Sunday, 3 May 2020

After 6 years of radio silence, I am back

Since I last wrote in this blog, so much has happened that it will take a lot more posts to fill the gap. But like much of the world, I am in a contemplative mood spiked by alarm and worry about Covid-19. Unlike so much of the rest of the world, though, Mozambique has been lucky (so far) with only 79 confirmed cases and, despite having very few tests, no evidence of infection from Coronavirus in its many health posts and hospitals.

Whether this is because it is so hot here, or because 80% of the population is under 25-years-old, or because we all get more vitamin D from all the sunlight, or because of genetic factors: at this early stage, who can say?

While brooding over these things and compulsively checking the situation elsewhere thanks to worldometer's Coronavirus live updates on my cell phone, I came up with the following short story: 'Boris Johnson is Sitting Up'

Boris Johnson is Sitting Up

The thing is, it wasn’t much good before the lockdown because Jim has his ways. Sometimes he likes to re-live the days of his youth when he was the welter-weight champion for South Devon. Then he comes home from the pub having had a few pints too many, and he likes to use me as his punch bag. Next day, though, it’s not like in the movies: there’s no ‘I’m sorry, but I love you’ or ‘Look what you made me do’. He just wolfs down his cornflakes with almond milk (that he makes me buy from Sainsbury’s and which we can never – ever - use, not even to taste. Then he grabs his sports bag and goes out to volunteer for a long-haul delivery. He always tries not to get back before the bruises and swelling have healed. It’s funny when you think about it: for an ex-boxer to be so squeamish about black eyes and split lips. This time, he told me to disguise the bruises and to stop ‘Going around like road kill warmed up.’

Mostly, though, it isn’t like that. Usually there’s just me and the kids. Harry and Jane Marie go to school, Jim works delivering bathroom appliances for a local firm and I work part time at Poundland. Jane Marie says that since I started the job our home is like those ones you see on the Telly where hoarders have to sleep sitting up in a chair and pick their way through lanes left between their piles of junk. It hasn’t got to be that bad here but I see her point. It’s just that it’s amazing what great stuff you can buy for a pound and what with my staff discount, I find some of the special offers irresistible.

The Prime Minister is in the ICU with Coronavirus and Mum’s got a friend with a friend who nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital who says it’s bad. What will happen if Boris Johnson dies? What then? How can we fight Covid-19 without a leader?

It’s so worrying that I sort out my garden stuff again to calm my nerves. I’ve got a whole area under our bed full of flower pots (10 for £1), gardening tools, seeds, bulbs and compost. It’s what started the kids off, actually, because we don’t have a garden. There’s a tiny bit of balcony left over from Jim’s old exercise bike, weights, and the boxes of engine oil, brake fluid, and anti-freeze he filches from work. It is just enough room to squeeze in one small flower pot and a compact cork hanging basket (2 for only £1) which I stuff with hyacinths and then lobelias and geraniums. Last year I grew those trailing nasturtiums (2 packets for a £1) which looked lovely spread all over Jim’s junk like an orange trellis until he ripped them out and threw them down. A big clump of stalks and leaves fell right onto Mrs. Davies’ head and she was so cross she limped all the way up here with her sciatica to give him a piece of her mind.

Afterwards, Jim gave me this kink in my nose and the biggest of the stains in the carpet. There was blood everywhere and the kids were so frightened they hid in their room for hours. Later, I told them they had nothing to fear because Jim only has it in for me. He wouldn’t lay a finger on either of them. Jim’s always been good with the kids. He used to take them to the Common to

the swings and to gather conkers and to sail the little boats they made on the Plague Pond. But they’d never seen so much blood before and it scared them.

The football hasn’t started yet and Jim shouts out for the hundredth times the breaking news that he’s bored. I take a quick look at worldometers and see that there are already 2,870 new cases in the UK today and its only lunch time. How different this lockdown would be with a garden: the kids could play outside, Jim and I could sunbathe or just doze in deck chairs or do a crossword puzzle. And I’d grow salads and herbs and I’d grow runner beans up the fence like Granddad used to. And I could make pizzas in one of those outdoor ovens. Mozzarella and fresh-picked rocket. Mmm!

Thank god for day dreams! I don’t know how anyone gets through life without them. While here we are in our 2-bedrooms, living room, kitchenette and bathroom with me cooking up yet another delicious feast of baked beans on toast. While the others eat, I lock myself in the bathroom and have a whispered chat with my Mum. Whenever I can, I steal a few moments to call her and my sister and Carol from work. But Jim doesn’t let me stay in there for long. He’s got a bit of a sixth sense for it and I know if I don’t hang up he’ll break the door down.

