glowing green.

“Green equals clean,” said Leah.

“Green equals clean,” they all repeated.

 

Babbo, bambino

She could still remember how frightened she had been. She had been thirteen years old, her first time in Milan, a late birthday present from her parents. The stadium tour at the San Siro seemed to be more of a present for Papa but, later, he had followed them first round the shops and then the Duomo without complaint so they had all visited their own cathedrals. The trouble had started as they spilled out into the piazza.

There was a crowd of protesters gathering in the square, maybe three hundred or so people, dressed in a dazzling rainbow array of colours. Hoisted placards for Sinistra Italiana and Giustizia e Liberta jostled for attention and various chants and songs broke out, stalled, and eventually settled on a repeated call for freedom. Liberta, liberta, liberta. Leah’s parents exchanged a glance and her father pointed over to the other side of the square where a similarly sized group was beginning to form. Similar in size but immediately different in tone; scarves pulled up over the bottom of faces, balaclavas, flags, a few signs proclaiming for Lega Nord, some other banners Leah didn’t fully understand. Someone lit a flare, it fizzed into a red, steaming light, and launched it into the middle of the square.

Her parents pulled her across the square as quickly as they could as the groups converged. For years her father berated himself for not thinking, they should have just turned and gone back into the cathedral, waited it out. More flares were thrown and then, unseen by Leah until now, groups of Carabinieri armed with riot shields and batons charged the freedom group. They didn’t bother to disguise their allegiance and the square descended into panic as the ragtag representatives of the left were either beaten or chased away by the police and a mob. Her father wore a small lapel button in support of Sinistra Italiana. It was something he’d taken to wearing since they’d returned from Britain, his small gesture of defiance against what he saw as his country sliding, lurching to the right in the confusion after the outbreaks. As the Carabinieri passed them one lifted a baton as if to strike him. Papa! Babbo! She had shouted and tried to put herself in the way. Another policeman stopped, gestured at the Inter shirt he was still wearing under his jacket, and they exchanged a few words before opting to leave him alone. She heard them repeating ‘Babbo’ and laughing.

Her father had left Britain, taken them all back ‘home’, after the Brexit vote. Leah had never noticed anything really change but she didn’t have an accent, nothing changed in the playground, nobody told her it wasn’t her country. When Italy left the EU in ’23 her father seemed to retreat in to himself, as if he wanted to turn his back on all of it, bunker them down in their little corner of Lake Como and pretend that none of it affected them. And mostly it didn’t, not really, day to day. The lockdown protocols became stricter, the border controls tightened, they got used to curfews, sometimes understandable, sometimes seemingly arbitrary, and they got used to wearing a health tracking bracelet. But virtually the whole world got used to that. Italy wasn’t so special.

For her it had all seemed the other way round. She’d grown up in the Italy that he grew to despise but without any of the memories of how it’d been before. It was hard not to love the mountains around the great lake but all of the rose-tinted nostalgia she had was for her earlier childhood in Britain and she knew that was partly why she’d wanted to come back. It had broken his heart but it was breaking hers to stay.

The experience with Aps and the police station had shaken her more than she was prepared to admit to the others. Too many memories. She read the news, heard the stories, so she wasn’t sure why she’d been so shocked. Everyone knew you couldn’t be out without your Medlet, everyone knew the gist, if not the detail, of the Viral Health Act and the extensions to the Criminal Justice Bill. For her generation it had been like one of those sets of terms and conditions you get when you download an app, something you trusted was okay and clicked ‘accept’. For the greater good. Even when the health services were built back up after the neglect in the early ’00s and contact tracing was sorted out they never seemed to row back the changes in the legislation. She’d just gotten used to it like they all had as they cycled through the repeated outbreaks of the last nine years.

Leah picked up her phone and placed a video call home. Her mum picked up and they talked quietly, just like they usually did. She knew that Papa would appear briefly at some point, wave and then pretend that he had something that he was in the middle of. She’d never called him Babbo since that day in the square, it had felt like that day was her line between childhood and adolescence. It felt baby-ish. Bambina. She’d told him to stop calling her that.

He appeared over her mother’s shoulder, bent down and waved into the camera, almost immediately turning to move away.

“Babbo,” she called, almost without thinking. He stopped, half turned, and looked back at the screen. Leah was crying, the phone shaking slightly in her hand. Softly, over and over, she said ‘babbo’.

He put his hand on her mother’s shoulder, something in his grip must have signalled to her to move as she relinquished the chair so that he could sit and face into the computer screen they had set up on the kitchen table. The one where Leah had sat poring over her homework.

“Bambino,” he said. “Sono qui. I am here. I am here.”

 

Better red than dead

“Where’s Leah?” asked Aps. When they’d returned from the police station she’d headed straight for the shower. She’d been in there so long that Cora had knocked on the door, asked if she was okay. She’d been leaning against the tiles, letting the water cascade down on to her head, letting it wash her eyes clear of tears, hoping she could just rinse the whole experience away. She’d told Cora that she was fine and they’d left her to calm down and waited for her downstairs.

“I think she went to call home,” said April. “She was pretty shaken up.”

“I know how she feels,” said Aps. “Have we got any wine?”

Cora reached into the fridge. There was a folded piece of paper in front of a solitary bottle of white at the back on the top shelf; someone had scrawled ‘in case of emergencies break glass’ on it. Cora pulled out the bottle and held up the paper to the others: “This must qualify, right?”

“It’s the exact set of circumstances I had in mind when I put it there,” said April.

They drank and talked. Aps told them what had happened the night before with James, she gave them a version that was sympathetic to him, she didn’t even really know why except that the thought that the night before her worst ever morning after had been a bit of a letdown was too much to cope with right now. They poured her more wine and she told them about the arrest, about the journey in the police car, and the subsequent questions and tests.

“What tests?” said April, leaning forwards. “What did they do to you?”

“Just bloods I think. And temperature, it seemed pretty standard,” said Aps. “They had me a secure isolation unit, a nurse did them. I guess she was a nurse, anyway.”

“Can they do that?” asked Cora. “Just run tests.”

“I think so,” said April. “I think it was one of the changes a couple of years ago. If you’re under caution I think they can take fluids and insist on a full viral check. If you’re out without your Medlet then it makes everyone get pretty twitchy.”

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Aps. “I think I was in shock. I just went along with it all. I barely remembered to ask to make a call and then I phoned you guys. Thank you, by the way. Thank you for coming.”

“Don’t be soft,” said Cora. “Of course we would come.”

“Yeah, it was your turn to clean the bathrooms on the rota,” said April, smiling.

“This must get me out of that,” said Aps. “Come on, what’s a girl got to do?”

“Oh, you’d need to have at least spent a night in the cells to get out of that,” said April. “You just had a scary arrest, some mildly intrusive medical tests, and a caution. That barely offsets your night of passion with Jamesy boy.”

“Yeah, and we’ve totally gone easy on asking you about that,” added Cora. “Details will be required at a later date. All the details.”

Aps listened to them talk for a bit, swapping slightly lewd observations about what her night had been like, most of them better than the reality. She picked at the strips of tape holding the cotton wool in place on her arm from where they’d scraped at her skin for a blood sample. She teased up the end of the tape and pulled it away quickly. There was a small, red circle on the inside of her arm. It had all happened in a blur and she tried to sort the fragments of her memory to form a clearer recollection of what had happened. She’d rolled up her sleeve, that part was clear. Then she’d looked away. It was something she’d done since she was a kid, she’d never really liked needles and blood. Just look away. There’ll be a small scratch and then you won’t feel a thing. Just like the night before. When she looked back she was being taped up.

Aps’ phone started to vibrate in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw that it was James trying to call; she let it ring through to voicemail. “It’s James,” she said to the others, acknowledging their enquiring looks.

“He’s certainly keen,” said Cora. “You going to answer?”

Aps shook her head and waited for her phone to ring again if he’d left a message. He had. She picked up. “Hey, er, Aps, it’s me, James. Thanks for a lovely night. I just thought you should know that you left your Medlet here. I can drop it round if it’s easier for you. Nothing to worry about, it’s all flashing green.”

“Voicemail,” said Aps. “He’s found my missing Medlet and wants to drop it round.”

“At least it wasn’t your pants,” said April. “Could have been way more embarrassing.”

“That will be covered in the details required at a later date,” said Cora. ” And, for the record, I don’t believe that what Aps was wearing that night would have been described as pants. The lady has some class.”

“Best pants, then,” said April. “Probably not the ones with the bunny rabbits on.”

“How do you know about those?” said Aps, sitting up suddenly.

“Shared house. Shared washing machine. No secrets,” said April. “They’re cute. I mean, I wouldn’t wear them, not being, you know, seven, but they’re cute. Very you.”

