Hello, welcome back to my short stories for mums feature. It’s been a little while like I wrote my last short story – We aim to please – and with the boys back at school I have managed to find some time to write again. The point of these stories is to help me improve my fiction writing and to give busy mums who enjoy reading but struggle to find the time, a story that can be read with a coffee while the children play for ten minutes. Today’s story is called After Lockdown and is about a man and women meeting for the first time during the pandemic. I hope you enjoy and as always I would really appreciate any feedback.
Grab a coffee and happy reading!
Short stories for mums – After Lockdown
A tall man with long grey curly hair is sitting on the bench, he has his face mask pulled down, the blue fabric twisted under his chin and he is taking long drags from his cigarette. There is an old lady with a walking stick looking for somewhere to sit down, she stares at the space next the man but her feet stay glued to the ground. Her mask is reusable, a soft fabric covered in the pink and purple flowers. There are four long thin strips of the soft cotton looping all the way around the back of her head and the two bows she has fastened it with make the whole look seem like a fashion statement. Her long walking stick is in her one hand and she is holding a small bottle of clear hand sanitizer in the other.
Shuffling past the smoking man, the lady carries on down the street in search of an empty bench where she can sit down. The city centre is full of people flouting the social distancing rules, either they can’t read signs, are still not sure how far 2 metres actually is or they just don’t care, maybe they think this whole thing is just a hoax? The lady is the floral mask is following the rules to a tee, she weaves through the crowds, stick in hand and mask pulled tight. I hope she finds somewhere she feels safe and comfortable to sit down. I would offer her my seat but I doubt she would want to come inside an enclosed space with strangers.
The lady disappears into the crowd and a young mum with a pushchair catches my eye. There is a little boy in the buggy, he looks about two. He is sticking his chubby arms out to the sides and letting his hands run along the legs and coats and low swinging bags of the people who walk past. The mum is fussing with her mask, I can see from here that it is too big. She has tried taking it off and twisting the straps so they sit in an X across her cheeks but it is still falling down, exposing her nose, voiding its purpose on her face entirely. She has just spotted her sons hands grabbing at every passers-by potential germ covered clothes and shopping bags and is now searching through her giant changing bag, assumedly for some hand gel. The toddler doesn’t want the cold slimy gel on his hands, I can see him writhing in his pushchair, podgy arms and legs flying everywhere. I can just about hear his screams from this side of the window.
Again, I want to get up and offer some help. I’ve been told I have a way with kids, I think it might be my candy floss pink hair or my sparkly nose ring, or both. Maybe it’s nothing to do with my appearance and more down to the fact I am essentially still a kid at heart myself. Some people are an old head on young shoulders, I think I am the opposite. I don’t quickly pop outside and offer to help the mum. I am not sure my offer would have gone down well before, let alone in the midst of a pandemic when strangers are literally avoiding each other like the plague, because they might very well have the plague.
The mum has given up and the little boy is staring at his shiny hands in disgust, like his mum has just rubbed actual piss or something just as grim all over his squidgy little palms. There’s a line of people queuing up outside the jewellery shop across the road, the queue for the McDonalds two doors down is twice as long. There are groups of people that definitely don’t look like they live in the same household, not unless sibling groups of six or seven teenagers all the same age is normal? We all know it’s not.
The smoking man on the bench has started coughing, loud barks that make everyone stare like a gun has just been shot. He forgot to use his elbow, he went old school and coughed into his hand and now he is staring at the extremity in shock, his eyes wide and confused. Someone offer the man a tissue and squirt of their hand gel, for fucks sake. Or is that not allowed now either? Will he be mad if someone came closer to offer help or would he be angry and afraid that they had crossed the 2 metre invisible protective barriers we all now try to hide behind? My hand twitches towards my own bottle of sanitizer, sitting on the table next to my phone. I put some on without really thinking, singing Happy Birthday to myself in my head. I have gone thirty two years washing my hands without the need for a musical accompaniment but since March my subconscious starts signing when the soap hits my skin and it’s only when I start wondering who I am saying happy birthday to that I notice I’m singing at all.
“It’s a dying art that.”
I turn in the direction of the voice and see a man sitting at a table that I would say is approximately two and a half metres away from mine. He must be talking to me because there are no other customers here. The chain coffee shops are full, well as full as they can be right now, it’s the little independent ones like this that are still struggling for business.