Then I’m back in the living room locked down with Jim and the kids and all the clutter from Poundland. In the olden days, if you got the plague, the neighbours would mark your house with a big red cross and nail the door shut with everyone - the sick and the well – inside it: dooming them all to die. Funny to think that we live less than a mile away from a medieval plague pond while here we are in the grips of a new plague.

Last week, I made a snakes and ladders and a pretty good ludo board but the kids aren’t into board games anymore. It seems that if it isn’t digital it isn’t interesting, and Jim is too glued to the box to want to throw dice with me.

The News comes on again and Jim relays it all to me as I wash up as though I was deaf and couldn’t hear it and as though I don’t have woldometer Coronavirus live updates on my mobile phone.

“The official death toll for yesterday is 980. 980 and what is anyone doing about it? Nine hundred and bloody eighty and all they can do is close the bloody pubs!”

So as not to enrage him further, I refrain from bringing up the thousands of Frontline healthcare workers not to mention the entire country in lockdown.

“I ask you! What a bunch of wankers!”

He finishes off his 3rd beer of the morning and rolls the empty bottle under the sofa. At this rate, his 6-pack lockdown ration won’t last him today so we’ll have to go shopping again. I back into the kitchen to find our list.

‘’Oh! Oh! Listen to this: Boris Johnson is sitting up.’’

“Hmm” I sort of hum, knowing that any actual reply will be a snake.

‘’I said, Boris Johnson is sitting up.” He shouts with menace.

‘’I heard you, That’s good because he seems to have had quite a close shave.”

Jim mimics my voice in falsetto:

“He seems to have had quite a close shave! La di bloody da! What would you know about it, you stupid cow! Why don’t you stop locking yourself in the bog and gossiping with your fat-arsed friends and make us some decent food for a change? How much longer do you think you can get away with your bloody baked beans?’’

I keep my head bowed and avoid eye contact. Always avoid eye contact. Anything I say will be wrong and anything I say will be a ladder for him to climb up to the next level; an excuse to end his lethargy and fill the room with his flailing fists.

The newscaster intones,

“All non-essential shops, bars, restaurants and pubs will remain closed until the end of April. … On a happier note, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is …”

For Jim, the greatest outrage and the worst hardship is the closing of the pubs. He says they can’t do it; that it is illegal and the start of repression and a dictatorship. He says Lloyd George tried to regulate the opening hours back in 1914 under the Defence of the Realm Act. Jim’s mate, Evan, is a teacher and into such stuff, and Jim parrots his conspiracy theories, moaning about his missing pints as though Covid-19 was invented out of spite expressly to annoy him, his mates, and Boris Johnson.

You think of a lockdown being about your loss of freedom, the sense of constraint; about being forced to give up going out and seeing friends, window-shopping and watching other couples while you dream about really getting out. But you don’t get it until it happens that a lockdown forces you to live in the here and now rather than as an observer taking and posting endless photos and sending enough encrypted sms per day to qualify for your own MI5 desk at Bletchley Park.

Lockdown means being 24/7 with your partner, kids, parents, or whoever you room with; when before, when you only spent a few hours with them, it was hard enough to get along. And it’s the little things that get to you: those little niggly habits that drive you up the wall: drip-dripping like water on stone – wearing it down in a speeded up way so that a hundred years of drips compresses into a week.

We are not used to being caged in together and it is grating. I’m okay because I’ve got Dateline and American Justice on my cell phone. I switch on and tune out, getting through the days by watching the endless episodes of rape and murder, abuse and kidnapping; wondering all the while how many more careless housewives can feed their husbands anti-freeze? I bet a lot of people get away with murder in pandemics. The bodies pile up and there is no time or place left for any autopsies: so the bodies get hastily cremated. Every day, every 24 minutes there is another homicide in America. Whipping out my calculator, I see that makes 60 a day and 420 a week. And those are only the ones who slip up. Every time I switch on, I see that Dateline has millions of viewers: don’t any of those murderers watch it, or CSI? It seems inconceivable. Yet what is and what is not conceivable changes from day to day. Just a few weeks ago, the country was shocked because four people died of coronavirus in the UK. And yet, yesterday there were 980 deaths, which we all ticked off our cards as though we were doing the football pools and reading the results:

‘’New cases: The UK: 4390. Italy 5400. France: 4188, Spain: 5051.

New deaths: The UK: 980, Spain: 683”

And so on, fizzling into a belated geography lesson courtesy of worldometers with statistics for places I didn’t even know existed like Azebaijan, Burkina Faso and Krygzstan.

I can’t put the earphones in my bad ear, but the left one is okay. But I torture myself wondering how I’d survive if Jim boxes my other ear too. What then?

For now, I’ve got my mobile phone and the kids live glued to their tablets, and Jim sits and watches the Telly reaching for his beers that only make him miss going out even more. It’s hardest on him because he’s not the stay-at-home type. He goes to work five days a week, and he goes to the pub seven days a week, and he’s used to being out with his mates. One way or another, we never see much of him. Mum suspects he’s got a girlfriend out there. If he has, I don’t care. She’s welcome to him and his temper. And now he’s even started to smell.