Aps was about to reply when she felt a vibrating sensation on her wrist. An urgent tightening. She looked down at the new Medlet they’d given her at the police station and instead of the soft green light she’d seen for as long as she had worn one – green equals clean – she saw an angry, blinking red pulse. It had been drilled into them for years. Red was a warning. Red meant lockdown, seek help. Better red than dead.

 

Trace

Cora remembered getting her first Medlet a little differently to the others. There had been a steady improvement in health tracking devices from ’20 onwards but none of them ever hit critical mass across a big enough part of a population to be useful in contact tracing. Governments argued with technology suppliers, nobody could agree a common platform, and some people just refused to wear them. Cora’s own view as a teenager was a more attenuated version of the prevailing mood in Scotland, sceptical and slightly distrustful. After the big Covid-27 outbreak in ’24 things changed. They mass produced the cheap but reliable Medlets and legislated that everyone should wear one, public mood had changed enough that it didn’t raise much debate. Scottish law changed later, holding out for an aligned approach across the EU that never came; there was a straight fault line between north and south.

Cora’s memory was acute because the moment she’d worn it on her wrist she’d felt nothing but guilt and remorse. She had sat in pubs with Rob, talked about freedom and the state and a whole load of bullshit about how nobody was going to tag and trace her. He’d been more laid back about it all, like he was about everything, but he’d said he’d agreed with her. She sometimes wondered if he’d liked seeing her all fired up like that: you’ve got the spirit in you, right enough, Cora. And he’d smile, watching her. She had been convinced that she was right, convinced in the way that only a seventeen year old can be convinced, all black and white before the world shows you that it’s grey. She was sure. And then he died, without warning, and she wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

They had told her afterwards that there was no guarantee that it would have made any difference. It was just there as an early warning signal. Most times it’d be a false alarm, some usual temperature fluctuation, some mis-read fever. Most times. The sceptics still said that the point of the Medlets was never really about the personal warning, it was about the geo-tagging and the tracing, the links to the MedApp and what it allowed local enforcement to do in isolating and locking down pockets of communities. It wasn’t just the sceptics saying that, the scientists were too: they just disagreed on whether that was a good thing or not. Cora didn’t much care about the civil liberties arguments afterwards, she just wanted Rob back and if she could have made that happen, even if it meant everyone else had to stay at home forever then she wouldn’t have thought twice.

She watched the others freeze at the sight of the flashing red warning light on Aps’ Medlet. She knew they were torn between their impulse to reach for her, enfold her, reassure her that it’d be okay, that it was just a warning, torn between that and their fear. It was this abstract fear that they all had, that there was this thing out there that they couldn’t see and it might kill them, but now it wasn’t abstract: it was her. It was a momentary thing. Almost like the briefest inhalation of breath, a heartbeat, and then it passed. They all rushed over to her and smothered her in a jumble of arms and hands. Leah had come out from her room and had half run, half slipped down the stairs to join them in the solidarity of their embrace.

Within five minutes Aps’ phone rang. They all knew that it should but the efficiency of it still felt strange, intrusive. She picked up and had a short conversation with a Community Trace Officer, answering a standard set of questions about her symptoms (“none”) and where she was now, who she was with. That stuff was just for show, they knew exactly where she was and who she was with.

“CTO?” asked April as the call ended.

Aps nodded. “Yep, they’ve registered the warning and said that we can’t leave the house. They’ve dispatched a mobile unit to come round and assess me.”

“You okay?” said Leah.

“I… yeah, I’m okay. Just a bit shocked. I feel fine, maybe it’s a mistake.” She shook her wrist. “This is the new one they gave me this morning, maybe it’s not calibrated right or it’s faulty or something.”

“At least you weren’t long without one,” said Cora. “It’s better to know, right?”

“I guess,” said Aps. “I don’t understand. James left me a message, saying he’d found my old one and it was all showing ‘green’, everything was okay. How can it change so quickly? Don’t they normally cycle through ‘amber’ and stuff first?”

“They’re pretty sensitive now, I think,” said Cora. “Better to be safe than sorry. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“God, I’m sorry guys,” said Aps. “You should probably all stay away from me or something.”

“Not happening,” said Leah.

“Nope,” said April. “If you’ve got it, we’ve got it. Anyway, I’m Miss Immunity, remember? They tested me practically to destruction so I’m prepared to take my chances on a probably rogue Medlet reading.”

“Do you think I should ring James? Tell him?” said Aps.

“You won’t need to, they’ll do a full contact trace if they follow protocol. Everyone you’ve been near in the last ten days. If you’ve been enough of a social butterfly you might put the whole town back in lockdown.”

“Jesus,” said Aps.

“Really?” said April. “When did you meet him? That’s going to be a bugger to contact trace. At least you know he’ll forgive you.”

“Hey, lapsed Catholic here,” said Leah. “You don’t hear me making jokes about your religion, do you?”

“Satan’s just not that funny,” said April, smirking. “No offence meant. I was just trying to lighten the mood. It’s a new thing I’m trying.”

“Say ten Hail Mary’s and we’ll say nothing else about it,” said Leah.

They saw the flashing lights through the window, the room winking in blues and reds, illuminating their faces as they turned towards the door. The bell rang and Leah, Cora, and April stood first, forming a barrier between Aps and the world outside. The bell rang again, followed by a knock, and a voice calling CTO. 

“It’s okay,” said Aps. “It’s going to be okay.” She slipped in between them and walked to the door, lifting her hand to open it, red light flashing on her wrist.

 

Isolate

April watched the Community Trace Officer work; she had gone straight to Aps and was talking her calmly through the standard protocol. Spot test, assess, isolate, full diagnostic.  It was essentially the same process that April had been through as a kid, except then, without the early warning indication through the Medlet you only got picked up through the regular spot testing that they ran with high risk groups. She’d registered a high temperature that she was pretty sure was just a combination of her period and a regular flu bug that had been doing the rounds. They’d run the blood tests and found a viral infection. Later they recorded it as Covid-27.

The CTO was peeling apart a plastic, airtight package, shaking free a syringe. She was working precisely, quickly, clearly moving through steps that had become routine. She pulled up Aps’ sleeve and wrapped an elasticated blue band around her upper arm. April looked away as she inserted the needle, pulled back the plunger and filled the syringe with blood. Aps had looked away as well. Leah was asking questions about the test which the CTO was answering, her responses polite but not straying much beyond a yes or no. They were clear despite her mask. Yes, this was a spot test. Yes, it was safe. Yes, it was authorised in law. No, she hadn’t heard anyone call it the bad lover. Fast, small prick, unreliable, clarified Leah. No, we don’t call it that. But yes, it’s not completely reliable.

They waited. Aps’ sample had been spread across a thin slip of paper and inserted into a small machine, it looked a bit like a baby monitor that April had once found when she was helping her parents clear out some old things from the loft. Just a large LCD screen a couple of large push buttons, and a slot to push the paper into. Her old baby monitor had just shown room temperature and picked up noise; it would light up like a firework display if she’d either started crying or the ambient climate in her nursery had risen half a degree. She had no idea what this machine would show. Leah was evidently thinking much the same as she continued with her questions. So, when do we get the puff of white smoke? What are we looking for here? Cora was silent but had moved across to Aps’ side and was holding her arm. The CTO ignored them all and just stared at the blood test machine.

Something changed on the LCD. There was no flashing light or shrill alarm, just a few symbols and numbers that appeared. The CTO pulled a phone from her pocket and dialled a contact, holding up her other hand to signal that they should hold their questions. CTO attending case 29, 687, on the A4176. Female, 19 years old. April Daniels. Request immediate dispatch of ICA for four. Need pick up on Miss Daniels and her housemates. Case positive. I repeat, case positive. She hung up the phone and told them to pack some clothes.

“This must be a mistake,” said Aps. “You need to check the machine again.”

“I’m sorry,” said the CTO. “It’s just the spot test so it could be a false positive but the readings are very clear, I haven’t seen one like this that has turned out to be wrong. We need to get you somewhere safe, make sure you’re looked after.”

“I was tested this morning,” said Aps. “Literally this morning. At the police station. They wouldn’t have let me go if their test had come back with anything.”

“A few hours can be a long time in viral infection. I’m sorry but you really should pack some things. The ICA will be here soon and they’ll want to get you all into containment as quickly as they can.”

They all packed, cramming clothes and essentials into bags. Leah had whispered to April: What’s an ICA? Isolation Containment Ambulance, April had shot back. She remembered the one that had taken her to ICU the last time. It had seemed like a normal ambulance to her if she was honest, just with ICA embossed on its side alongside one of those biohazard symbols. At the time she’d thought that bit was pretty cool but it had been during her black metal phase. A couple of years after she’d come out of isolation she’d toyed with getting it inked on her arm, to cover up all the scratches from her testing, but she’d seen a couple of tattooists and they’d said it wouldn’t take properly on her scar tissue. Now she just thought they over dramatised the whole thing, giving everything its own acronym, its own special virus status. The sign served no purpose. Unless the CTOs were going to start projecting it in to the sky every time they picked up a positive to call in an ICA, like the bat signal. Maybe not the bat signal. No-one remembered much of that DC stuff now, it was all Marvel.

