The first whisperings came in winter, while we were hefting Christmas trees from attics. All around the cul-de-sac, we strung fairy lights to windows. We thought: it’s not here. It’s not us. It doesn’t matter.
Frost glittered on our front lawns like icing sugar. The trees stiffened and moaned.
We shopped for makeup brushes; aftershave; toiletries in gift boxes; books. Filled our cupboards with tins of chocolate and alcohol. Strapped wreaths of holly and ivy to our front doors. Turned off our televisions when they spoke about it on the news. It was spreading, but it wouldn’t reach us. We were coastal, rural. Disconnected. We always had been.
Our secret? We were children of the sea, ready to be called back at any minute. Happy to be swept away on a tidal surge. To be wrapped in seaweed and shingle.
As the new year unfolded, the first cases traveled overseas, reached our shores. The more cautious in bigger cities started wearing face-masks, covering their noses and mouths in thin strips of paper. Protective elastic at their ears. Rashes scratching at their chins. Mostly, they were laughed at.
The numbers from London rose. Deaths climbed in blue and red lines along graph paper like jagged rainbows reaching for the horizon. We closed our computers. Turned off the radio.
In the neighbourhood, we wrapped our arms about our chests and chatted over garden fences, shared anecdotes about what might happen next. It was all speculative. It hadn’t reached us here, on the coast, where the wind blew salt from the sea over our houses and whipped at our front doors. Where it knocked to come in, but couldn’t penetrate our hallways. Not yet.
Bells rang out in the streets. Figures grew. Snow coated the ground in delicate whorls but melted quickly because of the salt in the air, erasing our footprints.
As figures rose from London, Birmingham, Manchester, we watched the country grow selfish, raiding supermarkets and stripping shelves bare, leaving only the skeletal remains of multibuy deals and faulty items. We sat in our cars and cried because there was no toilet roll, no pasta, no hand soap.
We offered to care for one another, to collect prescriptions and supplies. We contacted people we hadn’t spoken to in months, or maybe years, just to ask: are you okay?
My neighbour’s mother has got it, they said. My friend’s grandfather, too, we replied.
By spring, as the tulips were blooming in our gardens, they used the word. Pandemic. It lit our phone screens and crowded newspaper headlines and flashed over news anchors on television. They advised us to stay indoors. Particularly those of us they deemed vulnerable – the elderly; the immunocompromised; pregnant women with their melon bellies and their aching backs.
We steadfastly observed the measures advised by the government. Stayed at home. Didn’t socialise. We had first dates over laptop screens. Dates without distraction, so that we had to focus on each other fully. Dates that we could end with the click of a button, or the flip of a lid.
Plenty of people didn’t listen. Met in skateparks, converged on mountaintops, shared picnics in national parks. Shouted about freedom and dictatorships and choices as the blue and red lines grew towards the sun like spring daisies. They crowded on peak time trains, rubbed shoulders and shared handrails. Smiled at each other in guilty shows of immunity.
It’s fear-mongering. It’s a conspiracy. It won’t amount to anything.
They flocked to caravan parks and holiday-homes along the coast, bundling tins of baked beans and packets of crisps in their car boots, certain they’d be safer in rural areas, still pleading ignorance. They were coming here, ‘just in case.’
In our coastal homes, we demanded tighter measures. Protested and told holiday-makers to go home. Painted parked cars with red lettering telling them our village was closed.
Advice and guidelines became law. You must stay indoors. You must only leave your houses for exercise, or necessities. There will be fines for flouting these rules.
We took deliveries from a distance, the postman stepping back from our packages as we bent to take them indoors. We missed chatting with him, smiled sadly at his half-wave each day.
Elsewhere, police started patrolling the streets in pairs, asking where people were going, demanding identification.
Reports came from Venice of dolphins swimming in the canals, swans treading the waterways. The water was clearer than it had been in years. So clear, coins could be seen gleaming at the bottom.
The spring sun was hotter than it had been in years, the destructive winds we’d seen through winter long forgotten. We felt the earth was smiling, her lungs renewed. She spat up daffodils. Plucked blossom from tree branches. Bankings grew before our eyes, an exhalation.
We sat in our gardens and listened to birds calling across the trees. Magpies gathered in groups of half a dozen and lined our garden fences, shouting to each other. Shouting at us.
