I’m sick of the news by the time I leave the house. The Queensway had never sounded so sweet. Cars rush past and I keep going. I jog on and listen to the arpeggio of tin-tramples that take me up onto the bridge. The swoosh of vehicles can be the sea when you’re not looking down. Autopilot is the sweetest vehicle of disassociation, though I’m always grounded by my own unpunctuality. I’ll be late to my own funeral, Mum says.
Liz takes great joy in constantly remarking on how fit I must be “with all that running” and then spritzing the air behind my back with the sickly vanilla body spray that she knows I know she keeps in the top drawer of her desk. If I have time, I’ll loiter in the main entrance for a few minutes to smother any evidence of breathlessness; try to choke down gasps by the vending machine and dab away the sheen of sweat on my forehead with a shirt sleeve.
I’m galloping down the stairs at the other side of the bridge, levelling with the noise of the traffic, and checking my phone just to ensure that any malingering escapism is not so much punctured as impaled by reality. I’ve done something to my arm. I can feel it, a pain sludging down from my shoulder as I turn into a street of houses like uneven teeth. Other people, looking dazed and resigned in the November half-light, are getting into their cars for work.
It’s pulsing down from my neck, on the left side. I think back to leaving the house, and then rewind further - it was definitely like this when I woke up. A gnawing pain, disconcerting in its constancy. It must be something to do with the way I’m sleeping.
Even pouring out the cereal this morning had been an effort. Then fastening the buttons on my shirt, then trudging downstairs. Grandpa had been dozing in his chair with the news thrashing on in the background. He should have ‘do not disturb’ tattooed on his forehead. I always throw a token ‘morning’ his way anyway.
Water, kettle, oats, and milk. The semi-skimmed had been out on the counter. Robbie must have neglected to return it to the fridge. I used it, watched it slosh into my bowl and soil the oats, and then put it back in the same place on the worksurface. I waited for the microwave to ping. I watched the disk go around and round.
When I went upstairs, Robbie was on the landing, fresh and listless and trailing a plume of steam behind him. He’d been in the shower without opening the window, again. The wallpaper was starting to blister and curl at the edges, so that wherever you moved in the room something rotten was smiling in your peripheral vision. I was starting to think it might be a decorative preference on his part.
“You left the milk out.”
I shut my bedroom door and burned my mouth with shovels of tea and hot porridge, distracting myself from my arm by thinking about how irritating the way Robbie dried his hair was. He scratched his scalp with the towel like he was trying to populate the rest of the street with nits.
I switched the news on. Clicked ‘Update Later’ for the hundredth time on my laptop. Remembrance Day. Test and Trace expansion. 40th Anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh’s tax evasion.
I scrolled twitter. It felt sort of shameful. I know it’s a cesspit.
The Venn diagram of poppy shaggers who abuse James Mclean for refusing a poppy and people who refuse to wear face masks is a circle.
If you don’t respect the sacrifices others made for you gtfo my feed. Seriously, unfollow me now...
#BBCBreakfast 2 mins silence even more poignant this year with no veterans but glad pm will be tehre as usual.
I’m not a creep, so I went through my whole timeline before getting to Anisha’s latest retweets.
Never forget that the Poppy Appeal is sponsored by the arms trade!!!
Then she’d reposted a poem. Flanders Fields. For balance, I assumed.
I didn’t post anything. I rarely tweet, and when I do my powers of articulation don’t usually extend beyond a retweet of a particularly charming Police Scotland Alsatian, alternatively titled “insidious state apparatus” by Martin, who thinks I’m part of ‘the problem’.
Even my profile photo is from a few years ago, all zippy eyed and merrily dishevelled at Transmit, squinting into the camera in the white sunshine. Martin says I’m affecting an air of superiority that isn’t valid by refusing to contribute to the platform while still exposing myself to the brainwashing of cyber-capital. My usual response is that it’s mystery, not superiority, that I am cultivating. I think this sounds better than telling him I have nothing to say.
I let the briskness melt out of my stride on the home stretch of the hospital car park. I’m fixed on the main entrance when a car horn beeps at me. I twist my neck to face it and, in an opportune gift from fate, also establish for certain that the pain is definitely spreading from somewhere in my neck. A dull sting drips down into my wrist. It’s Liz in her red Clio. I raise an apologetic hand and she rolls her eyes, smiling at her own magnanimity, and motions me along. I imagine lying down on the ground and refusing to move and then think better of it.
