Lockdown (Tall) Tales

It’s time for the evening lockdown video call between me, my sister and my mother.

First crucial question of course is: 

‘What’s for dinner?’

I’m planning a concoction made from odds and ends which I’ll pretend is a proper recipe (again). My mother is having fish and potatoes (again). My sister is smug because her husband is a trained chef and she doesn’t know and doesn’t care because she doesn’t have to cook.

Leaving coronavirus concerns to chew over later (you don’t want to rush eating the elephant in the room all at once), the next question is: 

‘What happened today?’

Usually of course, there is no answer but for the distant sound of tumbling tumble-weeds.

Today however is different. 

My mother starts:

‘Funny you should ask. 

‘I looked out of my window today expecting it to be as quiet and boring as usual with nothing but a few birds poking about, and the first thing I saw was that all the squirrels had lined up on the branches of the trees and were not only looking down but were holding paws and jumping about. Some of them were waving leaves. 

‘I followed their gaze and saw what appeared to be an animal sports day happening on the lawn with squirrels, hedgehogs, and rabbits as contestants and robins as marshals. 

‘There was what looked like a wheelbarrow race, a three-pawed race, an acorn cup-and-pebble race and a sack race using odd socks they must have pinched from the laundry. 

‘There was a kerfuffle at the end when the rabbits complained that they and the sacks had been punctured by the hedgehogs and the hedgehogs countered this by accusing the rabbits of having an unfair advantage in the sack race. Fortunately the squirrels diffused it all by doing an aerial display with the robins.

‘Everything happened so fast though, that I couldn’t quite get the camera to focus.’

My sister is next:

‘Strange you should mention rabbits. I was on my daily run when I saw a very large rabbit. He seemed to be waiting for me. “You’re late,” he said, looking at his fitness tracker watch, “and slow. Come on, the Queen is waiting.” 

‘“Oooh” I said. “Would going all the way to Windsor castle for a dame-hood count as essential travel?”

‘“Tsk,” said the rabbit. “Not that Queen. The Red Queen. Come on, here’s the rabbit-hole. When you’re falling, try and keep two metres ahead if you please.”

‘Well down we went and off we jogged. The rabbit went far too fast. 

‘So I paused for a breather at a strange table covered with what looked like a range of trendy gins labelled “drink me” but before I could do anything about it, the rabbit came back and dragged me away. He said that the last girl who stopped at that table got into a right pickle and I wasn’t allowed to try any. To be honest it was a bit early for gin and I chirped up when I saw a sign to a tea-party but the rabbit said it had been postponed until lockdown is over. Apparently some dormouse is very happy about this. Before I could ask for coffee instead, he led me into a court-room. 

‘A few people – including an angry looking large woman in a rather stiff dress – were standing as far away from each other as possible. Jurors had been suspended from the ceiling in harnesses to enable them to socially distance. It turned out that I was supposed to be judging who’d stolen the Queen of Hearts’ tarts. 

‘As you know I don’t like making decisions, except about food. So I decided to eat the evidence. 

‘It was delicious. 

‘While the Queen was busy working out how to have my head chopped off from a distance of two metres, I legged it. Fortunately the tarts had given me enough energy to outrun everyone and I managed to grab one of the bottles of fancy gin on the way past, which I’ll try later to see what happens. 

‘What a shame I’d left my phone at home and couldn’t take photos.’

Now it’s my turn:

‘You know how everywhere has animals taking over the towns because all the people are staying home? And you know how the jurassic coast isn’t too far away from here. Well, I went on my walk today and you’ll never guess what I saw emerging from the lake on the meadows? A brontosaurus!

‘A small herd of tricerotopses was peeking from the trees and a velociraptor was hunting down a jogger. It had nearly succeeded when a pterodactyl swooped down, grabbed it and dropped it in the river, where it was eaten by a plesiosaur. Then the police helicopter turned up and began to pursue the pterodactyl. A T-Rex followed, trying to swipe them both out of the sky but of course, its arms were too short to reach.

