by Angelita Bradney
The phone’s ring bit the air like an intruder.
I hadn’t heard from Tom for months. Years if you don’t count a card at Christmas.
‘Dad, I’m calling to see if you’re all right.’
‘Why shouldn’t I be all right?’ I asked.
‘Because of the epidemic.’
I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world. The TV is thick with dust and I can’t be bothered with the radio. There’s nothing but bad news on, and other folks’ troubles don’t interest me.
‘They say you must stay indoors, don’t go near people if you can help it.’
I looked out the window at my vegetable garden. The tops of the carrots made fuzzy green rows above the soil. Bean stalks wound their way around the canes, and the leaves of the potato plants were turning yellow and starting to wilt, which meant they were ready to dig. A man can live a long time on potatoes.
Tom’s voice changed. ‘Dad.’ Like he’d swallowed something and was having trouble getting the words out. ‘Dad, it’s bad. Mary’s in hospital. They won’t let me see her.’
I remembered Mary. One of those soft women, with freckles and curly hair. No doubt she’d aged since we last met. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
Tom said, ‘Stay safe, Dad. I’ll phone you again.’
He never did.
I thought I might as well get the TV working. The flickering screen showed a supermarket with smashed windows and empty shelves. A body being pulled off the street by figures in suits and masks, the pavement washed down with disinfectant. Suburbs as still as death, the front doors of houses marked with a cross. School gates chained shut.
School for me was being yanked backwards by my collar, feeling the playground grit beneath my cheek and Barry Crocker’s knees in the small of my back. Dog shit on my chair, my PE kit stolen, sniggers in the classroom and shoves in the corridor. Some mornings the sight of the gates was enough to make me throw up my breakfast.
I liked the look of those chains.
Over the next few days I carried on as normal. Some things were different, mind. My rubbish wasn’t collected. The cows in the next field lurched and bellowed, their udders grossly swollen. The electricity went off for a while. At night I was kept awake by the neighbour’s dog barking. It carried on for three days, then stopped. At some point I heard banging on the door, but I ignored it.
A week later I went outside, walked up to the ridge above the bypass. The sun pressed spears of yellow light through the clouds. There was no drone of traffic, no whine of sirens. I licked my lips; the breeze tasted fresh. A hawk swooped above the fields then dived, clean as a knife. Below me lay miles of untouched countryside, silent roads, empty villages. Empty of whispers, sidelong looks, people judging. My rusty voice let out a whoop, then another. It rang like a bell in the untainted sky, with only me to hear.
Angelita Bradney’s short fiction has been published in literary magazines including Ellipsis Zine, The Cabinet of Heed, The Fiction Pool, and Litro, as well as anthologies including Nothing Is As It Was, a collection of stories about climate change. She won the 2017 National Memory Day short story prize and has been shortlisted or highly commended in other competitions including the Fish Prize. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and lives in London.