At the main entrance I put on my mask in a prolonged squirming movement that I can only describe as graceless. It had been a last-minute addition to my person, prompted by the sight of Robbie’s by the door. After all these months it’s a routine enough accessory to be forgettable.
I drop it into the empty filing unit below my desk. I look up at the strip of windows directly above me on the ceiling. The clouds are swollen and grey. I look back down and around. Everyone passes us at reception: we’re the unremarkable centre of the universe, in logistical terms. Swivelling to the left I see a pyjama-clad patient in a wheelchair smoking a cigarette underneath one of the stairwells, and using a black Coca-Cola mug as an ashtray. Liz left it there a few months ago when it became an obvious sneaky smoke spot. We used to spend the whole day whirling around and around the circular desk. Now, obviously, we have to stay in place.
I wave unenthusiastically at Liz, who’s coming in the door at a military pace, conducting her usual head-swivelling inspection of any canteen staff, nurses, or doctors who might happen to be on a break.
She nods at me from behind the transparent plastic screen that divides the inside sphere of the reception desk in two. She shakes her head while untangling a fuchsia mask from around her ears.
“That Shareen is absolutely at it with the masks, you know. Every single day I come in and it’s around her blooming neck. Honestly… I mean, I haven’t had a hot lunch since April, just to be safe.”
‘Mmmh.” I agree, observing her shuffle out of her trainers and into a pair of smarter, heeled shoes. It was true, Shareen never wore her mask properly.
Liz turns the radio on at her side of the desk and looks into her computer like its looking back at her.
From the hallway, I’d shouted ‘bye’ into Grandpa and heard raised voices.
“Liars. Bloody Liars!” He was snarling at the telly. A cup of untouched tea sat perilously close to his ankle. Robbie stood in the kitchen doorway, spooning cornflakes into his mouth and shaking his head.
Most of the time Grandpa was a taciturn and sullen man who sat upright - even when sleeping - in his chair, wore the same polo shirt and immaculately ironed trousers every day, and prowled to the end of the garden for a cigarette every two hours on the dot. Today would have to be added, alongside other choice subjects such as the royal family and The Great British Bake Off, to the list of potential triggers for his jack-in-the-box outbursts, in which he would bark at the telly until his voice grew hoarse, and then sink back into dourness, pleased with the clawing roughness of his throat.
It was usually funny. He tailer-made the fits for each specific audience, picking preferred swear words according to who was in the room, adjusting the volume based on where the other people in the house were located.
This morning it had not been funny. Robbie’s sloppy sniggering and louche posture annoyed me as I stabbed at my shoes with my feet.
“Did you put the milk away?”
I strained to untie a lace. They were always in a knot these days, no matter what you did. I longed for the halcyon days of Velcro.
“Did you put the milk away.” Robbie pointed his spoon at me from across the room and continued laughing. I scoffed and bent down to brush yesterday’s mud off the toe of my right shoe. It got under my nails and clung.
Grandpa waved a bony finger at Robbie.
“Oh, you can laugh all you want son. You laugh away. It won’t be my door they’re knocking on the next time some daft foreigner gives these imperialist bastards a chance to profit from a body count.”
…the prime minister and the rest of the cabinet will be taking part in a ceremony to honour all those who were killed in the service of Britain at eleven o’clock later this morning…
“So, they will be knocking at your door then.” Robbie deadpanned, as he shoved another spoonful of cereal into his mouth, milk dripping down his chin as he spoke.
…has released a statement this morning saying that ‘we must never forget…
“Tsk! What are you talking about?” Grandpa sniped.
I zipped up my jacket and patted my pocket. One key, present and correct.
“Well, if they’re after me, it’s your door they’ll be knocking on.”
… the glorious and heroic sacrifice they made for all of us…
I remembered my mask.
“Aye very clever, son. Very bloody clever.”
I shouted bye and left in a hurry.
Liz is sanitising the whole desk, and still talking about Shareen’s lack of respect for the new normal in hygiene standards. I open my top drawer, puncture my shirt with my name badge, and log into the computer database. Daniel_Fieldsmith98.
Visiting hour is a distant blot on the horizon, so I decide to print out some more leaflets about pancreatic cancer to pin to the notice board. There’s basically a zero percent survival rate, and I find broadcasting this information comforting. I nod to a few passing nurses, and a non-descript consultant who I don’t recognise.