The smell in here is almost as hard to bear as having Jim at home all day – almost! We are four frightened bodies cramped into a box. There’s the smell of cooking, and rubbish, stale beer, and the metallic smell of blood from the stains in the carpet that I can’t get out. We O.D.’d on air freshener in our first week and now we can’t buy any more, or disinfectant. We have soap and a bit of washing powder and that’s it. Jane Marie started her periods last week and the whole flat smelled musky. She was mortified. I used up all my perfume but the other lingered and I felt bad for her. And now Jim stinks of old sweat filled with frustration, rage and fear. He always used to shower at 6.15 sharp before he set off for the pub; but now they’re closed, he doesn’t bother.

I watch another abduction from somewhere in Ohio. The kidnapper has crossed a State Line, so the FBI are called in. I see shots of a small town and a high street with shops and cafes and a Chinese take away. I wish! When it comes to takeaways, though, Jim is a fish and chips sort of

man with an occasional exotic foray into the realm of curries. He scorns the late night Halal places: doesn’t trust them. But he sometimes graces the local Indian which stays open until 2 a.m. gathering the drunks at closing time and ballasting their beer with vindaloos. What Jim can’t stand, though, is anything Chinese. He has an aversion to the taste of sweet and sour and monosodium glutamate. Before the lockdown, he used to make a lot of snide remarks about the Chinese eating little furry creatures, snakes, new born rats and creepy crawlies. He could be quite witty sometimes. Then came a lot of ‘I told you so’; because somehow, he knows that when he’s away, me and the kids treat ourselves to a Chinese.

Well, there’s no trace left of his sense of humour now. He’s just bored and angry and he paces our living room like a caged beast. Three steps one way, squeezing between the chairs, and four the other if you step over the magazine basket (3 for £1) and the mini nest of tables with abalone inlay.

New cases: USA: 26,641, Spain: 3,268, Italy 3,153 and the UK now in 7th place with 4,342. I know that other people have it worse than us, but we are starting to fall apart: unravelling. It is as though there is a giant rat inside us trying to get out.

Our one diversion is shopping. Masked and gloved and armed with a list, we queue up and wait to tailor our wants to what there is. I look mysterious with my shades and headscarf. Outside the supermarket, I see socially-distanced shoppers staring at me, wondering if I’m someone famous incognito. Am I a TV star? They want to find out who I am until they see my swollen and discolored cheek and then they know who I am – another battered wife. They give me disapproving looks before turning away; glaring to let me know that they think it is in bad taste to indulge in marital strife when the rest of the country, even the rest of the world, is being beaten up by the Coronavirus. They look at me and judge me as selfish; as though I had hoarded food or soap or hidden a ventilator under my bed.

The shopping is heavy but we are not allowed back to our local supermarket, so we take a bus to Tescos and then another to the Co-op. We have to make three separate trips. There is a corner shop nearer, but it’s too pricey. We used to get a lot of our groceries from Poundland: big packs of bacon, sausages and five tins of beans to a pound. Harry does his best carrying, but he’s only nine, bless him – and what with Jim’s 42 beers and his cartons of almond milk and all the tins, it is really heavy.

Jim’s latest is refusing to come shopping. It started last week, and yesterday he tried to keep Jane Marie back. He said it was to look after him because he has a cold. But we need her to help carry, so I won that particular duel. When he said it, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like I do when he’s going to hit me.

The neighbours eyeball us suspiciously as we traipse in and out in our masks and gloves. They can’t miss us because Harry’s got a cardboard box on his head with eye cutouts like Ned Kelly. Luckily Mrs. Davies is out for the count with her sciatica or she would denounce us in a heartbeat for breaking the lockdown.

It’s changing us: this lockdown. On the Telly there’s a lot of talk about how we’ll never be the same afterwards and how it is bringing out the spiritual side of us. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Even Harry, who is a nice boy with a gentle way about him is acting out of character. He sometimes argues with his big sister – mostly over who can get to charge what on the one socket in their bedroom – but he never hits her. And yet, today he punched her in the stomach really hard and she’s crying. And Jim, who never hurts the kids, has knocked Harry to the ground and has his foot raised to kick him, but then thinks better of it and leaves our son bleeding into the carpet.

I pull him up and take him over to the kitchen sink and clean and suture the cut over his eye the way Granddad taught me with a bit of plaster cut like a butterfly. Then I push Harry into the kids’ room and he curls up on his bunk sobbing silently.