When they came back downstairs there were two men, full hazmat suits, waiting for them. The CTO had disappeared. They were gestured towards the front door which was open but as they stepped through it wasn’t into the short path down to the street but into a temporarily erected tunnel, plastic walls supported by flexible rods snapped into rectangles. The tunnel ran straight, just twenty feet or so, directly into the back of the ambulance. It smelt faintly of disinfectant. They were told to move.

April remembered her first time. They’d given her a sweet, told her not to worry about anything, a nurse had held her hand. She’d worn gloves but still, she had held her hand. The same nurse had asked her about her friends, about school, about what subjects she liked, what she wanted to do when she was older. She was just a child and they’d treated her like one. They’d explained everything. She hadn’t known enough to be scared.

Now they were all adults. Barely. They treated them like adults. Explained nothing and asked nothing, nobody held their hands, nobody gave them sweets. They didn’t know enough but they were still scared.

 

I see you

Seconds ticked into minutes which unfolded into hours that seeped into days. They were apart, locked away in their separate containment units, but together, each of them almost permanently in contact on a four way group video chat. Sometimes nobody even spoke, it just felt reassuring that they could see each other, a slice of the familiar amongst the unfamiliar tangle of tubes, machines, injections and monitors. Something messy and imprecise to break up the clinical precision and routine. Four days compressing ninety six hours folding up five thousand odd minutes tocking hundreds of thousands of seconds.

On the third day Cora had set them all a challenge, something, anything, to keep their attention away from the swirl of questions that nobody seemed to be able to answer for them: how long will we be here, is Aps okay, will we get sick? She’d called it quarantine karaoke, acknowledged that the title needed some work, and told them the rules. One song, each, that they had to sing to each other over the group chat. Original song as backing track accompaniment allowed. Scores awarded based on song selection, vocals, and performance. April had been reluctant but acquiesced on Aps’ insistence that it would cheer her up. Are you guilt tripping me? Yep, 100% but I’ve got the virus so shut up and sing.

Taking it in turns, they sang. None of them had quite known what to expect and it felt strangely raw, intimate, singing to each other through the small screens of their phones. Leah dedicated her song to her dad, said it reminded her of something he used to sing if they caught the early morning ferry down to Como, days when they needed to visit the larger town. Little darlin’, it’s been a long cold lonely winter. She sang it quietly, not really looking directly at them through the screen until they started to join her on the chorus, here comes the sun, and then she stopped, watching them finish it for her, smiling.

Cora declared that she’d only picked her choice for one line, it was the bit in Hotel California about checking out anytime but you can never leave. At the last minute she changed her mind and did a Lewis Capaldi song from when she was a kid. This time none of the others joined in. Cora kept her eyes closed throughout and they sensed, implicitly, that she was singing a lament for Rob, that they were being let in on something private. As she finished Leah blew her a kiss and April clapped her hands quietly. Jesus, Cora, that was beautiful but you’ve made me like Lewis Capaldi. I don’t know whether I should love you or hate you. Cora shook her head and mouthed you-love-it at the screen.

It was Aps that broke up their back-and-forth. The others watched as she sashayed back and forth belting out Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’, pointing at every indication of her infection in her room to accentuate the chorus. Red. Warning light on her Medlet. Red. Biohazard symbol on her door. Red. Virus positive written in the notes hung over the end of her bed. She clowned it up, pirouetting between her bed and the solitary chair that all of the ICUs had, ducked her face out of view before reappearing in extreme close up. It was gloriously funny and inappropriate, the others weren’t sure initially how to react but found themselves caught up in the dark joy of it. They were all laughing so much by the end that it took them a few moments to notice quite how breathless Aps was, ironically how red her cheeks were. She insisted she was okay. No more skipping Spin City when I get out. She nodded at April. Come on, best ’til last.

None of them knew it but it didn’t matter. A solitary guitar chord, a run of bass notes, and then the rumble of a baritone, April whispering over the top of the words, her eyes never leaving Aps through the screen. She told them afterwards that it was Nick Cave, ‘Straight To You’, and that he’d pretty much got her through her isolation first time round. None of them knew it but they heard what it was: a love song, a love-despite-anything song, a towering love-above-all song. Sad songs you can dance to, right? said April at the end. When all this is done I’m going to waltz you round our living room to this. Us April’s got to stick together. Aps just nodded at her. Deal? Aps nodded again.

Day four. Night four. They went to bed, separate in their own contained, isolated rooms, but they left their phones plugged in, switched on, and left the video chat open. They fell asleep to the soft light of backlit mobile screens and the virtual presence of each other.

 

Fever

I had tried to call James. It was always going to be a bit awkward but me being in quarantine calling him, presumably also in quarantine because they’d contract traced him back from me, just dialled the discomfort up several notches. I didn’t want to see him again but I hadn’t planned on letting him down by having to apologise for, at best, a couple of weeks in isolation and, at worst, giving him the virus. He didn’t pick up. I didn’t really blame him and it was a relief, to be honest. I messaged him an apology.

I was finding it hard in the ICU. I wasn’t cut out for solitude and I felt claustrophobic, pacing the floor, counting steps from one side of the room to the other, each time hoping there would be something after the sixth stride. When I wasn’t connected to the others on a call or reassuring my parents that everything was okay I looked through old photographs, mostly the shots from my trip last year. I kept coming back to the pictures of Salar de Uyuni, the endless stretches of the cracked, white salt flats unrolling to the horizon. On my last day a local lake overflowed and the surface salt got covered in a thin film of water; it was as if someone had polished the earth, the sky mirrored perfectly on itself in the ground. There was a photo of me standing, arms outstretched to the canopy of blue above, in perfect symmetry with my own reflection. I looked like I was suspended in an infinite azure canvas.

I stated to feel tired on day five. I hadn’t done a good job hiding how breathless I was after Cora’s karaoke; I laughed it off as the fact that I was the only one that picked something with any kind of tempo, joked that when we got out we were going to find a proper karaoke bar, neck tequila slammers, and shout our way through ‘Like A Prayer’. (Leah had smirked that she knew I couldn’t do ‘Like A Virgin’ after the other night; I had ignored her). I started coughing in the night and a nurse came to check on me, said it was nothing to worry about, it always started near the end of the first week and usually blew itself out in a few days at my age.  My temperature was up. It was one of the few readings on my bedside monitor I understood.

I stayed off the video call as much as I could the next morning. I didn’t want to worry the others but that didn’t work out so well; my phone just filled up with messages asking if I was alright and why I wouldn’t pick up. When I did join they did varying jobs of masking their reaction to my appearance: April managed it best, barely registering any change in her expression, whereas Cora almost burst into tears and ended up pretending to have dropped something so she could duck out of shot and compose herself. I blamed it on the medical strip lighting bouncing back off a lot of white walls but they weren’t buying it. It would have helped if Leah wasn’t still rocking her usual olive skinned, Mediterranean thing. April broke the silence and said I should leave the pale and ghostly vibe to the professionals.

Decisions were made for me in the afternoon. There was a steady procession of doctors and nurses, a flurry of activity in inverse relation to my own. They told me to go back to bed but they needn’t have bothered, I was drained and just wanted to close my eyes and try to sleep. I dozed, drifting in and out of consciousness. At some point I felt someone lift my hand and slip something on to the end of my finger, the monitor readings by the bed updated. The temperature number went up. I sank further down.

Nothing was clear. My body coiled under hospital sheets, kicking them off, burning. Someone would come in, say something that didn’t really register, and tuck me back in. I kicked them off again. Sleeping. Waking. Sleeping. I slipped between those states, occupied somewhere in between, here but not here. I walked the salt flats in Peru. Remembered drinking in Buenos Aires, cold beers under a South American sun. I lay on the beaches of Rio. Danced the carnival. Exchanged halting Spanish with a guy in a club, distant memory of the pounding bass feeling like my heart thumping, accelerated in my chest. It was hot. In the club. In this bed. In the club. Pounding, pounding, pounding.

I think I slept. I think I was awake. There was a mask over my mouth and nose and I could hear the sound of my own breath; a ragged, rasping sound supplemented with a hiss of artificial air. There was something in my hand, wires and tubes over my head.

