Strange Times

Short Stories Aug 05, 2021

The Arabica coffee sitting at his elbow has a distinct pungency. Jack Catesby struggles to detect the delightful aromatic intensity of 6 out of 10 that was promised on the side of the pack, but hey… that’s how marketing works. It’s still hot, and it helps greet a bleak, wet Wiltshire morning.

Wind-borne rain drives into the double-paned windows he’s propped against in the comfort of the second-storey window box which protrudes above the wet footpath of Penny-Farthing Lane below. Noisily slurping his coffee, Jack transfixes on the unusual pattern each raindrop makes on the glass as its atmospheric waltz splatters to a halt and slides unceremoniously downwards onto the roadway. Several umbrellas seemingly scurry along the footpath below, their hidden owners hunkering from the rain and focused on wrestling the wind whilst oblivious to Jack’s vantage point in the window box overhead. A voyeur of busy pedestrians, he sympathises with the brolly wranglers yet smugly congratulates himself that he’s not out there; he’d shopped in the farmers’ market yesterday.

Across the ridgeline of the shingled roofs on the other side of the lane, a row of forlorn pigeons clings precariously. Feathers are primped up for warmth and some heads are tucked underneath wings; no doubt the miserable weather is foremost in cooed conversations. Three or four abruptly fly off towards the nearby Salisbury Cathedral possibly seeking sanctuary, perhaps pigeon absolution, but probably just another roof to crap on.

Clusters of drenched terracotta chimney pots stand sentry-duty on rooftops above Salisbury’s mediaeval houses. Occasionally a curlicue of smoke dances seductively upwards for several feet before, inevitably, the wind and rain unceremoniously whips it sideways and downwards along the lane. The 21st century swoosh of rubber tyres along wet, paved roads is seemingly out of place amongst the ancient brick, stone, flint and timber beams of crooked cottages that are four or five hundred years old. And in the solitude of his early morning reverie, Jack visualizes horses and carts and hooves below him, and hears the metallic clack of iron rims and horseshoes against flint cobblestones.

When he accidently elbows his coffee whilst repositioning himself, Jack is abruptly transported to reality. He rescues the wobbling mug before it topples, and greedily gulps down the last mouthfuls, even bitter grounds lurking in the base. His brief sensory embrace with the elements must cease forthwith while he refocuses on the reason he’s reclined in the window box. Flipping open his laptop, he types the web address for Qantas. In a world brought to its knees by the vagaries of a microscopic virus, he needs to quickly amend plans. Should his wife, Maz, and he hunker down in sleepy Wiltshire for the next few weeks and roll the dice on how long this spiky ball of virus will hang around? Or do the Catesbys scramble for rapidly diminishing seats to ensure a return to Australia before a rumoured possible closure of its borders to international flights?

They’d watched the British Prime Minister addressing the nation on the BBC last night. Standing sombrely amid draped Union Jacks  and a coterie of reassuring, head-nodding wingmen, Boris had reassured the British populace it would be just a flu-like illness. The mouth moving beneath that bird’s nest of messy blonde hair stressed that most people would be unaware they even had Covid. ‘Herd immunity’ was the national goal.

‘Herd immunity’ - it sounded like a fluffy, cuddly response which could be sold easily to the sheeple, and massage the concerns of the economy’s bean counters. Sadly, it was supported by bugger-all scientific rigour. Lulled into complacency by recent idyllic weeks on the Isle of Wight, and a further fortnight in a sleepy little Hampshire village, Maz and Jack felt no reason to panic. Yet...  They’d anticipated a further two and a half weeks in the UK prior to their planned departure flight to Sydney. To keep the wheels of the post-Brexit economy lubricated, Britain desperately needed further cash injections and the Catesbys were eager to oblige.

But then the wedge had arrived. Several wedges. Their adult children had intervened. Frantic phone calls ensued.

E-mails were typed using capital letters and exclamation marks to emphasise that they were being shouted at from 17000 km away.

“WHAT IF THIS LASTS LONGER THAN A FEW WEEKS?

WHAT IF YOU GET SICK OR DIE?

WE WON’T EVEN BE ABLE TO GET OVER TO THE U.K. TO SAY GOODBYE OR COLLECT YOUR BODIES!

YOU SELF-CENTRED OLD FARTS!

FFS, RETIRED BOOMERS, STOP THINKING OF YOURSELVES AND THINK OF YOUR KIDS AND GRANDKIDS!

WE DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE YOUR WILLS ARE KEPT!

WE LOVE YOU. IF YOU LOVE US, GET HOME NOW!”

“But Boris said…”

“BORIS SAID! BORIS SAID! STUFF BORIS! HOW WOULD BORIS KNOW WHAT COVID’S LIKE? UNTIL BORIS HAS HAD COVID, HE’S JUST MOUTHING WISHES AND BRAINFARTS!”

On a dismal morning in a Salisbury window-box, they roll the dice. Fortuitously, scarce Qantas seats are snared, although not being seated together. For an agonizing 24 hours, the ears of 400 passengers are acutely tuned for the slightest cabin cough or sniffle as passengers in Economy class are crammed shoulder to shoulder. For spiky balls of virus, it's a potential smorgasbord.

Several days later, whilst in mandatory two-week quarantine back in Australia, borders will be snapped firmly shut. Hindsight and history will judge the Catesby children’s petulant intervention as a prescient sliding-door moment.

Strange times indeed…

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