Old Lady Ankle Boots

They were in one of those limp little catalogues that plop through your letter-box on a Monday morning. “Cosy” – a word that nobody under forty-five can think without a flinch. But my feet were so very, very cold that I did think it, and sent for a pair of sheepskin-lined ankle boots.

I worked as a secretary for Messrs Gimp, Stanley & Co, an interesting, eccentric and notoriously parsimonious firm of solicitors. We rented half an eighteenth century building just off the High Street in a road stuffed with solicitors. The other half was taken by our rivals, Messrs Mafford Speers. Maffords were more corporate and less colourful than Gimps. They didn’t like their staff any more, but did see the benefit of central heating.

Equity partners lived on the ground floor, nearest our esteemed and much fawned-over clients. Salaried had offices on the floor above and everyone else, including me, was banished to the floor above that. The higher the floor, the shabbier and colder it got. Whatever the weather, we weren’t permitted to approach the gas fires until November. When November did finally arrive we brought in boxes of cooks’ matches – the ones with the extra-long stems. Failing cooks’ matches we would tape an ordinary match to the end of a metal letter-opener and lean as far back as possible before striking it and turning the gas on full.

The sash windows had been there since the building was new, in 1721. They rattled whenever it was windy. I typed stiff-fingered in a swirling draught, wearing the standard cheap office suit with hand-knitted fingerless gloves. I’d wind a pink woollen scarf tied around my ankles, and sometimes forget to unwind it when I stood up.

The ankle-boots drew disapproving glances from the Partners but they didn’t remark, and I wasn’t that bothered, being next on their list for constructive dismissal. People like me, with a surfeit of inspiration and a deficit in concentration, never tend to last long in offices.

It was winter when I caught sight of him. I was on my lunch break and, of course, wearing the old lady ankle boots with cosy sheepskin lining. There was a long queue in the Post Office and I joined it. My hair was a mess; I felt a bit pasty, with the beginnings of a spot on my forehead. The menopause plays havoc.

He was up the front by the Wait Here sign, next in line for a cashier. He should have been in Scotland, in a sizeable cottage, with small potted trees on either side of the door. Yet here he inexplicably was. Until that moment I had never given much thought to the expression “rooted to the spot”. The queue was closing up and I suppose I was shuffling along with it, but to all intents and purposes, I was rooted. That dear, familiar face, that that bony brow; that strange, masculine-yet-feminine shape that he unfortunately still was. Thirteen years had passed but he genuinely didn’t look any older; neatly turned-out, as always; mid-length camel coat and one of those expensive roll-neck sweaters in pastel blue.

I used to wonder if he was gay, half gay or potentially gay but he proved to be a lusty lover. He told me he had read books on technique – how to caress a woman with only his eyes, how to put her in the mood for love before ever laying hands on her.

He played the church organ, which in retrospect seems quite amusing. He had his piano delivered when we moved into the maisonette. On summer afternoons he would play Yesterday with the windows flung wide open to admit the salt breeze, and local children would drape themselves over the area gates, open-mouthed, to listen. He was good with children. He didn’t want his little girl to be upset by meeting me, so when she came over I would go out. I came to loathe her without ever having met her. Occasionally I had to disappear for a whole weekend.

He introduced me to leisurely breakfasts in the window-seat, with buttered toast, marmalade and the papers. He taught me to cook, a bit, with garlic even. He introduced me to Vivaldi, and Enya, but wasn’t at all keen a cat despite my wheedling: only later did it occur to me why.

Thirteen years since last I saw him; innumerable icy years to come – who knows what the final total will be – during which I will not to set eyes on him again. I should have tapped him on the shoulder, said something or anything to bank a fresh memory of his face that might tide me over. But those old-lady ankle-boots had glued me to the floor and struck me dumb.

He passed quite close to me on the way out. I looked away, sideways. Though my heart was beating like a thing possessed, as it had once been possessed, though I could barely breathe and tears welled up in eyes, I kept on shuffling forwards in my old lady ankle boots. I pictured him, out of the door, off down the street, off down another street, and then another; finding that expensive car in the car park and driving away. Back to Scotland, or wherever it was he now resided.

He told me once that God would always save him a parking space, in any city. God would reward all those who had faith in Him.

Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone

It’s all going a bit pear-shaped. Or rather carrot-shaped. I’m getting weekly Government food boxes at the moment, though they keep texting me to inform me that I have said I no longer require them – which I haven’t – and so they will no longer arrive – which they continue to do. I get them because I am shielding and have no other human being (sob!) that I could bring myself to ask to do supermarket shopping for me. The neighbours all have their own problems, and many of them are shielding too.

I am grateful for the food boxes, though possibly not for the reasons the Government imagines. I look forward to Fridays all week because that is the day when Something Happens. Throughout the rest of the week Nothing Happens.

The food box is one-size-fits-all, I suspect, ie I get enough for a family of three. Every week, 2kg of potatoes, plus rice, plus pasta. Well, I like potatoes, in moderation. Every week, a monster bag of carrots. I must admit, I don’t like carrots, but I have been doing my best, because the carrots are free, and waste not, want not. I made a couple of hot-pots every week, eating one third, freezing two thirds, eating another third…until I could not face even opening one  of the little plastic tubs. They gave me wind. This was because of the tin of baked beans that went into each.

I coincided with my neighbour at the bins. She is a little deaf but we mimed and shouted a kind of conversation whilst remaining socially distanced. “Make coleslaw with them,” she said, as if it was obvious. Well, she’s a school teacher and I’m not. I imagined grating that giant bag of carrots – enough grated carrot to fill a kitchen. And then what? No onion, no cabbage, no – anything you could make coleslaw out of. Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone, as Jesus might have have said, had coleslaw existed in those days.

Also in my box – every week, more or less – a bottle of Lynx men’s shower gel – a black bottle with an impenetrable top and writing so tiny I couldn’t read it. Until I finally wrenched it open, I wasn’t even sure what it was. Something esoteric to do with shaving, perhaps. I’ve tried it out – it smells gruff and medical – the way you’d imagine a man would want to smell – but I’d rather smell of pine disinfectant than sweat. Shower gel every week (my sister suggested I open a shop) but no toothpaste. I suppose if I ran out I could use baking powder. You can use baking powder, can’t you?

Handfuls of teabags kind of scattered randomly throughout, each tea bag in it’s own little paper packet, so you have to undo them all, but then – what else would I be doing? It’s therapy.

Tomato soup and tinned tomatoes. Two tins of each, per week. Tomato pasta sauce, two jars of each, per week. Sadly, though I gather tomato soup is the most popular kind, I simply cannot force it into my mouth. I can get the spoon half way there, then the smell makes me retch. So much tomato. Tomato soup can be made palatable by putting it in a hot-pot. But I am all hot-potted out. Which reminds me of that rather lovely older Scottish chap in Primeval – that series about dinosaurs and monsters falling through a rift in time. Eventually he left the series and the reason he gave was that he was “All Oh-My-Godded Out”. Oh My God, it’s a miniature pterodactyl! – Oh My God, it’s a super-sized flesh-eating futuristic super-killer!” Etcetera.

Six oranges. I wish I liked oranges, because they’re so good for you. I like the taste, but not the dribbly, squelchy texture. I bought an old-fashioned lemon-squeezer on Ebay (that thing you impale the fruit on is called a reamer, did you know? Ex always used to be talking about reamers) and now I squeeze all six oranges and drink the juice, an Orange Vampire.

I could go on. I am grateful for the boxes, for as long as they continue to arrive. Like the curate’s egg, they are good in parts, and those parts that are not good are a great boon to my mental health, providing me with amusement when there is absolutely no other amusement to be had. I tell a lie – this morning I went out with the secateurs and cut back some of the brambles.

It occurred to me the other day that, given the Underlying Health Condition, etc etc, I cannot safely un-shield, ie emerge from lockdown, apart from my weekly engine-boosting circuit in the car, until there is a vaccine – and there might never be a vaccine. Even if there is a vaccine – I did the math – I keep forgetting how old I am – by the time there is one, and I can get my paws on it, I may well be seventy. I cannot imagine being seventy. I cannot imagine being under house arrest until I am seventy, though equipped to survive, after a fashion, being solitary by nature.

Some days it feels like the ending of “2001” – that bit where he goes through the whatever – all those tedious lights, some kind of wormhole – and ends up in an olive-and-other-shades-of-green mansion of incredible dullness, being studied by unseen aliens – or possibly not, who knows? – whilst growing older and older (and older and older) and eventually dying, whilst reaching out to that blasted monolith yet again! What was that all about? Does anybody know? Does anybody care any more?