I thought of the others. They slipped in and out of focus. Cora’s resolve, her underlying sadness. Leah’s spirit and joy. April. Clever, perceptive, lonely April. I tried to tell them that I was okay, that it was all going to be okay. I tried to tell them about Peru. How I was safe, frozen in the limitless canopy of sky and lake, suspended from harm in a dream and not writhing, feverish, delirious, on a bed in an isolation unit, shackled to an oxygen tube that was inflating my lungs.

 

Suspended

It was harder being out, separated, than being in, isolated. At least before they had shared experience to rally around, something that connected them. This shouldn’t have changed anything, not really, but it didn’t feel like that. Leah and Cora had been allowed to leave quarantine on day seven, neither of them testing positive, neither of them showing any symptoms. They’d both argued against it. None of them had spoken to Aps for two days, everyone repeatedly stone-walled with standard responses when they asked how she was: her condition is stable, we can’t give out more details except to immediate family, her condition is stable, she is getting the best care, her condition is stable, you can’t do anything for her, her condition is stable. April hadn’t been released but she didn’t know why. She was also asymptomatic and testing negative, they’d told her they wanted to run some more diagnostics.

Cora had suggested they go for a walk. They had seemed to swap imposed confinement for self-imposed confinement, the two of them not sure what to do while they waited for news. April had encouraged them to get out: I was built for this, you two flakes need your fresh air and nature and real world stuff, you’re useless living in your own heads. I’ll call you if they tell me anything. I promise. They had relented and set out on a circuit of the Downs, the nearest green space, still dotted with groups of people in the late afternoon sunshine. They didn’t speak much at first, just walked, neither taking the lead. That Spring the four of them had quite often picked their way down past the zoo and sat overlooking the suspension bridge, sometimes taking a bottle of wine, to watch the sky fade into greys and pinks at sunset. By unspoken agreement Leah and Cora retraced those steps and sat down a bank of grass overlooking the brick towers and curved iron chains of the old bridge.

Cora lay on her back, feeling the grass press into her neck, one hand over her eyes against the sun, the other twirling a daisy between her fingers. Leah sat cross-legged looking out at the view over the gorge. She was thinking about the time they’d tried to drag April across but she’d refused to move from the viewing platform by the first tower and watched the three of them traverse the narrow walkway. They’d signalled at each other across the divide when they reached the other side. She couldn’t remember it exactly but she thought they had attempted to spell something out with their hands; April had just blown them a kiss and asked them why they were doing YMCA when they got back.  She took a photo of the view on her phone and sent it to April and Aps as a message accompanied with a waving emoji.

Cora propped herself up on her elbows. “Have you heard anything?”

Leah shook her head. “Sorry, no, I was just taking a picture. Thought I’d send them something to try and cheer them up.”

“April refusing to come across with us?”

“Yeah,” said Leah. “What were we trying to signal to her from the other side? I’m not sure if I’ve remembered it right.”

“We were trying to spell out ‘loser’ but no-one could agree on how to do the ‘s’,” said Cora.

“I was hoping it was something more supportive than that but that sounds like us,” said Leah.

Cora rolled the stem of the daisy between her fingers, watching the petals spin, before she flicked it towards Leah. “It’s okay, she knows we love her. And besides didn’t she drink most of the wine while she was waiting for us to cross back? I think she knew what she was doing the whole time.”

“She usually does,” said Leah.

They sat in silence for a while before heading back to the house. As they approached they could see someone standing on their doorstep, he’d rung the bell a couple of times and as they turned into the pathway up to their front door he was bending down, leaving something by the matt on the floor.

“Isn’t that James?” said Leah to Cora, leaning in towards her as they walked. Without waiting for confirmation she called out. “Hey, James. It is James, right?”

He stood up and tugged at his fringe. Leah fully recognised him then. Aps had told them about this habit he had of smoothing his hair when he was nervous, as if he could tease his curls straight if he pulled them enough. It fell back into its unruly tangle.

“Hi, yeah I’m James. You’re Aps’ housemates, aren’t you? Maybe you can help me.”

“Did you just get out?” said Cora. He looked blankly at her. “Like us,” she added. “Did you just get out of ICU?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said. “I haven’t been in isolation. Has something happened?”

“You must have been in,” said Leah. “Standard protocol on a contact trace.”

James held up his hands, gestured that they should slow down. “Hold up, I’m not following. I just came round to drop Aps’ Medlet back.” He held up her old health tracker. “She left it at mine after… after, well after she stayed over. She said she’d call. I thought she was playing it cool, you know first few days, but then I didn’t hear anything and wasn’t sure where I stood. She tried to contact me a couple of days ago but I missed the calls and then she just sent me a weird message apologising.”

Leah moved past him and opened the front door. “You’d better come in. Aps is in ICU, she’s got the virus, and we’ve only just been released from quarantine. It was the day after she spent the night at yours. They must have contacted you.”

James shook his head and followed them into the house. He held up his wrist and showed them his own Medlet. “I’ve been green all week, nothing has changed. I found her tracker later that morning. It was still green too. I think they hold a three hour memory of your last reading so she must have been fine when she left mine.”

“Why didn’t you call her?” asked Cora. “When you found her Medlet?”

He looked away, down at the floor. “I’m sorry. I thought she’d call if she didn’t have a spare. I figured she’d have a back-up, everyone does. Listen, honestly, I’m not too good at starting things with people. I like her. I’d wanted everything to be perfect that night but I don’t know. She seemed a bit off in the morning. I felt a bit embarrassed about calling…”

“This doesn’t make sense,” said Leah. “She got tested at the police station and she was clean. Then she picks it up in the afternoon and they don’t isolate someone she literally slept with the night before.”

“The police station?” said James.

“They picked her up walking home from yours,” said Cora. “No Medlet so they took her in for a standard check. She was lucky she just got a caution.” She touched his arm. “Listen, that’s not your fault.”

“You could have called though,” said Leah. “Whatever, that doesn’t help us now. I think we should contact April, get her to tell them that something might have been missed, that they might have not done the contact tracing properly.” Cora nodded. James looked apprehensive, he had started running his fingers through his hair again.

Leah’s phone vibrated. April had replied to her message, the picture of the bridge, with an ‘x’ and a bottle of wine emoji.

“Yes, let’s ring her,” said Leah, making up her mind. “April will know what to do.”

 

Breakout

April had tried to force them to talk to her. At first, when they said they couldn’t tell her anything, she had pleaded, insisted that she just wanted to know what was happening to her friend. It had been almost three days since anyone had heard from Aps. When that didn’t work she grew increasingly angry, pulling repeatedly at her emergency call cord and yelling for someone to speak to her. They stationed a nurse at her door who would peer in through the porthole window to check she was okay; rarely she would key the code to unlock the door, the airtight seal would hiss as the room decompressed, and she would try to reason with her patient.

The next morning April reached for her phone. If they wouldn’t tell her anything then perhaps the others could search Aps’ things, contact the University, try to get hold of her parent’s details and find out from them what was going on. Her phone wasn’t there. She fumbled around on the floor, swept her arm under the bed: nothing. The room was so small it only took a couple of minutes to search. There was no sign of it. She started to slap the window in her door, shouting for attention, until eventually someone came.

April knew the protocol. In six months in ICU as a kid she must have seen someone unlock the door, release the seals, pull the door slightly towards themselves and then slide it across. When they knew you, when you’d been there for a while and you weren’t showing symptoms, some of them would get a little lax in sliding the door back behind them and would carry out their checks with it open to the corridor. Some of them never did that, even when they’d gotten to know her. None of them had this time. If April had been thinking straight she probably wouldn’t have even tried but fuelled with rage and worry she jumped straight at the nurse as the slid back the door.

As April moved she had a vague thought that maybe she would be able to duck under an arm, squeeze through the gap between person and doorframe. As the door began to slide open she could already see that wasn’t going to work, the space was barely more than a person wide, designed to be either filled with a shut door or a person. There wasn’t supposed to be a gap. In sheer frustration she jumped at the door as it opened and screamed; a combination of her weight and an instinctive, protective, backward step from the startled nurse carried both of them out into the white-walled corridor. April moved quickly, not knowing which way to go, but heading away from the nurse who had started to shout for help.

They’d brought them in separately. They’d all been taken together to a waiting area and then individually led down to their own ICU rooms. She had no idea where Aps would be. April started to frantically look through windows, aware that the nurse was approaching from behind and two other people, both dressed in blue scrubs, were walking towards her from the other end of the corridor. She remembered coming down from that end when they’d brought her to the room, there was a nursing station further up, at an intersection, she thought it just led back to the waiting area. She wouldn’t be there.

