Like the rest of us, Lou Clark is locked down. JoJo Moyes revisits the beloved character from her Me Before You trilogy exclusively for Penguin.co.uk.
Like the rest of us, Lou Clark is locked down. JoJo Moyes revisits the beloved character from her Me Before You trilogy exclusively for Penguin.co.uk.
“Louisa. Where’s your saucepan? You haven’t got a saucepan!”
Mum stuck her head into the garage, where I was trying to sort through one of the boxes of clothes and sighed. “Look at that. You know Dad can’t get the lawnmower out of the garage with all your boxes stacked up there.”
I had actually pointed this out to Dad before we had crammed them in, but he’d shrugged and said it would be fine. He was now just visible on a deckchair in the waist-high grass of our tiny garden, as he cracked open another beer. “Terrible shame,” he murmured, taking a swig.
“That man’s been in training for this lockdown his whole life,” she said, as I hauled one box back onto another. “On his backside twelve hours a day with breaks for feeding. C’mon Bernard! Ten minutes till we have The Clap! Up you get!”
“You’ve got to stop calling it that, Mum. And do I have to? I really need to sort these boxes.”
“That non-stick was way too quiet last week. Maybe the egg-poacher with a metal serving spoon. C’mon. We haven’t got long. Are you well? You look a bit pale. Do you have a temperature?”
She peered at me doubtfully then turned and went indoors.
I gazed at the six boxes of vintage clothes, the auction haul I had brought here almost two months previously, and with a sigh, pulled the garage door shut with a grunt and went in to find a noisier saucepan.
I had arrived in England in March, as I did four times a year, to restock my vintage clothes agency, The Bees Knees. I usually stayed with Mum and Dad and flew home to New York the week after, the clothes coming later by container. “Odd. The shipping company are saying they can’t ship my new stock,” I told my parents, as I checked my email. “Something about a virus.”
“Oh there’s always some virus,” said Dad. “It’ll blow over. I heard pigs get this one and you don’t see them panicking.”
“Don’t you dare go back to New York and leave all those boxes blocking the garage,” Mum said.
“There’s Chanel in that box. I’m more likely to buy it its own first class ticket and send it home before me.”
I sat on the phone to the airline waiting to change my ticket and wondering for the 15th time why nobody was responding.
And then lockdown happened.
And the world stopped.
Dad’s mate Paddy down the social club, who knew someone who knew someone in the Civil Service, said it would be two, three weeks at most. I called the girls at the Vintage Clothes Emporium and told them to shut down my section and that I’d be back soon. I organised an online grocery delivery for Sam and he said there was no point trying to rush back as they were saying paramedics would have to isolate from their families anyway. “If it’s going to be a couple of weeks you’ll be better off with your folks than stuck here on your own.”
I was relieved I’d brought Dean Martin with me (he was elderly, and I didn’t like leaving him for more than a couple of days) and he lay snoring in his basket at my feet as I called my regular clients and explained I was on a buying trip but would soon be back with new stock.
“My God, that’s an ugly dog,” Dad said admiringly, as he did whenever he walked in and saw him. “Sure he’d take Triple Gold in the Ugly Olympics.”
“Ssh,” I’d say, blocking Dean Martin’s soft ears. “You’ll hurt his feelings.”
“Every time he breaks wind he hurts mine. But you don’t hear me complaining.”
“We all know that isn’t the dog, Bernard,” Mum said.
As the weeks passed I had gone from a state of blind panic, through anxiety, restlessness, rage and had entered something like acceptance. It was like Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, but with four carb-heavy meals a day and Mum spraying anti-bac on anyone who came within six feet of her. Even indoors.
My parents had started pretty well, making jokey leaps to avoid anyone on the pavement, and amused by the pallor of television stars now presenting without professional make-up. “Will you look at what Sophie Raworth’s done with her hair though? She’s getting ever so good. I’d love to know what heated rollers they’ve given her.”
“You could see the grey coming through on that weatherman though,” Dad agreed. “I think he’s been at the boot polish today. Looks like a Thunderbird.”
Mum and I did Joe Wicks’ workouts every morning in the front room, laughing and sweating and trying not to crash into the coffee table. We grumbled at the nightly governmental briefings on the radio and Mum attacked unseen bacteria that might have crept into our house with the vigilance and ruthlessness of a paid assassin, bleaching door handles, individual curtain rings, Dean Martin’s paws, and checked our temperatures three times a day. The house had never been cleaner. Twice she had begun changing my bed sheets before I had even woken up.
We held family Zoom meetings where Treena and I tried to talk while Lila, her and Eddie’s toddler, planted wet kisses on the screen and Mum scrubbed away at her computer with a wet wipe. Treena detailed daily Excel spreadsheets from London comparing daily global death and hospitalisation rates, and pooh-poohing Mum’s Facebook conspiracy theories. “No Mum, The Deep State did not feed the virus through air conditioning. And no, gargling with hydrogen peroxide isn’t a good idea.” She and Eddie home-schooled Thom so rigorously that Thom’s teachers had been forced to ask them to slow down as he was leaving the other children behind. I think at three Baby Lila’s literacy skills may have been better than Dad’s.
