The opening of pubs in England on the fourth of July might be welcomed by many, including characters in books and television dramas, but characters and their writers might be in for a shock. Pubs in fiction are where people meet, either by arrangement or propped at the bar chatting to a stranger. Large and busy pubs are also where characters good and bad like to lurk anonymously, looking out in case they are being followed or following someone. In the best stories our heroes and lead characters inevitably have secrets they must keep from family and friends; in dark corners of noisy pubs they meet up to exchange important information unnoticed.
Roving campervan detective, Tobias Channing, in my latest novel, regularly sought out popular chain Wetherspoons for a cheap meal where he would be unnoticed as the stranger in town. Fortunately his story is set firmly in 2014, pandemics are one of the few things he doesn’t have to cope with.
What of novels and dramas of the future? No one will be slipping anonymously into any establishment. At the pub you will have to give your name and contact details at the door, perhaps needing your passport to prove who you are. Inside you must sit down and wait to be served and you had better take a book to read or your phone to play with as you won’t get chatting to strangers. There will only be two or three other customers, all spaced well away.
And if you want to pop to the toilets to do a drug deal, sniff a line of cocaine or squeeze through a tiny window to escape the enemy you have just spotted, you are out of luck. You have to ask the bar staff for permission to visit the Ladies or Gents and they will be buzzing in one person at a time.
If this idea from Paris catches on it won’t do much for the street cred of a crime boss or super spy to sit with Big Ted.
It was the dog she recognised first and even then she wasn’t sure it was him, without his red vest and his hair much longer. Vivienne was busy with the secateurs in the front garden, glad of the breeze and cooling of the weather. If she didn’t call out he would cross over to the corner and the moment would be lost.
He turned and looked, would he even recognise her out of context?
‘Wednesdays, noon, I always bought my Big Issue when I came out of the library after my class.’
‘Of course, how are you, fine by the look of it, me too.’
Vivienne was relieved, she had always felt slightly guilty at not offering him a home, a room at least, not that he was homeless exactly, but it sounded pretty grim the room he had in some place where you might get your stuff stolen and they were always being threatened with eviction. She could imagine James and Julia’s reaction if she had taken in a complete stranger and one wouldn’t know for sure if they were honest and then they might never leave. That was one good thing about the pandemic. All In, councils had to get everyone off the street, so she didn’t need to feel guilty about any homeless people, especially when she discovered she could subscribe to the Big Issue, get it through the post. The money still to go to Big Issue sellers who now needed help with mental health issues and loneliness and boredom, stuck in hotel rooms…. What would she say to Sam… thank goodness for dogs, always a conversation starter, Sheba, a shaggy friendly rescued dog.
‘She’s got a foster family, couldn’t have her in that hotel they put me up in. Now I’m allowed out I take her for a walk every day, access visit’ he laughed.
‘Sheba probably gets out more than me, I’ve got my divorced son living with me, polices my every move, though I guess he was right, the virus is so scary.’
Vivienne felt she had provided an explanation why the spare room could not be offered to Sam; even though there was now the worry about the homeless being put back out when hotels were back in business. The mention of divorce also made her feel more comfortable, her family, her life, was not cosily perfect; James could very well have ended up in the same position as Sam, they were much the same age, though it was hard to tell. She had no idea what Sam’s circumstances were, she didn’t like to intrude, he had his dignity and she could look up to him standing as a working person, not like walking past and trying not to look down at a bundle in the doorway.
‘What’s it like, the hotel?’
‘My own television, comfortable bed, three meals a day, some of the other guests though… I’m glad to get out and about, bit too hot the past few days…’
Vivienne looked at the over insulated dog, panting even in the cool breeze.
‘Would she like a drink?’
‘No, we’re right, Sheba’s been kitted out by the RSPCA’ he rummaged in his bag, produced a bottle of water and unfolded a dish. ‘New lead as well.’
