short story

Being in lockdown is like a dream where you’re running through treacle. Days elongate and merge into the same; I don’t get very far.

A few weeks ago, with strange anticipation, I listened to the President’s speech. Ghoulish relief filled me with his request that we stay at home, an amber light signal, something in between real life and not. It motioned an escape from the everyday trudge, the blaring early morning alarm, getting the children up with brutal screams, “We’re are going to be late.”

When I was young, my mother would kiss us in the mornings, gently nudging us into the day. The President has told me that I can’t even see her, I reach for my cheek feeling for the mark where she kissed me last.

I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the frenzy, doing my mascara down the hill to the M4, or the children shouting at me to focus while I tell them to read the messages off my phone in case I’ve missed anything. I don’t miss the pseudo cheer of the radio DJ pretending to be my friend, the carefully worded clichés like they care. The worst is the fabricated laugh. I have always been able to read a liar; the voice never lies.

My boss is cold but doesn’t lie; she says things straight up. She only warms up when you move far enough away before reeling you back afraid that you may no longer revere her. People have said she is powerful and that I’m lucky to be her PA. What does that mean now? She can’t mask the fact that she’s afraid, her bravado before the speech was pitiful, I could smell her fear.  The next day she spoke to me about how damaging the Coronavirus was for economy, and I looked at her and half hoped she would get it, COVID that is.

I don’t care about the Rand Dollar exchange. She’s vainly holding onto an old structure; currency makes her feel rich, Rand/Dollar, ya right! Fucked vs Fucked.  I can’t help the ugly thoughts, but they come. I was taught to be nice, I was taught not to wish bad on others, but I wish that every rapist would drop dead and that God would vindicate us. When I think these things, I realise that half the world would die and then what? The Dalai Lama doesn’t know the place where I hide my hate and anger, but you do…

She has offered to pay me through the lockdown, for the first month that is, she needs me to show my gratitude. I write her a note, telling her how much it means to me, how much I appreciate her generosity. I ingratiate myself to her, it will fill every crevice of her need. I put the note down on her desk, it is out of place amongst the opulence of Mont Blanc pens and family photos.  I stop for a moment to take in the people staring blankly at me, and I miss that I can’t hear their voices. Her daughter is standing in a meringue dress with a groom beside her like plastic figurines on a wedding cake.  The daughter’s lips extend in Botox, there’s something in that translation that also spells a lie. The daughter is not a bad woman; she just doesn’t know who she is.

The largest frame on the table is that of her son, ironic as this is my boss’s most fraught relationship. This is where she tries her hardest but fails. He’s charming the son; I’ve only met him twice, the second time he left without saying goodbye, slamming the door to her office. Of course, she pretended it was nothing, but I took a chance and gently rested my hand on her shoulder as if this extension would take away her pain. She stayed in the shadow of my warmth for a while before softly asking for tea. I took my time to make it and gave her space to cry. The pictures of her husband are old and stale, a philandering figment. It’s hard to let go of a philanderer, they keep activating the hunting instinct. I leave the letter on the desk, the son is smiling at me like he can see through me.

The first week of lockdown is fun, I sit on the floor with the kids and don’t care that the dishes pile up in the sink or that they climb into our bed and watch TV till they fall asleep. It feels like Monopoly’s “Get out of Jail” card every day. By the second week, the grass is growing happily in the garden, and I wonder why Jeff cannot see it.  The noise of the air conditioners in the apartment block across the road don’t hide the sound from our pool filter chanting that the pool needs a top-up, Jeff doesn’t hear it. He’s lying on the couch, his hand gently over his crotch, holding onto his genitals as if they are gold or they are going to save us once the Titanic hits the iceberg.

I have to breathe and move outside to my nest chair, but meditation doesn’t come. I need to stop thinking about everything that is wrong and try to see what is right. I scroll through the incessant green notifications on my phone, irritated and grateful that friends are reaching out through a tsunami of memes. I delete most of them- too much information can kill you.

I look inside; the children have started to draw on the wall, Jeff doesn’t notice. I want to listen to the birds and enjoy the butterflies, but all I see is the growing grass. I cocoon myself in the nest chair and try make a mental list of all the things I can achieve in lockdown, distracted I phone my mother instead. She says, “Go for a walk darling.” I mumble, “I can’t.”