Every week I drove to the supermarket and queued obediently, sweating under my pink sequinned facemask (old habits died hard), nodding at people who might have been neighbours and dodging middle-aged men who walked straight at me, as if I was in a particularly manic game of human dodgems. I would bear my puny victories home like the spoils of war. “Look! Actual flour! And Yorkshire Tea! It was the last pack so I had to cough really loudly near this woman to get her out of the aisle.”
And every Thursday we stood and clapped outside our front doors and remarked how nice it was that all the neighbours were talking. Mum would elbow us to keep clapping until we were whacking our hands limply together like exhausted seals.
“I’m not having Siobhan from 42 saying we’re not for the NHS,” she hissed.
“Mum. You’re banging a casserole lid, distributing Intensive Care cupcakes and wearing an apron on which you’ve embroidered I LOVE THE NHS. I think they get it.”
Eight Thursdays we had done this. I told myself that this was a strange little interlude and that I would see Sam again before long. My real life would return. I should just try and enjoy the extra time with Mum and Dad. And not mind the house was so small that Dad occasionally cheered from downstairs if he heard me break wind.
But in truth, I was struggling to keep everybody cheerful. My parents had fallen into a kind of stasis. Mum and I stopped doing Joe Wicks when his beautiful wife took over and we admitted that watching her made us feel like a pair of King Edward potatoes. Dad did nothing except watch television or sit in his deckchair in the overgrown garden. He missed his friends at the club but didn’t like talking on the telephone or via the computer, so he just sat, mumping about the state of the world, as Mum put it. I walked Dean Martin along the same streets I had walked as a child, and he looked as fed up with it all as I felt (though, to be fair, I had never seen him look any other way). I scrolled through Instagram and admired people’s banana bread, vague sunsets and bikini bodies, and lay on my bed, marvelling at the fact that it was 4pm yet again and trying not to wish away the remains of another day.
And every day I checked my phone 158 times for messages from Sam. I followed American statistics obsessively. If he failed to call every 12 hours I became convinced he was dead. I eventually stopped listening to the news, as it made me fearful of what the world was going to be when I finally stepped back into it. Some days I felt I only existed for the moments we could speak to each other.
I miss you.
I miss you.
I miss you too.
Sometimes it felt as if that was all we said to each other.
I missed Sam like someone had removed some vital scaffolding from me. I could close my eyes and know the exact way it felt to rest against him, my head on his chest, my leg slung over his. The way his arm would wrap around me, holding me to him. I missed our Sunday mornings in the diner on Columbus Circle, our Friday night take-outs and walks around the Botanic Garden at Prospect Park. I missed our stupid jokes and the sight of our clothes tangled together in the laundry basket and him waiting for me outside the shop on his motorbike when he finished an early shift.
There would be a moment every morning where I woke and reached blindly for him and when I realised he wasn’t there it was as if a chasm had opened up in front of me that I had to leap just to make myself start the day.
“It feels like this will never end.” I had said, on our last call. I had nothing much to tell him. What he had to tell me – the emergency calls, the endless switching of protective clothing, the exhaustion the death the oxygen the sirens the sirens the sirens – he didn’t want to.
“You know what mountaineers say?” he said, after a moment. “Don’t look up. Just look at your feet. One step at a time, Lou. Just until we know we’re on the home stretch.”
I tried not to complain to him about how I felt. He was dealing with life and death every day. I was dealing with the fact that Dad had eaten the Chocolate Hobnobs I’d been saving in the cupboard above the cooker.
“Stay safe,” I whispered, and repeated it superstitiously every time he put down the phone.
On week nine I woke up to an email from Lydia at the Vintage Clothes Emporium. I thought she was going to ask about one of the dresses – we often sold each other’s stock – but this email was uncharacteristically sombre.
So the landlord says he can’t afford to reduce our rent. We’ve been talking for days but the bottom line is we’re going to have to close. At best take everything online. Really sorry but we don’t have a choice. We were barely making enough to get by as it was.
Maybe we can talk about doing something online together?
Stay safe, sweetie. We miss you.
I read it twice, disbelieving, even though I had worried about this day coming for weeks. I sat and dropped my head in my hands, her words ringing in my head.
So that was it. My business was gone. And without two salaries we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent on our apartment. Everything I had aimed for, everything I’d worked so hard for over the past five years, was collapsing around me.
“You alright, love?” said Mum, when I eventually came downstairs. “You’re awful pale.”
She immediately put her hand on my forehead. The level of household hypochondria now bordered on manic. Any cough, sneeze or hint of tiredness and at least one other member of the household would yell: COVID! and immediately withdraw to a safe distance. The worst thing was how much you actually imagined your way into a symptom. Did I feel sick? I definitely felt sick. Was that a pain in my lung?