She looked up the road, conscious that James was likely to come bowling down the road on his bike, back from his work break and daily exercise.
‘Well I must be going, I hope the library opens soon, maybe I’ll be back on my patch in July, before Sheba gets too soft and used to her foster home.’
He stepped out and crossed the road, narrowly missing James on his bike.
‘Who on earth was that Mother?’
‘My Big Issue man, you remember, I told you about him.’
‘Wednesdays, near the library, anyway at least he’s okay, for the moment, staying in a hotel.’
‘Nice to be some, you’re as bad as Cassie, she’s worried about her Big Issue girl, but you should be careful, how did he know where you lived?’
‘He didn’t, just coincidence, the dog’s foster home must be near here. It would be a shame if the poor dog didn’t want to go out on the streets, now she has enjoyed home comforts.’
‘Never mind the dog, the point is it could be dodgy, you don’t know him…’
‘I’m sure he’s not a burglar and he knows I’m not living alone,’ she decided to change the subject ‘anyway, talking of living alone, how’s Cassie, you haven’t said how the bubble idea is going.’
‘She’s not sure, thought she ought to ask that old lady next door to her if she wanted to be in her bubble, have her in for meals, make her feel less isolated.’
‘Oh that’s kind of her.’
‘Cassie already does enough, getting her shopping and stuff, anyway I shall find out this afternoon. I have to go in to the office again, all my plans up in the air now two metres distance has suddenly changed to one metre. Cassie has a few ideas, suggested chatting over the coffee machine. I can sign her in for half an hour.’
‘Well I suppose that will make a change from talking on line.’
Vivienne thought Cassie sounded like someone she would like and certainly an improvement on her first daughter-in-law, but what Cassie thought of James was another matter.
Being in lockdown, isolation, shielding, what ever you like to call it, life has been different for all of us, some more than others; suddenly working from home, or not working at all. Even those who already worked from home, were stay at home parents or retired, still went out and about. How many of us are asking ourselves what’s the point of going out to work, what’s the point of ever leaving home at all? Will there be people who join the true agoraphobics and never leave home again?
If you live on a country estate or an outback station in Australia you probably rarely leave home; it’s a very long way to your front gate. If you live in a city centre with all life on your doorstep in normal times, you did not need to go far. But if you are among the millions and millions who live in suburbs, going out and coming home again is the natural order of things. For generations people have been getting on the train to go ‘up to town’ to the office. Cities are full of offices, new towers of offices are still being built, but why? When I was very young I asked my father what he did at work and he said ‘write letters’. That sounded very boring so I vowed to avoid an office job and I have, apart from a temporary job when I did commute up to Waterloo station for a few months. I’m sure lots of important things go on in offices, but my little temping job involved chasing up orders that were never ready and seemed unlikely to ever get to where they were supposed to and apologising on the phone to the people that were not going to get them.
Whether you are a big or little cog in your company, we now know you can contribute from a lap top on the kitchen table. All those office blocks could be used to house key workers who at present cannot afford to live near their work and also waste hours commuting.
If the world of work has changed what about leisure and shopping? Will shopping have altered so much there will be no point? I haven’t actually been near a shop except the tiny pharmacy attached to our doctors to collect prescriptions. In our new restricted life even that has taken on an allure of adventure. But will shopping be an adventure or an ordeal now?
When our well known chain BHS, British Home Stores, collapsed, one commentator suggested it did not offer a focussed shopping experience, which is probably why I used to go there, I am an unfocussed shopper. The best buys are when you stop for lunch at a garden centre to break a long journey and end up buying a coat, new trainers and colourful kitchen items you didn’t know you needed. We did have a lovely shop in town that sold an array of colourful and very expensive items that made you want to throw out everything in your kitchen and start all over again. I only looked and didn’t actually buy anything, but they had a nice coffee shop upstairs, strewn with unhygienic cushions, where you could relax and check your social media or write. Where do writers go now?