“What’s that? Washing hands? I feel like it’s having a bit of a comeback really, don’t you?” I smile and rub my hands together for a bit longer to emphasise my point.
He smiles and it reaches his eyes. Those brown eyes and shapely dark eyebrows probably make communicating with this man quite easy even when he is wearing a mask. He is now, strangely, wearing his mask on the top of his head, like a pair of sunglasses or some kind of oddly shaped, pale blue Alice band. It looks strange but I can’t stop myself from smiling. Good on him for doing something different, most people either shove their masks into the depths of their bags and pockets or they leave them hanging off their ears and let the fabric gather under their chins like an extra roll of fat.
“Haha, no not hand washing. Hand washing is the nation’s new favourite past time. I meant people watching. You don’t really see people do that anymore,” his points his brunette head towards the window, his eyes slipping to the busy street I have been staring at and then they settle back on my face.
“Oh right. Yea, I’m a bit of a daydreamer I guess. Always loved a good stare out of the window,”
“Can’t go wrong with a good stare out of a window, you’re not wrong there. Especially not these days. I mean, just look at all these people walking around with their masks on but their noses still peeking out over the top. And it’s so interesting to see how long people are willing to queue up for just to buy a cheeseburger or to browse through clothes they don’t need because we can’t go anywhere or do anything worth dressing up for, can we?”
It is the most words a stranger has said to me in weeks. When he was talking he actually leaned in closer towards me, bridging the perfectly measured safety zone between us. I want to move to the chair on the other side of my table so we can talk more easily, two metres suddenly feels like two oceans. I sip my coffee and nod slowly.
“Today is actually the first day I have bothered to get clean clothes on out of the wardrobe and not just picked an outfit of leggings or jogging bottoms and an old T-shirt off the bedroom floor. Is that bad?”
“God no. I have legitimately been wearing pyjamas every day for weeks. When I heard cafes were reopening again I had to drag myself out of bed and put on actual clothes because I haven’t had a proper cup of coffee in months and I couldn’t wait a second longer.” He grins at me and takes a big gulp of his coffee, proving his point. The pubs open again today, I wonder if he is heading to meet friends for a pint once he has finished his Americano?
“Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has been living like a total slob over lockdown,” I say, genuinely meaning it. There was that one week where the work Zoom meeting got cancelled so I had absolutely no incentive to wash my hair or get dressed. I did all my work huddled up in bed with my pink hair tied in a greasy bun and wearing clothes that I couldn’t pinpoint the last time had had a spin in the washing machine. I haven’t been ill with the virus but the way I’ve been essentially hibernating in bed, you would be forgiven for thinking I had been sick.
“You are definitely not alone. Honestly, if the coffee beans hadn’t been calling this morning I would still be sprawled on my sofa in my boxers, pretending to answer work emails but really just watching a whole world of shit on Youtube,” he laughs and I suddenly feel like getting another coffee.
“I’m glad you decided to get dressed and come out today. I haven’t had face to face adult conversation in so long I was starting to worry I had forgotten how to talk to people. So,’ I smile and swallow the last dregs of my latte, ‘I am glad you couldn’t resist your caffeine cravings any longer. Is that a weird thing to say?” It’s a moment before I realise I asked that question out loud and not in my head, but he smiles again and tells me it’s not weird at all.
“Speaking of caffeine, did you want another coffee? I think I am going to get another one,” I start to rise out of my seat and am grateful again that this morning me decided to put on a simple blue, but most importantly clean, summer dress. My legs are a healthy golden colour from all the sunbathing I have been doing in the garden when I should have been working and I feel the most human I have in a long time. I feel his eyes on me briefly and then he starts standing up too. Perhaps I have been too forward and now he is going to make up some excuse to get out of here. Lockdown has made me too keen, too eager. It’s not my fault. It is not normal to be starved of human interaction for so long, surely I can be forgiven for being a bit overzealous on my first proper outing in months.
“I am up for another drink for sure, I just thought maybe we could go somewhere else?” His smile is reassuring and I am relieved that he is not getting up to make a swift escape through the large glass sliding doors, disappearing onto the dangerously crowded street.
“Ok, where did you have in mind?” I ask, I check my phone and note it is only 11am. I really hope he doesn’t want to go the pub. If I start drinking now I won’t be able to speak come mid-afternoon. I have been drinking a bit more than usual in lockdown in terms of the number of days I have consumed alcohol. A glass or two of white before bed most nights. However, it has been a long time since I last went out drinking, had spirits or cocktails or pints and pints of lager. I definitely don’t want this man to meet drunk me just yet, let him think I am normal for at least a day first.
