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The Paper & Hearts Society: Life in Lockdown Short Story

Author of The Paper & Hearts Society Lucy Powrie has written as exclusive short story for BKMRK, inspired by the lockdown life we’re currently living.

 

‘Hi, Gran!’ Tabby tried to keep her voice steady as she held her phone out in front of her.

‘Hold on, Tabby, dear. All I can see is myself and I haven’t put any makeup on – it’s a scary sight! Can you hear me? Oh, what does this button do?’ On screen Gran, who indeed had no makeup on and hadn’t had her hair done in weeks, sat in her living room armchair, the camera pushed right up close to her face.

From this angle, it is very, very easy to see her nose hairs, Tabby thought.

Her finger jutted forward and the next second there was a cat filter covering her face. ‘Oh, dear!’ she laughed, and Tabby laughed too, unable to help herself. It was the whiskers that did it – they looked like she’d forgotten to shave a white, pointy moustache from her face. ‘I can use The Facebook, but all this video technology is very confusing.’

‘Gran!’ Tabby chuckled. ‘What did you press?!’

‘If I knew, I would be able to reverse this, wouldn’t I? Oh, bother! And I’m a dog person too. This is very embarrassing. Imagine if Mr Helstone over the road caught me like this.’

‘I doubt he’ll be FaceTiming you any time soon,’ Tabby pointed out, ‘so you don’t need to worry.’

For a few seconds, Gran didn’t say anything, but Tabby watched as her mouth turned up into a sneaky grin and she came across all coy. ‘I did wave to him over the road the over day when I was bringing in my food delivery,’ she said. If Gran had long hair, Tabby could imagine her winding it round her little finger at this very moment.

Honestly, Gran and her crushes! She’s way worse than any teenager I know – and we’re the ones who get the bad reputation!

‘I hope you were keeping your distance!’

‘Of course I was! I’m not silly, Tabby. He got one of those letters, you know, the ones for people who should be shielding. It’s something we’ve got in common.’

Tabby wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing.

At first, it had been difficult to keep Gran indoors. She was most outraged at the cancellation of her OAP Zumba class, and didn’t understand why she couldn’t pop around to Shirley’s house for a cup of tea when she felt like it. But then things had got more serious and she’d begun to listen, to understand that there wouldn’t be Zumba classes or afternoon teas for a while, but that they would only be tiny losses in the grand scheme of things.

Tabby was glad she was being sensible, but that didn’t make it any easier. She missed her more than anything else – being enveloped in warm, lavender-scented hugs; coming over in the afternoon after school to eat big slices of fresh, homemade cake; curling up on the sofa with a cheesy film and watching as Gran went gooey-eyed over the romantic lead.

FaceTime wasn’t the same as being together in person.

‘Did you manage to find your workout on YouTube this morning, Gran?’ Tabby swiftly changed the subject.

‘Oh, it was fantastic!’ Gran exclaimed. ‘My arms were aching so much afterwards and the sweat … you could collect it in a bucket, I’m sure!’

Tabby wondered if maybe it had been a mistake, in that case, to send the link to Gran. She didn’t want to open the door when lockdown and social distancing ended to be pushed back by an ocean-sized wave of Gran’s sweat.

‘Is your mum back yet?’ Gran asked.

‘Her shift finishes at five,’ Tabby said. This time, she didn’t keep her voice as steady as she’d hoped.

Mum worked in a hospital as a midwife and was having to do extra shifts. It also meant that she was living separately from Tabby and her dad, keeping only to the spare bedroom and using her own toilet when she was at home. It was difficult to be so close and yet feel so far away, but at least they were together, in the same house. At night, Tabby would hold her breath and listen as closely as possible to her mum’s room on the other side of the wall, to make sure she could hear her heavy breathing, to make sure she wasn’t coughing, to make sure that she was still there.

‘She’ll be okay,’ Gran said, and Tabby wished she was there right now, patting her hand like she always did when Tabby needed reassuring. ‘She’s resilient, your mum. I know you worry, but she’ll be okay.’

But you can’t promise that, Tabby wanted to say, but didn’t. Because it tapped into a fear that she was too frightened to voice, and she knew there was a second part too. You can’t promise me that you’ll be okay either.

‘Do you know who Doris Day was, Tabby?’

Tabby thought for a second and then said, ‘She was in one of those old films you made me watch, one of those musicals.’

Gran, now further away from the camera lens, said, ‘That’s the one. And do you know what she sung?’ She didn’t wait for Tabby to answer this time. ‘Que sera sera. And that means, whatever will be, will be. I know you’re worried right now – and there will be lots of people who feel exactly the same way as you do – but it’s perfectly okay to feel that way. You’re allowed to feel scared or uncertain. It just means you care.’

