CW: covid related death
Lindiwe hurriedly closed the front door of her lodging, in anticipation of her sister's call. It had been snowing all night and would probably continue all day. Heading for her attic bedsit, she passed through the communal kitchen, waded through an overflowing kitchen sink before retrieving her mug which someone had unceremoniously left unwashed among the mess from the night before. This was becoming a recurring problem; her housemates using her stuff and leaving it discarded in the communal space. There was never anyone obvious to blame. She took her tea up the stairs into her small cubbyhole, advertised as a reasonably priced single room with all amenities under one roof. The estate agent had deliberately not mentioned that there was not enough room to swing a cat, never mind keeping her all worldly possessions. Her meagre furniture consisted of a fold-away desk, a battered old chair with lumpy cushions and a wooden wardrobe with a warped mirror which made her look twice her size. Under her single bed, a battered suitcase was gathering dust, full of discarded new, too thin or too colourful clothes she had bought second hand in flea markets back home. Even her new shoes had turned out to be totally unsuitable, with no grip on the icy streets of snow-covered London.
While sipping her now lukewarm tea, Lindiwe perched on the bed, staring out of the window. The surrounding snow-coated rooftops glistened against the backdrop of clear blue skies. The beautiful scenery did not detract from the depressing cold temperatures of her adopted country. Immediately below her window ledge was their garden, where occasionally, birds visited the now frozen birdbath near the sentry-like tall yew trees. She could hear the intermitted hum of distant traffic and an occasional 'ping' from her self-regulating radiator. In the "Come to the UK to fill well-paid job vacancies and get a better life,' brochures, there had been no mention that winter would go on forever, and the sun would occasionally come out, deceptively playing hide and seek behind the clouds.
"Hello? Hello? I can't hear you. Oh, it's you, Maita. You sound so faint!"
"Sis Lindiwe? I am already shouting! How can you not hear me?"
"That's much better. How are you? It's such a relief to hear a familiar voice and speak in Shona. You know spending one's days speaking a foreign language can be really exhausting!" They both laughed.
"Seriously Lindiwe, you sound low. What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I am just tired after finishing work. Taking two trains every day to get to work is no joke. It eventually takes its toll. I nearly missed my stop because I was already dozing off. I'm just so tired these days."
"I keep telling you, to slow down Lindiwe and you don't listen. We don't want you coming back with lots of health problems."
"I can't afford to move nearer work to reduce the commute. But I'm lucky my current employer allows me to work nights permanently in the care home. It's the only way I can earn extra money. Our parents' new house is not going to build itself."
"Speaking of which, let me fill you in before the power on my phone runs low. Our electricity has gone, and I won't be able to recharge before this evening."
"What's happening back home? We used to have 24-hour electricity!"
"The power cuts are actually better now than they have shut down the industries because of the Covid-19 curfew. Once that is over, we are back to power being rationed and coming in the middle of the night. Then everyone gets up to charge phones, cook, hoover, iron, you name it! Night becomes day. You are laughing, but it's no joke! We are a nation of complainers about the powers that be and then do nothing about it, apart from making plans to circumvent the problem. That's what we are good at, complaining and making plans. We are political cowards. Anyway, that's not why I phoned."
"It's good to hear about home, no matter how bad the situation is. So what's new?"
"Dad asked me to ask you to send a bit extra this month."
"What do you mean a bit extra?"
"Don't shoot the messenger!"
"How much extra?"
"I told Dad you wouldn't be happy and that you are sending as much as you can. But things are tight here."
"Where are things not tight Maida? Do you know that I can barely pay my rent after sending money home? I don't think you realise how difficult and expensive it is to live in this country. The only decent meal I get is at work. I live on junk food, and I haven't bought any new clothes for some time. I'm lucky we wear uniforms for work. It's so cold here, nothing like the winter at home. Even with layers of jerseys and my old overcoat which a sympathetic workmate donated to me, I am constantly complaining of the cold."
"Lindiwe, I can't get a word in edgeways! You haven't even asked why we need the money. Mum's in hospital."
"Oh, no! Since when? What's wrong with her?"