The nurse she’d barged past on escaping her room was close, holding her hands up and reassuring her that everything was okay, that she just needed to calm down and return to her room. April nodded her head and raised her own hands in response and took a step back towards her room. As the nurse lowered her arms April broke into a run, sprinting past her up the corridor. She heard footsteps behind her also break into a run now. She didn’t stop at the windows but pounded down the length of the passage, towards a set of double doors at the end. She pushed through those and a set of plastic strips hanging from the ceiling behind them into a room that seemed to be set up as a disinfectant area, a run of showers along one wall, sets of hazmat suits along another. On the opposite side of the room was another set of doors, above it a biohazard symbol and the letters HDU. She didn’t notice the grey box set in to the wall, a small red light above it. The doors wouldn’t budge. People spilled into the room behind her.

April sank to the floor, her back against the immovable door, and wept. They watched it for a moment, wary, before a doctor she hadn’t seen before crouched down in the middle of the room. He pulled his face mask down from across his mouth and nose. April hadn’t seen him before, older, maybe mid fifties, thick black rimmed glasses. He was staring intently at her, mouth fixed in a straight line, expressionless.

“Just tell me she’s okay,” said April quietly.

He was silent for a long time, eyes never leaving her. Eventually he stood up and walked over to her, pulling an ID card from his pocket and swiping it against the grey box on the wall. April shifted forwards slightly as she felt the doors open behind her. He offered her a hand and helped her up before he pulled his mask back up over his face.

“Come on then,” he said. “Your friend is in high dependency. I can tell you more there.”

April looked at him. “Like this?” She gestured at herself. “Shouldn’t I put a suit on or something. A mask?”

 

Immunity

As the entered the HDU the doctor was still talking to April but she didn’t hear him, her senses screening out everything except the window in front of her. Behind the glass a girl lay on a bed, a thick, snaking tube lodged in her mouth, her eyes closed. Her chest rose and fell slowly, steadily. Her heartbeat pulsed out in a regular, luminous green line on a monitor next to the bed. April placed her hands and forehead on the window and whispered Aps’ name over and over again.

“She’s stable,” said the doctor. April turned towards him, took a deep breath and tried to compose herself. Tried to think.

“What does that mean?” she said. “Is she going to be alright?”

“It means that her condition isn’t deteriorating at the moment.”

“Is she going to be alright?” repeated April.

The doctor didn’t break her gaze but remained silent for a few moments. He walked over to stand next to April at the window and they stood looking in on Aps. April caught a faint scent of his aftershave, an incongruous soft hint of sandalwood amid the sanitised, sharp bleach smells. She stated to repeat her question a third time but he stopped her.

“We don’t know. Honestly, we don’t know. Her condition was not supposed to worsen like this, it’s not something that we had expected when she was infected…” He paused, “…when we infected her.”

April felt her chest tighten and all of her senses sharpened; it seemed too bright, too loud all of a sudden. The hint of his aftershave filled her nostrils and she was hit with a wave of nausea.

“…what do you mean?” she managed, turning to face him. Her initial shock was rapidly turning to anger. “You can’t be serious? You infected her with this?”

The doctor folded his arms. “What do you know about the vaccination efforts in the last nine years?”

“I don’t give a fuck about the vaccination efforts,” shouted April. “I want you to tell me what you’ve done to my friend, then I want my phone, and then I’m getting out of here and going straight to the police.” She was shaking, close to tears but met with a steady, implacable stare.

“Vaccination Initiative, Covert Transmission. Project Victory. For the past decade we have chased shadows trying to cure the Covid outbreaks, every time we got close it mutated and eluded us again. The longer it has gone on the more people lost faith in medicine to protect them and the fewer and fewer people would come forward for testing programs. Nothing like enough…”

April was shaking her head in disbelief. “…so you give people the virus without them knowing?”

“Put bluntly, yes,” he said. “We are at war. And we are losing. There are choices that we have had to make that none of us would have wanted to but they are necessary.”

“Go tell her they’re necessary,” said April, jabbing her finger at the window. “Now give me my phone.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said the doctor. “Who would you ring? The police? Who do you think manages the covert transmission for us?”

April reached for something to steady herself, she felt the room lurch slightly as she was flooded with another jolt of adrenaline. She remembered them picking Aps up after her arrest. Remembered them all talking later. What tests? What did they do to you? Just bloods I think. Just bloods I think. They hadn’t been testing her for a prior infection, they’d been injecting her with a new one.

“This is unfortunate,” said the doctor. “We were very careful who we arranged to be in the house with you. Everyone had to be the right profile, the right age, previous exposure to the virus without complication, healthy. We didn’t foresee this.”

“What do you mean?” said April. “Why would you arrange people to be in a house with me? What do I have to do with this?”

“You’re the key to the program,” he said. “You have been ever since you left ICU when you were fourteen. We weren’t sure then but later tests confirmed it. You’re immune to every mutation we’ve ever seen and we think that you are the key to the vaccine.”

“I want no part of this,” said April. “I want no part of your experiments. You can’t play games with people’s lives.”

“Then all we can do for your friend is hope.”

April turned back to look at Aps through the glass; almost peaceful, sleeping. She remembered that first time they met, how she’d blundered into the conversation about her childhood ICU time, how April had liked her despite her clumsiness. She’d had a hunch then that there was something honest about her, something decent, and nothing since had changed her mind. Us April’s got to stick together.

She didn’t turn back to face the doctor, she didn’t want to look at him anymore.

“What do I have to do? What do you need from me?”

“Your blood, April. We need your blood.”

 

Transfusion

It helped to think of it as an act of connection. April liked to imagine that they would run a tube from her arm straight over to Aps, joining them together, allowing her blood to flow directly across. She knew it wouldn’t be like that. They had explained it to her as simply as they could, how they’d take her donation and then need to filter it, clean it, then they’d do the transfusion. She preferred to think of it as her giving a part of herself to her friend. An act of connection.

She had signed something to say that she understood the risks. They needed an unusually high volume of blood plasma because of Aps’ worsening condition. It had emerged that the Victory program, as intended, had involved infecting a low risk patient and then testing them with a synthesised vaccine borne from an immune host’s blood. April had listened to the rational, detached description of it all but all she could think was that their low risk patient was currently in high dependency, fighting for her life. Their grand test of whether her immunity was transferable had become pretty binary: Aps lives or Aps dies. In that analysis April weighed all the risks to herself as secondary.

There was more, though, in her blood contract. No disclosure. She wasn’t sure what exactly they would do if she told her story but they gave strong hints that they would just deny and discredit her. Just another hysterical conspiracy theorist to add to the pile. It was true that nobody really fully trusted official sources anymore but they didn’t trust  the alternatives either; truth couldn’t stand buried under lies. She had to submit to an extended stay in the ICU so that they could run more tests, make sure they could successfully develop a vaccine that didn’t rely on permanently draining her of fluid, like she was a bath they had to refill before pulling the plug, sluicing another body full of blood down the drain.

There was a time, not that long ago, where the prospect of the additional stay of isolation wouldn’t have bothered her. Six months, twelve months, make it as many months as you like. She liked being alone and would live inside her own head. It might not always be happy but it was home. It felt different now, it felt like she was giving up a community that she wanted to be part of, people that had coaxed her out of her own head and helped her stand outside, blinking in the sunshine. She knew she could do it, she had the resources to disappear back into herself and hide away, but she wasn’t sure how easy it would be to come back out again. Maybe this would be her last act of connection.

They’d let her see Aps again before they took her to take the blood. She’d stood at the glass and seen a pale facsimile of the person she’d talked and danced and drank and sang and joked with. April closed her eyes and conjured an image of them, the four of them, Leah and Cora were there too. She remembered them walking arm in arm by the harbour in the early evening, winding their way to another pub, laughing about some guy that had just hit on Leah, anticipating another night out. She remembered them in a circle on the dance floor, baiting each other to pull some ridiculous shapes, watching Aps always, always default to the Watusi because she’d seen Uma Thurman do it in some 90s movie. The one time they’d persuaded her to join them in some star jumps she’d slipped over on a stray spillage and had just lay on the floor laughing until they’d helped her up. Movin’ On Up had permanently been rechristened as Fallin’ On Down from that moment on. And look at us now. April opened her eyes. We’ve never been this far down before.

They took her to another room in HDU and waited whilst she changed into a loose hospital gown behind a screen, fumbling at tying a bow in the draw strings behind her head. She lay down on a bed in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling, grimacing slightly at a sudden scratch on her arm and the feel of something sliding under the line of her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to shut out the chatter of voices from in the room, calls to monitor her blood pressure, someone calling out measurements, litres upon litres. The voices faded as the numbers rose higher.

 

Baptism

I was running on hard packed sand, bare feet flying, skirting the shoreline as the tide rose and fell. I felt fine mists of sea spray on my face, the wind whipping my hair in a tangle behind my head. A kind of baptism. I ran until my legs ached and I could feel each step pound up through my heels and my toes. I ran until my lungs burned and I had to slow, double over and gulp at the air to catch my breath.