Anisha rushes past the desk. She’s got her stethoscope tied around her neck as she strides through the entranceway, before springing up the wide, linoleum staircase, and then disappearing down a corridor. I watch her ponytail swish away like the pendulum of a grandfather clock against the back of her green scrubs. She doesn’t look round on the way past.
Liz’s phone rings all through the two minutes silence. At the back of twelve, I see Martin marching towards me.
He leans over the desk while I put my mask on and switch the desktop to sleep mode. Liz motions at him with her spare hand, the other resolutely holding the phone so she can dish out advice about the new visiting regulations. My phone doesn’t ring as often as hers. I’ve muted it so often in the past that I think it now just expects me to be unavailable.
“Hi Liz.” Martin nods.
She puts a hand over the transmitter of the phone, and hisses at him, “Off the desk. This desk has just been sanitised… off.”
Martin straightens his posture, and his hands shoot up in an ‘I surrender’ motion while Liz pivots back to her phone call.
“Hurry the fuck up, will you Danny?”
The cafeteria is quiet at this time, though we still have to approach the hot trays one by one. Martin sits across from me at a long table. I’m suddenly struck by the thought that the milk is probably still sitting on the countertop at home.
“What’s up with your arm?”
I must look puzzled because Martin stops eating for long enough to gesture to it with his knife and repeats himself with his mouth full.
“What’s up with it?”
I look at the congealed spaghetti in front of me, imagining Shireen breathing into it, and wish I’d just resigned myself to a limp sandwich.
“I think I slept on it wrong or something.”
He nods knowingly and says, “Well, I’ve no sympathy for you. Unconsciousness is no excuse for stupidity, you know.”
He eats like Robbie. Viciously, like he’s always half-starving.
Why hadn’t I just put the milk away? I’ve left it out to rot in the open. To fester. When I get back it’ll be putrefying and the whole house will smell. Even Grandpa will notice it. Anyone else would have just put it away, for god’s sake.
I stab my fork into the pasta and watch it stain the silver with an unconvincing red.
“And look who’s turned up to work early today.” Martin booms, and points at the telly attached to the wall. I turn my head to look.
“It’s just the daily briefing.”
It’s on mute, and a PowerPoint presentation that resembles a mixed-media arts thesis is being flicked through.
I imagine Grandpa at home, bursting out of himself to roar at the little suited figures onscreen. I think about how he leans forward and points the remote at the telly when he wants to change the channel. He could be twisting with rage right now, spraying saliva the colour of brown tobacco across the room, apoplectic at the world as the neighbours walk past and light filters through the blinds and cycles across the living room. Or maybe not. Maybe when there’s no audience he just sits in the chair and listens to the bathroom wallpaper moulder upstairs. Maybe he just sits.
“Yeah, but it must be important if they’ve wheeled out that twit for a second time today. That’s a margin of risk only justified by something big. I’m glad I was on shift during the two minutes. Look at him, trying to be all solemn. The scumbag…”
Anisha is walking towards us. She’s carrying a tray, loaded with food and waters and tea.
I stand up in a motion to help her carry it, but then remember the distancing policy like a ruler being prodded against my chest. I hover awkwardly above my seat for a moment before Martin tugs my elbow and I slump back down.
Anisha sits two seats away from us.
“How are we today, you two?” She takes off her mask and smiles. Her voice rises in pitch and floats away at the end of each sentence. I say ‘hi’ back and feel like a juvenile idiot. Spoiled milk and awkward hovering. At least there’ll be no suspense about tonight’s anxiety dream.
“I see you’re excited about the news then, Martin.” She slides her plate and cutlery off the tray deftly and waits for him to respond.
“I wish I’d gone for the sandwich.” I say, like a juvenile idiot. “This spaghetti’s horrible, and I don’t think Shireen wears her mask properly.”
She smiles indulgently at me and tucks the tray underneath her end of the table. With her other hand, she launches a bottle of water towards Martin. It hits his bony forearm with a thud.
“That’s for you.” She says, and unwraps her sandwich.
Martin looks over, perplexed, and picks something out of his teeth with his tongue.
“Oh right, thanks. Headache’s mostly gone now. Honestly, I think it’s that Mrs Rennie that brings it on in me, she’s had so many CTs she’s basically radioactive at this point.”
“Not medically possible, but you’re welcome. I’ve told you ten times to leave one of the auxiliaries feed her.”
“That’s nice of you, Anisha.” I chip in, wondering what’s happened to that air of mystery I’m supposed to be cultivating.