“Just tired,” I said, and sat down at the table. I was tired. More tired than I had ever been. I’d read an article about it: apparently being in a pandemic activated some part of the amygdala that made you want to escape a bear or something. And when you couldn’t see the bear, it exhausted your poor brain even more. I had tried to explain this to Treena on Zoom the previous day and she had remarked that she was pretty sure that there was no bear, or in my case even an amygdala, and I’d had to remind her that actually I’d survived falling off a building so she could shut up, and Mum had intervened and said: what were we, twelve?
I couldn’t face telling her the truth.
“Just not sleeping very well. I’ll be fine,” I said. Mum gave me the look that mothers give you when they plainly don’t believe a word and plan to push for information at a time when Loose Women isn’t about to come on, then went back to bleaching the dustpan and brush.
I told Sam via Skype that night. I hated giving him bad news, knowing that his whole day was spent wading through it.
“Well… maybe you can find another outlet,” he said, rubbing at his face. He looked exhausted.
“In Manhattan? And who is going to want to wear someone else’s clothes after this anyway? People are going to be germophobic. There will probably be some new directive saying I have to boil wash everything before I rent it out.”
“You don’t know that.”
“And how will we afford the apartment?”
“We have some savings.”
“But not enough.”
“Shall we worry about that once we’re together again…?”
“I’m sorry. I’m just… sad, I guess. It’s like everything’s ending and I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.”
“It’s not all ended. We’re okay, aren’t we? Look, maybe this will force us to make some decisions”.
I must have looked sceptical.
“Everything’s changing, Lou. Maybe it’s time for us to change too.”
Sam and I were world-class non-decision makers, according to my sister. We put off everything. We talked periodically about coming back to the UK – we missed our families and Sam wanted to live in his house, not a tiny overpriced apartment. Except we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to leave. We had talked about starting a family – watching Eddie pregnant with Lila had made me broody, and, as Dad put it (slightly too often), I wasn’t getting any younger. Mum and Dad and I would watch the children careening on screen behind them and Mum would say, tearfully, that she was missing their childhoods, and I would feel a twinge of sadness that with every month away from Sam I was missing my chance. We would definitely talk about it, we had told each other, when I got back. Or when he was less tired from his shifts. We would clear some space in our schedules and sit down and work it all out. But somehow when it was a conversation that could potentially change everything; where we lived, whether we got married, what I did about the business, neither of us ever felt quite ready – or grown-up enough - to instigate it.
And in truth, apart from Sam, I wasn’t even sure what it was I wanted.
“When I get back,” I said.
“I mean we could talk now, but…”
“You’re tired. Now is not the time.”
He wiped his eyes, and I wished I could pull him to me.
“I miss you.”
“I miss you more.”
He smiled, and I felt briefly better, in the way that I always did when Sam smiled at me. But when he logged off I found my eyes had filled unexpectedly with tears.
I was queuing outside the supermarket when I saw him. We were stood on our taped markers, two metres apart, shuffling one section forward with our masks on and glowering at anyone who inched a footstep too many - when I realised that there was something familiar about the man three markers back. He stood, paunch hanging over his tracksuit bottoms, his upper half slumped exhaustedly over a triple-buggy in which three squalling toddlers wailed, wielding half-empty bottles of milk at each other.
As I squinted, he pulled down his mask.
“… Patrick?” I said, and stared.
“Lou!” he said. The two people between us stepped back, as if our conversation might generate germs.
“You… you look… wow. Are they … yours?”
He mustered a smile. “Yup! All three of them! It’s … great being a dad. Just … great. Best thing I ever did. The missus is having a little break this afternoon so I said I’d bring them.”
“I thought children weren’t allowed in the supermarket?”
“Oh, I leave them outside. Nobody will take them.”
He gazed at them for a moment, and said again, almost as if to himself. “Yup. Nobody will take them.”
“Amazing! How are your folks?”
“Fine,” he said, and rubbed at his eyes. “Everyone’s fine. Life’s great. I mean I haven’t had much time to train so I’m not quite race fit just now, but… you know. I’ll be back into the old Ironman before long.”
I moved my gaze diplomatically from his belly. We stared at each other for a minute, in the way that people do who were once attached and now can’t quite understand what it was that had attached them.
“So… you’re still living in New York?”
“Yes. Here till lockdown ends and then I’ll be … “
“… straight back on the plane.”
“Yup. Weird times… weird times.”
It wasn’t just that he didn’t look like Patrick. He looked like someone who had eaten Patrick. I was just trying to adjust to this new version of my former fiancé, when he said:
“Shame about Mr Traynor.”
I looked up.
“You didn’t hear? He died. Last weekend.”
“What did you say?”
I was having trouble hearing over the ringing in my ears.
“You know, Will’s dad.”
When I kept staring, he added: “It was in the paper. Covid. It was in the news section and the notices at the back. The latest Stortfold Recorder.”
“But – but he has a baby.”
“Six year old. I know. It’s really sad. But, he was old. Should have been shielding by all accounts.”
I turned and walked away before he could say anything else. I wasn’t even sure where I was going. I just knew I felt sick and dizzy and I needed to get out of the queue. I was dimly aware of him shouting “Great to see you!” as I walked across the car park.