And some days it feels like all my Christmases have come at once. Sitting out in the sun on my plastic garden chair, an unread paperback and a mug of bitter-tasting Government coffee on the pile of paving-stones beside me; looking down the garden at a lawn somebody else has just mown for me; looking at the ratty old roses, now visible where the brambles have been thinned out; listening to the birds – so many birds – and the silence, otherwise; imagining what the world would be like if entirely emptied of human beings, if I was the only one left…

At those moments I am mercifully thinking of nothing, at one with the sunshine, thankful and at peace. At last my torment is over. The outside world is leaving me alone.

Alice down the rabbit-hole

Up till now I haven’t felt like writing anything. Other people seem to have “dropped off” (the radar, hopefully, as opposed to the perch) too. Also, my readers seem to have mostly vanished. That little world-map they give you? – is blank. That graph? One reader every few days – presumably having tripped and fallen into one of my old posts from somewhere more interesting or relevant. Like Alice down the rabbit-hole.

What is there to write about? It all seems so big, so irretrievable, so – final. Could this be the end of the world? I wouldn’t mind betting that when the End of the World finally does come, nobody will recognise it. And yet we have the wars, and rumours of wars; we have fires breaking out all over the place; we have the melting ice, the poisoned seas; we have the President of the United States suggesting people might inject themselves with disinfectant or “shine light inside their body” and now – full set, really – we have a Very Excellent Sort of Plague. No, when it ends it will be with a whimper. Everyone will be kidding themselves, right up to the last nanosecond, that it’s just a Bit of a Blip and things will go back to normal soon.

However, assuming this is not quite Armageddon, we have to manage it – and not only on a national and international level. Each one of us has to fashion a “new normal” that works for them and doesn’t endanger their neighbours.

I am supposed to be shielding, not, as you may have assumed, through old age, but because of this pesky “underlying health condition” which means my immune system is (probably) rubbish. I say probably because what I’ve got is rare and everybody seems to be hazarding guesses, rather, as to what might happen to me next – or eventually. Will she expire early, will she live out her natural lifespan, mildly but not too inconveniently symptomatic? Will she be more or less OK providing she manages to sidestep the odd, um, killer virus?

It has taken me four weeks of fruitless/answerless emailing to finally receive my “shielding” letter in the post. No Government food parcels as yet, but I suppose there’s still a faint hope. I do feel somewhat embittered about this. It’s bad enough having an illness that makes you feel wobbly and vaguely hung-over most days, without the built-in Invisibility Cloak. What is it about me, that people kind of skim over me? All my life – oy, here I am, mate, just under your nose! Grr…

However – yes, there is a however – today I took one small step towards my “new normal”. I got in my car (having looked both ways in case the neighbours were watching from behind their net curtains) and drove it as far as the roundabout above the next village, then drove it home. The roads were more or less deserted but all the while I was expecting policemen to leap out from behind the bushes, insist that I wind down my windows, and – blowing in gusts of virus-laden breath – question me as to why I had dared to leave my house at all. More than a touch paranoid by this time, obviously.

I have been inside my house and garden since two weeks before lockdown. I self-isolated, knowing I needed to, in spite of the Invisibility Cloak. I have not even walked up the road to post a letter. Meanwhile, my car was slowly dying, nose slightly downwards, on the driveway. It’s tyres began to look unhappy – squashed into the same position. It wouldn’t start. One AA man and a lecture on “How Not To Flood A Car Engine” later, I knew to start it once a week and run it for half an hour, still nose downwards on the driveway.

Then I realised that it wasn’t just the car. By the time I have my next (rearranged) hospital appointment in November, I may well have forgotten how to drive. You don’t want your first terrified time behind the wheel in seven months to be the one where you have to negotiate an hour-long, steering-wheel gripping obstacle course of traffic, traffic-lights and multi-lane roundabouts. I needed to maintain me as well as the motor. So today, with the windows tightly wound up, a green bandanna round my neck in case sudden masking should be required, a bottle of veterinary hand-steriliser and a big pack of antiseptic hand-wipes, I set forth.