“Are you up for a walk along the river? Socially distanced of course?” He asks as we head out onto the busy High Street. He pulls his mask down over his nose and still smiling mouth. With the blue material covering half his face, it is clear from the small wrinkles around his eyes that he is happy.
I reach into my bag and pull out my own mask. It is one of those reusable black affairs, I feel like a ninja when I wear it, always tempted to bust out some marital arts moves (inaccurately copied from films of course, I don’t know martial arts).
“Wow, that’s a very serious looking mask you have there,” he jokes as he watches the bottom half of my face disappear beneath the dark fabric.
“I am very serious person,” I say in a voice much deeper than my own and we both laugh again.
We stayed two metres apart for the first ten minutes or so of our walk. Slowly we got closer without really noticing. As we chatted about what it has been like being away from our friends and family we couldn’t help but gravitate towards each other.
We are standing looking at the water now. Our next coffee stop is a small family run café about five minutes away, tucked down an alley just off the narrow street that follows the river. He is standing right next to me, telling me about his at risk sister and how he hasn’t slept properly in weeks through worry. I reach out instinctively to touch his arm, to offer some comfort in this awful situation we all find ourselves in. He smiles as my fingertips connect with his shoulder.
“Ah, we have ourselves a rule breaker,” he says and pointedly stares at my hand. I smile and slowly move it away, letting it drop down by my side.
“There’s so many rule now, it’s hard to know if I’m breaking any or not,”
“Well, this definitely isn’t two metres,” he gestures at the tiny gap between us, “And we don’t live in the same house so should we even be out in public together?” The little wrinkles appear around his eyes but I don’t need to see them, I can hear the joke in his voice.
“Nope, we are bad bad people. Someone needs to call the pandemic police,” I laugh and let my hand touch his for a second.
“I hope you have sanitized that,” he laughs but entwines his fingers around mine before I can answer.
We continue to walk along the river, our hands locked together like it’s not the first time our palms have touched. I tell him how my friends all have kids or live with elderly parents and are too nervous to mix with anyone, even people they’ve known forever. He tells me that his mum and dad won’t leave the house and he has been shopping for them and his sister since March.
“I feel like just moving into Tesco. Get my sleeping bag and get cosy on a bed of toilet rolls every night. It would save me a load of time, that’s for sure.”
“Good luck finding any toilet roll for your bed. I had to resort to kitchen roll after one particularly bad shopping trip and I can tell you now it is not the same thing.” He snorts and squeezes my hand a little tighter.
We don’t go for coffee, instead we walk and walk until we can cross the road away from the river and into the woods. There is no one else around and I reached my mask limit about half an hour ago.
“Are you ok with me taking my mask off?” I ask, my free hand already reaching for my face.
“You’re even bothering to ask, rule breaker?” He purposefully lifts our hands up and waves our locked fingers in front of my face. I laugh and pull my mask off and shove it into my dress pocket, pushing it deep down like a piece of unpleasant rubbish getting pushed to the bottom of the bin.
“I hate wearing those things.” I say and mock shudder at the mere thought of it. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I can’t breathe. When I feel like I can’t breathe I start to panic. When I panic, my heart starts racing and I feel hot and cold with sweat at the same time. I have suffered with panic attacks on and off throughout my life and wearing a mask gives me all the same physical symptoms. I wear one though because I don’t want to be responsible for killing someone’s Nan or a child undergoing cancer treatment. Here in the woods, with fresh air surrounding us, I feel like I can give myself a break for five minutes or so. Even ninja’s need to take a breather every once in a while.
“I hate them too. Needs must though, right?” He pushes his mask back up on to the top of his brown hair and I laugh.
“Are you laughing at me?” He asks, incredulously, unable to stop his own mouth from twitching up at the corners though.
“Yes. I am laughing at you because who the fuck wears their mask like that?” I am now pointing and laughing. He pretends he is going to cry for a second and then pulls me close to him.
“I will have you know I am trying to start a trend, I think it’s going to catch on really soon and then you’ll be sorry for mocking my creativity.” He smiles at me again and reaches into my dress pocket, pulling out my mask.
