Is getting back to normal life post Covid realistic? Are we Post, what is reality and what is normal life? No, don’t know and goodness knows…
Pandemics, epidemics and natural disasters have been normal for humans since we started wandering around, or at least wandering around in large numbers. Natural disasters were not disastrous before there were human settlements to destroy. Unless you were a dinosaur; even for them, getting back to normal life after a meteorite collision was never going to happen. Even Gaia was probably upset with giant meteors, just when she thought she controlled everything.
But for those of us who thought we were leading a privileged, or at least comfortable safe life before Covid, getting back to normal is what we both crave and fear. Some of us cannot have our old life back, while others are glad of the opportunity to start a new normal. Few of us believe our leaders have handled the crisis well all the way along. Every nation and state seems to have had different rules and while England is rapidly dispensing with restrictions ( I think, unless it’s all changed again ), on the other side of the world ‘Saint Mark’, Premier of Western Australia Mark McGowan, continues to try to protect the citizens of the Hermit Kingdom from Covid and the outside world.
‘In Western Australia, where there has never been a major Covid outbreak, Mr McGowan warned WA residents more restrictions could be implemented as new infections rise. With the state’s grand February 5 reopening now shelved indefinitely, tourism companies on the west coast will be unable to benefit when the rest of Australia flings open their doors to foreign tourists on February 21.’
Of course it helps when your state is bordered by ocean and desert with only two roads in. Life has carried on more or less as normal. I don’t think people have been prevented from leaving, but they might not be able to get back in.
So where is normal life happening? The fewer restrictions the more worried are the hierarchy of the vulnerable. Clinically Extremely Vulnerable at the top perhaps, CEV a term to distinguish from those merely immunocompromised? However people are classified and however many jabs they have had – we’re up to four now – those worried about their health or their loved one’s health are still sticking to Zoom meetings, shopping on line and isolating.
But going back to normal is not good for the planet. However heart breaking this pandemic has been, Covid will not reduce the population enough to save Gaia, or rather keep her safe for us to live on. Have most of us forgotten we are meant to be saving the planet, have we forgotten how sweet the air was during that first world lock down, when streets were empty of polluting vehicles and people saw mountains from their city windows for the first time?
The new normal is unlikely to be a return to the simple life, or a rapid scientific breakthrough to heal Gaia while keeping our lifestyles. So it’s back to reality, unless you want to hide from reality with all the new skills you learnt during lockdowns. Have a pyjama day and hide under your duvet watching Netflix and ordering delicious meals from Deliveroo.
She stared out at the open hills, a view that would have made this the perfect holiday cottage, but this was no holiday, it was a living hell that she could never have imagined days ago.
A safe house, safe from who or what? Him, the press, everyone she did not want to see? How could she ever face anyone again? They would know about him and assume she was the ‘woman in her thirties’ arrested and then released.
She was almost glad to have been arrested, penance for the crime of being married to him. She had committed a worse crime, a sin against nature, giving birth to his children, his evil genes in their every cell, her sweet innocent children tainted for ever.
After a night in foster care they had been reunited and all of them bundled off to some remote part of Wales. They were still asleep, it was only 6 am. What would she tell them, they had only just started back to school, happy to get back to normal life. She couldn’t even pretend they were back to home schooling with no internet and all their school things locked in the crime scene. Not that their home was where the crime had taken place.
Surely any happily married wife would assume her husband was innocent, some awful mistake. But the police seemed so chillingly certain. She asked the family liaison officer to tell it to her straight as each bit of new evidence rolled in. Now it occurred to her that this was all part of a plan. She was a prisoner here and they were just waiting for her to break, give up trying to pretend she knew nothing.
Nothing was all she knew. One always imagines the wife must have known something, how could you live with a murderer and not know. If she had any suspicions it was that he was seeing someone else, his odd working hours the perfect cover. She had once been the someone else. His first wife left him, she had never met the woman, but did she leave him for more than adultery? What would she be thinking now, relief or guilt because she had discovered some aberration and got out quick?
No, their life had been normal, he wasn’t one of those super dads like her friends were married to; every weekend off to the park, baby strapped on their manly chests, toddler in one hand and the lead of the labradoodle in the other. But that didn’t make him a murderer.