Mr Traynor was the first person I knew who had actually died of it. Up until now the virus had been an abstract; a blurry monster on the horizon. But Mr Traynor? I thought of his kindnesses when I had started work at his house. The gentle, loving way he had been with Will. I felt an enormous sadness for Mrs Traynor, despite their divorce. I thought of Lily. We had barely spoken this year and now I felt terrible. One of her last remaining links with her father had gone. This thing was real.
Everything had shifted.
I tried to call Sam three times that evening, but he didn’t pick up, and I fought a rising sense of panic. I filled the bath and cried while the taps were running so that my parents wouldn’t hear. I felt suddenly overwhelmed, like all the good things that had made up my life, all the things I’d taken for granted, were just disappearing like soap bubbles. I lowered my head under the water and for the first time, I wondered if my life – anyone’s life – would ever really be the same again.
Something dark descended on me and I couldn’t shake it. I stopped listening to news bulletins, unable to cope with other people’s sadness. I hid in my room and curled up in a ball with Dean Martin and wondered if there was any way I could just lay down and sleep until it was all over. Work emails came in and I didn’t have the energy to answer them. I thought of the fact that I would never again be in the Emporium with the girls, exclaiming over the stitching on an Ossie Clarke jumpsuit, or modelling 1970s Afghan coats that still smelt like there was a 1970s Afghan in them. I mourned my dream life. All in tatters. All wasted.
Mum huffed and puffed her way past my bedroom door and I wondered grumpily how you couldn’t do a thing in this house without someone being aware of it. All of social media seemed to be either a howl of anxiety or a sourdough loaf, so I stopped looking.
Treena messaged me several times and said that Mum was worried about me. Mum brought tea and told me to call Treena who was worried about me. Dad knocked on the door to see if there were any more Hobnobs. “I don’t like to go to the supermarket myself. It gives me the heebie jeebies.”
Sam messaged me twice. Sorry. It’s bad here. Will be in touch when I can. Love you xx
I scrolled through pictures of him on my phone, pictures of us laughing together in another world, afraid that I had begun to forget what he looked like. In my darker moments I wondered if I would ever even see him again. What if he caught it and died out there, away from everyone, surrounded by masked faces and protective screens? He was someone who would put another person’s safety before his own. The kind of person who would lend someone his mask, hold an infected person himself if it would help. I wished I hadn’t read all the stories about the healthy people who caught it and were gone within days. The thought would make me nauseous and I would pull my knees up to my chest and screw my eyes shut. And then I would fall asleep again.
And at some point in this strange, meandering few days, Mum stomped into my bedroom with a pile of laundry, dumped it on my chest of drawers and said:
“Come on. It’s time to get up.”
I pulled the duvet up above my head and mumbled.
“I can’t. I’m not well.”
“No. You’re a bit down. There’s a difference.”
“I’m too tired.”
“Get up. It’s Thursday evening. It’s time for The Clap.”
“Oh Jesus. Mum I don’t care what the neighbours think.” My parents had started to really irritate me.
Mum opened the curtains and frowned at the collection of mugs on my bedside table.
“This isn’t about the neighbours. This is about us showing support for what people out there are doing. People like your Sam. It’s not like we’re asked to do much except sit on our arses. C’mon. Up you get.”
“I can’t…” I started to cry. “My business is over. The girls can’t make rent and we’re all out. It’s all done, Mum. Everything.”
She stood at the foot of the bed and waited for me to stop sobbing. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
“I’m sorry, love,” she said, eventually. “That’s tough. I know what that business meant to you.” She let out a long breath. “This thing is causing so much grief to so many.”
She reached over and took my hand, and I squeezed it. Then, as I sniffed, she pulled the duvet off me and dumped it on the floor. “Now up you get. And put a bit of lippy on and some blusher on those cheeks and brush your hair. You look like a wet weekend in Hull.”
I made it outside at a minute to eight, blinking in the unfamiliar daylight. As Mum stood at the front gate, Dad and I clapped lethargically behind her. Mum banged a spatula on a copper saucepan that she’d cleaned specially (“I’m not having Carole say I don’t know what to do with a scourer”) and Dean Martin barked, as he did every Thursday, at the unexpected noise around him.
It all seemed like the most meaningless of gestures suddenly. Who even cared, other than show-offs on social media? I listened to the cheers and horns and banging and Mrs Fitzwilliam wailing on the bagpipes outside the flats in the hope that someone would put her on YouTube and checked my watch surreptitiously to see how much longer I had to stand there.
And then I noticed the children.
I’d forgotten we even had children in our street. These days nobody played out. There were no scooters skidding past our door, or footballs careening into our tiny front garden. Nobody had played in the street for weeks.
Two of them stood there in the front garden of the house opposite, pale and tired, glancing up at their parents with anxious faces. The children, I thought, looked sadder than I did.
Mum followed the direction of my gaze. “The poor lambs. They must be bored rigid. And most of us with a garden like a postage stamp. The little ones in the flats don’t even have that.”
