I THINK IT’S ready, Ellie says. Her hair, pale, silky, swings over her face as she peers into the oven. You get the plates, Dad. You’ll need the oven gloves, Rob hears himself say, and she sighs, as he knew she would. No, really, I thought it would be more fun to get like sixth-degree burns and spend the next four hours screaming in agony in the waiting room at A and E. Fourth degree, he says, there’s nothing after that.
Fourth-degree burns go through skin and underlying tissue to muscle and bone, and are usually painless because the nerve endings are destroyed. You wouldn’t get them from picking up an oven tray. He doesn’t say that. Also, even under current conditions a child with fourth- or even third-degree burns would be seen immediately, though however bad the injury he’d drive her to hospital because ambulance response times are buggered. He doesn’t say that either. The oven gloves need a wash. Will you have my mushrooms and give me your olives, Ellie says, sliding the pizza perfectly competently from the tray to the plate, using the oven gloves to put the tray into the sink where it hisses a little. He likes olives. Of course I will, love, he says. It’s his weekend for giving her whatever she wants, except that they’ve only just swapped toppings, he’s only about to take the first bite, when his phone goes, and he knows before he looks, because it always happens when you don’t want it to – as well as sometimes when you do – which call it is, and he knows he could say no, you can always say no, and he knows he won’t, because you never do, not unless you’ve drunk too much to drive which he hasn’t because he never does, not these days. She looks at him, at the phone vibrating on the counter, threatening to jump, and he walks away from her as he picks it up.
the fourteen days
MATT STANDS BACK to the wall, on the corner, safety off and fingers on the trigger. He won’t see nightfall but he’s going to take Jake down with him if no one else. That fucker. The air around him sucks in, a change in pressure that’s also a sound, and then the bridge at the end of the street implodes gracefully, as if a black hole opened in the river below and pulled it in. Dust boils into the dimming sky. It’s never fully light here. You can never see far enough. There are no shadows to warn you of what’s coming – and here he is, right now; Matt takes aim, waits until the crosshairs are on his friend’s chest, pisses a stream of ammo into Jake as he feels his own strength fade.
He sits back, rolls his shoulders. The light’s changed. He really needs to pee. He’s hungry. He reaches for his phone and messages Jake. Later, yeah? Gotta go. He picks up the phone and on second thoughts leaves it on his desk. It doesn’t have to be in the same room as him, not all the time. He’s not dependent. There’s something weird going on with his neck when he stands up. He winces, stretches until stuff clunks.
It’s when he comes downstairs that he realises he’s the only one in the house. The cat’s sitting on the stairs, waiting, the way that she does when there’s nothing going on. He’s always thought it would be useful at school, to be able to switch yourself off like that, to be either so deep in thought that the total lack of event in your immediate environment is hardly noticeable or so dim that it doesn’t bother you, not that being dim seems to help people tolerate school. When he used to leave in the mornings he often wanted to swap with the cat, spend the day dozing and eating and trotting off to menace other cats in the garden, let the cat sit through assembly and Maths, see how long it takes anyone to notice. There’s a stillness in the house he hasn’t known for weeks, a sense of space that used to be normal after school or if Mum was out in the evening, the place to himself to play his music and fry eggs and cheese sandwiches and sometimes boxes of frozen burgers from the village shop without her on at him to open the windows and wash up before he’s even eaten and she doesn’t understand how he can not think about the cows and the workers in the abattoir who all get PTSD because you would, wouldn’t you, killing animals all day, not to mention if people didn’t eat meat we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place and can’t he at least put the extractor fan on. Hope rises for a moment, that he can maybe at least make a toastie and put some music on, not that he can’t do those things when she’s around but he could do them better, more peacefully, if she’s out, though of course she can’t be out, not even for a walk, not for another six days, seven hours and twenty minutes. Give or take. The fourteen days, he heard her ask on the phone, what time does it end, is it noon or midnight or from when I last saw my colleague, which would have been about five o’clock on Thursday? She’ll be in the garden, must have managed to go out there and get on with something instead of wandering in and out the way she has the last few days, starting what she calls tidying up only the effect is more like messing up and five minutes later stopping to water the plants or put the wash on but not finishing anything and then she can’t find the watering can because she left it on the windowsill, and she put the laundry in the machine two days ago but didn’t start it so now they’re out of towels and she can’t have a bath, which is what she used to do to relax when she was all wound up after a gig or tired after a long shift at the café. Use a dirty one, he said, having never really seen why towels that by definition have been used only to dry newly washed skin can be dirty. You don’t have a bath and then use a dirty towel, she said, and anyway we don’t have money to waste on the hot water, it doesn’t matter. He started the machine – they’re low on washing powder – and decided he’ll just deal with the laundry himself for now. He saw her out by the shed before breakfast yesterday, skipping, like with an actual skipping rope, one he vaguely remembers from years ago with blue-painted smiley-face handles, still in her pyjamas and no socks with her trainers, hair and – other things – bouncing, and she kept getting it wrong, tangling and tripping, until she threw the rope across the patio and thumped her own head with her fists. He knew when the call came that he’d be fine, two weeks of lie-ins and gaming, no sweat, not as if the weather this time of year makes you want to go out anyway even if there was anywhere to go, and he knew it would be harder for her but you don’t expect, he didn’t expect, to see your mum basically losing it, hours spent pacing from the front gate through the house to the bottom of the garden and back, followed by the cat who is interested by people coming in and going out and apparently gratified to have the process on repeat. Try an on-line workout, he said, I’ll help you move the coffee table. You could make bread, couldn’t you, or try knitting again. I know, she kept saying, I know, I should, I just can’t bear – I don’t think I’ve ever spent a whole day inside in my life. You must have done, he said, you’ve been ill, haven’t you? What about when I was born? But neither of them can remember her being ill, not enough to stay in bed, and she says that actually she spent most of her labour with him under an apple tree in the garden of Dad’s parents’ house, that it was helpful to hang on to the branches. Yeah, he said, ew, thanks Mum, so do some more gardening, you know you’re allowed in the garden as long as you don’t come within two metres of the neighbours and they won’t be out there this time of year. I know, she said, I’m making a fuss, I just find this really hard, I knew I would. Not, he thought, as hard as getting sick, not as hard as Deepak’s dad who was in Intensive Care for three weeks or the grandparents of kids in his class who’ve died this year or his Maths teacher who’s back at work but can’t get enough breath for a sentence half the time, compared to that doing the garden instead of going up the fells is actually quite manageable, so how about he games and she does yoga in the garden and they hope neither of them starts with the fever and loss of taste and smell. He takes the mustard from the fridge, opens the jar to make sure he can still smell it, which he can even though there’s barely a scrape left. He’s going to make that toastie, and if she comes in and starts on about washing up and not eating everything when they can’t get to the shops he’ll just make one for her, quarter it on a plate with a sliced apple the way she likes, say nothing. There are crumbs underfoot, he can feel them sticking to his socks. He’ll even sweep the floor, once he’s eaten. He butters the last few slices of bread, finds there isn’t really enough cheese either but it’ll have to do, sets the pan to warm and goes up to get his phone for something to look at while he eats.
Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Moss