Suicide, was that the only bearable way out? Or a new life on the other side of the world, new names, children told nothing, children told to never tell anyone anything; but murderer’s blood would still be in their veins. She could kill them, like that Greek tragedy, the worst punishment she could think of for the man she now hated. For the first time in her life she knew what true hatred was, a hatred so strong she could contemplate killing her own children. But she would be punishing herself, them, their grandparents… her mind was rambling now, his parents, thank goodness they weren’t alive to see this day, Covid had turned out to be a blessing for them. Slaughtering his children would not be a punishment for him, had he ever cared about his wife or children, how could a man that took an innocent life have any feelings?
There would be a support group somewhere, she would ask about it, support for wives and children of murderers the only people she could ever talk to.
The family liaison officer appeared carrying two mugs, young, probably her first case.
‘We need to talk while the children are still asleep, there’s more I need to tell…’
Before the young woman could finish her sentence there was the sound of pattering feet, strange on the wooden staircase.
‘Mummy, Mummy, are we on holiday, what are we going to do today, is Daddy going to come soon?’
Cassie stood on the small jetty apart from the others and tried to think clearly. At Christmas she could never have imagined March would find her on a deserted Scottish island, leaving behind pandemic lockdown England, leaving behind a secure job and home in a busy town. In the two months of careful preparation she had anticipated this moment and the challenges the next year or so held. What she had not expected was to encounter a problem even before they had stepped off the boat. The spiral of domestic smoke drifting against the clear sky signalled that they were not the first to set foot on this island for over a year. They had been told that no one had lived on the island for decades.
She turned questioningly to Sam and was surprised to hear a chuckle rising in his throat that soon turned to laughter. The skipper still had one foot on his boat, a reminder that the break in the weather was not going to last and he was staying only long enough for them to get their kit unloaded. Sam’s dog was already exploring the beach.
‘Why did none of us think of this? How many people with a boat might take the opportunity to escape the pandemic and enjoy the freedom of a desert island. There’s hundreds of uninhabited islands and who’s to stop them?’
Cassie found herself joining in Sam’s amusement, though her laughter was tinged with hysteria.
‘You mean some millionaire has their luxury yacht moored round the other side of the island?’
‘A millionaire would be happy to stay on his yacht and not need to escape to an island’ butted in Sam’s son.
‘Could be refugees from England who arrived in a rubber dingy’ said Sam.
They all turned to the skipper, who hadn’t uttered a word yet.
‘Well dinae look at me, I hae not set foot on this island fer five years and it were a godforsaken place then. None of yer fancy scientists’ projects ever came to anything. I told you I’ll give you a month afore yo’re wantin to come off. Now are you goin to come back wuth me or will youse get to know your new neighbours?’
As Carrie heard herself saying ‘Of course we’ll stay, we’ve come this far…’ Sam spoke up.
‘I shall be staying, I’ve nothing to lose, but Cassie and Lucas have to decide for themselves.’
His son laughed. ‘I’ll not give Ma and the auld man a chance to crow over our failure, I’m staying Dad.’
Cassie felt doubts creeping in before the skipper had even cast off. How would an office worker, a homeless scientist and a teenager cope if the inhabitants did not want them to stay? But as she tried to look nonchalant carting her one woman tent onto the beach she was confronted by a naked man stepping from behind a rocky outcrop. An arm appeared from behind the rock handing him a towel, but he was in no haste to cover himself up.
‘Can’t a couple come down for their daily swim in peace and who the hell are you lot?’
Behind him a heavily pregnant young woman was having difficulty protecting her modesty as her towel flapped in the wind. Whoever these people were, thought Cassie, island life must have made them tough if they could stroll naked down to the beach and contemplate getting in the cold sea.
Lucas had a broad grin on his face as he dropped his heavy kit bag in the sand; safely on dry land he had recovered from his sea sickness. Mocking their English accents he exaggerated his own Scottish baritone.
‘We’re supposed to be here and youse are not, but it seems you are weell settled. Is it jus the twae of youse or nearly thrae?’
‘Just us, we ate the others.’
‘Only joking, I’m Jack and this is Alice, come on up to the croft. I hope you have tents, there’s not much room, but Alice will be glad to have the company of another woman, especially when her time comes.’
Alice had not offered her opinion yet and Cassie had the horrendous thought she might be expected to deliver a baby, she knew nothing about childbirth and had no desire to find out. As they followed Jack, Sam was unfolding their official map of the island.
