If there is anything positive to say about the current state of the world, it is the opportunity it gives us to reflect on, well, the current state of the world. It took me around two hours of being off work to pen this short story, which I thought appropriate to share with the world.
Always happy to hear your thoughts – positive and otherwise. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged but I’m hoping this will be the first short story instalment of many.
Take care everyone. Story starts below…
She knew the world would change when her school closed, but she didn’t know how much. With so many teachers sick, they had sent the younger students home first. She had heard them whooping and screeching down the halls as they left, stampeding, faces bright, into an empty world.
The rest of the school held on for three days. Gabriella’s friends had diminished in number Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…By Friday she was stalking the History corridor looking for a teacher to mark her essay. All she found was the echo of her footsteps on the bleached halls.
She had thrown the essay in a random bin on her way home.
At first it had been exciting: the prospect of a longer holiday from routine, school, homework. But then she began to notice the anxious look on Miss Brown’s face during tutor time as she checked her emails, she saw how her mother’s wine glass was emptying that fraction more quickly each night.
Yes, the excitement didn’t last long.
So, on an ordinary and lonely Tuesday morning, she sat in her front garden looking at the woman. The woman who lived across the road.
Gabriella had never noticed the woman before, but now that everybody had locked their doors to visitors and were afraid to even go onto their front driveway, the woman had been the only person Gabriella had seen in a long while. Apart from her mother, who was hardly enthralling company at the best of times.
The woman, in the same way as yesterday, was kneeling on one of those portable pads and weeding her garden gently, slowly. She was clearly in no hurry, allowing the early April sunshine to bathe her papery arms. Occasionally, she would lift a wrinkled face to the sky and smile, serenely, as if she knew something that nobody else did. As if she knew the world wasn’t falling.
On Wednesday morning, Gabriella sat outside again. The signs of infection were beginning to show on her now, and she felt a little weak, so she made absolutely sure to stay next to the house. She’d hate to infect someone, not that anybody walked past now anyway.
The woman was there again. From a distance, the gardening task looked exactly the same, but Gabriella thought she was probably planting something today. She saw the woman’s hands pat the ground, like a mother might pat the back of a baby to wind it.
Suddenly, the woman looked directly at Gabriella.
It was an action that she would have taken for granted a month ago, but she realised, with a start, that she hadn’t made eye contact with another human being in so long. The woman raised a slender hand and wiggled her fingers in a slow, meditative wave. Feeling strangely self-conscious, Gabriella offered a small wave in recognition.
On Thursday morning, Gabriella found a bunch of daffodils on her doorstep. There were eight perfectly symmetrical stems bunched together and tied with a little string. Nobody had ever given her flowers before. She lifted the flowers to smell them and the sweetness – or perhaps it was the kindness – made her eyes water.
She looked over to the garden and the woman wasn’t there. The curtains were closed. Perhaps she was sleeping. Gabriella took a moment to consider how different the garden was to theirs. Mum was busy and never really had time for gardening, so Gabriella’s front garden was little more than a patch of uneven grass and a sprawling tree that had been planted, hastily, around a decade ago. Gabriella lost track of time as she clutched the daffodils – dying before their time – and wondered about the life of the unnamed woman. She shared almost the same plot of earth with her and didn’t even know her name.
On Friday morning, the woman was there again, but the circles under her eyes were dark and angry, even under her sunglasses. She wasn’t gardening today – just sitting, hands clasped on her lap. Although she must have been very old, she had a youthful look about her that was hard to ignore, like she should have a lot of years left. Unlikely, Gabriella thought. The hospitals were packed for all but the most hopeless cases and if you were that hopeless it was too late anyway, usually.
With trembling legs, Gabriella stepped away from her garden and onto the road.
The woman noticed and knew what she was doing but remained still, breathing deeply with a gentle smile on her face. Gabriella felt a little like a unique animal on a wildlife programme, as if the woman was watching her with interest, not having seen such behaviour before.
She wouldn’t break quarantine, of course, so stood just on the edge of the woman’s garden. Her toetips grazed the flower bed that Gabriella had watched the woman make.
Gabriella held up her arms as if in surrender, “Don’t worry- I won’t touch you.”
The woman cocked her head ever so slightly and stretched her thin lips into an elongated smile, “I worry about a lot of things, my dear, but hardly that.”
Gabriella thrust her hands awkwardly into her pockets. “Um, thank you for the flowers.”
Another smile. “You are most welcome.”
“I imagine you’ve been on your own for a while?”
The woman paused a moment as if considering, “If you call thirty-four years ‘a while,’ then yes.” She paused, as if thinking back to a world existing only behind her exhausted eyes, “I lost Trevor to cancer, you see. Just as well. He would be beside himself at this madness.”
Gabriella felt her face reddening. She had wanted to say hello, make a human connection, but she suddenly felt very young. She glanced back to her house, “Well, my mum will be waiting…”
“Before you go, dear, will you promise me something?”
Gabriella shrugged, “I’ll try.”
The woman slowly removed her sunglasses. The dark circles, at this distance, made Gabriella gasp, despite herself. “One day, when you are old, will you please leave flowers on a young person’s doorstep?”
Sensing Gabriella’s confusion, she continued, “You see, the world has been training us for a long time for this quarantine. For so long now, well before the disease came, we have been told the same message: look after yourself; earn your own money; lock your door; keep the suffering out. Worse, we deliberately ignored the suffering, hoping it wasn’t real, until it came, hammering at our door. At least I thought so, until a young girl waved at me from across the street.
“Take those daffodils I gave you,” she continued, “They have no idea of what the world is becoming, so they grow. They don’t fear apocalypse, or starvation, or alien invasion; they simply blossom, and bring beauty to the world, as we should try to.” The woman leaned forward a little, “If a daffodil was threatened by a virus, would it take the goodness from its neighbours so that it could live? What good would one daffodil be in an empty field?”
Gabriella nodded awkwardly, “I promise. And thank you.” In years to come, Gabriella would realise why she made that promise. Then, though, a lonely fifteen year old on the precipice of a new world, she had no idea what she was saying. Perhaps the conversation was becoming a little too embarrassing and she had wanted to get away.
A week later, Gabriella’s mum told her that the lady across the street had died. Gabriella would have liked to attend the funeral but of course that wasn’t allowed. Anyway, she hadn’t told anyone about her conversation with the woman so her mum would have wondered at the sudden interest. It was also possible that she wouldn’t be allowed out in future, if her mum discovered she’d left the garden.
In due course, the daffodils across the street died, withering into the soil, preparing to resurrect themselves when spring returned. Gabriella thought of the woman often, and missed her tranquil smile: an epicentre of peace in a turbulent world.
On the day the quarantine lifted, Gabriella received a parcel. Her mum had entered holding it, one eyebrow slightly raised. “This is for you,” she had said, “There’s no stamp, though, and the label looks handwritten.”
Gabriella had rushed to her bedroom and torn off the brown paper, all the while carefully preserving the graceful, sloped handwriting on the front.
Gently, almost religiously, she held her gift. A beginner’s gardening kit.
On the kit, a handwritten note:
“Plant flowers, and give them away.”