“As if each person knew their happiness could not last. ”
My room, now that I am in it, is at the front of the house, and directly opposite the Fire Station.
Arrivals and departures, noise, flashing lights, hooting alarms, skidding, empty streets, but, still at emergency vehicle pace. Freedom to attend what he thought of as non-first responders’ events. Yet perhaps they were?
There are holes in the floor, but it was large and light, and the cockroaches were going to get in, holes or no holes. I’d like to prevent departures but so many critters are going to keep me company, cockroach holes, fleas in carpet, flies and mosquitoes. I am the only one who must stay. Forbidden to move due to quarantine expectations.
Is Jim kidding himself? Who has the luxury of just remaining in bed while light filters through curtains titled block out? Well designers didn’t know about being shut in one place, and not feeling the need to move. Even in a cocoon of sheets and quilt he’s still thinking about what to cook for dinner. All the things that are in a half empty fridge. How much thrown out before he arrived.
Time drip off fingertips slow as lake water.
Hot, muggy late afternoon, air chowder thick. No one passed by on the bike path, along the railroad tracks. People everywhere were indoors, safe in the dull bliss of air conditioning.
Silence a thing to marvel at. No cars, no pedestrians, limited public transport; passengers fearful to use such things, might be a chance someone uncovered their faces, caught the virus.
The way darkness existed in greater quantities excited Jim. A quality rolled through full of emptiness, its shadowy arms caressing cracked paving stones and fire hydrants as it intensified, growing even blacker. It rapped knuckles on the windowpanes with sleeping children inside. Jim felt as if this encroaching darkness was eager to mother others, to bring terror along with night.
Fewer lights even though many apartments were occupied. As if residents decided to contribute less fossil fuel to greenhouse gasses.
The suburb resembled downtown Haiti, without any tropical glamour. Further down the street an abandoned factory loomed out of drizzle like a defunct cathedral. Concrete the dominant feature, as if from an overloaded car parking spaces were still required. Yet no one ventured out and parked cars anymore.
Cluttered nearby shabby tower blocks, with balconies strung with washing and facades festooned with satellite dishes. On the way he remembers passing a second-hand furniture shop, not that anyone risked using someone else’s casts off now. But signage stuck in his head, in wobbly hand painted lettering, Sofa King — Our prices are Sofa King low.
Discarded chip packets and plastic bags, danced beautifully, if there was breeze, but even the air stilled lately, rain kept everything still, damp and downtrodden by droplets. And not in a good way. Weeds only things still growing, aside from out-of-control microscopic life forms, currently causing global panic. Curling root systems from weed invaders glimmered like toenails on a corpse. Jim thought his new quarantine location more in common with a Quentin Tarantino film location than a comfortable place to sit out possibilities of testing as a carrier of this dreadful infection.
A cluster of adolescent boys, standing way too close together, impervious to any illness. Wearing black hoodies sat on their haunches, like arrow of crows, on a car carcass, rusted metal, long since picked over for anything useful, doors, internal fittings, and set alight, burnt almost beyond recognition of anything mechanical. These kids looked suspicious and furtive, like urban rats, ready to scavenge for anything helpful for their survival.
Warehouses and factories, boarded up shops and desolate streets, browns and muddy yellows, greys and little slices of pure blue sky visible around the edge — proof that industry negated from lives brightened the heavens, lessened pollution. Jim guessed waiting out a pandemic needed a good side. Yet an overwhelming feeling was this place was landscape he needed to leave, remove himself from such places.
Once Jim tip-toed right behind a girl, so close that he could almost taste her flesh, and then darkness wrapped itself around her, engulfing her entire body. It made him smile as he watched this girl plunge into blackness, then his smile disappeared, as he remembered how impossible it was to get closer to someone than 1.5m.
The girl now bathed in darkness, only semi visible, giggled like a schoolgirl. Perhaps in response to being aware she was followed. His response was a sound somewhere between a gvuffaw and a chortle.
Out of darkness came a bright light, driving a kind of golf cart, were four policemen.
“You are out of door, should you be?”
“Out for some exercise.”
‘“We noted you were following someone, again, where should you be? Were you about to threaten her? You cannot just wander about!’”
“My room is 5B, but can’t we have some exercise?’
‘You must only use inside spaces, and your balcony, if you have one.”
“My balcony is overrun with cockroaches, and sundry bugs, I am afraid of falling through holes.”
“We will do an inspection tomorrow, see what can be done. In the meantime, you must return to your room.”