I was almost gone. That was what they told me later. Not in those first moments when I came back around, swimming up into consciousness, surfacing for air, catching a few snatches of words, and then slipping back into sleep again. When I slept I ran. Always running until my muscles throbbed and my chest tightened and I gasped for air. I never had any sense of where I was running and I never looked back. I just ran until it hurt too much to carry on.

Those first few hours were all like that. Eyes flickering open, feeling the heaviness of my head in a pillow, the impossibility of movement, hearing voices, fragments of sentences, and then giving in again to the weight of sleep. After a while it was the pain that kept me conscious until someone adjusted something on a machine next to me and it receded enough for the weight to pull me back down again. Back down for my body to rest but my mind to run.

They must have told me several times what had happened. I could tell, when I was finally able to hear their words, process the sentences, that they’d said all of this before. They were patient but it was too fluent, too rehearsed. I did process the sentences but I don’t think, then, that I really grasped what they were saying; I was drifting in and out of a dream and surely the story about a girl who caught a virus and developed complications and almost died couldn’t be real. Could it? And yet the evidence was all there for me to feel in my ravaged body, in each rasping, ragged breath, in each attempt to move my legs or my head.

I remembered the ICU and the night that we’d all sung to each other across our video connection was still vivid. After that, it was fractured, fragments of memory as if someone had torn them up and scattered them through my head, a paper trail of clues. Flicking through old photos, a message to James, fleeting conversation with the girls, trying to disguise my demise, and then a jumble. Images of my trip to South America that might have been from the photos but might have been from a feverish delirium. And then nothing until the sensation of running, running, endless running to exhaustion, to standstill, to waking, to lying in this bed, battered but alive.

When they thought that I’d understood they asked me about the pain. I could scarcely speak which seemed to signal to them that they didn’t need to ask; they administered some sort of sedative and let me slide back into a state of restless rest. That seemed to be us for days, perhaps a week, time lost its grip, and the only cycle I recognised was sedated or not sedated. Minutes vanished in a woozy, dislocated haze; hours evaporated; days passed.

They connected me to my family, holding a video call up on a tablet, my parents wearing their best faces of reassurance but I could see the lines under Mum’s eyes and I heard the worry in Dad’s voice. I don’t know how much they’d been told but it was obvious that this hadn’t been a routine stop in the ICU. I didn’t recognise where they were until they told me they’d driven up to Bristol, were staying in a hotel until they were allowed to see me. They couldn’t visit whilst I was in the HDU. I managed to raise my arm to wave. I was still surprised at how thin, how frail and forlorn it looked. It didn’t look like mine.

When I finally croaked out words I asked the medics about my friends. They told me about Leah and Cora’s release and said they were doing fine. There was a yawning gap in the conversation where April should have been; they seemed reluctant to fill it. I insisted, forcing out a wheezing question: where’s April? They moved to a corner of the room and seemed to confer, exchanging whispers before reaching a consensus. That decision meant a deferral to a different doctor, someone I hadn’t seen before, some older guy who peered down at me through black rimmed glasses.

 

April alone

April like to be alone. Not lonely, that was different, that felt unasked for, unchosen, but alone was fine. This felt lonely.

She had been unconscious for three weeks. There was an old Joe Strummer song she liked called Coma Girl that she’d sung afterwards; nobody else seemed to find it as funny as her but nobody else was carrying as much darkness as she was. Too many dark secrets. In some ways she’d preferred it when she was in the coma. It was more honest at least.

They’d brought her back as her blood levels had stabilised, when they were sure her organs weren’t about to shut down. They’d flustered around her, treated her with kid gloves as if scared that they might break her again but she knew it was less about her and more about what she represented to them. She was vaccine. And based on her first conversations about what happened next she was vaccine and not heard. She’d signed the papers to save Aps, waived her rights, offered up her immunity, and agreed to submit to whatever was required to produce the cure. They said it was for her own protection, that it would be too much of a burden to be known publicly as the girl-that-saved-humanity (her embellishment, they’d said something slightly drier). She wasn’t entirely convinced that Vaccine Girl would be joining the celebrity ranks of the Avengers any time soon but was more inclined to believe their other arguments, notably that she might receive a lot of unwelcome attention from the anti-vax movement. It was still a minority fringe but the idea that the virus was a result of mankind’s desire to immunise itself against disease had picked up some traction. All of the test facilities and labs were anonymous now. And it looked like she was too.

They wouldn’t make promises but said they’d probably need her for a year. Maybe eighteen months to be sure. They weren’t really apologetic about it – there’s nobody else that has shown your immune response so we’ve got no choice – but had said that they would be able to open up her contacts, electronically, as long as she stuck to the script. She could continue with her studies remotely, it had all been arranged, most of the lectures were recorded anyway for people that struggled to make it to campus to fulfil their difficult five hours a week schedule. April hadn’t been one of those people. She didn’t mind about the lectures but she knew she would miss the arguments in her tutorials, the smell of books and the silence in the library which had an almost tangible quality, not just the absence of noise but the particular sound of people consciously not making noise. She would miss the walk down to the University and the bustle of the Union bar on a Friday afternoon and the smell of spilt beer on pub floors and the feeling of dancing through dry ice in a club.

Mostly she would miss her friends. It surprised her how much this was true, how much it had become true in the last few months since they’d met as strangers, shared a house, and formed their little coven. She knew no-one except her was calling it a coven. She wanted Leah’s standard greeting, an exaggerated kiss on both cheeks; she wanted Cora to  braid her hair, feel her tease out her tangles and smooth down the strands; she wanted to walk arm in arm with Aps, listening to her talk and talk and talk. She wanted to touch Aps most of all, to feel that she was really there, that she really came back, that she really did save her. She’d seen them all, part of her new video call friendship community but it didn’t feel real until she could hold and be held.

Her captors (again, her embellishment but, hey, this one was broadly true) tried to sell her on her sacrifice. You stay here, they get to go out, and maybe we get to stop this whole thing. She couldn’t argue with it, with its relentless rationale and logic. She could live with that but still couldn’t live with the deception and the cost. Aps had nearly died. If they’d just asked her then she’d have signed up for whatever they needed. She was sure she would. Mostly she was sure she would.

April, you alone can help us with this. Nobody else has your blood profile, your immune response. The whole program rests on you, so we had no choice. You alone.

Her phone rang. April hesitated before picking up, the screen announcing that it was Aps calling which meant that it would be all of them. This was how they usually called. She pressed the button to answer, turned her face to the screen, the small, circular camera, and waited. There was a brief pause as they connected.

“Hey April, it’s us, we see you… we still see you.”

 

Graduation

They had let her out on the morning of her graduation. Two years, four months, and five days after entering isolation and six months after widespread adoption of the vaccine. They’d lied about almost everything on the program including how long they needed her for. April hung on to the only things that she still believed were true: her blood had saved her friend and would vaccinate the globe. She’d spent most of her life isolated and now she was connected to almost everyone through millions on millions of injections of something synthesised from inside her.

She felt awkward and out of place in the Great Hall. It was the first set of ceremonies to be conducted back in the Wills Memorial since 2019, more than a decade ago, the first time that everyone felt safe converging in such numbers in a confined space. They had arranged a gown for her and let her change at the hospital before a taxi had picked her up to drive her into town. She had kept it from her parents, there would be time to call them later and she hadn’t wanted them to come straight away. She couldn’t really explain it but she’d completed her studies shut away, it was hers and hers alone and she wanted to keep them separate from her memories of her time in Bristol.

In the cab on the way over she had dropped a text to Aps, just a jokey thing commenting on the weather: beautiful day for a graduation. She knew they’d all had their ceremonies already as the scientists (even the pseudo ones like Leah) had been earlier in the week; she’d listened to them all chat about it on one of their regular video calls and been bombarded with photos afterwards, the usual shots of mortar boards thrown into the air, friends arm in arm, laughing families.

There was a shot of Aps that she loved, eyes glowing, facing down the camera with a broad smile. There was no trace of the shattered and wrecked girl that she’d seen in the HDU, no vestige of the months and months of rehabilitation she’d worked through, rebuilding her body, processing what had happened. They had clung to each other for the last two years, speaking every day, working through their memories of their shared experiences and talking about what they were facing now. April would read to her in the first few weeks of her recovery, dialling her up on video, and voicing over whatever she was studying. Later, as Aps got better, she took over the lead on their conversations and April was grateful for that; there were only so many ways to describe her day when every day was basically the same in isolation.