‘As I watched them disappear into the distance, a herd of woolly mammoth appeared, lumbering along the bypass. There might or might not have been cavemen riding them. It was hard to say because of all the hair. Plus they might just have been people from the next village. You know what they’re like. 

‘While I was trying to work it out, I felt a cat rub itself against my leg. I was about to stroke its head when I realised it wasn’t a cat but a baby sabre-tooth tiger. That was when I decided I probably ought to walk home. 

‘I did have my phone – but a woolly rhino in the car-park knocked it out of my hand then trod on it so I couldn’t take photos either.’

We all fall silent.

‘What really happened today?’ says my sister. ‘Most interesting thing I did was find a matching pair of socks and plant some sweet-peas. What about you?’

I consider, running my mind over the day. ‘I cut my finger on some tin-foil simply wrapping something up. What about you Mum?’

Mum scratches her head. ‘Let’s see,’ she says. ‘My windows were cleaned and I had to pay the window cleaner by putting the money on the doorstep and backing away so he could take it from a social distance.’

‘Wild times,’ says my sister. ‘Let’s take it easy tomorrow.’

lockdown

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Perspective

‘So many knobs,’ I say, sighing into my mug.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Aelfnod splutters on his tea.

‘Door knobs, cupboard knobs, handles, things for opening lids with, taps, letter-boxes. You know. Things that need extra bleaching just now.’

‘Ah.’ Aelfnod settles back and a dreamy look crosses his face as he contemplates the joys of housework, clearly feeling that I have all the fun. ‘I was worried there for a minute.’

Aelfnod, despite the fact that we have differing views on dust, is a kindred spirit.

He knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He knows when a shared pot of tea in silence is the only thing that makes sense. He understands what it’s like to need space and time to re-boot your mind with something completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on.

In my case, it’s by being alone – driving with the radio on loud, tapping into whatever the music triggers, or being on a train with my brain rocking down new tracks or on a station platform, anonymous among all the commuters rushing pointlessly about – observing, listening and invigorated (if sometimes also cross, cold and late).

For Aelfnod, his reset process appears to be rummaging through the cookery books. (If it’s not him – then who else is reordering them so I can never find the one I want?)

Life has all been a bit trying over the last week. We’re on lockdown, working from home and all of a sudden the only people I’m allowed to be with seem noisier and messier than usual and I can only get out of the house once a day.

Nerves are being trodden on like cowpats round a water trough.

Mingled with personal anxiety caused by coronavirus, the day-job is absorbed in mitigating its impact. So it’s impossible to tune out from the crisis. The most creative decisions of the day are what to cook with what’s in store and when to go for my one walk. All in all, my reset time and my creative time seems to have seeped away and I’ve been feeling grumpy.

It really does come to something when I’m missing a five a.m. start and squeezing past strangers at Clapham Junction.

In case you didn’t know, Aelfnod is one of my invisible household elves. And the thing about invisible household elves is that they’re not exactly real (shh don’t tell them that), so they don’t turn up for a chat unless I want them to.  But they often come to mind when I’m being domestic and self-reflective.

So this afternoon, after some vigorous bleaching of the aforesaid knobs, handles etc, and despite the fact that I ought to be getting to grips with a novel plot, I decided to get a grip on my own plot and turned to Aelfnod for his views on being in lock-down which already feels like it’s been going on for a year when it’s only been a few days.

‘Does it bother you?’ I say.

Aelfnod shrugs and holds out his doll’s tea-cup for more tea. ‘It’s a bit dusty and the airing cupboard is full of out-of-control laundry fairies but this is a nice home.’

‘I know, but I’m used to being pretty much able to go out when I want to do what I want and see what I want.’

‘Then you’re luckier than many. And the things you really like best are indoorsy things anyway – writing, reading, cooking, sewing, painting – and you haven’t done the last two for years. Perhaps now’s the time to start again.’