He made sure to take the long way, walked through a desolate square toward an empty plinth, its statue gone. Likely some white man, a victim of social upheaval, synonymous with keeping slaves or poking fun at this terrible virus. Tree roots haphazardly pushing up concrete on either side of a now empty base. Asserting primacy over space as a location of egress and rest for so many people who since deserted this urban location.
Friendships were doomed. Jim could feel a strange sinking feeling when he saw others embrace. In his eyes a wariness wrapped itself about any such actions. As if each person knew their happiness could not last. All grew to regret concept of human closeness. As if the virus could jump all sorts of invisible barriers. It could exist under face masks, jump from surface to surface. People thought themselves the most intelligent, but the virus protected itself, and replicated faster than humankind. Protected the next generation, ensured the future of its species.
Jim remembered an accountant, who occupied a nearby office, when people worked in offices. An owl of a man who kept one eyelid half shut and not because of an affliction but rather due to much of this world he was not prepared to see. What was that man doing now? How did he survive? Rows of figures were not such a required commodity anymore, unless relevant to how many cases, deaths of number of tests.
The wind began to moan, leaves rushing in circles then scattering against the surface like open palms, fingers curled. Easy to image human attributes in this unpeople world. His stomach pinches. A memory forming like waves breaking against the shore, methodical and without rest. Jim placed fingers against temples and make the shape of circles.
Unsettled he picked a path through tufted grass and meandered around the base of a Ferris wheel, its yellow canopies like decrepit Pac-Men pell-melling a circle in the sky. Only now they are they still, with the occasional hinge creaking. The only other sounds are birds and trees and whistle of wind through trees. He dared not stop, timers are on how long he could spend outside, those police, he’d last seen them talking to the girl he followed, no doubt checking out her reason for being outside. Perhaps assessing his degree of threat, was the young lady comfortable with noises being made?
The farewell, like all our family occasions, was drawn out. As if such exchanges might never occur again. He’d already seen my grandparents the day before. We’d lunched at a Chinese restaurant we’d been going as long as he could remember. We never went anywhere else, something to do with the smile the owners would give when my grandfather pulled out his own thermos of coffee from the canvas bag at his feet and whatever cakes or biscuits my grandmother cooked that week.
“Proper sweets,” Grand-dad would say, sweeping aside options of banana fritters, mango pudding or fried ice cream. They would always order the same things; my grandfather loved the Mongolian Lamb and my grandmother the Chicken Chow Mein. Jim was the only one who ordered anything different, and he never felt entirely comfortable with the thermos.
Once the spicy fish dish arrived, dripping with a soy-garlic-chillies sauce, both his grandparents screwed up their faces. Jim liked to say, made cat’s bottom expressions. He already felt as if this was to be his last meal, delights like sitting close, even if only to family, about to cease, why not try something new. And those business men towards the rear, must be subjected to some serious vaccination, and check-in codes. Inside his head Jim heard a voice say, but can you protect yourself from future variations. What if this virus gets friendly with Ebola, of Chlamydia?
Those five men in threadbare suits and gaudy ties howled at their own jokes and scored the waitresses out of ten. They were shaking hands, displayed stained teeth, and greasy comb-overs lacquered with gel. Jim began to wonder if another strain of virus might attack teeth and thin hair. The centre of mass was a stern man ladled into his suit, a jumble of veins on his temple. Jim didn’t like the look of him.
Two newlyweds sat beside a window, huddled over uneaten meals. The woman talked and her tattooed husband stroked her hand tenderly. He was left-handed, muscular, his knuckles scarred and his skin tanned. His right leg shook as he tapped the heel of his work boot on the floor over and over again.
There was a birthday party in the corner. Guests chirped to each other and cooed at the birthday girl perched at the head of the table while taking photographs with their phones. Tokens of affection were placed before her and impatiently shredded in a shower of ribbon and wrapping paper. Innocent but tedious to witness. What were they thinking, was this place soon to be a super-spreader location?
Where are they now? Those innocent gatherings, now many restaurants simply closed their doors, chairs stacked up on tables inside, random mail waiting never to be collected. Dust collecting just inside the doors, bearing new signage about vaccinations certificates and check in codes. Now the only chance to gather was drive-throughs and on line celebrations, and only a few of them made a transition.
There was no food, Jim had to boil bread crumbs, swept out of the storage areas, to make soup. Constant stomach growling as a reminder he was alive even if slowly starving.
