Jill narrowed her eyes at the clothes pinned on her neighbour’s balcony. A warm day with a gentle breeze meant wash day for Lauren. Which for Jill meant being treated to a display of Lauren’s 5-year-old daughter’s outfits strung up like bunting. You’d be forgiven for mistaking young Angelica for a royalist, given her predisposition for the ‘Princess’ and ‘Kween’ sequin embellishments on her napkin-sized t-shirts. The effect was so dazzling Jill was surprised the magpies she often spotted flashes of in the pine tree at the bottom of her garden hadn’t yet attempted to make off with them. Her own wash day ritual was to silently pray they would tear the tiny abominations from her sight.
Lauren’s balcony door clattered open and Jill quickly softened her features, which had been twisted in annoyance. She ducked down to pick up her watering can and set about tending to her herbs.
“Morning Jill!” trilled Lauren. Jill had always thought Lauren had the voice of an obsequious little girl trapped in her toned 36-year-old personal trainer’s body. She guessed it must be something Lauren’s husband, Tom, approved of. Tom had moved in six years ago and Angelica had arrived a year later. At 45, Tom was closer to Jill’s age, but then that just went to show you – it was all Lauren-types fishing in the shallow pools of appropriate 40-something men that Jill had long ago given up dipping even a toe into.
“Good morning,” Jill replied, keeping her eyes fixed on her basil and lavender. She found looking at Lauren sometimes to be a little too much like staring directly at the sun. She was vaguely aware of stretching movements in her peripheral vision. Always showing off, that one, Jill thought, wincing as her knees popped. And the sports bra and leggings left little to the imagination.
“So how has lockdown been treating you, Jill?”
To be honest, Jill had received the government’s advice to stay indoors while a global pandemic raged on with a shrug. It wasn’t much of a difference to her usual life. She continued her weekly column for the area’s local magazine from her desk in her study as usual and carried on with her oil painting. Scenes of childhood holidays from memory. She worked on her website selling prints, commissions and painted seashells from home as usual. She only normally went out to the post office or the cornershop for the essentials. Very little difference, truth be told. Yet the younger generation whinged and fretted, writing blog posts on mental health and finding new ways to coerce tech into hosting virtual gatherings. Baffling why they weren’t welcoming the opportunity to embrace her calm way of life, as far as Jill was concerned.
“Getting through it,” replied Jill, with (what she hoped was) a brave smile. She couldn’t risk her publishers catching wind of the fact she was actually quite enjoying it. Of course, she felt sorry for the dead and their loved ones, but presumably they would’ve died of their underlying health conditions or age before long, wouldn’t they? And it was so much easier to navigate her way the rare times she went into town without all the students in the way – which made her think of a popular topic for small talk.
“And how are you getting on with your little one and her home-schooling?” She couldn’t bring herself to say Angelica’s preposterous name.
Lauren laughed, prettily, putting her hand unnecessarily over teeth that outshone even her daughter’s garments.
“She thinks she’s found a portal in her doll’s house, so I’ve asked her to write about it for English homework. The imaginations they have at their age!” Lauren shook her head in wonder, honey-coloured highlights bouncing merrily.
Jill couldn’t imagine. She’d never deemed having children worthy of her to do list and was happy with the company of her tortoiseshell puss, Jerry, when he graced her with his presence. Quiet, able to fend for himself, and much nicer-looking than a baby – wrinkled potatoes, Jill privately thought whenever she saw one in a stranger’s pram.
Lauren gave a pair of leggings a squeeze to see if they were still damp. “You’ll never guess what happened to me yesterday.”
“What’s that?” Jill asked one of her pansies.
“Well, while Angelica was occupied with her story, I tried to film some yoga tutorials for my clients. Only Harry was feeling frisky, and ended up climbing all over me while I was trying to bridge.”
Harry was not a rival to Tom, but Lauren’s Yorkshire terrier.
“Anyway, it was all caught on camera so I posted a clip on Twitter and it went viral! Jameela Jamil liked it, Chrissy Teigen retweeted it…” Lauren continued to reel off names Jill hadn’t heard of.
“You’ll have to send me the link,” Jill replied, attempting to stem the flow.
The phone tucked in Lauren’s waistband started beeping.
“That’ll be the cookies! Vegan and gluten-free, of course.” Another flash of the pearly whites. “Nice chatting to you Jill, I’ll speak to you soon.”
Jill had just remembered about the racket that had disturbed her the previous day and was about to ask if Angelica’s piano lessons could be put on hold, but by then the only thing left flapping at her from her neighbour’s balcony was the laundry.
