Peter changed into his pyjamas, brushed his teeth, shaved and settled in front of his computer for the Friday night whole-family video call that Mary had started when the lockdown began, ‘to keep their collective spirits up’. She lived two streets away with her husband and twin daughters. David dialled in from Napa Valley. Between Annie’s drawings, Katie’s handstands and David’s virtual tours of his vineyard, they didn’t get much talking done, which suited Peter just fine.
The only good thing about these calls was that he didn’t have to make eye contact. If he pasted a benign smile on his face and stared somewhere in the proximity of the camera, he could get through the whole call analysing his own receding hair line. It helped that Olivia preferred to dial in from her own phone from her own room.
This week’s theme was ‘a new project’ and he wasn’t looking forward to it any more than previous weeks. If the blasted virus didn’t get him, the lockdown would. All he wanted was to enjoy retirement, but here they were, showing and telling in the family classroom.
David showed magic tricks to his nieces. With a swipe of his hand he changed his nose into a red ball, and with the next, into a blue one. The twins squealed with joy. Mary played ‘Ode to joy’ on the piano. She was taking video lessons from the twins’ teacher. Olivia produced a vegan cake from a batch she’d made for healthcare workers in their local hospital. The twins reached into the screen, pretended to get a slice and proceeded to fill their cheeks with it. She even left a slice outside his room to taste on everyone’s behalf. It was dense and floury and had far too much vanilla.
“Not bad,” he said.
“That’s high praise,” Olivia’s sarcasm trickled down the corridor into his room. “From the man who can’t even get his compost right. Go on with yours then.”
Five pairs of eyes stared at him from the screen. It was his turn to share a project. He hadn’t thought about it, he hadn’t thought anyone would take Mary’s assignments seriously. He couldn’t tell if Mary’s screen was frozen or she was giving him one of her looks.
“It’s a surprise,” he lied. “I’m making something, but it’s taking longer than I thought.”
Olivia shook her head.
“Give us a clue,” Katie said.
“Is it a treehouse?” Annie asked.
“I can’t tell you, can I?”
“A birdhouse then?” Katie asked.
He shrugged conspiratorially.
“Will it be ready next week? Promise?”
In theory, the lockdown should’ve suited him fine. He didn’t go out much anyway, nor did he meet a lot of people. He liked to potter about in the garden and shed. But the lockdown ripped his life open. In the last two weeks, he had watched more government briefings than in all his life, had had to download stuff like Zoom, Skype and Houseparty and learn to use them. Olivia was ahead of him there, with her online wine tastings and book discussions. Mary called them every day, mid-morning during her recess to make sure they hadn’t gone out anywhere, other than take a walk to hers every evening so they got their daily exercise and Annie and Katie got to wave to their grandparents. She ordered their groceries online, with the result that they had three packs of potatoes and five loaves of bread, but not nearly enough milk. The problem with the lockdown was not that it brought out the worst in everyone, but that they insisted on sharing it with the everyone else.
The old work group had woken up from the dead too. His boss Philip wanted to meet on Houseparty. He had been stuck in Thailand, but had pulled some strings and managed to fly home. Rules were for everyone else, Philip got what he wanted, always. He snuck around rivals, chatted up assistants, fattened clients and got their business, and people loved him for it. So when he called for a meeting, even retirees showed up.
Ben dialled in, but they couldn’t see his video, only a dark rectangle. He fumbled with the video sharing until the lovely Becky came and sorted it out. Time hadn’t touched her. Her smile still brightened the world. Her blue blouse matched her eyes. She asked Philip about Thailand and Peter about Annie and Katie. Ben, on the other hand, had grown a stubble and expanded even more in the last year. Peter could almost smell the beer on him. Ben was one lucky bastard and knew it. Good-for-nothing Ben, who got his design inspirations off the internet, his parents’ house and to top it all, Becky. She’d been their office manager. She made their travel bookings, stocked the pantry with everyone’s favourite biscuits and straightened up the office for client visits. She baked her famous cakes for them every Monday and knew exactly who needed a cup of tea when. She basically ran their world. The entire office was in love with her. Philip flirted with her openly, incessantly. Peter adored her silently, afraid he’d choke on his words if he told her how she made him feel. And who should land her but Ben.