It was their faces that stayed with me when we closed our front door. I sat squished between Mum and Dad on the sofa that evening, watching the families of Gogglebox watching other people on television, and I wondered what it would be like to be seven years old and stuck inside four walls for 23 hours a day. For months. As children, we had roamed our streets on bikes or on foot, a semi-feral gang, daring each other to stick our hands in bushes with wasps’ nests or jump off the garage roof. What I remembered most about my childhood was freedom. Not an amorphous monster that kept you locked in your house like a prisoner and threatened to kill your grandparents if you tried to give them a cuddle.
I couldn’t sleep that night. At a quarter past one, I went out to the garage, wrapped in my dressing gown. The street was so silent that you could hear the rustling of birds in the trees. I lifted the garage door with a grunt, let the fluorescent light flicker into life, and stared at the six enormous boxes of now-defunct vintage stock, thinking.
The next day I posted on the street’s WhatsApp group (this had started off as a means of getting shopping to the vulnerable but now seemed to be mostly complaints about parking, noise and a Stasi-like exposè of who had who to visit in their back garden.)
“Tell me your favourite television or storybook character and how old you are and I’ll make you a costume for next week’s NHS Clap. No money required.
Louisa Clark at 17 Renfrew Road”
(The Bees Knees Clothes Agency)”
Nothing happened for a day. I wondered whether people had thought there was a catch, or just that I was a bit weird. And then at six o’clock my phone dinged with the WhatsApp chime.
“If this is the lady opposite, I would like to be Princess Elsa from Frozen. I am eight. My brother likes Where’s Wally. He is five.
Michelle Rodman. No 14.”
“Mum? Do you know Michelle Rodman?”
“Ooh, yes, sweet girl. Lovely red hair.”
“She wants to be a princess. I’m going to make her an outfit.”
“How lovely.” She frowned for a moment. “I’ll just say… she likes her food. You wouldn’t want the costume to … come up small.”
I walked across to the garden of 14, rang the bell and asked Michelle Rodman’s mother to ask her to stand in the window so that I could get an idea of her measurements. The girl stood, grinning shyly at me through the glass, then her brother jumped up and stuck his tongue out and I gave them the thumbs-up as I left.
It took me an afternoon. I rummaged through two boxes of clothing in the garage, and unpicked a pale blue satinette dressing-gown and overlaid it with a shiny lacy net curtain. Where’s Wally was a little more challenging, but I adapted a stripy t-shirt by nipping it in along the sides. I made a pom-pom from a ball of wool and a piece of card, and stitched it to an old woollen hat of Thom’s. I showed Mum the result and she clapped her hands together.
“Oh they’ll love those, Louisa. You really are a marvel with a needle and thread.”
More importantly, a whole day had passed without effort. I had been so lost in my work that I had barely had time to worry about the rest of my life. That night I slept a solid ten and a half hours.
The following day a message came from number 27.
“Please can I have a costume? I am 9 and I want to be Lord Voldemort.”
That was easy. There was a mucky dark green pyjama set that I re-hemmed and adjusted the collar on. The face would be trickier but I’d leave it up to his parents to work out how to remove his nose.
The requests began to trickle in after that. I had Pippi Longstocking, Ru Paul, The Little Mermaid (I made the hair out of some orange wool that I stitched around a headband) and Lyra from His Dark Materials. It was useful having something to do in the day, to wake up with a task and to feel as if I had achieved something at the end of it. Mum pulled out her sewing machine and began to help, knitting a scarf for Harry Potter, and sorting out old tights for Batman. She located an old nightshirt of Granddad’s so that we could make a Wee Willie Winkie, and we both stood by the open drawer and gazed at the soft fabric in her hands.
“I’m glad he’s not here to see this,” said Mum, folding it gently.
I gave her a quick hug, struck by how weird it suddenly felt to be in such close contact with another human being.
On Thursday morning Mum and I walked the length of Renfrew Road and left the outfits in packages outside the houses of those who had asked for them, knocking on the doors to let them know we’d left them. And then we waited.
At five to eight, Mum having selected her best pan and worst wooden spoon (“I keep breaking them”), we ventured onto the doorstep. Dad raised a beer to his neighbours across the road. A few of us murmured greetings, muttering under our breath about who had put on weight or given themselves an ill-advised haircut. Sid, who claimed to have once played bass for AC/DC, lifted up his guitar but everyone shouted “noooo Sid” and he retreated back indoors. It wasn’t fair to make people endure another rendition of ‘Smoke on the Water’ as well as a global pandemic.
“They didn’t wear them,” I said, sadly, looking around.
“Not everyone’s out yet, love,” said Dad. “Maybe they’re still eating their tea.”
“At eight o’clock at night? We’re not continentals,” said Mum.
And then, just as the first cheers rang out into the street, Lord Voldemort emerged. His parents had pulled a pale stocking over his face to blur his features, which was, I had to admit, remarkably creepy. We waved at him and clapped furiously. And then Lyra stepped out in front of her parents, a stuffed otter on her shoulder. The children moved forward to the garden gates, shouting their characters’ names at each other and showing off their costumes. The neighbours started calling to each other over the clanging of pans and mugs. Pippi Longstocking. Where’s Wally. Paddington Bear.