Whether you enjoyed trying on endless clothes and sampling makeup, or browsing in the book shop before going to your knit and knatter group in that trendy LITTLE yarn shop, the shopping future looks bleak. I imagine only focussed shoppers will be allowed in, two at a time, no browsing, one way system, no turning back, straight to what they need and out again, no idling, no coffee and cake. Jumping casually on the bus, laden with bags of shopping, squashed in by people standing in the aisle, listening in to people’s conversations, observing strange people for your next short story? All that real life is gone; six people on board, strictly spaced out, wait for the next bus. You will be glad to get home and maybe never leave again, glad you have mastered on line shopping.
And what of the great tradition of visiting garden centres? As well as our travel adventures, we did visit our local centre regularly to actually buy plants, browsing through the reduced stands for ‘rescue plants’, wandering round the water features and overpriced gift section. Then there were the very popular two for one dinners on Thursday evening, masses of people, leaving Cyberspouse with his coffee while I made my final choice of plants. Yesterday’s email outlined the latest rules. Every adult must take a trolley so they keep track of numbers and the strange line ‘We prefer one child per adult and trolley’ … what if you haven’t got a child, do they hand them out along with gloves and gel or might you have to fit your six foot 35year old son in the trolley? I have had plants delivered by the greengrocer and have ordered some on line, but it’s not quite the same…
Are you planning to leave home any time soon? Can you see any point in going shopping?
Today I am once again a guest of Sally Cronin at Smorgasbord. In her current series she is sharing the bios of more than 150 of us who enjoy belonging in her café and bookstore, so don’t forget to drop in regularly.
There are over 150 authors in the Cafe and Bookstore and I wanted to keep it to key pieces of information such as buying links, recent review, website and covers. However, I know that readers also like to know more about the background of authors.
In this series during June and July I will share the bios of all the authors in the cafe in a random selection. I hope that this will introduce you to the authors in more depth and encourage you to check out their books and follow them on their blog and Twitter.
Meet Barbara Silkstone
Barbara Silkstone’s most current series is COLD CREAM MURDERS ~ GLOSSY LIPS, SMOKEY EYES ~ SOAP ON A ROPE ~ SUN SCREAM ~ LAVENDER TOES. And a bonus novella GRAMS’S CHRISTMAS BABY. This series will have at least 6 books when complete. The adventures take place in the imaginary burg…
Hurrah it’s the longest day of the year; but that doesn’t mean you cannot join in the fun if you are in the southern hemisphere. One of the features of the new WordPress BLOCKS, which not many people are aware of, is the fifth dimension, which only works twice a year at Solstice. Simply click on a picture and you can be transported to that place. A square picture will take you there in the present, a round picture will take you to the exact moment the photograph was taken. Got it? Just make sure you read the complicated WordPress instructions on how to return…
How did you get on? Tell us which was your favourite place.
Friday again; each week Cassie was more relieved when Friday evening arrived. She had James to thank for ensuring she drew a line under the working week. He insisted they Facetime early and put the week behind them, they were not being paid to work at weekends, it was already too easy to catch up with work in the evenings. She opened a new bottle of wine, a glass to share with James and a glass later to enjoy with dinner as she watched Gardener’s World. Is that what her life had come to? Doris had got her on to gardening programmes, but it was to relax and enjoy the calm that she tuned in, away from Covid news and work. If a few gardening tips penetrated her brain, that was a bonus.
Working from home suited Cassie, but motivating and organising her little team was another matter. James said she should not be carrying the others, but it was easier to do extra herself than worrying. No one had sent their children back to school, even the few who could were too worried, or could see no point in sending one child back and still have to look after the others. Having seen, or more often heard, children of various sizes bouncing off the walls during Zoom sessions she thought it a miracle anyone got any work done. And then there were those who had found themselves being full time carers for elderly parents.