As she bent to adjust Ben’s video, Peter could see the darkness inside her blouse. He checked himself and tried to focus on Philip’s screen. He could’ve sworn Philip was squinting down Becky’s blouse too. She stayed in the room while they chatted. Behind Ben was their bed and a dresser. Becky was at the dresser, with her back to them. Just looking at her made things okay.
A faint foul smell hung over the back yard. Composting had been another one of Olivia’s save-the-world ideas. He had played along, ordered a bin from the council, compostable bin liners, accelerator tablets, the works. And just like that, it had become his project. He did what he could, churned it occasionally, hydrated it when he remembered. Some batches were good, some just stank the back garden out.
“Nothing happens on its own. Not even composting,” Olivia had taken to saying. She hadn’t stepped foot in the garden in five years, because it smelt. Of his half-heartedness, she said.
There was enough wood in the shed to come up with something for the girls. He didn’t know why or how they had cornered him into this, like they were doing him a favour by allowing him a role in their joint project. He hadn’t made anything with his hands in years. As he looked through planks of wood, he remembered something. A jewellery box he had started making for Olivia for one of their anniversaries. He couldn’t remember which one, but it was before her expectations of him begun to collect in a heap and stink. He pulled it from under a pile and admired his incomplete handiwork. There was a compartment for brooches and three little mountains to rest rings on. He had even made a little secret box, the kind that springs open with a gentle push. It contained a necklace with an earth pendant he had bought for Olivia. Their relationship had disintegrated before he could find the right moment to give it to her. The box was half-done because there had been no point finishing it. He would start on the birdhouse tomorrow, but first he wanted to complete this. He had seen a dresser that had a place for it.
He made a cushioned bed with furrows to poke earrings into. He cut a long piece of wood for bracelets and sanded it to a perfectly smooth rod. He had small cans of blue and red paint and big ones of white and yellow. Olivia liked everything off-white. He mixed blue in white to get the shade of Becky’s blouse. Then he added a drop of red, his favourite. For once, he wished he were a more artistic man. He would’ve painted arabesques going in, coiling around the bracelet rod and creeping out in never-ending loops that Becky would trace with her soft fingers. When he was done, he inscribed a tiny ‘P’ in the far corner of the secret compartment. If she really looked, she would find it. If she didn’t, it would stay tucked in the corner. They lived a mile and half away. He wrapped the jewellery box in thick brown paper, put it in a Tesco bag and hid it on the top shelf. Posting was an option, but if he went himself, he might get to see her.
The streets were not as deserted as they seemed on telly. The only difference was that instead of cars, they were filled with dogs, babies in strollers, old people tottering in masks. He walked over a chalk rainbow on the pavement. There were more on the windows, big and small, with ‘Thank you NHS ’ scrawled under them. People queued outside Boots, standing on strips of black and yellow tape. The park was greener than in past springs. Daffodils were wilting and tulips and roses were taking over. He wondered if there was any truth in Olivia’s conspiracy theories that nature had unleashed this thing to claim the earth back. That we, the humans, were the disease and the virus was the vaccine.
His heart beat like a boy’s. The last time he had felt this excited was when he was sixteen, when he had slipped a hand-written, unsigned poem into Melanie’s school bag, and watched as she discovered it, read it, blushed and looked around the class in speculation. He sat diagonally behind her from where he could see her, without being seen. He waited for her to look back. He watched as her eyes rested on Alex in hope. His heartbeat slowed and began to descend as Alex caught her eye, raised his eyebrows in that I-run-the-world-how-may-I-help-you way that girls found sexy. The next thing he saw was them leaving school together with Alex, even as his heart sank to the bottom. More than rejection or sadness, he remembered not feeling surprised.
Empty buses plied on the main road. Cyclists sped past him at the speed of cars. Traffic in lockdown had a different feel to it, restless and pointless.
They’d been happy their first few years together. He almost couldn’t believe it when Olivia agreed to marry him. She was full of ideas, he was steady and slow, they balanced each other out. Then Mary came along and turned their world upside down with sleepless nights, constant feeds and endless, expensive nappies. He joined Philip around then, on Olivia’s urging. The firm was smaller, hours longer but pay was better. He would’ve preferred to spend more time with baby Mary but Olivia nudged him out. She said they needed more, for their second child.
“Isn’t this enough?” Peter had suggested.
It was then, at the dinner table that Olivia had first rolled her eyes at him.
“You think it’s some kind of virtue to have less, do less, settle for less. It was charming at first, but you’re just lazy. You do as little as you can possibly get away with and want it to be enough. For everyone. You’re a small man Peter.”