That night Jill was kept awake by a different sound coming through the wall; one she couldn’t pin on a dog or a child. It was the unmistakable sound of a woman sobbing. Jill continued to thumb aimlessly through cake recipes as damned if she was going to let Lauren be the only one who could generate income from home as well as sideline in pastries. But as she switched off her bedside lamp to go to sleep, she couldn’t help but wonder what was troubling Lauren as the final cries hiccupped out of her.
At noon the next day, Jill placed her apple pie on her window ledge to cool. She twitched her tea towel at it a few times, which just happened to send sweet-smelling wafts over in Lauren’s direction. Satisfied, Jill sat down to type. Her columns were a light-hearted anecdotal nod to suburban life, sprinkled with landmarks her readers delighted in recognising and flavoured with the common characters that made up the local tapestry. She employed more than a degree of embellishment when writing about what ‘friends’ had said (her best friend Jerry’s stories, if he could speak, would only bring as much drama regarding the occasional hiss at spotting Harry or evoke as much commonality with the observation that sunbeams were nice to nap in).
Jill was getting into a good flow of describing what ‘friends’ had been putting in their windows to show signs of support and solidarity, when she was interrupted by another female cry. This one was considerably louder than last night’s. She glared at the wall, willing her gaze to transform into a laser that would shock the darling Angelica into silence. She heard Lauren cooing and shushing her. Perhaps homeschooling wasn’t going as swimmingly as the young mother had made out.
Jill rose to stretch her legs, and to carve herself a piece of pie. From the window, she saw a sight that instead almost made her slice off a thumb. Lauren was again on her balcony, but this time not performing a tree pose but trying to light a cigarette. Once she finally had it lit, Lauren swiped below her eyes with her free hand.
Jill’s curiosity got the better of her. She stepped out onto her balcony.
“Everything okay, Lauren?” she asked tentatively. Clearly things weren’t okay. Seeing Lauren ‘the body is a temple’ Ellis smoking was like spotting fish swimming in the sky.
“Oh, hi Jill.” Lauren drew circles in the air with her cigarette before realising it was too late to discard the evidence. “It’s not actually. Tom had to phone the pandemic hotline yesterday afternoon; he had symptoms. They collected him straight from work.” Tom, a keyworker, still had to report to his workplace.
The blue eyes, normally so full of sparkle, now had a dishwater appearance. “They won’t even let me visit him.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Jill. All the same, she was glad for the distance between their balconies. She would have felt obligated to hug Lauren otherwise, or at least pat her arm. She preferred her body not to come into contact with those of others, even before the government had announced guidelines on hygiene and social distancing.
Jill had trouble drifting off that night, although the neighbourhood was quiet save for the occasional sounds of distant sirens. She wondered about the drivers, the paramedics, the nurses and the doctors who looked from the news reports more as if they were to embark on a journey into space rather than treat the sick.
Eventually she gave up on sleep and got up to make herself a hot drink. She indulged in her new favourite pastime, trawling websites to look for recipes on how to make the most out of what was left in the kitchen cupboards. The recipe of the day on one of the sites she had bookmarked was for a vegan lasagne. Jill tutted, making Jerry’s ears twitch suspiciously. She was about to scroll on for something meaty and indulgent, when a strange voice of a conscience that had lain dormant for many years spoke up.
“Lauren might appreciate a meal cooked for her, y’know.”
Jill felt her stomach lurch. The voice was eerily similar to that of her husband, Giles, who had died in a car accident some 10 years previously. A pang of loss punched Jill’s heart. She had dealt with her grief by filling her head with other voices – commandeering an army that she ordered to get to work in her columns. If they were unavailable, imaginary dialogue with Jerry usually did the trick. Radio and television often helped. And the frequent noises from Lauren’s side provided a channel for the anger. An anger that she denied was really at her having been robbed of the mundanity of her own brand of domestic chaos.
Lost in memories, Jill had barely noticed her hands reaching out to open cupboard doors and she paid little attention to her knees cracking when she knelt down to the fridge. In a trance she opened the door to her balcony and clipped herbs under the peaceful watch of the moon.
In amongst the Ellis’ mail the next morning was a note telling Lauren to look outside. Lauren opened her front door, red-eyed and almost snarling at the breeze. It was an airborne virus, after all, that had put her husband in hospital. Fear prevented her from sucking in lungfulls of air as she was normally recommending her students did at the end of sessions. She was all for holistic approaches of combining mental exercises with the physical, but she was now so sick of thinking about health.
On her doorstep was a bag containing a bottle and a large plastic box with a note pinned to it.
I thought you might like this. I hope it’s come out alright. My first time cooking something completely vegan.
I can give you the recipe if you want – maybe in exchange for you showing me some exercises. My legs aren’t quite what they were.
There’s also some homemade raspberry liqueur – perhaps you’ll join me (at a safe distance) outside for a glass sometime.