The pictures of Leah and Cora also brought her joy. Leah had grown her hair out, falling down across her shoulders. It was how she wore her hair growing up, she said, when they’d first moved to Italy. Her parents had flown over for her graduation and there were several shots of her and her dad pulling faces at the camera before a final one of the two of them, his arm across her shoulders, him looking at her with a quiet pride. Cora was mostly alone in her pictures but looked content and comfortable in herself. April knew she’d met someone in the last few months, they were taking it slow but it was making her happy. Cora had confided in her the day of her ceremony. She’d hesitated a little as she’d said that she would always love Rob but that she thought that it was finally time to move on.

April took a seat towards the back of the hall which was beginning to fill up. Everyone else gravitated towards the front, filling the rows with the best view. She didn’t mind. She didn’t really know anyone, they’d tried dialling her in on seminars but it had never properly worked trying to keep up with the flow of discussion in the room. They had usually forgotten she was there, a disembodied face on a propped up tablet. Towards the end she’d managed with just viewing the lectures and picking up one to one conversations with her tutor. She had hoped to meet him but couldn’t pick him out in the sea of faces and she felt still too uncertain to try and mingle in the crowd. It was only after she sat down that she realised how overwhelming it all was, like she was undergoing some sort of social bends, coming back up into a large group of people too quickly after so long on her own.

She took a deep breath and stood up. This was too much. She turned to leave.

In the doorway were three women. They weren’t wearing gowns and looked slightly breathless, flush in the cheeks, as if they’d just run up the gothic stairs on their way to the hall. One of them saw her and pointed. And then they were all running, all four, them to April and April to them. She felt arms around her for the first time in two years. They stayed like that for a long time.

“Why are you crying?” said Leah, finally. “You got a first.”

“Yeah,” agreed Cora. “It’s us that should be in tears. We didn’t have to study on our own for our degree and you still did better than us. I think the University’s a bit embarrassed about it to be honest, you’ve made them look bad.”

“They’ll spin it as evidence of the effectiveness of their distance learning programs,” said Leah. “And, I don’t know how to break this to you Cora but we are all kind of crying.”

“What are you doing here?” said April. “How did you know?”

“Really?” said Aps. “You think we wouldn’t figure out your cryptic little text. Absolutely classic April, can’t just come out with it and ask us to come.”

“I never was very good at asking people for help. Ask my therapist.”

“Which one?” said Leah. April laughed.

“Hey, now you’ve graduated you could be April’s new therapist,” said Aps.

“I really don’t think that’s going to work,” said April.

“You could be my lifetime study,” said Leah. “Don’t rule it out. I’ve already worked out our first session. Tonight. Classics night at the Kandi. Classics with an x, obviously, you haven’t missed that much. Indie dance therapy. I’m going to get it peer reviewed, imagine it will be bigger than CBT.”

“I never really got on with CBT,” said April. “But screaming Nirvana songs in your face under a strobe light I think I can get on board with.”

Cora gestured towards the front of the hall where some members of faculty and local dignitaries were taking their place on a stage underneath the building’s dome. Someone tapped a microphone and the four of them squeezed into seats on the back row, Cora and Leah flanking April and Aps in the middle.

Aps held April’s hand until her friend’s name was read out. She gave it a squeeze and let go and they all watched her walk to the front to receive her honours.

Alone but not lonely.

 

 

The way young lovers do

I let you pick our first dance. Van Morrison. The Way Young Lovers Do. At the time I thought it was perfect for us, light as air, breezy passion, giddy words that rang in astonished awe at the rush of falling in love. It was terrible to dance to though. All that jazz inflected triple time signature, bass bounding around like a badly behaved puppy, untamed. My feet followed the drums, snare skittering out that three four time, whilst yours followed the melody, all straightforward until Van, spirit moving him, starts scatting and be-bopping, channeling something outside of the reach of words. We both, independently at first and then progressively in synch with each other, started to punctuate our dance in time with the horns: you punching the air, me playing air trombone. I don’t even know if there’s a trombone on it but it seemed the easiest brass instrument to mime. After a couple of minutes, when the bass runs finally defeated our hips, gamely searching for a groove to slide into, you pulled me close and kissed me. Then, laughing, we beckoned everyone else on to the floor. 

Later on you’d always talk about that dance and that song in particular – it was one of your signature anecdotes – and tell people that none of the individual elements made sense on their own but together – together – they created something perfect and pure. People usually got it. Sometimes you felt the need to underline the metaphor, either implicitly through smiling across at me or taking my hand; other times you really hammered it home – “we were those young lovers, weren’t we?”. I would return your smile. Agree in the times you were making the point more pointedly.

What you didn’t talk about, and maybe I only put it together later, was that Van never recreated that song. Or that performance, at least. It was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in time, musicians letting fly, nailing the heady euphoria of love in three minutes flat. Nothing written down, no chords, no notation, all navigated in nods and looks and instinct and feel. A one take deal. When I listen to it now it sounds like it could just as easily fall apart at any moment as make it to the end. The song’s preserved forever as recorded but love doesn’t really work like that: you can’t sustain it based on a distantly remembered moment in time.

It’s not the most important thing but I hate that you ruined Astral Weeks for me. Ruined all of Van for me. You’d insist on playing “our” song  so often that eventually I got curious about the rest of the album and discovered something I could escape into, disappear inside its meandering, meditative musings. That all went after we split: all I could hear was you. For a while I made myself a playlist that consisted of the album without “Young Lovers…” but I couldn’t fool myself. The songs would skip from Cyprus Avenue straight to Madame George and all I’d hear was the absence of you. Van would be lost in his loves to love to love to loves to love reverie and when I should have been mesmerised, lifted out of the mundane, spinning in the ether, instead I was earthbound, thinking about your indiscretions. Your indiscretions don’t deserve polite poetry. Your fucking around. Your betrayals. Your others-that-weren’t-me. 

Loves to love to love to loves to love other people but not me. 

All My Friends: Jason

I was pretty drunk but that was not unusual so I had no problem catching Lizzie’s arm, steadying her as she stumbled over her dance steps. It was like I’d re-calibrated my own sense of sobriety over the past couple of years; no drink at all left the world too sharp, too acute and I needed a few units to take the edge off it. Otherwise there was just too much of everything. I suppose I was aware that it was taking a little bit more, steadily month by month, to blunt the razor. I was aware but I had no interest in stopping.

It had been an effort to come. Lizzie was hard to say no to, just like old times. Somehow she’d worn me down, stalking me on social, filling my mobile with texts, piling up mail in my in box. I wasn’t really in touch with the others and so perhaps curiosity had gotten the better of me. They’d all sent messages after 7/7 but Lizzie was the only one that I’d seen in person, insisting on taking me out to various pubs in Highgate, plying me with gin until I’d loosen up enough to talk about it all. Most of those nights ended in tears – my tears – and her arms around me, whispering that I needed to let it out. She meant well but I always felt like her therapy 101 approach to my psychological welfare was akin to her approach to parties when we’d all known each other as students: she was brilliant at making a mess but lousy at clearing up afterwards.

In the end it’d been the promise of some peace in the country that had convinced me. I think Lizzie had sent everyone an invite with a screen grab from Withnail & I on it underscored with a stolen line from the film: “what we need is fresh air, harmony, stuff like that”. Maybe she didn’t realise quite the extent to which I’d been drifting into the arena of the unwell, to steal another line, but seeing Richard E Grant’s disheveled indignance stirred something in me; one washed up, booze soaked loser calling to another. London wasn’t good for me anymore, I knew that. I was double dosing on beta blockers and citalopram just to function, slooshing the pills down with a glass of red on a good day and a bottle on a bad one. I’d started travelling in the rear of tube trains because I figured if someone was going to blow themselves up they’d be near the front, cause more damage as the momentum of the trailing carriages concertinaed into each other. I’d started applying rational assumptions to irrational acts carried out by lunatics. What did that make me?

If you’d have asked me before that day, before the smoke, before picking my way through darkness, nostrils filled with the scent of charred flesh, mouth stung with the iron tang of blood, before the starter-gun blast that had left my ears permanently tuned to a constant background of static, before hearing the confused, frightened cries for help, if you’d asked me just before then I’d have said I missed them all. Lizzie and Jo and Neil and Clare and Richard and Jon and Gina. There had been a time when that was our little universe, each of us orbiting the others. Afterwards a distance opened up. I guess the explosion pushed me out, gave me enough velocity that I just flew off into the darkest reaches of space. How do you break orbit? What would I know? Neil could probably explain it but none of us ever really had the patience for listening to him explain his degree except Jon. And even Jon seemed to give up on him after a while. Everything changed that day. I changed that day and they became, pretty much in an instant, strangers to me.