‘You won’t be needing that, we know every foot of this place.’
Lucas was full of questions, including what food supplies they might have as his appetite had returned.
In the tiny croft they were all grateful for a cup of tea and Cassie relished the smoky taste. Jack let them explain their plans before launching in to a colourful tale of how he and Alice came to be there.
‘…so that was the end of our sailing round the world avoiding the pandemic, the boat just about made it to this island and at least we had the charts and the radio so we knew where we were, even if nobody else does. I realised I had been here before when I was at uni., trying to set up a bird watching project.’
‘But could you charge your phones up and all that’ said Cassie vaguely.
‘For a brief while, till all the boat’s batteries were drained, but there’s no internet access here anyway.’
‘But we are supposed to keep in touch with base and do Zoom meetings’ said Cassie.
Alice came to life at this point and laughed. ‘Cassie the city girl, hey are you two together?’
‘Yes, no… we haven’t known each other long and yes I guess I am a city girl, but I don’t like shopping and I’m a bit of a loner, so I knew I could do this. There are more groups coming when they’ve done their isolation, we were worried Lucas would be bored or lonely.’
‘Well he won’t find any Girl Fridays here,’ laughed Jack ‘but he won’t be bored. We three chaps have got a lot of work to do, fix the boat, build some more crofts. And plenty for Cassie, do you know how to butcher a sheep, not that I’m saying the girls have to do all the cooking…’
‘What… sheep, no, I mean I can cook, but we are getting supplies every few weeks…’
Lucas laughed. ‘I can shoot and butcher venison, so sheep no problem, but is this island supposed to have sheep?’
‘All that’s left from past inhabitants I guess, we’re doing them a favour, keeping the population down, same as you do with your deer on the estate.’
Cassie wanted to get out of the croft, wanted to talk to Sam on his own, it was hard to take everything in.
Sam winked at her then turned to the others. ‘Me and Cassie are just going to check on the dog, you show Lucas where we might set up camp.’
Outside they wandered down a narrow track between rocks and heather, Sheba nosing ahead, looking at home already.
‘We’ll be okay Cassie, we wanted an adventure, we can still carry on with the project same as we would have done and we’ll get our own croft built, there’s certainly enough rocks around. This is real life, no more working for MPJ, no more lockdown.’
‘I keep wondering if we have been set up, are there TV cameras hidden, like one of those awful reality shows that I never watch?’
‘Could be worse, like one of those horror movies where everyone ends up eating each other… hey it won’t be long till the boat comes again and here we are, we’ve really done it.’
Cassie stood as near as she could to the bow of the boat without getting tangled in rope and other mysterious equipment, eager to catch a first glimpse of the island. The wind took her breath away, the sea spray stung her face, but she did not want to return to the tiny cabin that smelled of diesel fumes; she had soon discovered that looking straight ahead and gulping fresh air was the only way to avoid sea sickness.
Now as the clouds cleared to reveal blue March skies she wanted to savour every moment, every view as the skipper slowed the boat and curved round to follow the shoreline. Cassie held no illusions that the sun would always shine on this uninhabited Scottish Island, but she hoped the sunny welcome was a good omen. Beside her Sheba roused herself and pointed her nose towards land, the dog would be as glad as the rest of them to step on dry land. Her owner, Sam, had gone to the back of the boat to check on his son, who had spent most of the one hour trip hanging over the back of the boat being sick. They had laughed at her this morning, nibbling on dry toast as they tucked in to a full cooked Scottish breakfast.
As the tiny landing stage came into sight, this day felt like childhood Christmas and the start of school summer holidays rolled into one. No more work, no more lockdown, just freedom. Of course she would never have been doing this if it weren’t for Covid. Cassie had been happy moving to a new town, happy living alone in her new house, coping fine with lockdowns and working from home, but she had realised she did not want to spend the rest of her life working for MPJ, or even another year.
The decision to accept the job as wardens of an island they had never heard of was easier for Sam, he had nothing to lose, no home, no job and little prospect of either in the midst of the crippling pandemic. What he did have was his science degree and a few old contacts he had managed to resurrect. The board of the island project had seen past his lack of CV to the fortitude that had seen him survive life on the streets and pull himself out of homelessness. The challenges he had faced living rough would stand him in good stead to cope with the complete lack of twenty first century amenities.
