The woman in the house opposite sits in her window, net curtains falling in an arch around her. She stares into the deserted road as though watching a switched-off TV waiting for a programme to begin. At regular intervals she wanders off, returning with a sandwich or a cup and saucer, and drinks with her little finger daintily extended. When she’s fed up with the empty street, she reads a book.
Two magpies sit on my fence. One for sorrow, two for joy… The lyrics bounce around in my head. I used to know the whole rhyme, all the way up to ten. Three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for… seven for…
The woman in the house opposite is watching the birds too, and waves when she catches my eye. I wonder if she’s been waving for a long time, eager for my reaction. Or if she’s waving to the people next door and I’ve intercepted it. Are the people next door also looking out of their window? Are we all?
I’m not actually at my window, I’m sitting on the sofa against the back wall, facing the TV which in my case is on. I’m watching repeats on Netflix – my mind is wandering too much to try something new, something I’d have to focus on. I drift and dream, and when I return the story isn’t where I left it.
It’s possible she sits at her window every day, while I’m new to it – new to the concept of being home on a weekday morning.
I wave back, and the skittish magpies fly away.
The woman waves again the next day, a brief acknowledgement as if she’s not sure it’s the right thing to do. Window waving etiquette is uncharted. The next day, she does it with a cheery smile and her husband standing with a hand on her shoulder. It’s the first time I’ve seen him, and I’m glad she’s got company. She covers his hand with her own and leans into him. They’re looking down at the small garden in front of their house – he’s pointing, she’s nodding.
I’ve never paid much attention to her, to any of my neighbours. It’s always early when I leave for work. I’m at my desk with a takeaway flat white by eight, and too exhausted to even raise my head on my return. I simply watch my feet. My desk, my office is in darkness and silence now. Emails were hastily sent after last week’s announcement – stay home, wait for instructions. I ought to check my email again. Maybe later.
By lunchtime, the sun moves so instead of having a clear view into my house, the street is reflected back at my neighbour and all she can see is her own house, and possibly herself. I stand at my fridge, disappointed with the food inside it, longing for the enticing panini menu of the sandwich shop near work.
The afternoons are eternal and tedious. I flick through TV channels and scroll through Netflix to find old favourites and read books and clean the kitchen and vacuum upstairs and down. And dust. There’s only so much mess a woman living alone can create.
I share memes and upload photos and comment and like. I work on a report that won’t get submitted. I drink too much coffee and feel jittery and a little bit sick.
I’ve sorted through my clothes and made a charity-shop pile in the spare room. There are more clothes on that pile than in my wardrobe now. I stare at the blouses and smart skirts on hangers and wonder when I might be wearing them again.
Eight days. It’s been eight days, silly woman.
I scan my food cupboard. I really want some chocolate, but I don’t have any. Is chocolate essential? That’s all we’re allowed out for – essential items. Milk, bread and cheese are, of course – you could live off that for weeks. Maybe add in a can of tuna or two, and you’d be set until this whole thing passes over.
I really want chocolate.
Joggers pass my window with alarming frequency – so many of them! Singular serious runners, or adults and a child, or adults with child on a bike, or adults on a bike while a child runs beside them. Most of them are red-faced and puffing. We’re allowed exercise for an hour a day and it seems people are taking this as mandatory.
Not me, not yet. I’ve got a battered pair of trainers from a mud run I did a couple of years ago – the mud still clumped to the soles. Too knackered to clean them at the time. Run, ha! More like a slog and slurp through sticky swamps of clay. I collapsed on the sofa when I got home and didn’t move for the rest of the weekend. I even considered – late on the Sunday evening – taking a sickie the following day because I was sure my legs would be completely seized.
A few doors along from the house opposite, the elderly man who lives there has visitors. Three of them stand at his window and shout through the small gap he’s opened. Two adults and a sullen teen who’s on his mobile until the woman takes it from him. She holds it as she gestures her conversation, brandishing it in front of him. His eyes fix on it like a cat stalking a red laser beam.
Outside looks nice. The sun’s shining, warming me through the glass. Clouds dab the sky, like a kid’s paintbrush has splatted them onto a page. Fresh air floods into the room when I open the window instead of the usual car fumes. On a whim, I pull on my trainers and stand at the door.
The roads are emptier than the pavements. As people meet, they curve around each other, stepping into the road, keeping their distance. I do the same, calculating my two-metre span, turning my head slightly away while still trying to smile and say thank you.
It’s a strange concept. Previously, I’ve only avoided people when I’ve been wary of them – when I’ve been walking home at night and not wanted to pass the solitary man in front, or the group of boisterous teens with half-drunk bottles of lager. Self-preservation. Now two metres doesn’t seem enough. When the next person walks towards me, I cross to the other side of the road.
I don’t actually run. I briefly consider jogging, but my legs never increase to the required speed. A brisk walk is still exercise, for now.
It’s cooler than I assumed. As I turn corners, the wind rustles leaves off the trees while new buds cling on tightly. Birds sing with fervour. The low hum of traffic, which usually serves as a relentless backdrop, has vanished. Between footsteps, there’s absolute silence.
Magpies sit on bowing branches, high up, sleek and shiny, blue-tinged. The same ones I saw the other day, perhaps, following me as though they’ve got nothing better to be doing. No, I remember, it’s not them who’ve got nothing on, it’s me.
‘Morning,’ says a voice from the other side of the street, and I glance up. ‘Lovely day.’
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘At least the sun’s out.’