It was like a small cloud lifting. I hadn’t realised how depressed I had got until I saw (through my tightly wound-up windows) that the sky was blue, the clouds white etc. Spring had sprung, in my absence. Last time I saw the fields they were brown – now they are acid yellow, with a crop of oil-seed rape. The same roads are there, with the same patches and potholes that I remember. There are people – not many, but the occasional one. Strange, upright creatures – how have I never properly looked at them before? Fancy – things that walk on two legs! I had thought – dear Lord, I had imagined I was the only one left.

In The Bleak Midwinter

(I am afraid this little story may feature the same Janice who hurled a number of jelly trifles at the music mistress in ‘Might As Well Be Hung For A Sheep’)

This story doesn’t take place in Midwinter, bleak or otherwise. Imagine late May and a long time ago. All will become clear.

She is at school. Whatever the type of gym – hockey, netball, tennis, athletics – all those torments – they get changed in the same cloakroom, in an ancient and mostly forgotten area of the school called Crimea because Florence Nightingale once nursed soldiers there, according to the headmistress. The paint is chipped and the floors are dampish concrete; the lighting isn’t up to much, the windows are high and small. All around the room are wooden benches, for sitting on whilst doing up plimsolls, and above the benches, coat hooks. The cloakroom smells of sweat, menstruation and those sticky-sweet roll-on deodorants girls favoured in the sixties.

She has forgotten her gym bag and so she can’t do gym, which means that Miss Potter will punish her. In fact, it is her mother who has forgotten it. The bag would normally by the front door, containing a pale blue ironed gym shirt, darker blue skirt-shorts, socks and plimsolls, but her mother is working up to, or possibly spiralling down from, one of her nervous breakdowns.

She is a good girl, or at least a fearful one. Her father has shouted, slapped, walloped and goaded into her a fear of all authority figures. Miss Potter is teensy-tiny whereas Janice is tall, like the shouting, slapping and walloping father – but she fears Miss Potter, who is grizzle-haired, gruffly-spoken and probably a lesbian. Miss Potter will take it as read that any gym bag forgotten had been forgotten on purpose, especially if the girl in question hates all sports, which Miss Potter knows to be the case here.

Her punishment this time is to be an unusual one. Quite often punishments involve walking round and round the sports field, still in your uniform, whilst the others are playing. You just walk round, and round for fifty minutes or so, and Potter keeps her eye on you. Another of her duties is to be in charge of the sick room and this is basically the same punishment you get for period pain – a glass of cloudy gingery stuff (briskly whisked with a glass rod, like they have in the science lab) and walking round and round the sports field, whether pouring with rain or not.

Maybe Potter is in a creative mood. “You will stay here,” she says, “and learn a hymn by heart. I will hear you recite it when I get back, and I expect you to be word perfect.” And she produces a copy of the school hymn book.

“Which hymn, Miss Potter?”

“Any hymn you choose, Janice, as long as it contains at least four verses.”

In the now-empty changing room Janice chooses In The Bleak Mid-Winter because she loves it. She offers up a little prayer of thanks to the God she already half-disbelieves in. In The Bleak Mid-Winter is not just one of those dirges penned by a Victorian vicar but a proper poem, by someone called Christina Georgina Rossetti. The name is a sonnet in itself.

She already knows the first two verses from chapel.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… There is something revolutionary about that line, something so pure and bright and absolutely certain of itself. This Christina is a woman who has walked in snow, who has seen the water standing hard as iron, listened to the frosty wind making moan. Janice never had any problem memorising words, and words like this –how could they fail to stick?

The hardest part is doing the reciting when Miss Potter comes back. She takes the hymn book from the girl and waits. Janice recalls how the other kids used to read in her infant school class –a kind of staccato drone, with stumbles and mispronunciation. She tries to imitate that, without laying it on too thick. Potter mustn’t catch on that she has just spent one of the happiest fifty minutes of her life being punished.

But of course, she can’t keep it up. Angels and Archangels are just too much for her. Awe creeps into her voice, the hint of a sob, even.

At What can I give him, – Give my heart she sighs, knowing the game is up.

“Next time,” says Miss Potter, “algebra.”

(flash fiction: 756 words)

From Behind The Garage

This lunchtime I took my coffee and a book out behind the garage. It’s the only place my neighbours can’t spy on me, gazing down from their newly reinstated decking. Behind the garage, on my faded green plastic chair, surrounded by weeds I no longer have the energy or inclination to pull out, I read another couple of chapters of At Mrs Lippincote’s. Slower reader, nowadays – and after all, what’s the hurry?