“…and what should I be excited about?” Martin snaps indignantly, like the words have just registered. “Another day of corruption and fuck ups? The ruling classes pretending to cry over dead nineteen year olds? Give me a break.”
Anisha rolls her eyes at me and corrects him. “Hold on a minute, Martin. I was talking about the vaccine.”
“They’ve got one?” I raise my eyebrows and look back at the tv.
Right enough, when you bothered to read the red banner across the screen instead of just admiring its decorative gravitas, there it was in black and white:
Breaking: Vaccine Ready for January.
“Yep. That’s why he’s on early today. Ninety percent effective, they think, though of course we’re months away from distribution…”
“Aye, and I wonder who they’ll get to do that.” Martin takes a violent bite into an apple.
Anisha’s hair spills out of her ponytail around her ears and neck while she eats. It would make anyone else look untidy, but not her. Somehow it makes her look more capable, in a windswept sort of way.
“Alright, Martin. Just let me have my moment of happiness. It’s the best news we’ve had this year – this means the end’s in sight.”
Martin scoffs. He can get very superior about political matters.
“It’s great.” I say, watching Anisha empty a sachet of milk into her tea. I can smell it from across the table: something rancid and sweet.
“It’s great.” Martin mimics. “Would you get a grip, the pair of you.”
He directs his gaze towards Anisha, now ladling a yoghurt into her mouth. I’m getting a whiff of something sour from that too. “They’ll screw it up. You know they will! They’ll give it to some rugby club chum’s private company to roll out, and we’ll get the blame when they accidentally inject us all with fucking Hep B through sheer incompetence.” He bristles. “I’ll be interested to hear exactly what they’ve said about the safety of this new ‘vunderdrug’.”
“Martin, you are kidding me. You’re a nurse. Don’t start with all that rubbish.” Anisha laughs and looks at me. We seem to be on the same team now, and I like it.
I catch a glimpse of the cold spaghetti in front of me and feel repulsed.
“I’m just saying that it’s not as if big pharma does this out the goodness of their hearts. It’s an exercise in profit, like everything else. No state involvement in their precious markets.”
I decide that I’ll just bin the pasta, rather than risk making myself sick. I’m not that hungry, anyway. With this pain in my arm, I can’t afford any more health problems.
“Ok. But you don’t need to start a fight about everything all the time, you know. Like… a vaccine is good news. Or Remembrance Day… yeah, ok, there’s the dodgy flag-waving stuff, but it’s also about remembering the normal guys that died… the good outweighs the bad.”
The rise in tone makes her sound uncertain.
“Is that right?” Martin replies, straight-faced.
I sense danger, and feeling a flush of heroism, shake my head at her mockingly and pretend to whisper.
“You’re wasting your time with that one, Anisha. Marty posts some variation of “Fuck the queen you hun bootlickers” every two weeks just to inject some conflict into his timeline.”
She laughs, and so does Martin, and I’m thinking that this skilful de-escalation of tension might be evidence that I am in fact more socially adroit than has previously been apparent.
“Facebook, not Twitter, mind you – I’m no lightweight.” Martin adds, milking a chuckle and half-serious.
There are a few moments pause, so I trail over to the bin, and avert my eyes as the spaghetti slops into it. My skin crawls with the smell.
When I get back Martin’s nose is turned up in the air.
“…a very complacent attitude to take actually. Maybe you can afford to let this Eton mess wash over you, but you do know that they’re the exact people who’d be sending those nineteen year olds off to die a hundred years ago… screwing over your ancestors, promising them independence in exchange for a short walk in front of a few hundred machine guns and then not even delivering on it. How d’you fit your peace and love into that?”
I can see he’s finally done it. Anisha is actually upset enough to let him win a high-stakes argument that she’d thought was a conversation. The expression on her face now makes everything about her seem bedraggled. Her hair is just messy. Her scrubs are cheap and garishly coloured. Around her eyes her skin is the purple of sleeplessness.
She’s still smiling, but now her smile is tight and thin and weary, not indulgent.
“Right, well, I’ll leave you to your philosophising.” She says, like she’s just chewed on lemon flavoured broken glass. Her chair screeches against the floor.
“See you, Danny.”
“Leave your tray and I’ll get it…” I motion vaguely towards her, but she’s already turned her back, with it in hand, and is swooshing away.
I listen to the squeak of her trainers get fainter and fainter, and the hum of the kitchen freezers like the purring engine of a ship.
Martin’s voice pierces the quiet rhythm.