I start a puzzle my friend has lent me, I pour the pieces onto the dining room table and try to sort out the colours. I call my bestie Shishi to help the time pass, we laugh and make jokes and pretend that lockdown is ok, but it’s not. She whispers, “Did you see the numbers on the news, they’ve doubled!”

She mentions her son’s birthday, and I apologise for forgetting, she says, “Make it up to me, meet me in Woolies at 12. See you in the cake aisle.”

I say, “Wear a mask, to hide your face if anything.” We giggle.

I make a performance of collecting the shopping bags and write a list. Jeff stirs. “Want anything from the shops?” I ask assertively. The girls scream “sweets” and I can’t help a smile. Jeff is rising now, a dishevelled heap, he stands up and scratches his stomach as if he were six.

“I thought I was going to the shops this week.” he moans half-heartedly.

“Don’t worry babe, I’ve got it!” I say brushing my hair. He slaps my bottom good-naturedly. I put on lipstick and drive through deserted streets, eeriness comes to find me, I miss the chaos, I feel lost in a vague dream world of something I remember but which has died. I put the music louder, Insomnia by Faithless, classic.  I park and walk to the shops, I can hear the sound of my slops squelching against the ground. I smile, but its useless behind the mask and I wonder if the man handing out the trolleys can tell. A tall woman in a mask and gloves refuses to take a trolley until it is sanitised, she doesn’t greet the man who gives it to her, she thinks that if she ignores him the virus will ignore her. I cough deliberately, she pulls away and gives me a dirty look before running into the supermarket. The man with the trolleys looks at me longer than normal; our eyes are smiling.

There she is in the cake aisle, leopard print, heels and her iconic afro; we giggle straight off to the annoyance of other shoppers who think they are already dying. Shishi tells me she likes the colour of my lipstick, and we laugh even harder behind our masks. We are trying to talk and not get noticed, but that has never been the way of us. It feels good to laugh again, even though the world has gone quiet.

I head for the vegan section, not because I’m vegan but because I think I should be. Shishi shakes her head and says “Haai wena I’m not coming, that’s for uMlungu’s.” We giggle again before she heads on.  I read the ingredients on the pack and wonder if soya is good for you or if produces too much oestrogen. I am taking Omega’s, vitamin B12 and extra vitamin C. I remember that I haven’t exercised for days, I move away from the vegan section and put a milk tart into the trolley.  I hear a man’s voice behind me, its light and comfortable, “Are those milk tarts any good?”

I turn around, he is not wearing a mask and smiles easily, the way someone without responsibilities smiles. Is he flirting with me? Lockdown makes people lonely; I don’t think anyone has flirted with me in years. The mask hides my blush, and I pretend to sound like a connoisseur of cakes. I take a step back aware that I need to keep my distance.

He interrupts my milk tart hypothesis, “Maya, it’s Adam, Moira’s son.”

I guffaw awkwardly into the mask, “Sorry, Adam, I didn’t know it was you!” I wish I had worn my glasses. “How are you?” I say shyly knowing that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in months.

Shishi has returned with a full trolley and starts posing behind Josh inappropriately and making eyes and faces at me; I want to laugh. It’s perfect hiding behind my mask, I can look at him properly. He has green eyes like his mother, but his are kind, he doesn’t hold her aloofness. We have a generic lockdown conversation, and I am relieved that Shishi decides to leave although she turns to glance back at me. Before I make a move to leave, I sense his hesitation, I say, “Adam, how’s your family doing?”

He laughs nervously, “I think you would know better than me, my mother and father make an interesting combo.”

“Check in with your mom, give her a call, these are strange times.”

He nods away his pain. In his emotion, he is more handsome than I had thought. Lockdown does that; one gets to glimpse through facades. In another time, I may have tapped his shoulder supportively, but now I stand away feeling the cold of the fridges behind me. I make a risky move and put my mask onto my head so that I can smile. He points a finger at me, we laugh.

“Maya, do you live off Dean Road?”, I nod.

“I am sure it’s you I’ve seen in the white house with the pool and two kids. I live in the apartment block across the road, second floor.”

My mask is off, I feel more exposed than ever.

