A Bunch of Fives - Stories by James Roderick Burns (16)
Rebinding and loss of leaves, especially of fly-leaves, have carried off names of owners and library-marks, and apart from that there are but few cases in which we are warranted in proclaiming from the aspect and character of the script that a book was written at one particular place and nowhere else
MR James, The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts
Looking back, from the month before it would be a year since everything started, was a curious, doubling experience. It couldn’t possibly be a year. Years were where lives took place, where careers were built and marriages forged, or floundered; where babies became toddlers and children unfurled the small coloured flags of their personalities. No, it was a week. A longish week, no question – perhaps the longest – and marked by considerable stresses and strains, but surely no more than that.
On the other hand, when I woke and settled into the armchair, switched on my laptop and took my pills with a mug of coffee, the view of the Edwardian flats across the way shifting from sun-picked chimneys to rain-slicked slate, even snow now and again, I felt this was the only life I had ever lived, and the years were simply marks on a tally stick, tiny components of some grander, permanent environment, and fleeting as dust-motes in a shaft of winter light.
I grunted, ordered more coffee on the delivery app.
I wondered which side would claim victory in today’s office arms-race. E-mail was quick out of the gate. At the height of things in March – or was it February? August? – it was no contest: three or four hundred over an eight hour span meant no more than a minute to read and respond to each, with the next slamming into the bunker the instant I returned fire. Small white bullets, rifled with exclamation marks. Larger ordnance dropping with the weight and whistle of doodlebugs. But nothing waited, save perhaps the bell of the first video-conference.
Now Teams was coming on strong, stubbing out a last cigarette and rolling up its sleeves for the fight.
In between puffs of gun smoke, I waited for that small blue singing box in the corner of the screen; the torturous grind of its start-up routine; my hand looming, fish-white, in the camera’s eye to adjust the angle of the screen before I settled alongside the others in their Hollywood squares. Some chose a neutral background, the ultra-modern white box, stripped of personality, others a futuristic beach, Scottish glen or the reaching span of an abstract bridge. I blurred my background so no one could see the laundry, or my daughter sneaking by on her way to the kitchen.
I imagine the Speaking Hand feature was designed to let the chair control an unruly babble – impose order on overlapping ripples of voices keen to make a point, or simply register their presence. But every time, clicking that small, cutesy icon – fingers spread wide in delicate outline – I was catapulted back to primary school: Please, sir! I know – I know! Or, in darker moods, thrust back into the limelight of incompetence, forced by the great pedagogical digit to warble painfully on the recorder, stagger through a gassy quagmire of sums.
Now I spent my days endlessly pressing and releasing the little hand.
I watched as the bank of screens flipped from one chair to another, spectacles peering into the lens for the next agenda item, recognising a colleague, asking – with rapidly-souring humour – ‘Is that a legacy hand? Did you have another point to make?’
I could always make a further point – and one more, then another, and another – but it remained a legacy hand, nonetheless.
On the good days (when my daughter was engaged with school, my wife the latest assault on American democracy) I approached the whole draining, never-ending battlefield with a slightly mellower eye. On other days, I felt like a bundle of skin and bones being dropped into a meat-grinder one message at a time.
‘It can’t be so bad,’ my colleagues in other organisations said – ‘surely things have slowed down, now we’re on top of it?’ Perhaps they were right. They talked of children or pets, held up the fuzzy little blighters to the camera, laughed when a dog picked up another’s digital woof and relayed it around the country in one looping, continuous bark.
I remember a night not so long ago when I was awake at midnight, the unlit park opposite the flat black with snow, the city knocked silent at the close of another day. My daughter walked in and threw open a window, pulled the board out from under my laptop and stuck it into the storm.
‘Look!’ she said.
On the scratched surface of the wood, snowflakes lit and melted. She held a hand towards the cone of light from a nearby street-lamp. The snow was falling slant-wise through its beam, and for a moment we tracked the passage of individual flakes down towards the pavement, their motion slowing in the observation, as though the act of looking brought poise and significance to an otherwise galloping, meaningless headlong jumble.
She turned back to the room.
‘You want to go out?’
I groaned. A nine-hour day done, with dinner and washing-up, then much the same tomorrow. But under the cone, the rate of snowfall seemed to be lessening, each flake turning more purposefully towards the window, as if in invitation. I did a rapid inventory of hats, coats and gloves, then nodded.
The blizzard had tailed off to a light, occasional dusting, then nothing but frigid black air when we made it downstairs. Where the cobbles had been was a long white knitted scarf wrapped around the junction, its surface knobbly and perfect as a Shetland jumper. The spiny branches of the trees overhanging the park were caked with a thick layer of icing, and in the children’s play area the bucket-rides and climbing frames were furry with deposits, lying slumped and mysterious as items long-forgotten in the dustiest attic. No one had ventured out. All the paths wound away blank and empty, stretching plump with potential around silent corners. We stood for a moment in the dark, cold nothing, and smiled.
By now everyone was used to the spectacle of empty streets, parks with a single lugubrious dog wandering round on his lonesome, the only real action a nightly emptying of the recycling bins by a clanking, flashing lorry, hydraulics screeching like pterodactyls in the darkness, but now the emptiness was new and complete, somehow soothing.
She walked down a row of cars, dipping a glove into the thick mounds on the bonnets, kicking out lines on the kerb, drawing love hearts on windscreens. I stood for a minute doing nothing at all. Then, as though at some unheard, secret alarm the streets began to fill with people: first a young couple in their twenties, with thin sweatshirts and granny-bobbled hats, untroubled by the freeze; an older man knocking flakes from his flat cap; a young mother with two children in tow, holding hands like ornaments draped around a Christmas tree.
I smiled; my daughter laughed. We moved apart automatically to the required distance, began walking down the road. The snow creaked underfoot and soaked up the sound. I found a drain mysteriously clean, steam curling through its shocking brown bars. She penguined down a side street, marking the fresh white page with splayed sneakers, stooping now and again for a handful of snow. Each time she approached, grinning with clasped hands, I dodged away and we laughed again.
Down the main road, round the block and back to the park. In our brief absence half the city seemed to have crept out into the night. The children were still there, their mother bent over a low wall, forming armouries of snowballs. The boy – all of four years old – crept up to his sister with a glistening icy bullet.
It missed by a country mile. The girl grabbed one of the snowballs and lobbed it high, straight over her brother’s head. It sailed through his outstretched fingers, thwacking into a street sign with a reverberating bong, and stuck there like a mound of putty.
When we got back inside it was late but I made coffee and hot chocolate, anyway, and we sat for a while before she took herself off to bed. I lingered, steam dwindling from my cup, looking from the closed silver laptop to the blank square of window, back again. I rubbed the grease from my phone screen and checked the time. Not long till I’d need to be in, and on again. In the dead quiet of morning I could hear artillery beginning to rattle in the magazine, the doodlebugs settling in their frames for the first of the day’s bombing runs.
Looking back, from the month before it would be a year since everything started, was a curious, doubling experience. The hand was waiting – it never really went down – but for a moment, I felt the high sizzling thrill of a snowball passing through fingers, on the way to who-knew-where, but for that instant absolutely free, and tapped the laptop with my knuckles, and drained my coffee, and went to bed.
First published in Finding Light in Unexpected Places, Volume Two: Covid-19 Edition (Palamedes Publishing, 2022)
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