In Asia, tigers slunk from the jungle, creeping along the streets, dozed in sun traps where the markets used to be. The people watched them from their windows, caught them on shaking camera footage.
When our babies were born, we learned to send photos to grandparents daily. Shared their names and measurements on social media. Described the novelty of their heads in detail: his scalp sounds like plump lips smacking at a nipple; it smells of the softness of pears ripening; tastes like talcum powder.
We woke each morning to new updates, our phones screaming the headlines at us like sirens. Coyotes sauntering through San Francisco. Numbers were rising. Numbers were falling. Politicians were dying. Celebrities were pleading.
The graphs continued to grow, soaring to the paper’s edge. Reds. Blues. Yellows. Deaths. Diseased. Recovered.
We set up classrooms in our kitchens, recited timetables with our children as though we were still in school ourselves. We gave them long lunch breaks, let them play outside, encouraged them to read in the afternoons. We let them wear their slippers all day, didn’t scrape their hair into ponytails and bunches, or force elasticated ties around their necks.
Turtles had laid their eggs on deserted beaches, dragged their bodies back out to sea. In late spring, the babies hatched and followed the moonlight to the horizon, with no streetlights or late night diners to confuse their direction.
Barnacles pushed from our houses. Seaweed and coral draped the windowsills like silk scarves.
In cities, brickwork mossed. Birds built their nests on balconies, threading twigs through railings, weaving leaves and washing lines. Made homes of discarded trainers on street corners.
Nonetheless, we stood in our doorways and sang to one another, and filmed it, so that the whole world could hear it too. We sang and sang and sang, while crabs scuttled between our houses.
In Japan, deer roamed the empty subways, bringing the forest with them, scattering branches and antlers. The underground clattered with hooves. Echoed with ghosts.
We crayoned rainbows and taped them to our windows for children to find since they were not allowed to use the parks, or even to play together in the streets. In the pressing heat of summer, we chalked them to our driveways.
Red. Yellow. Blue. Green. Orange. Purple. Pink.
Supermarkets shut. Grew wild with ivy. We learned to forage, to smear mollusks in jam. To brew tea from nettles. To churn sand to a custard.
Before the television stations shut down, reports reached us of children disappearing, running with tigers, shrouded in flocks of gulls or taking off in gusts of wind. Shrieking with laughter.
Trees crowded our windows, reaching branches through our living rooms. Our children squealed at the frayed rope swings dancing alongside our armchairs.
We had long ago learned faces in two-dimensions, learned to accept voices cracking, lips buffering, so fleeting glimpses of our neighbours surprised us. Terrible, isn’t it, we said. Tragic. But we hardly meant it. We had forgotten the way things were before.
Rivers poured from our showers, making tiny waterfalls of our staircases and winding out of our front doors. Rabbits drank from the stream at our door mats, wet their whiskers with silver paws. Fish darted through the rivulets. We caught them in our hands, threw them back in like pennies to a wishing well.
We began to forget the warmth of physical closeness, the slick of sweat on a brow. We wrapped our arms only around our own torsos, and those of our children. We held them to us like precious things, afraid they might venture outside and never come back, like the children in the news reports. We plucked feathers from their ears, tamed the fur growing at their napes.
When the weather cooled and autumn withered the leaves on our trees, hedgehogs filled our back gardens, snuffling the overgrown grass while we sipped our morning tea. Badgers burrowed through our fences, took stock behind our sheds. Settled down.
Our phone batteries depleted. Our laptops ran down. Brambles coated the sockets, so that we forgot where they had been. We stopped searching for them.
Red kites pushed their feathered bodies through our chimneys, swaggered from our fireplaces carrying mice and voles to store in our cupboards alongside half-empty cereal boxes and bags of porridge.
When the day came that we saw our own children sprout blossoms and lift like kites until they were only coloured specks on the horizon, trailing seaweed, we weren’t worried. We missed their singing, missed their padding footsteps on our carpets, their unyielding questions. But we knew they’d gone with the tide. Knew they’d be okay.
By mid-winter, our devices lay forgotten in drawers. We languished like cats in the weak sun as it streamed through our windows, catching the light of the rainbows we’d pinned up so long ago, when there were still children to look for them.
Outside, the sea crept closer to our front doors. The world was quiet.