Nothing in the weekend had caused me to change my view. I saw all of the old routines play out but felt detached from all of them. I used to be a part of it but now I just felt like I was watching a bad remake of The Big Chill or, worse, Peter’s Friends. Jesus, let it be me that’s saved up for the end of the film as the big reveal: I’ll be the one with the incurable disease or the one that died or the one that’s about to be murdered. So I did what I always did lately and I drank. It made the movie more bearable. It slowed things down enough, dialed down my twitchy anxiety enough, to catch Lizzie’s arm as she faltered. I watched her dancing, the others calling her name in time to the song, and watched her unhook her bra, drop it to the floor. Everyone cheered. Same old Lizzie. It reminded me of something we used to do and I thought this was her last attempt to bring me back, to tractor-beam me back into their constellation.

I dropped my jeans, swung my hips in an exaggerated fashion. Lizzie mock spanked me just like all those nights a lifetime ago, all those nights before, and the others laughed and called out encouragement. I fixed a smile on my face and tried to tune in to the joy, to the nostalgia, concentrating on gyrating my hips, forcing as much comedy as I could from the simple act of removing my trousers, but it was drowned out in my head by screams and fire.

Old, new, borrowed, blue.

Hey Siri.

What can I help you with ?

Play something old.

Which old ?

I scan the list and settle on “Seems Like Old Times”, remembering when we watched Annie Hall and fell in love with Keaton breathing into that microphone, red rose pinned to her lapel, awkward and adorable. Siri doesn’t remember Annie Hall and offers me the opportunity to buy some film of the same name starring Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn. You always hated Chevy Chase. I had a soft spot for Three Amigos but tended to keep quiet about it.

Hey Siri. Play something new. We’re past the pleasantries of what can I help you with now. Straight to business.

Which new ?

Option one is Star Wars: A New Hope. Who says algorithms can’t know you ? Of course that’s what I’d choose in almost any other circumstance but it’s not going to help tonight. You love that film. I prefer Empire Strikes Back, ever the connoisseur, but it was always “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” and “you came in that, you’re braver than I thought” for you. Two questions in and we’re still stuck in the late 70s and I’m still stuck with memories of you.

Hey Siri. Give me something borrowed. I change tack slightly. Conversation with my phone isn’t playing out quite how I wanted. What did I expect ? A curated cure-all list of content custom crafted for circumspection and forgetting ? An abbreviated alliterative  approach to answering angst through algorithmic artificial intelligence ?

Two options. Two films both called “Something Borrowed”. Way to go there Siri. I click on one of them and it promises a story of Rachel, a successful attorney, and also a loyal and generous friend. She is, alas, still single. After one too many at her 30th birthday (we’ve all been there Rachel) she ends up in bed with her long term crush Dex (okay, so we’ve not all been there). Dex, it turns out, is engaged to her best friend… I have not seen this movie. We, certainly, would never have gone to see this movie although, ironically, you did  sleep with my best friend so perhaps it would have been helpful. Some involuntary twitch, popcorn spiralling into the air during a scene that was a little too close to home. Maybe it’d have prefaced some guilt induced confession. Maybe we’d have been sleeping together afterwards and lost in the moment you’d have called out “Dex” in faint ecstatic desperation and I’d have pieced together that all was not well. My name is not Dex for the avoidance of doubt.

Hey Siri. Play something blue.

Hmm. I’m not finding anything called “something blue”.

Play blue.

The phone screen fades black before a woman’s face fills the screen, blue grey, frozen in silent contemplation. Joni. I say a silent prayer that Siri has picked this ahead of boy band Blue’s “All Rise” which I suspect is lurking somewhere in my iTunes folder. That was you. You liked Blue and Take That and Five (or technically, if stupidly, 5ive) and all of that chart fodder for kids that don’t know any better and grown ups that wish they didn’t. I like Joni. Depressing as shit. Isn’t that what you said ? Joni and Bob and Leonard and Neil and Carole and Warren. All dismissed. I played you “Big Yellow Taxi” once to try and convert you by stealth. Said you preferred the Counting Crows version. That should have been enough. I should have slept with John then, saved you the bother of doing it. Paved paradise and put up a parking lot. You said it Joni. You said it.

Hey Siri. Play something old. Play something new. Play something borrowed. But mostly, right now, just play “Blue”.

 

The storm

Someone scrubbed out the sky. We arrived under endless clear blue and departed beneath muted grey, almost dissolving and discolouring to white. As if the colour was a mistake, erased. Or perhaps drained away: we have used all of our colour today and there is none left for the sky. The details on the horizon remain, the tree line picked out in sharp focus against the grey-white backdrop. It’s like a child’s drawing that started from the earth, penciling in a road, some cars, headlights reflecting and refracting in the rain, making it as far as the midline of the page and trees on the horizon but then leaving the sky blank. Or did the sky simply wash itself out ? All its colour weeping across the earth, falling in torrents of rain ?

We ascribe meaning to meteorology on days like today. We arrive bathed in sunshine, hot and anxious in unfamiliar suits and collars, and you depart under a cloudless sky. We then depart and the storm breaks; the sky is spent, its facade crumbles and it denies us sun and permits us only rain. The storm will last a good and terrible while yet. I think we know this and we dig in, hunker down in its eye and listen to the relentless drum of rain on pavement, the gurgle of over worked drains struggling to clear the deluge, and watch the battering of the leaves on stoic trees. The leaves will submit and fall as summer fades to autumn, as seasons renew, as the world turns.

We submit and fall in the storm as our summer fades to autumn. We will renew but not yet, not so quickly or implacably as the world turns. It can turn awhile without us. We will wait for the storm to blow itself out and for the colour to return to our sky.

 

……

This is for my mum, my best and most loyal reader.

Doubt

The church sat atop a sea of freshly fallen snow, looming out of the dusk as Sean approached. The previous night’s storm had blanketed the graveyard and had covered the winding path up to the front door. Sean’s footprints followed him in a straight line: the most direct route to God was across the dead.

He stamped his feet clean of powder once he was inside and paused to compose himself. It was as cold in the church as outside but at least he was out of the wind. Flickering candles picked out the altar, rows of silent pews, a font, but gave up little heat. He hadn’t expected to feel the warmth of the Lord’s love but its absence disappointed him nonetheless. Stepping into the confessional he awkwardly made the sign of the cross as he sat down.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was…” He faltered. He couldn’t recall how long it had been since he’d confessed. It was a habit he’d slipped out of after he’d married Aoife and especially after Mary had been born. She’d been a difficult one, arriving early and struggling through her first few months, beset by illness. They’d almost lost her a couple of years ago in the winter of ’33. She was gripped with fever and he, Aoife, Dr O’Halloran and Margaret, his new health visitor, had sat with her in shifts, wrapping her in cool towels. Father Flynn had come down from the church and sat with them, leading the prayers. Twice she’d stopped breathing. Both times Margaret had revived her, forcing breath back into her lungs even as Flynn began his final administering.

“It’s alright Sean. Take your time. You’ve been through a lot.” The priest spoke in a reassuring but firm, low tone.

“My last confession was three years ago, Father. Before the wedding. Before the wedding and now, here we are, after the funeral. Perhaps if I’d come more often ? Been more diligent ?”

“God forgives. He sees the repentant man and he forgives. He didn’t take Aoife from us because your faith was found wanting Sean.” Flynn sighed. He had never had cause to question his own resolute belief and he sometimes wondered if some understanding of doubt would better equip him to bring the waverers in his congregation back into the fold.

 

“I know Father. That’s why I must confess.” There was a long pause as both men sat in silence. One searching for the right words, the other giving him the time to find them. Sean lowered his voice to barely a whisper. “I knew she was messing around. I saw the way he looked at her. James Ryan. Up from Cork originally he was. Always boasting about how he’d be leaving for America one day. It was hard for her, you know ? I was at the school all day and she never really took to motherhood. When we nearly lost Mary something changed in her, it was like she was scared of getting too close to her again. When I found out about the baby… Found out it was his…” Sean broke off, shaking his head. A sudden draught made the candles in the church leap and lean, some of them blew out and the confessional pitched further into darkness.

“What did you do child ?” asked Flynn.

“I took her to that place in Ennis,” he answered softly. “The parlour of Parnell Street, that’s what they call it. No questions asked. Pay your money and your wife’s mistake goes away and you never speak of it again. Except something went wrong. Was that your God, Father ? Was that his punishment for her for adultery ? Or for both of us for killing the baby ? Is that why he took her as well ?”

They both sat silently for a long time before Flynn offered up a prayer and talked of penance. He remained in his seat long after Sean had left. Against all that he’d been taught, against all that he knew, this was the worst sin he’d borne witness to. It was an affront to God. And yet, sitting there in the dark, he felt the first pinch of something new. Doubt.

 

……

This is story 26 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This one, like number 25, also came from an unlikely source. It’s actually part of a longer sequence of stories I’m involved in with my writing group – I’ll add a link when they’re complete. Consequently it’s not typical for me in either style or theme. But I’ll take them where I can find them…