"She was admitted two nights ago. We didn't phone you because we knew you would panic and anyway you were at work. Then we didn't want to disturb your sleep after night shift. What's wrong with her? We honestly don't know. She's been undergoing various tests."
"I'm really sorry. I'll take all my complaining back. Is it serious?"
"All I know is that Dad was in a real state when he phoned me at work. I just dropped everything and went home to take her to the emergency 24-hour clinic. She said she was feeling weak and having trouble breathing."
"That doesn't sound good. Why didn't Dad call an ambulance to take her to the main hospital?"
"When did you last catch up on the news from home? The ambulance services are charging an arm and a leg! The nurses are still on strike in the public hospitals, demanding more pay. Both the government and nurses' unions are being intransigent. If you want treatment, you must use the private hospitals and pay through the nose. Before they even admit you, they want to know which medical cover you are on. Otherwise its cash up-front."
"I thought Mum was covered by Dad's medical aid?"
"She is. But add up the costs for the last time she was in hospital with her kidney disease and her trips to specialists. Dad now has a huge shortfall, and he is trying to settle it from his measly government pension. We wouldn't ask you if we could cope Sis Lindiwe. I'm no help, I earn peanuts! I know you've already sent quite a lot of money to help out with Mum's dialysis treatment, nephews' school fees, the remaining building work on the parents' retirement home and support at funerals the parents have been attending because of Covid. It's getting terrible here. People are dropping like flies."
"The death rate is no better here Maida, especially in the old age homes. I only hope the parents are not exposing themselves at these numerous funerals; otherwise, they will catch the virus. No-one seems to respect social distancing based on the TV snippets I have seen. People might as well go mask-less. I've seen some wearing them under their chins or with noses out, you name it!"
"I've tried warning them and even curtailed their travel by not providing transport, especially to the rural areas. But there is little else I can do. They keep saying if we don't bury our friends and relatives, who will mourn us? It's like they think there is an attendance register."
"There probably is, in people's minds!" Lindiwe chimed in.
"Seriously," Maida continued, "there's endless and subtle peer pressure, especially in the case of Mum. Her church group keep her abreast of what's happening. She is now our news source when it comes to who has died, where and of what. That's aside from coping with our own relatives' demands for support. So she feels obliged to go."
"Can't Dad try and stop her?"
" You know our mother has a mind of her own! To be fair, since Dad's retirement, he has also joined her with most of his potentially vulnerable friends. Their badge of success is being overweight and unfit! The only people benefitting from this pandemic are medical facilities and funeral parlours. Can you imagine there are now specialised Covid-19 doctors who conduct house calls, charging exorbitant prices!"
"I came in from work, thinking that my life is stressful. But it sounds like the situation is getting worse back home. I'm getting paid tomorrow and will send you some money by the quickest means. I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier on. If you weren't at home, I don't know who'd look after the parents. My work friends from other countries-we are all in the same predicament. We work all hours and do what we can, what with high unemployment back home. But thanks for calling and when you receive the money, phone me."
Trying to fight off self-pity that had enveloped her, Lindiwe took down her album and started flicking through, looking at the down memory lane pictures. Some were now fading with age. Occasionally she would peek through her frosty bedroom window beyond the icicles hanging off the cornices and stare along the street, where cars were making furrows in the newly fallen snow. People were walking purposefully along the pavements, heading for unknown destinations.
A week later, Lindiwe received another call,
"Hie Maita. It's unlike you to phone when I am supposed to be sleeping. What's up?"
"Hie Sis. How's work? "
"Something's up. Your timing has gone awry. I have only just got into bed."
"What about Mum? Maita!"
"She passed away last night in her sleep."
There was a short silence as Lindiwe dragged herself out of bed, muffling her screams in her sleeve. She started pacing up and down as she tried to control herself.
"I am so sorry! What happened? I can't believe this. I thought you said she was going through some tests, which is why I sent the money!"
"It's tragic. And Dad is taking it so hard. Did I tell you? He's also in hospital, and this time I am pretty sure with the symptoms he described before he went in, its Covid. Which is what the doctors said Mum died of, aside from her kidney issues. I am anxious because remember Dad also has a pre-existing medical condition. His blood pressure levels are now off the charts!"
"What can I do to help? I feel so far away and helpless."