He remembered the glow of the evening sun around her face, illuminating her bitterness that he did not quite fathom. Then David came along. Olivia took them to free classes in the library, watched documentaries with them, got them summer jobs at Oxfam while Peter worked away quietly, all the time feeling like an outsider in his own home.
He was minutes away from Ben’s street now. His heart banged at his chest, the lone young muscle trapped in his seventy year old body. Already the cars were getting flashier. Ben lived in a three-storied terraced house his parents had left him. Peter had been there for the many client parties, where Ben dunked them in expensive wine and stuffed them with Becky’s cooking. He’d struck the lottery with Becky. What Becky saw in him would remain a mystery forever.
Peter hadn’t walked this much in months, not even before things had shut down. He was a little out of breath and the spring in his step was a tad tired, but it was very much still there. This was going to check off so many of Mary’s assignments, exercise, new project, something for someone you care for. She was a good kid. Took things too seriously, overdid everything, being a mother, teacher, daughter, sister. It wasn’t her fault, that’s how she was raised. And like her mother, Mary too, held others to the same standards. Many times he wanted to tell her there was no point, nothing really changed one’s lot, but couldn’t. She’d got Olivia’s eye-roll too.
He could see Ben and Becky’s back gate. He could also see Philip’s grey Tesla parked outside. No one had said anything about him visiting them during the call. A familiar heaviness enveloped Peter’s heart. Somehow, he always found himself on the fringes, watching from the outside while people went about life together, in school, at work, in his own home. He hadn’t figured out how this happened or why, but more often than not found himself locked out, and he didn’t know how to get back in.
His heart banged and sank at the same time, coming down a Ferris wheel. He took a deep breath and focussed on the object under his arm. Philip visiting them meant that the three of them were sitting together inside. That was good, he didn’t want to be seen. Not yet. He walked around to their front and placed the box inside the metal fence near the corner, not so far inside that Becky wouldn’t notice it, but away from the pile of Evening Standards. He didn’t want it thrown away with the recycling. As he turned to leave, he stole a glance at the house. There was no one at the windows, which was just as well, he told himself, as he retraced his steps in the direction of home.
His legs shook. Not the gentle shaking after a long walk, but a vigorous one that made him wobble. He held on to a street lamp to steady himself. His mouth was parched, his throat so dry, it hurt to swallow. Mary said to carry a bottle of water at all times. His young muscle was sprinting, threatening to crack open his chest. He checked for any pain on his left side, tried to remember what one was supposed to do in case of a heart attack, was it smile and sneeze together or cough and talk? He should’ve paid more attention. It wouldn’t do to be found in a heap outside Becky’s house. Olivia would say he was graceless even in death. He looked back to check that no one was watching. Their street was strangely, thankfully quiet. He took deep breaths and walked in slow, small steps till he came to a bus stop and took the next one going his way.
The next morning his legs were still sore with the self-righteous ache from walking too much. He had an appetite that made even Olivia’s vegan bacon taste good. He cleared up the shed and started collecting things for the birdhouse. As he marked the measurements, he imagined Becky coming out to water the plants and nearly stumbling on the present. That pile of Evening Standard worried him. What if she was so busy feeding her husband that she didn’t step out at all? What if it got lost in the mess? If he were even ten years younger, he would have rung the bell before running away.
He shaved for the family video call. Today’s mantra was ‘gratitude’.
Olivia followed the news with a vengeance. Anything that happened, anywhere in the world, found its way to her life, the more miserable the better. Peter himself preferred to stay away from excessive news and only watched the absolutely essential briefings, but Olivia made up for both of them. “Did you hear about the thirteen year old who died alone in ICU? The girl who walked six hundred miles and collapsed a mile from her village? The mother who had to attend her son’s funeral over FaceTime? We have so much to be thankful for.” The rest of them nodded gravely at her depressing wisdom. The twins were grateful for a new iPad from Uncle David, David thanked the people who were still delivering and Mary thanked technology for keeping them together. Peter said he was thankful he had enough wood for the birdhouse. It would be ready by next week, he had tried really hard to complete it this week, but there was more work to be done, they would find outside their door next week, cross his heart.
“At least spare the kids your half-measures,” Olivia muttered from her room.
Peter dug a pit in the backyard. It took him three days. He tipped the compost into it, covered it up and threw in a few bulbs, just in case something came out. He jet sprayed the bin from the inside, ready for a new batch. He would churn this one every three days.