Outside, he can look out of windows, but not go into those fetid airs. Too risky, apparently. Too much dangerous, to both Jim and others.
A heavy handed knock on the door broke his revelry. He opened the door, but kept the chain across, not really sure who would knock rather than ring the bell, or announce their visit by using the down stairs bell. Two uniformed police stood in the foyer. But also wearing full personal protection garb, as if he was a hospital case, fully contagious.
Jim endured their inspection, yes, they conceded, there were plenty of critters featured.
“But you cannot just wander about outside.”
If Jim was able to see their faces, he was sure stone features would be on display. So he had endure a dreadful smoke bomb, which filtered through his nasal passages worse than any virus.
“That will get rid of fleas, cockroaches and possibly mice.”
Nothing further was said about food deliveries.
This building is an ancient fire trap, overheated but still subjected to drafts, with creaking floors and a lot of worn out but stolid wood. Massive banisters, heavy window frames, thickly panelled doors. Smells like a damp pantry suffering from dry rot, with sprouting potatoes, long forgotten. But if I was to look for anything which resembles food between allocated meal deliveries there would be nothing I might find.
Maybe due to empty containers there is a lingering, queasy odour filtering up from unemptied rubbish bins. Lukewarm cabbage, left over scrambled eggs, burnt toast, scraped off and still delivered.
He longed for contraband the family might deliver, fresh apples, and fruit in general. Even mum’s parsley, I can plant this, without fear of having more children now. Sowing parsley seeds a sure-fire way to ensure an unwanted pregnancy during her fertile times.
On the few occasions quarantine cases might be given permission to walk empty streets. Recession is deepening. More buildings for sale. Closed down boutiques. Sometimes a saleswoman lurks in doorways of those still open, aiming defeated, pleasing stares at rare passers-by. Despite most of their faces being covered. Jim thought about how this encouraged break-ins, everyone now covered their faces, how to identify someone? Eyes filed with baffled rage. Prices Slashed signs dominate, well outside end of financial year and months before Christmas. Blank faced or headless mannequins wear fashions emblazoned with Easter motifs now collecting shoulder layers of dust even in newer looking shops. He can’t help wondering if a new growth in retail will involve crews of staff whose sole purpose is to clean displays, launder stock and remove debris of inactivity before business can commence to function. Maybe he should apply.
Police again! This time they poured out of a shiny new traffic car. Jim shuttered, imagined these authority figures tasting his aura. Or fingering his essence, penetrating whatever kind of chakra he was activating at that exact moment.
“We’ve seen you before. What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it my time to walk? Others were escorting us.”
“You have been told. No outside exercise. What don’t you understand?”
“Yes, but I need to get out. There isn’t any food, I need to buy something.”
“Your food is delivered.”
‘“Doesn’t seem to be. I thought food shopping was essential.”
“We are going to write you an official warning. The next time it will be a $5,000 fine.”
Crumpled paper and rubble left by long gone crowds or looters flutters about on dirty air. Should Jim also toss away the piece of paper he’d been given? Pretend it didn’t exist?
Those left behind were a tribe of their own, fated to walk the earth with different baggage, knowledge that the rest of us fear and do not aspire join this group. He called them The Sadlings. No disrespect intended — it was a private naming and he would never say it aloud. Targeted by police in order to intimidate.
The streets were still gloriously empty. Silence a thing to marvel. And the way that the darkness seemed to exist in greater quantities in this street excited him. It rolled through emptiness, its shadowy arms caressing, cracked paving stones and fire hydrants as it intensified, and growing even blacker. It rapped knuckles on window panes of sleeping residents, eager to smother them, to bring terror into their night.
Fewer lights even though apartments were occupied. As if they didn’t want to signal anyone was inside. Fear a major motivator. What if someone came knocking, what if police were on the door step? Just the mere thought of this brought tears to Jim’s eyes.
Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. Her fiction has appeared in Barbaric Yawp, Ken*Again, Pendulum Papers and has won a few awards through Australian and UK competitions; ‘Almond Tree’ received a commendation from Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction Competition and was published in Pretty Owl Poetry Journal. ‘A Dog for Company’ is forthcoming in Meniscus Journal, and ‘Brad and Janet’ was recently long-listed for The Sydney Hammond Short Story Competition. Karen is currently working on a memoir titled Army Girl, about military service 1972-76. In her other life, Karen is a triathlete who has done the Hawaii Ironman championships twice.