“What’s that then?”
“It’s dressing up. Just to cheer the kids up a bit.”
“Nice Princess Anna!”
“Pfft.,” muttered Dad. “Even I know my Annas from my Elsas.”
The children who hadn’t responded started murmuring to their parents. A few looked over in my direction and pointed. Pippi’s mum strolled over, stopping the required two metres away from us. “She just loves it,” she said. “She wants to wear it to bed later. Thank you. It’s really cheered her up.”
The girl looked at me shyly.
“You’re so welcome,” I said. “You look amazing.”
Pippi went to hug me but her mum snatched her back quickly and we paused, before smiling awkwardly at each other. Pandemic manners.
I told Sam that night. I wanted to tell him something good. He had called me on Skype, having just got back from shift, and I looked at the slump of his shoulders and our pinboard behind his head with the dental appointments we would no longer be going to and the tickets from that concert in Central Park that had been cancelled and the photographs of us together and my need to be there with him was so great that it was all I could do not to start clawing my way through my laptop screen.
“That sounds great,” he said. He smiled, but his eyes were red-rimmed, and he had marks around his nose from the ever-present mask.
“I’m going to do grown-ups next week.”
“Don’t wear yourself out,” he said. “You look … tired.”
“Says the woman who fell asleep while talking to me last night.”
I had woken to find my head on the table and an empty screen showing our apartment wall. Sam had propped up a message against the screen that read: gone to work. Love you xxx
“How was it today?”
He looked down for a moment then shook his head.
We sat in silence, pondering the world of pain behind those two words.
“Please take care of you.”
“I will.” He mustered a smile. “I do. It’s nice thinking about you getting the whole street dressed up in your outfits. Reminds me there is life outside this thing.”
“Well, I might as well find a use for all those clothes, mightn’t I?” I said, and tried to keep the sadness out of my voice.
I didn’t tell him how it was only working away on the sewing machine that was keeping me together. That in the moments I wasn’t doing it I was either weeping from tiredness or nauseous with fear. Just keep watching your feet I told myself, and made myself smile at him, a huge, encouraging smile, before we logged off.
Mum and I rifled through the garage boxes and pulled out every 1940s and ’50s outfit we could find. We had originally planned to offer people VE day outfits, but most of the suits and dresses were way too small for modern waistlines. “We could put a couple of panels in here,” said Mum, holding up a tweedy two-piece. “Take the buttons off this one and widen it.”
“I’m not sure those seams will hold. What can we do instead?”
“I don’t think the storybook character thing is going to work for adults,” Mum said, as we Zoomed with Treena that evening.
“But we don’t want tarts and vicars. Or the Wild West. Or whatever else people usually dress up as. It’s usually porny. Isn’t it usually porny?”
“What’s Dad going to wear?” asked Treena.
“Your father isn’t having any of it. It’s as much as I can do to get him to stand on the doorstep.”
Treena adopted her thinking face. The one Dad said made her look like she was egg-bound. “The clap is about NHS heroes, right?” she said. “So tell them to come as their heroes.”
This time the answers came in such a flood that Mum and I could barely keep up. We had two Malalas and a Kenny Dalglish, and a Churchill and a David Bowie. We had a Stirling Moss and a Prince and Greg Abbott from 43 sent one of him in his pants then a follow-up apology that said it was one he had meant to send to Weight Watchers instead.
“Weight Watchers my arse,” said Dad.
This time, it seemed all the neighbours were involved. When Mum walked to the corner shop for milk, two people stopped her to check their measurements and others to tell her about accessories they had found in their lofts or the back of their wardrobes. A girl called Melanie who was home from art college asked on the WhatsApp group if anyone would like their picture taken on the evening and that if we put them all up in the village hall afterwards it would make a nice record of a strange period in our lives. I had to negotiate with a couple of neighbours whose wishes I couldn’t fulfil (“I don’t have any eighteenth-century ball dresses. And no I wouldn’t really know how to do a Brad Pitt”). But there was a definite air of expectation in the run-up to Thursday. Mum and I worked around the clock, ripping things up and re-stitching, even dyeing on two occasions. Even the government announcements couldn’t dampen our spirits. Mum barely had the energy to muster a hear hear for Dad’s habitual “oh shut your cake hole you waste of skin!”
It was late Thursday afternoon when we finished. We sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by discarded bits of fabric and broken zips and the remains of what had been my valuable stock around our feet, and as Mum tied a ribbon around the last parcel we slumped back in our chairs and blew out our cheeks at each other.
“Do you think they’ll like them?”
“Right now, Louisa, I couldn’t give a flying fig. We’ve done what we promised.“ Mum pushed her hair back from her face and then checked her watch. “Where’s your father? I asked him if he’d make us a mug of tea half an hour ago.”
I closed my eyes and then realised that if I kept them closed a moment longer there was every chance I would simply sleep through the eight o’clock clap. I wasn’t sure I had ever been so tired. When I opened them Mum was watching me.
“Look at you. What time did you finish sewing last night?”
“About a quarter to two.”