Tabby smiled weakly in response. ‘Thanks, Gran.’

But even though Gran’s words registered, she wasn’t sure if she was ready to take them in yet.

When she’d first realised the severity of the situation they were in – seeing the coronavirus death toll rise in other countries, and then in the UK – she’d felt sick from the anxiety. There had been sleepless nights where she tossed and turned, eventually sitting up and turning on her bedside lamp to stare at the pages of a book she was unable to read, the words swimming on the page. There were moments in the day when she’d be fine one minute and the smallest thing – like hitting her funny bone against the table in the dining room – would set her off crying and the tears would turn into a panic attack and she’d be reaching for breath, her head spinning, clutching at any trace of reality as she fought to bring herself back around. Then, she’d crawl upstairs and under her duvet and hope and pray that now, finally, she’d be able to sleep.

But the respite was brief.

As the days passed by, the panic attacks lessened and she was able to close her eyes at night and disappear into sleep, but she still felt an uneasy anxiety that followed her everywhere. Life was crumbling around her, and she felt there was very little that could be done about it.

‘Well, I’ve got to go, Tabby, love,’ Gran said, her smartphone moving so far away that Tabby saw more of the ceiling than Gran. ‘I promised Margery down the road that I’d ring her to tell her about that film I watched last night – Bridesmaids, that’s it. Oh, what a laugh I had! I told her she could borrow the DVD when I can get out of the house again.’

Tabby resisted the urge to roll her eyes. If any good had come of the pandemic, it had made her realise just how precious her Gran’s jokes and embarrassing references were.

I’ll have to buy her a real pair of cat ears, she thought, snapping a screenshot on her phone.

‘Love you, Gran.’ Tabby blew a kiss to the camera.

‘Love you too, Tabby. Keep your chin up, won’t you?’

‘I will.’ She smiled.

There was an awkward pause. ‘Now, how do I get out of this thing?’ Gran asked, pursing her lips. In the background, Tabby heard the ringing of the house phone, shrill and insistent. ‘Oh dear! That will be Margery now. She doesn’t like to be late!’

‘Okay,’ Tabby laughed, ‘bye, Gran!’

‘Bye, Tabby! Margery, I’m coming!’ Gran shouted at the phone, and Tabby hit the end button before Gran could get any more flustered.

Like that, she was gone. Tabby collapsed back into the sofa, dropping her phone to her side. She fought back the tears she felt rushing to her eyes, insistent, stinging.

It hurt so much not to be able to see Gran, not to know when she’d be able to see her in the flesh again. But she had to remind herself that there was a good reason behind it, that they were going without now so that there could be more hugs and laughs and jokes and love in the future.

I’m being selfless for Gran. And I’ve got to go easier on myself: I may have read post-apocalyptic books in the past and seen all those futuristic movies, but nothing could have prepared me for all of these emotions I’m feeling. I think I’m allowed to admit that I’m scared, and I don’t always have to be strong.

There will be better days.

It did cross her mind, though, that just as she was getting her anxiety under control, learning to deal with it and how to cope, this had happened making it rear its head again. But it’s not a step back. It’s just an extra challenge, one that I know I can get through if I take things one step at a time. One day at a time. Even one minute at a time, if that’s what I need.

I can get through this.

Her phone screen flashed with a notification and she picked it up, wiping her eyes underneath her glasses so she could see without the tear-stained blur.

 

THE PAPER & HEARTS SOCIETY

 

Olivia: Sent a photo.

Olivia: Another batch of fairy cakes made! I’m running low on flour, but I think I might just have enough for one more batch if I’m lucky!

Henry: Oh, they look good! Can I have the recipe? My sister would love these

Olivia: Of course!! I’ll write it down for you!

Ed: WAAANNNTTTTTTTT

Cassie: My stomach is grumbling just looking at them

Olivia: When all this is over, we’ll have a HUGE PARTY with ALL THE CAKE, and I am going squeeze you all and never let go!!!

Ed: That better be a promise!

Olivia: It is!!

Cassie: <3

 

Tabby smiled. At least she still had her friends. Even if she couldn’t see them, knowing that they were there was what was most important.

She took a deep breath in and, in her head, repeated the mantra that was beginning to feel like a comfort blanket.

I am safe. I am well. It’s going to be okay.

I am safe. I am well. It’s going to be okay.

I am safe. I am well. It’s going to be okay.

I am safe. I am well. It’s going to be okay.

 

 

The Paper & Hearts Society: Read with Pride is out on 28th May! Pre-order your copy from Waterstones or Amazon.