“D’you know, Danny, you’ll be a day late and a dollar short to your own funeral.”
He’s still watching the tv. I turn to face him.
“You are such a dick sometimes.”
He glances round at me and swings back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head.
“Oh, give me a break, Daniel - and put your tongue back in. She is so stuck up. Doctor give-me-a-medal-and-a-picture-of-a-rainbow.” He sniffs, and checks the time on his phone. “…And she’s well onto you, you know. No chance. Bloody… philosophising.”
I’m glad the table is clear. I look at the bottle of water in front of him. It really was very nice of her.
We both start giggling. The sound rolls out of me in ugly gulps.
By the time I get back to the reception desk, Liz is well informed about this new vaccine, and, surprisingly, on vaccines generally. I sit down, and it’s clear that she has sanitised my desk while I’ve been on lunch. The grotty ache of pain in my arm makes me want to press my face against the desk and inhale the acidic smell until my body is bleached of all its wretchedness.
I notice that I’m sweating. My face is a big white moon amidst the black of my computer screen. I dab at my forehead with the sleave of my good arm. It leaves a greasy stain on the white shirt material.
The afternoon passes slowly, and with every second I can smell the milk tipping over into a new degree of fetidity. I wish my phone would ring more often, but Liz gets all the interesting calls, while I get all the questions about the car park. I pin up some more leaflets, this time for brain cancer.
At half five Anisha walks down the stairs with much less spring in her step than earlier, like gravity has only just started to touch her. She looks less like a character from Grey’s Anatomy as she drags on her coat like it’s made out of lead.
On impulse, I smile at her as she reaches the last few steps and we make terrifying eye contact. She beelines for the reception desk.
Anisha reaches me and I have to plant both my feet firmly on the floor to stop myself from shuffling backwards in my chair. I wish I could make it taller, but the adjuster is broken. I decide to stand up and give us more equality in height.
“Martin’s a dick, you know.” She spits, not unkindly, her words emerging half-muffled against the material of her mask. It’s a disposable.
“Yeah.” I say, having long ago accepted that on an interpersonal level this was basically true.
“You shouldn’t be friends with him.”
“Well…” I say, and my throat feels very dry. I realise that I haven’t had a drink since breakfast this morning and this slightly panics me. I feel the sticky salt of dried sweat on my temples and rub my aching arm with the other.
Anisha shakes her head, raises her eyebrows and looks away at nothing in particular as she lets out a sigh.
“Anyway, it’s about the car park. Can you ask if my pass can be extended within the next week? It’s about to run out.”
“Yes…” I say, and bend down to search the database, eyes darting across the screen for the renewals column.
Anisha waves her hand to dismiss my efforts. She’s fixing her ponytail with the other, twisting the hair in a snakelike formation above her head, and then letting the bobble snap violently back in place against her head.
“Don’t worry about it right now, just, like I say, whenever you can within the next week.”
I’m still saying ‘ok’ and ‘right’ like a nodding dog as she disappears out the automatic doors into the rain.
I get home, and the first thing I do is pour the milk down the sink. Then I get the other milk, the one that’s been in the fridge, and I pour that away as well.
I leave the empty cartons on the surface, and the putrid smell seems to waft upwards from inside them, and from inside the drains.
I switch on the kettle and say a token ‘hello’ to grandpa. I always throw one his way, just in case, though he doesn’t respond as I drift upstairs.
Robbie’s left his towel on the landing. I step over it and close the door inside my room.
Later I’ll scroll through twitter, and it will feel shameful, but for now I switch on the news. I click ‘Update Later’ on my laptop for the hundredth time.
They’re saying it’s the cure, that it’s going to get rid of this virus for good. They’re announcing it again and again.
Martin says I’m feeding the Murdoch Press just by watching this stuff, but I don’t know what else he expects me to do when I get home at night, if every channel is infected.
The newsreader says they’ve bought it. They’ve got our shares and they’re gonna get in the army and the private sector and roll it out and bam, a public cure. Straight to the vein! But I don’t know, you know. I’m not sure. My arm aches just thinking about it. I’m congested with tomorrow’s sickness already as my stomach rumbles and the ache sits still. The Queensway never sounded so sweet.
It’s probably a good thing that Grandpa is so quiet now. I can beat all their silences. I can add mine up to more than a measly two minutes.
Kate Kane is an aspiring writer and student of English and Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. She has been awarded the Mary McKinley Prize and the Ewing Prize in Scottish Literature for her studies.