“Any symptoms? You know fatigue is one of the – ”
“It’s just a late night, Mum.”
She shook her head.
“Bernard? … “She stood up and put her head around the door. “Bernard? Oh I’ve just about had enough of him.”
“It’s fine, Mum. I’ll make us the tea.”
But Mum’s cheeks held an uncharacteristic flush. “No, Lou. It’s not fine. He just sits there day after day saying he’s miserable and doing nothing to help. You think I’m not depressed? You think I don’t want to have a little weep when I get up each morning or lie awake at night worrying about what’s going to happen? I miss my college course like you wouldn’t believe. I miss my day trips to London. I miss my grandchildren like a physical pain. But someone has to keep the whole thing rolling. Somebody has to cook the meals and keep the house in order and pretend to the babies that everything’s going to be okay. Somebody has to try to… just to try… I just… your dad makes me feel very lonely sometimes. That’s all.
“Anyway. I’m glad you’re here. Because frankly I don’t know how I would have got through it without you.”
She blew her nose briskly. Then, as I stood up gingerly and put the kettle on, she took a deep breath.
“You don’t have to say sorry, Mum.”
“But I shouldn’t moan in front of you. Don’t think I don’t know you aren’t missing Sam something awful. I do. It’s awful hard to be separated from the person you love. And I think you’re being very brave about the business and everything.” She nodded. “Very brave indeed. I just want you to know that.”
My mother and I are not great huggers. But I can tell you the hug I got from her just then was one of the best I’ve ever had in my life.
Mum had organised the colander and a brass-covered salad server with excellent decibel qualities for Dad for this week but when the time for The Clap arrived, he had still not reappeared. “It’s just typical of him to choose this time to finally go for a walk,” she muttered, tying on her WE LOVE THE NHS apron. “Couldn’t make him come to the park with me though, could I?” She was still furious at him for not making the tea. My mother could hold a grudge across centuries.
I wiped my face. I hadn’t had much time to get ready – in fact Mum and I had completely forgotten to sort out any outfits for ourselves. But I put on the Chanel jacket that was the buried treasure of my six boxes of auction clothes, and teamed it with some navy culottes and a pair of white Mary Janes. What was the point of saving anything for best these days, after all? What if this was best?
Mum brushed her hair and put on a spritz of perfume – as if anyone except me would smell it – and stood at the gate braced with her NHS apron and her second best wooden spoon resting against the base of a pan like a percussionist waiting for the conductor to bring down his hands.
“There they are, Lou! Look!”
As we watched, our neighbours started to emerge from their houses. At first a little self-consciously, and then laughing and waving as they saw they were not alone. There was Gandhi, created with Mum’s old guest room sheet. There was Prince – Layla from 120 – with her hair sprayed up into a pompadour and a 1970s purple jumpsuit that I had sewn epaulettes onto. I found myself grinning as each person emerged, clapping my hands together when I saw their homemade accessories – a cardboard guitar or an extravagant wig. So much effort! So much pleasure in everyone else’s outfits; the shouted explanations to each other of why each one was important to them. And as we clapped and cheered and the eight o’clock church bell rang and the saucepans started to clatter over the top of it, I found myself smiling at the joy on all the faces, the merriment of the children as they darted out of their front gardens to see what everyone else was wearing, laughing and pointing. And Melanie the art student moved swiftly up and down the pavement taking pictures and organising households into groups that would best show off what they had chosen to wear. And Sid started to play ‘We Could Be Heroes’ on his guitar and nobody even complained.
“We did that, Lou,” said Mum, beaming. “Look at how cheerful everyone is! Will you look at that. Oh it’s made me quite teary.”
It had worked. I felt something in me subside. I wasn’t sad about my lost stock suddenly. I just felt glad that in this moment, a whole street had found something to be happy and united around. I was just trying to register this moment when a murmur passed through the neighbours opposite us, and then a bark of laughter. I felt a hand on my shoulder and I spun round. My father was standing there, dressed in a pink tutu, a denim jacket - and a pair of bumblebee tights.
Mum looked him up and down in disbelief.
“Bernard? What the – “
“I don’t know where you get it from, this ability to make everyone around you feel better. But you’re a ruddy marvel, Lou, and I’m so proud of you. So I thought I should probably dress up too… as you. You’re my hero,” he said, taking my face in his hands.
“Oh Bernard.” Mum’s face creased with pleasure. She stepped forward and gave him a huge hug. They stood there for a moment, entangled.
“You have no idea the struggle I’ve had getting into these tights. I don’t know how you women do it.”
Mum burst out laughing and kissed him.
“Fancy me a bit in these then, do you?” he said, when she finally released him. She shuddered.
“Oh God. Not in the slightest. It’s a mental image it’s going to take some considerable effort to get past. But I do love you, you daft bugger.”
And then as I looked round I realised the neighbours were not looking at Dad, but at me. Melanie was crouched in front of our gate with her camera raised to her eye and the street was clapping me, their faces turned towards me, Churchill, Malala, Stirling Moss, all beaming my way. I shook my head at the camera lens, embarrassed, wanting to tell them that this felt wrong, that we should be sticking to the NHS. That they were the real heroes and that to move the attention away from that was -
But the pavement suddenly started to swim around me.
