"You didn't invite them in, did you, Sheila?"
Grandfather Jessup clasped my biceps in his feeble grip and searched my face, worry akin to fear darkening his eyes. I patted his liver-stained hand and ... [+]
Nowadays, Maisie spends most of her time looking out of their bedroom window. She’s arranged the furniture so she can observe the outside world in comfort. A chair from the back room pulled to one side of the window. A pair of binoculars on the window ledge in case she spies anything of interest, and a notebook and pen to record it for future reference.
Nicholas’s small bed lies undisturbed beside her chair. The cat hasn’t been upstairs recently, preferring instead to sit on Stan’s lap in the lounge while he watches DVDs of Dads’ Army. Stan has every episode of every series, and he watches them in order, on repeat, all day.
Stan and Maisie live in a compact three-bedroom detached house at the bottom of a cul-de-sac, and through the net curtains which shield her from her nosy neighbors’ prying eyes, she watches their comings and goings, noting down every Lockdown transgression in her little notebook. Departure time, return time, whether they drove or walked, how many visitors they had.
The day of reckoning would come soon enough for all of them.
Today is a special anniversary for Stan and Maisie. Tuesday, twenty third of March 2021. Forty-one years married. She’d never made a fuss about it, but this year Stan should’ve remembered. He’d promised last year that he’d make this anniversary extra special, seeing as how the Lockdown had ruined their fortieth.
The Lockdown. How things had changed that day, a year ago, on the day of their anniversary. They’d had plans. Actually, only she’d had plans, but after she’d dropped enough hints to Stanley, he’d had plans as well.
But the plans quickly turned to dust. The hotel in the Lakes had already canceled their holiday of a lifetime, but at least they thought they could still meet up with the few friends they still had, at the restaurant Stan had been told to book.
Until the restaurant closed, that was.
And that was that.
At first there were the Zoom calls. The endless quiz nights. The “catch-ups” with neighbors who only lived next door. Sometimes she wished they’d had kids, but it was probably best that they hadn’t – thinking about it, as she did, frequently, the heartache of separation would’ve been too much to bear.
Then came Clap for Carers. Then it was two minutes’ silence. Then bang your saucepans.
Whatever next? Twist for Tesco? Shimmy for Sainsbury’s? Dance for Deliveroo?
Nothing for the Undertakers.
It hadn’t taken them long to stop the Zooming. She’d never been one for socializing, never really liked their neighbors anyway. And as the Lockdown stretched from weeks to months, they’d lost contact with everyone.
Then the government started fiddling with the Lockdown, letting some people out, keeping old people in, mixed messages and half-baked planning. Stan said it was too soon, and he was right.
So now they’re back indoors.
At least Maisie and Stan are. They’ve stopped watching any news, it’s too distressing for Stan. But everyone in their little street seems to be completely ignoring the Lockdown, coming and going as whenever they please. Her notebook is almost full.
She runs her finger through the thick dust on the window ledge, struggling to remember when they last left the house. Was it in August? October? They’ve no need to go out; Ocado takes care of everything, every two weeks, the same order every time. A selection of Waitrose Own Brand ready meals for Maisie and Stan, five six-pack cans of IPA for Stan, fourteen bottles of Côte Du Rhône for Maisie, twenty-eight tins of cat food for Nicholas.
Downstairs on the TV, Corporal Jones is speaking.
"There’s a war on, Dad," says Corporal Jones.
"Oh, I wondered what the noise was," mimes Maisie to Corporal Jones’ dad’s reply. It’s from an episode called "Museum Piece."
Anyway, time to get ready for their anniversary party. She’d been in the loft earlier that afternoon and fetched down her forty-year old wedding dress. She’d dusted it down and tried it on, and amazingly it still fitted, probably because she’s not been eating so much these days.
Or was it yesterday she’d gone in the loft? She loses track of time so easily nowadays. Hours seem like days. Months just race past her.
She walks over to the wardrobe and admires herself in the full-length mirror, turning to the left then the right, smoothing back her long, unkempt greying hair. Not bad for her age, she thinks. The dress is a bit yellow, but it’ll surprise Stan, he’ll remember what the occasion is, and then she’ll heat up their special anniversary meal, the Charlie Bigham Shepherd’s Pie for Two that she’d added into this week’s Ocado order, and afterwards they’ll chat about the old days.
Downstairs the TV has gone quiet. The DVD must’ve ended.
"Stan," she calls down the stairs.
"Stan. Would you like another cup of tea?”
Nothing. He’s never been one for small talk. She’ll go down and put another DVD on for him. Maybe change it to Only Fools and Horses. Stan likes that as well.
Reluctantly she turns away from the mirror and goes downstairs.
Stan is sitting on the settee in the lounge, facing the TV, slumped to one side. The cat is lying on the floor in front of him.
"Oh Stanley,” says, Maisie. “You’ve fallen over again. I can’t leave you alone for a minute. And you’ve not drunk the last cup of tea I made you! Or finished your beer!"
She pushes him back into an upright position. It’s not too difficult; he’s lost so much weight over the last few weeks.
She replaces the Dads’ Army DVD with Only Fools and Horses, and presses Play.
Gently she puts Nicholas’s stiff body back on Stan’s lap, takes the full can of beer and the cold cup of tea into the kitchen, pours them down the sink, and throws the empty can on the top of the pile of empties stacked up in the corner.
"We’ll need a new settee when all this is over," she says to Stan as she enters the lounge and sits next to him. "This one’s starting to smell a bit. Are you ready for dinner?"