Things were quiet on the work group. No inane memes from Ben, no call invites from Philip. Peter stayed logged in. Philip was always online too, but neither messaged the other. Becky came online a couple of times. Peter typed a ‘hello’ for her. His finger hovered over the enter key, unsure of whether he wanted to start this conversation and where he wanted it to go. It was killing him, not knowing if she liked the box, had she opened it, was she using it, had she figured it was from him, had she found it at all in the first place? Finally after three days, he caved in and sent a message on the group asking for a video call. Philip agreed, Ben was strangely quiet. To his delight, Becky joined. The joy was short lived though. Ben had got it, he was in the ICU. She was beside herself that this had happened on her watch. They hadn’t gone anywhere, nothing had come in except a few deliveries. Philip had, Peter wanted to say, but one didn’t say such things about Philp. She had moved the camera, so he couldn’t see the dresser. He told her if there was anything she needed, anything at all, she should just say. He’d stay logged in. Philip said he would too.
Peter wondered if he had passed the virus to Ben through the box. Not that he’d feel bad for Ben. It would take many more calamities of this magnitude to average out the lifetime of good fortune the man had enjoyed. But the inconvenience to Becky wasn’t acceptable. He messaged her every morning. She replied around noon, with updates about Ben’s health. They wouldn’t let her visit because she was at-risk herself. She had enough groceries, had nothing better to do than cook and clean. She was fine. For one fleeting, embarrassing second Peter wished she wouldn’t be so fine so he could step in make it fine for her.
The number of deaths went down from eight hundreds to five hundreds to three hundreds. Philip was always online, as was Becky, but neither came to their office chatroom. Peter did online quizzes waiting for Becky’s message. It was almost two weeks later that the chat room pinged with Philip’s message that Ben had recovered against all odds, and would be back home soon. Of course he would, Peter thought. End of the week, Becky invited them for a call. Ben wanted to have everyone over but over-sixties were still locked down, so they’d have to settle for a video celebration for now. Ben was half his size, but still looked like the world owed him something. Becky looked happy. She was wearing the earth necklace! The camera was back in its usual position and Peter saw the jewellery box perched on her dresser. He blushed.
Becky thanked them for everything they had done for her and Ben in these harrowing weeks. Peter shook his head to say it was nothing. He wanted her to stop. Somethings were better left unsaid.
“Peter, you were always there asking about us. Always have been.”
In that moment, Ben and Philip dissolved. It was only him and Becky. His heart filled with a strange feeling and eyes welled up. He wanted to say he’d do anything for her, that he’s always be there for her, that she was the real reason he had stayed in the firm so long, but all he could do was nod stupidly for fear of crying on camera and choking on his words.
“Philip, how will we ever thank you,” Becky continued.
Philip dismissed it with a wave.
“Driving Ben to the hospital, getting him back. My groceries, medicines,” she went on. She stroked the pendant as she spoke, tears in her eyes. Peter had an uneasy feeling that she was looking at Philip as she did that, but he couldn’t’ be sure.
“We wouldn’t have made it without you.”
“Anything for you, my love,” Philip said.
Things opened up, Mary went back to school and the video calls dwindled. Olivia spent her day in the community kitchen and Peter had the house back to himself. The plants were trimmed, beds clean and roses were out. He fussed over them, snipped away anything brown or even the half yellow. Olivia had the online grocery delivery down to pat now, so there wasn’t much to buy, but Peter still walked to the farmer’s market anyway for any exotic finds. The chalk rainbows had washed away, but the ones on the windows remained stuck. He continued watching the daily briefings out of habit. Deaths were in double-digits now and they were monitoring the situation closely. The crisis had shaken normal life as they knew it, but the nation had come out of it wiser and better prepared for a possible second wave. Sometimes Philip and Ben came online. Peter couldn’t help feeling that they chatted with each other without him. He tried to dismiss the thought and stayed logged in, just in case. He organised and re-organised the shed. He had all the pieces he needed for the birdhouse. He could take his time putting them together. The girls were back in school and had stopped asking about it.
Nidhi was born and raised in India. Having spent over a decade in Singapore, she now lives in London. Her work has been published in several journals across Europe, Asia and US, including Popshot, Litro, Thrice Fiction, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and Open Road Review to name a few and has been anthologized in two short story collections in Singapore. Visit her at www.nidhi-arora.com