“What are you doing?” I ask suspiciously, suddenly all too aware of his proximity and the internal shudder I felt when his hand touched my dress.
“Well, it’s not really a trend if no one else is doing it.” He put my mask on me like it is a necklace and gently pushes it over my face until it’s resting on top of my head, my pink hair standing out more so than usual against the black cotton.
“How do I look?” I ask, looking up into his kind face.
He stares at me for a moment, first assessing the placement of the fashion accessory of the year and then exploring the rest of my face and body with his eyes.
“You look beautiful,” he says and the air around us suddenly feels charged with possibility.
“So, as we are already breaking the rules..” I say and I raise an eyebrow up, letting my face ask the question I’m suddenly too nervous to voice.
“Hmm, yes. We are not being very good citizens are we? The two metre rule went out the window the second we left the coffee shop. We are holding hands that haven’t been sanitized in well over an hour. Our masks are off and we certainly don’t live together so this is all completely unacceptable really.” He says in a serious voice, pulling me closer, showing no intention of letting me go.
“Like I said, we are bad bad people,” I say through a smile, leaning my face a little closer to his.
“There’s only one thing for it,” he announces, his eyes lighting up mischievously.
“Oh yea, what’s that?”
“Well, if I have this right, as long as we don’t mix with anyone else for like a fortnight or something, then we should be fine to..” he leans closer and now if either of us did have the virus there is no way it’s not making its way into the other persons mouth.
We are kissing and the whole sensation feels brand new. I have been single a long time before lockdown was announced and I can’t remember the last time I felt a man’s lips on mine. Suddenly I am not worrying about little green germs on my hands or picturing the virus on every surface around me. I am not feeling the sadness of the thousands of lives lost or grieving for all the memories I haven’t been able to make with my loved ones this year. I am not thinking about the amount of hand gel I have left and whether I will be able to get any more from the shop. I am not wondering what my temperature is or if the tickle I felt in my throat yesterday was just a regular old cough or something more sinister. I am not thinking about anything other than the kiss.
He pulls away after what feels like the longest time, smiling again. Who knew there were so many smiles to be shared with a stranger during this pandemic?
“I have a question.”
“Oh really, what’s that then?” I ask, intrigued by this sudden change of pace. His arms are still around me and I want to lean in again, to get lost in one of his kisses that made all the worry disappear.
“So, I am just assuming I don’t have the virus and you’re just assuming you don’t have it either. Yea?” He asks and when I nod my confirmation he continues quickly. “So, there’s a very real possibility that I could have infected you or you could have infected me, right?”
As far as dirty talk goes, this is horrendous. “I can’t say this chat about infecting each other is doing it for me.” I laugh and pretend to twist away from him. I don’t resist at all when he pulls me close and kisses me again.
“All I am saying is, to be good people – Good British Citizens – well, we need to control the virus. Stay home to save lives and all that.”
“What are you asking me, this question is just as long winded and confusing as the daily news briefings.”
“I know it’s strange and we only just met but, will you quarantine with me?” He asks me this ridiculous question as sincerely and earnestly as if it were a marriage proposal.
I don’t know if it’s because I have been hiding away from the virus for months or because my taste of freedom has made me a bit giddy, like being around other humans has made me high. I don’t know if it is because it is 2020, the year that continues to surprise us, the year where the only word to describe the times we are living in is ‘unprecedented’. I don’t know why I am going to say yes when I have only just met this man and I would never have dreamt of moving in with a stranger before the virus struck. I don’t know if it’s because I have been so scared of falling ill and dying, constantly on high alert and simmering with stress since February. It is probably a mixture of it all, and because it has now become glaringly obvious not one of us knows how long we have left on this earth and the phrase YOLO has never felt more scarily appropriate, I say yes.
For the first time in a long time, I search around inside myself for some hope and relief floods my body when, at last, I manage to find it. The promise of better days radiates from my hand where his skin touches mine and I am starting to think that perhaps the rest of 2020 isn’t going to be so awful after all.
Have you met anyone new since lockdown? How are you finding sticking to the rules and guidelines? This is obviously a work of fiction, for accurate and up to date guidelines please see the .GOV website. I hope you enjoyed reading After Lockdown, I will try to not leave it so long before I write the next one!
ps – if you would like to read more, you can find my previously published short stories here.
pss – if you want to write more but don’t think you have the time, you need to read this post about finding time to write when you’re a parent.