Cassie had no family to leave behind; her home was now rented out to one of the women in MPJ’s homelessness project, who had been touchingly delighted to be entrusted with Cassie’s two geckos. Cassie hardly qualified as a nature warden, or science expert, but her work skills would enable her to do the admin and communications side of things. They would not be cut off from the rest of the world, there would be regular Zoom meetings with the scientific team heading the project. But the three of them would be alone on the island; they had been tested and retested and declared Covid free. No one had even set foot on the island for over a year so their environment would be pure and safe. They themselves were an experiment of sorts, though other small teams could be sent later on.
Lucas had his mother’s and stepfather’s consent to come with them and he would be useful, but he was free to leave if he got too bored or lonely. He had pointed out that most teenagers had been bored and lonely in lockdown this past year. His mother was glad he would be well away from all her perceived dangers of teenagers roaming in towns and assumed after a few weeks he would be wanting to return to the highland estate home he had run away from.
It was beautiful; rocky shores and steep cliffs had given way to white beaches and the calm waters of the little cove belied the fact that rough weather often made any boat trips impossible. The next delivery of supplies could not be relied on. Sam reappeared to help the skipper tie the boat up. Cassie kept well out of the way, but as she looked up at the rugged island she spotted something against the clear blue sky; one single gentle spiral of smoke from the centre of the island. A welcome domestic sight in any other setting, but how could this be on their secret uninhabited island?
Lonely in Lockdown? No need to be, the new Minister for Fun, when interviewed today, said there was no need for people to be lonely in Lockdown just because they are not allowed to see real people, they can make new friends. You can make new friends out of anything and on the government website you can see some suggestions – here is a sneak preview.
The little girl stood on tiptoe and peered over the stout cliff top fence at the sparkling blue sea.
‘I wish I could go in the sea Mummy.’
‘It’s much too cold.’
‘But there are people swimming in the sea.’
‘Beach Bubble people are used to it, you wouldn’t like the horrible salty water going in your mouth, Sally, the swimming pool is much better for swimming.’
The sun shone in Sally’s eyes, taking her to a dreamland. The sun warmed her face. She loved being up on the cliff top, but now she was tall enough to see over the fence she could not stop asking questions.
‘I wish I could go on the beach, what is sand like, Mummy?’
‘Horrible, you can’t walk on it properly, the wind blows it in your mouth.’
‘Well the Beach Bubble people look like they are having fun playing in the sand.’
‘That’s because they have nowhere else to play. You wouldn’t like to live down there, especially in winter.’
‘Why don’t we live down there?’
‘Because we’re the Cliff Clan, we live up here and they live down there.’
‘Why can’t we visit them?’
Sally’s mother sighed. ‘How many times have I explained darling, we have to keep separate; them, us, the Forest Folk, T’othersiders, Town Team, City Crowd… You sing that song at school, you should know by now, but there are more bubbles than even I can remember. Besides, we don’t need to visit them, we can meet them all on Zoomtime.’
‘Tell me what it was like when you were six.’
Sally’s mother smiled at her daughter, the child never tired of her stories.
‘Well we couldn’t go to school, no one could come to our house and when we went outside we had to wear a great big hot suit and a very heavy helmet. But we hardly went outside because there was nowhere to go; the shops had all closed down before I was born.’
‘How did you get your food?’
‘Once a week a helicopter flew over our road and dropped a great big crate on a parachute. My Daddy was very important as he was in charge of unpacking the crate and making sure each house got their box of rations. Out the door he would go in his suit with his air tank and mask and yellow gloves, then deliver each box to the doorsteps. So you see how lucky you are.’
‘And I only have to have an injection once a year?’
‘Yes, we had to have a great big needle in our bottom every four months, when the yellow van came round with the scary robodocs to give us our medicheck.’
Sally squealed in horrified delight.
‘How come we have real people doctors, what happened to the robodocs?’
‘I’ll tell you about that when you are older. Now do you know what Daddy and I have planned for your sixth birthday treat tomorrow? We’re all going on the train.’
‘The train, the real goods train with the special carriage on the back?’
‘Yes, we have lucky tickets to ride in the observation saloon.’
‘Where are we going to go?’
‘Wait and see.’