‘I thought you didn’t like mess.’

‘I don’t like you slamming doors because you’ve got to the point where you’re getting on your own nerves.’

‘I only slammed one door,’ I say huffily.

‘Only because the other one gets caught on the carpet.’ Aelfnod takes another sip of tea and frowns. I feel that in another decade, he’d be puffing a pipe in an admonishing manner. ‘Look on the positive,’ he says. ‘All the news does is focus on the negative. You know that.’

‘It’s true,’ I admit. ‘It’s just that people…’

‘Ah people. None of us know why humans think they’re the most intelligent creatures on earth. You buy stuff you don’t need, rush to go to places which are no nicer than where you’re from, complain when there’s too much to do, complain when there’s nothing to do, never really know what you want. You always look at stuff the wrong way. Instead of looking at the fear, look for the bit of hope. You being stuck indoors right now might save a life. Maybe a life you’ll never know about.’

‘You’re right. And I keep thinking of Anne Frank and knowing I’ve nothing to complain about. And I don’t live alone and I do love the people I’m with.’

‘Exactly. Plus you might discover something. Think about it – what have you noticed?’

I sit back and consider. After a pause I say, ‘There’s less traffic so it’s quieter, I can hear the birds better and the air seems clearer.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s good to be mindful of food, supplies, travel, little freedoms and not take them for granted. You appreciate nature more when you treasure time outside. Everyone is sharing pictures of buds, and sparrows and even mini-beasts which we might not have noticed before.’

‘And…’

‘Community groups are springing up all over the place. People are falling over themselves to shop or get prescriptions for isolated neighbours, even ones they don’t know. Someone posted a desperate message in our local group and within two hours, the group – without anyone leaving home – had tracked down his family and got him help.’

‘There you go. What else?’

I’m starting to cheer up. ‘And if it weren’t for modern technology I couldn’t meet with the rest of my family by video every day so I don’t have to worry so much.’

‘Oh yes,’ says Aelfnod, with a disapproving frown. ‘I’ve listened into your conversations. They’re not very intelligent. Far too much giggling.’

‘Well sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s only so much news to share when you’re all stuck indoors and there’s one thing on everyone’s mind. You can only discuss what everyone is having for dinner for so long. It’s more fun to do something silly. But now I think of it, it’s not just connecting with family. It’s everyone. Colleagues, friends, Facebook contacts, all sorts of people who can’t meet in person have found ways to do it via the internet.’

‘Like what?’

‘Online book clubs, book readings, virtual gigs and poetry slams, interactive quizzes. In fact if I joined in everything I could, I’d never do anything else.’

‘Sounds better than anything on TV.’

I’m feeling a lot brighter. ‘And museums and art galleries and theatres are providing links to all sorts of exhibitions and plays you couldn’t easily see otherwise.’

Aelfnod sits up straight. ‘Is Midsummer Night’s Dream one of them? I’d love to see that. My ancestor’s one of the main characters.’

‘Yes but how will you get online?’

‘Tsk. What a silly question,’ Aelfnod dunks a cookie-crumb in his tea and gives me a grin. ‘I do it all the time. Why else do you think your phone is always fully charged at night and flat as a goblin’s flip-flop in the morning?

***

If you want to read about how I first met Aelfnod check out Weird and Peculiar Tales  a collection of short stories by Paula Harmon and Val Portelli. It’s on special offer until 2nd April 2020.

If you want to know about the household elves’ view of me (well one of them anyway) you might want to read An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

If you want to know about any of the links mentioned above check these out:

From Clapping to Kindness: Five Reasons to be Hopeful

Community Support Links in the UK

Watch Royal Shakespeare Company Shows from home

The Guardian: 10 of the world’s best museum and art gallery tours

Good Housekeeping: best virtual tours

How to visit Paris catacombs and Disney theme park rides online

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image of tea-pot by Trang Le from Pixabay