But that was only a part of Cassie’s low feeling this evening. She had spent so long planning and executing a move to own a proper house, have a change of interests, slip out of Giles’ life; she had done all that very successfully, but now what? The promotion had been a means to an end and now she realised it could have been a mistake. Being in lockdown made people think too much; normal rushing to and from work, out and about socialising stopped people pondering the big questions like ‘What are we all here for anyway?’
Cassie’s aunt had brought her up to be independent and secure; with no family to fall back on and the fact that ‘you can’t depend on a man to look after you’ Cassie had always sought out secure jobs, not that any job was secure in the 21st century. Now she wondered if she should have thrown caution to the wind and gone travelling properly or taken up breeding llamas. Was it too late to try something completely different?
‘James, cheers… oh some pink stuff I got from the One Stop down the road. Any news, have you been in to work yet.’
‘The good news is I got the hire car for a month and I went in yesterday, the bad news is we are no further forward. We can’t even take all the people who don’t have to worry about kids or parents. Coming in on different days, sitting three desks apart, it’s no improvement on what we have already. The boss thinks we are all doing a grand job working from home, but he’s hardly in the zone, it’s only six weeks since his daughter died and his second in command is pretty useless.’
‘That’s so sad… and the other girl, no wonder morale is low in the company and everyone is nervous of coming back to work. They were both younger than us… me and in good health. I don’t know how people can crowd down to the beach or go on protests when they know people are still catching it and dying.’
‘Cassie, Cassie, let’s get off that subject, I wanted to ask you something.’
Of course, it filtered through to her brain that he now had access to transport; the ferry was still out of action, but it wouldn’t take long to drive the hire car the long way round and over the bridge. Was he going to ask where she lived, were postcodes something modern young women kept a secret? She had not dated since Giles, what were the rules? No, she was jumping the gun, he was just going to suggest she cycle down to MPJ when he was assessing the building, stand two metres apart by the coffee machine…
She tuned back in to what he was saying
‘…and Mother would love to have you round for dinner and of course I could come and see you properly, so what do you think, would you consider being in our Bubble?’
The only bubble that made sense to Cassie was the one she had created around herself and her home and she wasn’t sure she wanted anyone to burst it, or was that just what she needed to raise her spirits?
For some pre-Covid tales dip into one of my collections.
When my younger son was little he looked up at the black and white magpies in the tree and cried PENGUINS!
When I was working at Heathrow a new young chap started; his name was something like Fabrizio and he spoke with a strong Italian accent, of course everyone referred to him as ‘the new Italian bloke’. But he was furious to be called Italian, insisting he was English and had been kidnapped from England as a child and taken to Italy. As you might guess, he was the product of an unsuccessful mixed marriage.
Whether you are bird or human, how others perceive you may not be how you perceive yourself, but do we even know ourselves who we are and does it matter? We’re all human and if we all treated each other the same what a happy place the world would be. Alas that is unlikely to happen. In a previous incarnation, when we had moved to a new place – let us call it Dullsville – I turned up at the church hall for the mother and toddlers’ group. The church happened to be marooned at the end of a lane cut off when the motorway was built; a subway connected our side to what had been the rest of the old village. Anyone who has moved to a new area will know it’s like going to a new school – will anyone talk to you? They all sat in an imposing circle, mums, one granny and a dad, but I soon perceived there were two distinct groups; each side of the motorway regarded the other with suspicion.
We are all different and it would be a dull world if we were all the same. We are more different from each other than the clumsy groupings some would like to impose. Everyone has their own unique combination of DNA, culture, religion, origin and generation so why not celebrate our differences, pick out the positives in every group.
My Ancestry DNA test showed nothing exotic in my make up and only a fraction of a percentage possibly Jewish, but one of my mother’s many sayings was that the Jews must be God’s Chosen People because they are so good at everything, while my aunt said that Jewish folk seemed to have more hours in the day than everyone else. Pick a great musician, scientist or actor or perhaps a polymath good at all of those things and they will very often be Jewish; probably you wouldn’t know that because who you see on the stage or screen, who you listen to on the radio is an individual who is your favourite performer or an interesting scientist.
