A year ago, I was contending that as someone who had always worked from home I’d been in training for a global pandemic for 30 years: I’ll do your lockdown standing on my head – bring it.
That was a couple of lockdowns ago, but it’s only recently that something has arrived to upset my mental equilibrium: hope. After months safely cloaked in the armour of despair, hope has suddenly left me unpeeled and paranoid: in my dreams, dark forces range against me, and the police are often involved.
On my way back from the shops I witness a confrontation that seems to reinforce my deepest fears, between a car and a motorcycle facing each other in the middle of a narrow street. The motorcyclist is loudly alleging, not without evidence, that the road is one-way – the way he is going.
I don’t know about you, but my reaction to getting caught driving the wrong way down a one-way street has always been instant mortification. The woman in the car, however, is having none of it.
“The other road is closed,” she says. While it’s true there have been some road closures, her implication – that the neighbourhood is inescapable by lawful means – is fanciful.
“I will not let you endanger others!” shouts the motorcyclist. “Back up!” The driver refuses. I watch for as long as I can, but in the end I have to leave them there.
“I should have known,” I say to my wife later. “Society was always going to undergo complete collapse long before I got vaccinated.”
“It smells like spring!” she says, opening the back door.
“Stop being hopeful,” I say. “Hope only asks for trouble.”
“I think I might do a bit of gardening,” she says. “It’s so warm!”
“It’s too early,” I say. “This warmth is deceptive.”
“That’s right, everything is terrible,” she says.
“Go ahead,” I say. “Let your guard down and see what happens.”
My wife finds a trowel and starts weeding the beds. I sit watching until guilt overcomes me. I go outside, pick up a fork and turn over a few square metres of earth. The sun is shining, drying the dew on the ivy.
After lunch, against my better judgment, I plant a row of seeds. Then I make a coffee and sit on the garden bench, turning my face to the sun and closing my eyes. I can hear birds singing and, in the distance, children playing. On the far side of the wall a voice is describing the flowers in the lane that runs along it to someone who must be on the phone, because there is never any answer. I soon drift off, into a dream involving border guards, water cannons and some insufficient paperwork on my part.
“There’s this newspaper columnist,” says a voice. I wake with a start, pouring the last of my coffee over my knee. I blink, and look around me.
“Guh,” I say, staring at my empty cup. I’m getting tired of paranoid dreams.
“In the magazine,” says someone. “You know, the supposedly lighthearted columnist.” A breeze turns my damp knee cold. The voice – the same one that was describing snowdrops a moment ago – is getting louder and quieter as it moves back and forth along the lane on the other side of the wall. It takes me a moment to realise it’s not part of the dream.
“He’s always saying he lives round here,” the voice says. My heart begins to thud, and I resist the urge to get down on all fours.
“He also mentioned trees being cut down,” it says, “so I thought I’d come out and see if I can …” The voice drops out of earshot. I think: see if you can what?
I listen for a moment, but I don’t hear any more. Bending low, I scurry across the garden, into the house and up the stairs, pushing open the door to the youngest one’s room. He is lying on his bed with a laptop on his chest. I step over his legs and peer through the gap in his curtains: the lane below – the bit I can see, anyway – is empty.
“What are you doing?” says the youngest one.
“Nothing,” I say. “What are you doing?”