‘Yes, lovely. Enjoy your walk,’ I say and move away quickly lest he start explaining how he’s not walking for fun but to buy groceries for a neighbour because we’ve all got to do our bit. Maybe I should have checked if the couple opposite needed anything. I’m sure they must by now – milk, bread, chocolate.
The shop has a queue outside, stretching almost the length of the road, with neat awkward spaces between each person. All eyes stare forward; silent panic and fear scratched into their faces. I grab my facemask – the one with orange flowers on a black background – and join the line, waiting patiently.
Someone mutters and grumbles. Another replies, agreeing it’s all just nonsense, isn’t it? The rest keep their heads down or play on their phones.
Magpies land on the front wall of a house along the road, three this time – they’ve found a friend. Three for a girl. I don’t know anyone who’s pregnant, so it’s wasted. I want to point them out to someone, to share the happy news, but the queue moves two metres forward as the next in line enters the shop.
I’m still uncertain about the necessity of chocolate. Perhaps I should buy milk while I’m here, or bread. Do I need them? I didn’t look. I didn’t plan to be here. I’m in trainers and leggings – I planned to go for a run. I’ll tell Mum it was a run, when I phone to check on her and Dad. Everyone’s doing it, I’ll say.
On my way home, I place a small box of Milk Tray on the step of the house opposite, and knock on the door, and stand back until I’m almost in the road.
‘Oh. How lovely.’ She frowns her curiosity.
‘I wanted some chocolate. So, I thought you might too.’ Saying it aloud, my inspired idea seems a bit daft – buying chocolate for someone I’ve never even spoken to?
‘Well, thank you. I’m Mary,’ she says, stepping back as though to invite me inside, then remembering.
‘I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before?’
‘I work long hours, usually. I moved in a couple of years ago.’
She smiles sadly. ‘I confess, I don’t know many of my neighbours anymore. There was a time, oh… long before you were born, you probably don’t care.’
‘My grandmother says the same thing.’ I pause. ‘I’ll be shopping again in the couple of days if you need anything. Just tape the list to your front door and I’ll grab it when I go.’
I’m folding in, glued to the TV for information, analysing every word, every intonation. It reminds me of those photos from the war when families gathered around the radio to hear the latest campaign successes and defeats. I glance around and imagine others with me. Is this it? The way the world ends? All of us stuck within the walls of our own household prison. I hear the kids next door, raucous in their freedom from school rules and discipline, and their harried father yelling that he’s trying to work. The walls are too thin – I’ve never noticed before. I’m hardly here, so why would I? Out early, back late, meeting friends for drinks or cinema or dinner; home is where I sleep.
On Thursday evening, I hear rainfall, but it’s not, it’s the ripple of polite applause. I stand at my door and join in. And afterwards, no one’s in the mood to go indoors. The woman in the house opposite is standing at her window. She waves, her eyes downcast. I cross the road.
‘My husband’s not well,’ she says, leaning forward and steaming up the glass.
‘Oh. Is it…?’
‘He’s coughing, got a temperature. He doesn’t want me to phone the doctor, he says he’s fine and it’s nothing to worry about.’
‘He might be right.’
She turns her head slightly. ‘Can you hear that?’ Her mouth is tight as she frowns and contemplates the harsh, unremitting cough from another room. Her eyes are dull and fearful.
From the little I know of them via my small observations through the net curtains, they’re devoted – they kiss each other on the cheek when they leave the room, they hold hands just because. When one talks, the other looks up with a gentle smile and listens.
‘Perhaps you should phone anyway.’ I want to rest a consoling hand on her shoulder, but I can’t. I can’t invite her to mine for a coffee and a reassuring chat either.
The doctor visits. I watch from my sofa, on the back wall of my front room. I try not to look as though I’m looking. When she opens the door, Mary doesn’t wave at me – she’s pale and nervous. I phone my parents.
Days pass. I try to get out daily, walking one day, jogging the next. Already my breathing recovers more quickly, my muscles aren’t as tight when I stretch out at the end. If I’d known it was this easy, I’d have done it ages ago. Ha, no I wouldn’t. Long office days and exercise don’t mix well.
I try to read the books I’ve hoarded for years, meaning to read. But I can’t concentrate – the words don’t make sense. I read the same sentences four times and still don’t understand. I’ve become the person who throws books across the room in frustration.
The doctor visits Mary’s husband again, and she’s smiling when she sees him to the door. She waves him off, and waves at me. I phone my parents.
In the spaces between us, birds flit on the pavement and the middle of roads, undisturbed. Squirrels scamper from tree to wall, clinging precariously to scaffolding, climbing electricity poles. Weeds grow in the gaps in the kerbstones, and bees feast on yellow and purple flowers which are flourishing. Stillness lies across town and becomes normal.
With a single turn down a different road, the air can be filled with an opera of birdsong – an invisible flock of blackbirds and song thrushes calling out into the late afternoon. And as I run – not jogging or walking now but feeling the force of the wind in my face and the power of my legs pushing against the tarmac – my thoughts are discarded, and my mind is clear.
The rooftops glow pink as the sun sets. A cat slides along the red brick houses and curls around lamp posts. We stand on our doorsteps and clap. Someone in the next street over has brought out a pot to bang, and we laugh and shake our heads. But I reckon the woman at 62 will do the same next week, and then we’ll all start. Afterwards we swap recipes for flourless cakes and talk about R numbers as if we understand what it means.
One by one, my neighbours return to their homes, front doors closing with reassuring thuds. Two magpies land on my fence, watching me. I salute them and go inside.
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