The next morning Sally tripped happily ahead of her parents as they walked to Cliffton Station. She had never been inside the old building, let alone stood on the platform. From the footbridge they often watched the long solar powered train glide silently into the station to deliver supplies for the Cliffton shops.
Standing on the platform, the train looked much bigger and they had to help Sally up the steps into the carriage. They said hello to the other passengers, who all knew it was Sally’s birthday, everyone knew each other in Cliffton and they were happy to let Sally’s family have the best seat facing the viewing window at the end of the carriage. They glided smoothly out of the station looking backwards down the long snaking line. The platform passed by, they went under the bridge, houses disappeared into the distance, then suddenly it went dark. Sally gripped her parents’ hands.
‘It’s okay,’ said Daddy ‘we’re just going through the tunnel, leaving Cliffton and going into the forest.’
Sally stared as if her eyes would pop out, so many trees and then an open field, people were waving at the train, others were riding horses. The little girl was excited to be going somewhere new at last. The train started to slow down and a platform slid alongside as they stopped. A sign said Forest Halt.
‘Are we getting out here?’
‘No, no, they’re just dropping off supplies for the Forest Folk.’
The train started again and Daddy pointed left at a huge stretch of flat water with colourful boats floating idly.
‘Lakeland, where your Aunty Kate lives.’
Soon the train stopped again at a lovely little building covered in flowers.
‘Can we get out here and visit Aunty Kate?’
‘No darling, but you can tell her on Zoomtime we have seen her station, she’s the station master and plants all these lovely tubs and baskets of flowers.’
All too soon the train gathered speed, the lake was left behind and they went through another tunnel. The scenery began to look familiar; Sally thought she glimpsed a flash of blue sea in the distance, then more and more houses appeared and very soon platforms slid alongside them. Sally felt a catch in her throat and her eyes welled up; even before she saw the sign she realised where they were.
‘Here we are ‘ said Daddy in a jolly voice ‘home again.’
Sally looked up at the yellow and blue sign ‘Welcome to Cliffton-on-Sea’.
Susan switched on her ageing ipad, checked the time, pressed the Facetime link and the familiar face appeared.
‘Hello Mother, how are you, what have you been up to this week?’
His greeting never varied and each week she would rehearse fascinating snippets of news and intelligent comments on world events. But when it came to the moment her mind went blank; there was not a lot to tell and even less that Guy and his family would be interested in.
Three little faces popped in and out of the screen, mostly upside down. Her son adjusted the camera so she could see her three grandsons tackling their new assault course; the latest ploy by their mother to direct some of their cooped up energy. Bouncing off the walls took on a new meaning in their confined home, it was so hard for parents not to be able to take them out.
The assault course was such a success they could not be prised away to come and talk to her; after nearly a year it was only natural that little ones would not be interested, they had their own lives now. It was a marvel that she could see and hear them so easily, across so many miles, but she found herself envying instead of pitying her sister with the daughter from hell. The girl had turned up back home a year ago, with three children from different fathers and no money and had not left until it was too late to leave.
Susan was proud of her son and all he had achieved and admiring of her daughter-in-law who had adapted so well to their strange new life, but the two further years until his posting was up seemed interminable.
Who would have thought when Guy was so young, devouring books about space and science in preference to children’s stories… perhaps it was not such a surprise, but obsession was not enough, he had the brains and ambition to achieve his dreams. Still she could not quite believe that her son was leader of the first Moon colony, IMC, International Moon Colony. Seeing the boys now, totally adapted to zero gravity, screeching with delight as they crawled along the curved ceiling of their living quarters, belied the cold fear she felt that this was a remote risky venture that only grown men should be attempting.
‘Grandma, Grandma, we can see you now.’
The camera panned round to the large porthole, through which she could see the Earth beginning to rise. It was a beautiful sight that she was privileged to see and as her grandsons floated and jostled around the porthole it was some comfort that they knew where they had come from, where they belonged.
I logged in on my dashboard computer – Friday 15th January 2040. I was getting a new work experience person today. It didn’t matter what day of the week they started, we worked seven days a week and every day was the same, though today was going to be rather different. Their name was Hope, sixteen years old, no idea if they would be a boy, girl or other, I would have to wait and see how or if they self identified. Dressed in biohaz suits it was difficult to tell, so it didn’t much matter. What sort of name was Hope; parents must have been optimistic, must have been optimistic in the first place to have a baby in 2024.