Every country and race has positive characteristics we recognise, whether their people are the backbone of the caring professions, natural musicians or the brains behind every electronic device we possess. But success in the modern world is not everything and we also need to recognise those who can help save the planet. The Aborigine in Australia, who has managed to stay connected to his ancestors, will understand more about nature and his ancient land than any scientist.
And how do we perceive ourselves? We can imagine what it is like to be someone else, writers do it all the time, but we still look out from one pair of eyes, inside the body that others see. Liberal thinking white men wrestle with the angst of not knowing what it is like to be another colour or to be a woman. While white British women, the only group I can claim to belong to ( and this is just my opinion and observation ) for generations have seen themselves as neutral, eager to embrace the more exotic by travelling or marrying for love into a family different ( and less boring! ) than their own. They embrace new recipes, colourful clothes, perhaps a new religion and look forward to giving birth to a designer mixed race child with Mediterranean olive skin and dark eyes or lovely Afro hair or adorable oriental features. What they do not dream of is their beloved child being treated as anything less than a unique individual equal to anyone else.
After Nelson was toppled from his column in Trafalgar Square and dunked in the fountains, the Prime Minister announced that all statues around the kingdom would be removed and replaced by more of the ubiquitous figures of Everyman created by Antony Gormley.
Angry protestors, objecting to Gormley’s exclusive use of the male human body and also the fact he is white and has been middle aged for a good while, gathered at the foot of his Angel of the North. On arrival they called for more supporters to help pull it down as it turned out to be much bigger than it looked when they were driving along the A1.
One art enthusiast gathered to protect the great work and point out that the Angel was androgynous, a heavenly not human body and had led a blameless life, so could not offend anyone.
After a petition on 38 Degrees, parliament passed a motion that all the now empty plinths would be filled with life size replicas of the Angel of the North. Buckingham Palace released a statement saying The Queen was delighted at the prospect of seeing The Angel when she looked out of her bedroom window and retiring Queen Victoria to the back garden.
Vivienne looked out of the bedroom window across the road, glad to see signs of life. The little boy in the corner house was outside again after the welcome rain, playing swing ball on the lawn. Since the family moved in a couple of years ago the house had been transformed, the noise of all the building work had been worth it and with the designer garden it was a welcome outlook in these restricted days. Young Freddy was an only child, she had felt sorry for him, such a quiet little thing, not like her grandson, but he seemed happy with his own company, playing, building tents and searching for wild life amongst the flowers and his father’s strange sculptures. She wondered if a grandparent or lost uncle would be added to their household to create one of these new bubbles, more confusing instructions from Boris. Well she couldn’t join a bubble, not with James living with her, you had to be living on your own; so still no chance of seeing Jason and Jacintha. Julia and Jack lived too far away to pop round with the twins and stand in the front garden. Even if she had been on her own who would they choose to share their bubble; she felt a stab of jealousy, probably one of Jack’s divorced parents, his lonely father or his needy mother. Unless they had both acquired new partners… Vivienne smiled to herself, she couldn’t be bothered to house train another man, even in the unlikely event of meeting someone. She imagined some dreadful man in his eighties wanting to try out Viagra, or even worse, a chap in his declining years searching for someone to look after him.
Over dinner it turned out James had his own idea about bubbles.
‘What would you think Mother about inviting Cassie to join our bubble?’
‘We haven’t got a bubble.’
‘No, but we could make one. Cassie hasn’t got any family, she’s new in the area, so perhaps she would be glad to visit us?’
Vivienne pictured having someone new to talk to, someone intelligent to chat with, not about geckos, but it sounded as if this on line girlfriend had plenty of other interests, including her new gardening adventures.
‘Or I could visit her.’