The following week my eyes move up to the second floor of the building more often than I care to admit. I tell myself that I am looking for planes, but the skies are empty, I know what I am doing, but I don’t know why. I’ve read in Psychology magazine that proximity to others leaves you more exposed to falling in love with them… or being murdered. Jeff is sitting outside on the nest chair and fallen asleep on himself, grunting occasionally. I move my feet through the water and watch the girls scream and writhe on the top step of the pool as they edge their way in. They get more excited and call me to join them, “Shh don’t scream girls, you’ll wake up Dad.” I say half hoping that their screams will prompt Adam to lean over his balcony. The phone rings, its my mother, I tell her that I miss her while I move my legs through the water hypnotically. I listen to her unfold the oddments of the day, unusually for her she ends the call in a tender confession, “I miss you and the girls.” I think I hear her stifle a sob. “You didn’t mention Jeff!” I say to make her laugh, she does.

The following day is hot, I put on my new swimming costume and sit by the pool. The leopard print piece is loud but looks good. I figure we could all die tomorrow so I may as well wear it. I lie on a cane lounger outside in the bright sun while the girls run sticky, little fingers over my body trying to cover me in sunscreen.

My phone beeps, it’s a message from an unknown number, I want to ignore it, but I can’t help myself. I download the image attached and the girls lean in to have a look. Katya reacts first, “It’s us mommy, it’s us.” She shouts excitedly.

I am confused by the image, but the leopard print is a dead giveaway. The picture is taken from above, I am lying face down with my legs splayed, while the girls are in frozen poses on the steps. I feel as if someone has peeled a layer off me. The phone beeps with a message notification.

Maya, Hi!

I hear another beep.

Look up to your right, it’s Adam

I pull the towel up around me as I look up, and I see him leaning over the balcony, waving happily.

I wave back, as do the girls, Lily sits on my lap. “Mommy, who is that man?”

“Just a friend.” I say. She kisses me on the lips and says “You need sunscreen mommy, your face is red.”

I am all too aware of Adam hovering above me, but I begin to enjoy the interlude from my fear. As the days pass, the old-world order loosens, I let my roots grow out and take the paint off my nails, they start to breathe. I detach from what was and wonder how I will return to the old way. Jeff has absorbed himself online for work, and I am grateful for it. Every morning I take my coffee cup to the stoep outside and take in the new day. I am aware of my subtle waiting for a message. It comes:

Good Morning


Coffee any good?

Great, Any news?

I wave, feeling sorry that he is alone, but in a way we all are.

Yip. I spoke to my mom

We continue to text each other over days exchanging words and world views, there are few pauses. I enjoy his quirky stories, the attention and waiting for him to appear on the balcony. I make excuses about my pretence of friendship, I ignore that he is ten years younger and my boss’s son. I wear pretty dresses in the day and hope he notices. At night I cross the boundaries and lean over to sleep with Jeff, but my mind is filled with Adam. Jeff doesn’t notice my distraction, but my mother does.

“Darling, you’re all over the place, are you ok?” Usually I tell her everything, but this time I can’t.

A few weeks into our friendship, the air turns, I can feel his tentative messages edging into my tautly held world. He calls now, saying he want to hear my voice, Jeff asks who I am talking to, I say “Shishi of course.”

One morning when the air is crisp and cold, I notice that he is not on the balcony. I wait for him to come out, but he doesn’t. I get up to get another coffee when the phone beeps.

Meet me at The Pearls Centre, it’s pretty quiet there.

I feel alive and scared.  I want to say yes but feel I should say no.

Yes, what time?

Park on the second floor. I have a blue Jeep. See you in an hour.

I spray on perfume and make up my face naturally. I feel more alive than I have in weeks. I drive on the empty road as if it’s mine as if nothing can go wrong. I drive past a police vehicle with men in uniforms stopping cars and I wave at them as if I am not afraid, but my underarms give away my fear. They let me pass. As I get closer to The Pearls centre, I see Adams car ahead of me. My heart races, he turns up to go onto the ramp for the parking and for a moment I think I will follow him, but I keep driving.

I head along the road that is parallel to the sea and take in the beautiful hues of blue. I pull into the Engen garage next to the Everglades Retirement Home, the petrol attendant Eric waves at me with genuine excitement.

I see her, relief and a smile fill me, she is climbing out of her car, silver hair fighting the wind, she waves at me as if she wants to be noticed,

I run up to her and hug her tight, “Darling, what a fabulous idea” she says, “I don’t know why we didn’t think of this earlier.” She kisses my face, and I notice that she is like a fragile tiger, my mother,  I lean in like I always have and rest my chin on her shoulder.

The End.