‘Good morning Hope, welcome to the team, what the hell made you want to try this job?’
‘To get away from home, get outside.’
‘They all say that, outside’s not all it’s cracked up to be, every day’s much the same, but I have to tell you we have an NR7 to deal with first today, did they tell you about that in your on line induction?’
‘Nope, don’t think so, wasn’t really listening…’
‘I thought not, well you can back out now, it might not be very nice.’
‘No way, I’d have to go to the back of the jobs queue.’
‘NR7 means No Response for seven days, weekly food parcel still on front path and housebot has set off the alarm – no signs of life detected. We have to go in, it’s almost certain resident is dead, probably of old age.’
‘Whaat…’ came the gruff exclamation through their mask voice box.
‘I’ve seen a few cases. Rich relatives paid or bribed for them to be exempt from the euthanasia programme, unkindest thing they could have done, but I guess years ago they thought this would all be over and Granny would come round for tea again.’
‘Why would you want your Granny to come round, when you could see her on Omegazoom?’
‘So she could play with her grandchildren… oh never mind, let’s get on with this. According to our records all her family predeceased her, otherwise they would have notified us that she was not responding.’
Hope gazed out of the window of my solar powered vehicle as we turned into the ‘Granny’s’ street.
‘I’ve never been down a street before, we live in a tower block, those gardens look so pretty, how do they get them all the same?’
‘Gardenbots, programmed to create the sort of garden the average person wants to look out on. Ah, here we are, Click and Collect food box still out on the front path, regulation two metres from the front door. Only time residents are allowed out; to click on the box, collect it and take it indoors, but obviously you know all that.’
‘Yes, I always volunteer to go out in the corridor and collect ours.’
‘NR7 is the only time we are allowed to enter a private home, I had to sign out the entry device, let’s hope it works.’
I pointed and pressed the button and it showed entry code overridden. I pushed at the front door, but it didn’t give easily; we soon saw why and I thought my other half had a lot of pot plants. It was like a jungle, not that I have ever seen a jungle. Through the leaves emerged a four foot angular housebot. It was no use asking it what had happened, one of the outdated models that didn’t speak, programmed only for house maintenance, not companionship. It didn’t need to speak, I knew at this very moment it would be signalling back to base, alien human life detected. I quickly tapped my wrist phone to register with base my arrival here.
‘Okay Hope, I’ll go first into each room, starting with the front room.’
Obviously the housebot was programmed to stay out of the little old fashioned sitting room; in the corner was the skeleton of a tree, beneath it a carpet of dead pine needles and under that thick dusty layer could just be discerned some grey shapes that had once been Christmas parcels.
Hope pointed in horror as if this might be the body we were looking for.
‘What is thaat?’
‘It was once a Christmas Tree.’
‘Before your time, a relic from the last Christmas of 2020.’
I felt a lump in my throat. I remembered that last Christmas. We never did go round to Granny’s to have a ‘proper Christmas when things are better’ – it seems I was not the only child who didn’t get Granny’s presents that year.
We moved through the kitchen, all neat and tidy; the housebot would have cleared away any clues as to when the resident had last eaten. Out in a little conservatory was another housebot free area, the plants had run riot and on a table covered in cobwebs, a closer inspection revealed a half built Lego set, like I used to play with. But the smiling faces of the Lego people could not be seen under the thick coat of dust.
‘Wouldn’t she have been a bit old to be playing with Lego?’
‘I imagine that was the last time her grandchildren came round, she left the Lego out ready for them to play with next time, but next time never came.’
But Hope wasn’t listening, they had wrenched open the filthy patio door to gaze in wonder at the back garden and it was a wonderful display of colour to cheer us up. The rich relatives must have paid out an endowment long ago for a personal gardenbot.
Reluctantly I lead the way upstairs, the worst part of our job was still to come. I pushed open the bedroom door and there she was, lying tucked up in bed, the blank Omegazoom screen at an easy to see angle beside her. I wondered when was the last time she had spoken to anyone on the screen.
‘Well Hope, you should get your parents to check in to the home bidding, there will be a house and garden available in a week or so.’
‘Do you think we stand a chance, a real garden I could go out into?’
‘Tell them to get in quick before everyone else hears about it.’