And then everything went black.
She needs a test.
My mother’s voice: Oh god – you think she’s got it?
We’ll do one first and then take it from there.
Give her some oxygen. Can you step back please, madam?
I sat up on the floor of our front room to see two paramedics on their haunches gazing at me from behind masks. One was holding my wrist and gazing at her watch, and as I moved, the other one placed an oxygen mask gently over my face. Mum was standing some distance behind them, her face pale with fear. Dad hovered by the door in his bumblebee tights and tutu. The paramedics didn’t bat an eyelid at him. Perhaps in these strange times it was the least weird thing they’d dealt with that day.
“Jesus, you weigh a ton,” Dad said. “Had to carry you in myself. How much extra food have you been eating?”
“How are you feeling?” said one of the paramedics.
“Not great.” I turned my head to Mum. “I haven’t felt great for days, to be honest.”
Mum bent towards me, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist as if stopping herself from reaching out to me. “I knew you’d been overdoing it. Is fainting one of the symptoms? Louisa, can you smell anything? Shall I get some onions? See if she can smell those? Oh God, have you checked her temperature?”
I sank back onto the floor. It was at that point the paramedics asked my parents to leave the room.
Two hours later I sat in bed in my pyjamas talking to Sam via the computer screen. There was a mug of tea on my side table and a thick white bread sandwich on a plate “to keep my strength up”. I could just make out the burble of the television news downstairs and for once I was comforted by it, rather than hearing it as evidence of my complete lack of privacy or room.
“Are you okay though?”
“I’m fine. I just overdid it with all the making outfits.”
“But your mum said the paramedics came.”
“Did they test you?”
I adjusted the screen a little. “Well. It was positive. So you need to know I won’t be coming back on my own.”
Sam sighed and shook his head. “Oh Jesus. Lou – I can take care of you myself. I mean they won’t let you fly until you don’t have a temperature. But I don’t think I can cope with your parents coming on top of everything just now. I’m sorry. The apartment is so small and what if they get sick after you -”
“My parents won’t be coming.”
“In fact I won’t need to buy another ticket.”
He stared at me.
“… not yet, anyway.”
There was a long silence. He kept watching me through the screen.
“It wasn’t a Covid test they gave me.”
“And then I may have gone to the 24- our chemist and bought another, well, three tests. Okay, and a fourth. Just to make sure.”
“Are you saying…”
“I’m fine. Just feel a bit stupid for not realising. I guess my brain was all over the place and I didn’t stop to think.”
He stared through the screen for another moment. And then he lowered his head slowly, his huge palm pressed over his face, the other still holding the screen. I waited for him to move.
“Sam? … Sam?”
I held the laptop between my hands. I saw that his were trembling. Perhaps this was the wrong time to tell him after all. Perhaps it was all too much on top of what he had been dealing with.
“Sam? Are you okay? Please look up... Sam?”
He took a moment. When he looked at me again his eyes had filled with tears.
“I’m fine. I’m just … happy.”
“A baby? Our baby? Are you kidding me?”
His whole expression was as soft as melted butter. There was such joy and sweetness in his lovely, battered face that it made me cry too. So we just gazed at each other and cried and laughed for a while. Only you could get yourself up the duff in a ruddy pandemic, Dad had said. You’ll have to call it Covidia.
Don’t be ridiculous, Mum had said.
Maybe Pamdemic then.
“Oh Lou. Oh sweetheart. Well done.”
I cocked my head. “Well, you may have had a little something to do with it.”
“Less of the little, thanks.” He wiped his face. “A baby. I can’t get my head around it.”
“Well you have six and a half months to get your head around it.”
“And everything’s okay?”
“All fine. Ten weeks along. Felt a bit sick but I just thought, you know, we’re all full of weird symptoms just now.”
“Ten weeks. Right… Right. Oh this is just - Oh God I wish you were here. I would give you the biggest hug. You and … “
“… the maggot.”
“Yeah. We’re going to have to think of a better name.”
We kept staring at each other, wreathed in smiles. Suddenly all we could think about was the future. I could see it in his face. The two of us with a baby. A little, plump Mini-Sam. Sam, his face full of love. My parents, delighted and excited downstairs, drinking beer and beaming at each other with shared pleasure. A future that was suddenly filled with the prospect of happiness, of hope.
“We’re going to have to make some decisions now.”
“Yes we are.”
“But good things do happen, Sam Fielding,” I said, pressing my hand to the screen. He raised his and met my palm, and suddenly seeing him again didn’t seem like a distant prospect at all. “Right?”
He closed his eyes for a moment and nodded.
“Yeah, they do, Louisa Clark. They really do.”
Give the book-lover in your life something special with one of these gorgeously illustrated stories, ornate classics or coffee table books – or, you know, just treat yourself.
A selection of small-sized but big-hearted gifts to hang by the chimney, from fun books to philosophical guides to literary classics.