I look at the Triffid assortment and think “You are alive, at least, and I don’t intend to spoil your day in the sunshine. Go right ahead, Mr Nightshade. Keep right on, Mr Thistle. Burgeon, Miss – whatever you are. Let us veg out together. I have always applied this principle to animals/bugs etc; now I have extended it to weeds. I have become – St Francis – ish.

I am supposed to be “shielding” because I have one of the health conditions on The List that makes me, technically, Extremely Vulnerable. Unfortunately although my condition is clearly listed on The List I am not in receipt of The Letter from NHS Digital (the idiot arm of the National Health Service). Apparently thousands of people have been overlooked.

Without The Letter I am invisible – not entitled to help from one of the army of kind NHS Volunteers – things like collecting prescriptions, phoning to see if you are all right – or the Food Parcels. I would have so appreciated Food Parcels – psychologically as much as practically – especially as I have had to mortgage everything sourcing any old tins of cat food and bags of cat litter from anywhere, and at amazingly huge prices.

You see, they don’t think, when they have these pandemics, that not everyone is going to have the standard 1.5 pet household. They just ration everything, willy-nilly, to only two or three. Two or three bundles of cat food would last me a couple of days. Am I supposed to watch the little moggies starve? However, it’s all right at the moment – and I haven’t told them they might be out pursuing rats and sparrows soon, in case they worry.

I count my blessings. I am alive – neither my “underlying condition” nor Coronavirus have killed me yet. I have a garage full of cat food, a garden full of weeds, and the sun is shining. I am also making a quilt. I find the monotony of sewing together all those tiny squares with tiny, neat stitches, immeasurably soothing. It connects me to the past, and to other women. I imagine them in remote Alaskan log-cabins, or sitting outside their doorways watching people strolling past on cobbled streets; or curled up in cane chairs in quiet, rainy conservatories deep in the green heart of England.

I forgot N’s birthday. One day seems so much like another, doesn’t it? In any case, if I had got a card, I probably would have been tempted to plod up to the Rusty Post Box to post it – through that sea of little droplets coughed and sneezed out by others. And really, I shouldn’t even do that – even though I haven’t been sent The Letter instructing me to “shield”. Officially, I suppose, one could still go wild and – go for a little walk once a day. But I don’t. I don’t like the idea of those ventilators.

Poor Boris is really, really ill. I do worry about him, since I feel at this time we really need him to be “with us”. Him and The Queen. English Sister wrote at one point that she didn’t much care what happened to Boris, as he was “an arse”. But that of course was before he got taken into intensive care. Also, there is no one of any character to replace him – just a lot of grey chaps in grey suits, standing there looking dubious at the Daily Briefing. Which, by the way, will be starting soon. Not that it will produce anything new. More people dead. More brave doctors and nurses praised. More admonitions to Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Save Lives from people who have unimaginable amounts of money, and huge back gardens to retreat to. Bet they aren’t having to hide Behind The Garage, amid the Triffids.

Stay safe, all of you.

Under The Black Flag

Coffee spoons aren’t the only thing you can measure out your life with: there’s shopping trolleys, for instance.

I had a lot of men, but only two that mattered. The first I called my anchor, the second became my sail. I suppose I was a romantic, for I pictured my life as a voyage in a paper boat across an endless ocean. Or I might have the boat itself: one of those origami things my grandfather failed to teach me. I was either bowling along in a stiff breeze, becalmed in some weed-infested sea-within-a-sea, or sinking.

My anchor was a controlling kind of man. In those days a controlling man was a manly man, as long as he didn’t actually break your arm or black your eye. I loved my manly man, but he would keep taking things out of the shopping trolley. I would put something in and he would take it right back out again.

We went food shopping on Thursdays, in his car. At first this was a novelty. My mother had been in charge of the shopping and I’d never been to a supermarket before. Up and down the aisles we went, he with purpose, I with increasing gloom. I would see something I thought we needed; coffee, perhaps, or cheese. He would frown down at it and, without comment, put it back on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I stopped putting things in the basket.

I remained in charge of pushing the trolley, but I didn’t even do that right. I sensed he felt I was dawdling and daydreaming, which I was, mostly of not being married. I steered it crooked. “Goodness knows what sort of driver you’ll make if you ever manage to pass the test.”