She wondered what her son had in mind exactly, how did on line dating work? It was not new, a few of her friends had had some hair raising adventures on line, or rather, when they went off line. James visiting Cassie would obviously give them privacy, surely he didn’t want his mother part of the bubble.
‘What does Cassie think?’
‘I haven’t mentioned it yet?’
‘Has she suggested you meet up in the open, now there are less restrictions?’
‘No, I sometimes think she prefers being on line, she has never exactly said where she lives. I only know it’s within cycling distance of work.’
‘And how would you get there with the ferry still being out of action, surely not on your bicycle?’
‘The boss was talking about a short term car hire. I shall have to go in to the office soon, if only to finish my assessment of who or if anyone can work in the building. Anyway, what about you Mum, you could go out a bit now. ’
‘A walk round the block is going to be my limit for a while yet, where would I go with everywhere closed ?’
‘It’s a pity you gave up driving so long ago.’
‘Because you could have borrowed my car?’
‘No, no of course not, so you would be independent.’
‘I was independent, near the town centre for my bits of shopping, meeting friends at that nice waterside restaurant, popping over on the ferry for a proper shopping day out and of course Suzanna was always happy driving me and Dee out and about on our little outings.’
‘Oh… yes, I’m sorry that must have been such a shock.’
‘…and most of us only finding out on the grapevine, Suzanna’s family didn’t know who all her friends were, not that we could have gone to the funeral. She was the fittest of all of us, the last one we expected to get Covid.’
For some pre-Covid tales, why not dip into one of my collections?
A second anthology from the author of ‘Dark and Milk,’ including recent prize winning short stories. As you would expect, some tales are light, others very dark and you will not know which are which until it is too late! Visit places you may or may not find on a map, discover the Hambourne Chronicles and meet people who may not be what they seem.
Like Japanese soldiers found hiding on remote Pacific islands decades after the Second World War, unaware the hostilities had ended, I fear I may emerge from isolation months in the future to discover everyone else has been out and about, holidaying and having fun. Scenes on the news of crowded beaches and beauty spots and anti racism protests, leave many of us wondering if we have missed a miraculous and sudden end to the pandemic.
One of my earliest memories is looking out of our upstairs window at sunshine and blue skies and feeling shut in. Until I was nearly seven, by which time my parents had a toddler and baby to cope with as well, Mum and Dad rented what they called a flat, but was really the spacious two top floors of a large Victorian terraced house. A quick glance on Zoopla reveals you would pay over a million and a quarter for such a house in that road today. But Mum had to lean out the kitchen window to hang the washing on a pulley line, suspended high above the back garden of the ‘wicked old lady’ ( mum’s words ) who lived on the ground floor. She never offered to let me play in her garden. But I certainly wasn’t a prisoner; my parents were always taking me down by the river or to Kew Gardens, Marble Hill Park and Richmond Park for fresh air and exercise. I feel so sorry for children literally locked into cramped flats because of the virus. Most children in England will not now return to school till after the summer holidays. While many are having fun and never had so many walks and bike rides with their parents, some children are isolated indoors because of their health or underlying health conditions of someone in their family.
We adults may grumble and some people have found themselves in dire situations, but we are not sheltering in a basement in a war shattered city. For writers, bloggers, artists and gardeners it’s just another day at home, an endless succession of days at home, but it’s okay. Obviously I could not survive without BBC Radio, books, music, the internet, television and of course chocolate.
When we were having our medical dramas just before lockdown, there was another patient who seemed to be following Cyberspouse from ward to ward. He had no visitors because he had a frail wife at home and no family near. I knew this because I heard all his conversations to medical staff and on his mobile, but his greatest upset was not having anything to read and nobody seemed able to get him a newspaper. When any medical staff asked how he was he told them he was soo bored. He was reduced to doing origami with the paperwork they left behind. By the third ward I made sure I brought him a newspaper and he was overwhelmed with gratitude. Boredom can be a worse threat than a pandemic.
What things have been essential for your survival in isolation?