"I know I'm beginning to sound like an old record, but all you can do is send more money to help out with funeral expenses. Although the funeral parlours are taking care of everything if one's policy is up to date, our relatives and her church people will come home in droves to the house to pay their condolences."
"Even when they know Mum died of Covid? I thought people are being discouraged from assembling especially at funerals. I know of three people who died recently after attending a funeral; the deceased, his son, and their priest who conducted the burial ceremony. It's awful. Going back to Dad and you, have either of you been tested?"
"Not before he went in. Dad is in complete denial. He's the number one conspiracy theorist! Unfortunately, he is not the only one. Its a phenomenon among his friends. As for me, I have been putting it off for some time and eventually decided to go when Dad went in. I'm waiting for results. It's become big business here. Part of the money you sent, I used it for my own test. I'm sorry, I couldn't afford the cost before my payday. It's US $60 for a test which for you in the UK is probably not very much."
"Let's hope you are fine. Are you experiencing any of the symptoms?"
"Although it's not winter here, several people have been suffering from flu-like symptoms. But I'm ok. Just a little tired, especially with the running around I've been doing looking after the parents."
"Let me know when you get your results. Because of my work, we get tested regularly, and we are even at the front of the line for the new vaccine. Its times like this, I wish you were also recipients of such benefits back home."
"We're a long way from getting free tests and vaccines. Even if they were available, someone would want to make people pay. I take it you won't be able to come for Mum's funeral?"
"I'm sorry I won't be there supporting you all in person, and I'm gutted. I would also have wanted closure myself. With the current quarantine periods, closed borders, and all that; it's virtually impossible to travel internationally. I assume you will not have a Zoom service, so I'll just keep phoning you for updates. But please pass my love to Dad and tell him to get well soon."
The winter days dragged on, and like a robot, Lindiwe went to work and back. The passion was no longer in her. At one point, she thought she was suffering from seasonal affective disorder compounded by stress about the situation at home. Text messages kept flowing in from various chat groups, and Maida even sent one or two, but all they seemed to do was draw Lindiwe further into a deep hole of depression, compounded by her inadequate sleep. She knew she was becoming too introspective and decided a walk in the sunshine would uplift her spirits. She was feeling increasingly claustrophobic in her bedsit.
There was a common near her place where, in all weather, she had seen dog walkers strolling with their charges scampering in wild circles of freedom, while mothers kept a watchful eye on their toddlers in the playground. Overnight the ground had been hardened by sub-zero temperatures which created ice crystals on tree branches, while the snow continued falling in light white flakes. Patches of the ground was covered in slush, especially where multiple feet had trodden along the footpath. A sizeable frozen lake nearby was now devoid of birdlife which had migrated elsewhere. Lindiwe's cellphone began ringing as she walked. She paused to answer it.
"Maida. I've just finished work and am taking a stroll. How are you, and how's Dad?"
"Hallo Lindiwe, it's your cousin Ben. I am well, and you? How the UK?"
"All is well. Long time! But why are you on Maida's phone? What's happened to her?"
"I'm so sorry I don't know how to say this, but your father passed away last night. He never came off the ventilator. Maida had been staying at my mum's place since she was not feeling well of late. She received the news about your dad and the next thing we knew, she had collapsed. It was all so quick. My mum tried to revive her while I called an ambulance, but we were too late. I'm really sorry."
"This can't be! I talked to her only yesterday! How could she have deteriorated so quickly?"
"We honestly don't know. It must have been the shock, and I don't think she had fully recovered from the recent loss of your mum. When Maida phoned you, we were in the same room and heard part of the conversation. She already had her positive test results by then. We kept nudging her to tell you that she was not well either. But she said you had enough to cope with. So, we let her be."
"I would have wanted to speak to your mum right now, but I can't. I need to get back to my flat and get my head around all this. What makes it worse is that I can't come home. Thanks for calling Ben. I wouldn't have known what was happening if you hadn't phoned. First its Mum, then Dad and now Maida…"
As she put her phone back in her winter coat pocket, Lindiwe wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck and stepped tentatively onto the frozen surface of the lake. The thin ice cracked like shattered glass as she carried on wading, sinking, creating ripples under the ice until she disappeared without a trace.