We rented a third-floor flat; a grubby, shabby collection of rooms with a hole in the kitchen wall that you could have fallen through if you tried hard enough. Sometimes I wanted to try. We shovelled up the carpet and its rotten underlay. There was a scattering of tiny, multicoloured sweets mixed in with it, I remember. He shoved the mouse-infested furniture down one end and covered it in blankets. I grew a tomato plant in a pot on the balcony but I had planted the seed in August, which was far too late. The tomatoes stuck at green.

An Aquarian and a Virgo: an unpromising combination.

I was twenty-one and he was thirty.

My sail came along later, and for his sake I cut loose from my anchor. At intervals I wished I hadn’t because the sail, inevitably, was to turn out badly too. He and I were so alike, like mirror images: an Aquarian and an Aquarian, a disastrous collision of star signs. We lived in a place on the seafront – back to rented. The salt spray quickly started to rust my third-hand car.

We also went the supermarket for our groceries, but not necessarily on Thursdays, just when we got round to thinking about it. We had a trolley each and sailed up and down the aisle, side by side, in the whoosh of a following wind. I was not accustomed to fun. I had never scooted a trolley before, or allowed myself to giggle in the company of a man. People gave us looks but it was exhilarating, being young at last.

I was thirty-nine and he was forty.

Apparently I should have found myself an Aries, a Gemini, a Libra or a Sagittarius. It’s too late now.

Now I am so old that I cannot tell you how old I am. If I visit the supermarket at all, I go alone. Mostly I order stuff online and it gets delivered after dark by a man in a uniform who’s anxious to get home to his family. When I do go, I’m grateful for the trolley to lean on. Some days this hip’s so bad, it saves me limping.

I navigate the person-littered aisles with quiet skill, being a much better driver than my anchor once predicted. I place in my trolley what I choose to place in it, but I can’t afford much. I don’t attempt the sailing thing because I can’t. I wouldn’t even if I could because they might lock me away somewhere. Old women are always being locked away; fed with plastic spoons, showered by strangers, slid from bed to chair and back again on a board.

Sail under a black flag, that’s my motto. Don’t let the buggers catch you.

(flash fiction: 753 words)

Little Red Friends

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my parents house, in hysterics, which wasn’t unusual. Maybe I was about fifteen. Bit of a meltdown, but this one was worse than usual. My mother was there – perched on the table edge – and she said something like “You’ll have to calm down, or you’ll end up going mad.” I remember sobbing, “And what would you do, if I went mad?”

“I’d look after you,” she said.

That was what they call nowadays a “seminal moment”.  I think. Maybe I’m getting seminal mixed up with semen, but whatever, it was one of those. My future life flashed before my eyes. The sobbing and the howling didn’t stop, but inside, the part of me that stands backs and takes notes on what “my” body and mind are doing, replied to her loud and clear – and in absolute silence.

“You will never look after me. The minute you manage to turn me back into a child, a patient or a victim, I’m lost.”

From that moment on I fought the long, dirty fight against my own inhabitants. I didn’t ask for help. To be honest, there was never exactly a tsunami of earnest/dangerous “helpers” to be fended off! I did such a good job of boring and confusing them – and people are so easily misdirected. In another life, maybe, I was a conjurer.

I was unassailable, but all the time balanced on a knife’s edge. Waiting for that momentary lapse in concentration, the teetering, the screaming descent, the ending up on the wrong side of the knife. Oh that wall of silver, that bright cliff face. I was always afraid of heights in the real world, and these – I think – are probably the heights in question.

Anyway, I am locked in now – or rather we are – me and my little red friends. We have been together for a long time.  Almost but not quite friends. We have studied each other’s games and can largely guess what the next move will be.

No doubt we will emerge together, blinking in unaccustomed sunlight, whenever this situation ends. Most of us will return to normal. The traffic will start up again, the noise; it will be easy to just go to the supermarket and buy some food. Remember that? People will forget that other people are surrounded by a cloud of infectious gubbins. They will forget to wear their masks, and eventually leave them home altogether. They will stop to chat in the street.

But by then me and my little red friends will have been locked in together for that few weeks too long. It doesn’t take long, really, for the transformation to happen. To much of me will have been lost to them. Too many of them will have mutated into me. And at last, we will have learned all there is to learn from one another.