When I return to comfort Jane Marie, Jim has got there before me and he is holding and comforting our daughter as a father should. But he is also holding and comforting her as a father shouldn’t. Jane Marie has stopped crying and she tries to wriggle off his lap but her Dad is holding her too tightly. He looks over her shoulder and smiles at me triumphantly. He knows I know. He sees I see. I realize that I will pay for this knowledge later, but I am not afraid anymore. He is not the only one who has changed; and the game has begun.

I slump into the other armchair of our 3-piece suite and switch Dateline on. I slot an earphone into my good ear and half-watch an episode and half-watch my little girl with her father: our little girl with my husband.

Later, we eat sausages and mash on our laps as we watch Eastenders. That would usually be the highlight of the day but I’m only half-watching it because I see that Jim is watching Jane Marie more than he is the TV. When Eastenders is over, we watch some more Coronavirus updates. Jim’s cold is thickening and he complains that he has a fever.

“UK: 5,320, USA: 13,900, Spain: 5,560 …’’

Time has expanded, but eventually it gets late enough for the kids to go to bed. I tuck them in but they won’t settle.

‘’What if Dad’s got it?’’ Harry asks. ‘’He has a cold and a fever and those are the symptoms. What if he needs a ventilator?’’

“Shouldn’t we call the doctor or the help line?’’ Jane Marie chips is.

‘’They are so over-worked right now with the really bad cases, and you know over 90% of people who get it survive. Even Boris Johnson is recovering; so we have to try and deal with it ourselves. I’ll make him a hot toddy and see how it goes. If it’s any worse by tomorrow night then we’ll call it in, okay?

‘’Thanks, Mum. That’s really nice. I know how hard it must be for you having Dad around all the time and me and Harry off school. It says on the internet that there’s this neuro chemical called Tackykinin which triggers stress and it looks like the virus increases it until it kills you. But there is another thing called oxy-something-or-other that suppresses Tackykinin and it is activated by gratitude and service to others.’’

‘’Are you saying that helping you all will keep me healthy?’’

‘’Yeah’’

‘’Cool” Harry says sleepily and then mumbles, ‘’I’m sorry I punched you, Janey.’’

‘’That’s okay. Good night.’’

‘’Good night, and don’t worry,’’ I tell her, ‘’I’ll look after you.’’

She snuggles under her Barbie duvet and smiles up at me shyly, ‘’Mum …”

‘’Yes?’’

‘’Please can I lock our door tonight?’’

I swallow hard and try not to show any reaction, ‘’Of course you can, now sleep tight, darling.‘’

Jim was too unwell to really whack me hard that night and I was ready for him; knowing it would come and able to take evasive action. So I have a red cheek but not much of a snake slide. And it wasn’t much of a ladder for Jim either. When he went for a dump, I got a bottle of anti-freeze out of his stash on the balcony.

Granddad’s recipe for a hot toddy is: lemon juice, honey, and a tot of rum in a glass of hot water. My recipe was: some concentrated lime drink, honey, a tot of rum and a tot of anti-freeze in a glass of hot water.

Next day, Jim isn’t well at all. I daydream of a cottage with a garden while Jane Marie makes lunch. It is baked beans on toast with little bits of crispy bacon and a tomato salad. Jim is too ill to eat his, so I put it on the bedside table beside a photo of the two of us in happier times. Then I call the help line. I tell the operator that my husband has a cold and he’s bunged up and he isn’t breathing right. The operator asks me if I think he has Coronavirus. I say I don’t know. She tells me that there is only medical help for absolute emergencies so I have to home-treat him and if he can’t breathe I can call again.

So I give him another toddy – my recipe – and he wheezes himself back to sleep. I had to sort of tip it down his throat and some spilled, so I changed the sheets and washed them and the glass (unlike the Dumbos on Dateline and CSI), Jim gasps awake in the mid-afternoon. He can’t breathe so I call for an ambulance. The operator warns me there is quite a queue.

The kids are upset so we watch Groundhog Day together, with me popping back and forth to the bedroom to check on the patient.

By the time the ambulance arrives, Bill Murray has become a virtuoso Jazz pianist, ice sculptor and Renaissance Man, and Jim is unconscious.

Did Jim have a cold or was it the Coronavirus? And did he die of it? I don’t know. Would he have recovered like most of the infected victims? Or would he be part of the 3.6% who die of it? Or would he have sat up and recovered like Boris Johnson? Well. I don’t know that either, but Granddad used to say that the best way to get through life with your trousers on is by using a belt and braces.

Mossuril

12th April 2020

2 comments:

  1. This caught something of the moment ! I enjoyed watching your 1994 journey across South America on a train which is available on BBC Iplayer at the moment

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  2. Hello Ms Tehran, I’m glad to have found your blog. ‘Hacienda’ is one of my favourite books. Avocados always make me think of you. Liked your story. Try not to kill anyone during these ‘unprecedented’ times. Lesley, South Australia.

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