Place of writing: My room, Village of Sunny Lockdown, Worcestershire, United Kingdom, Earth, The universe
It’s hard to describe glasses you didn’t know you were wearing. But I know that what troubled me about people’s response to this, to the whole lockdown/virus chaos, was the – the bleakness? – of their outlook.
Without realising, I had assumed that a shaking, a sifting, of the world would bring to the surface the solid things, the things that remain. It’s curious that the lockdown weather was so bright here; because that’s the way I wrote, through my glasses.
Call the glasses ἐλπίς – “sure hope”.
* * *
Mithril immediately pricked her ears and dropped to a walk. She knew that voice as well as I did; I had no need, really, to draw rein, as the grey mare was perfectly aware that, wherever we were going, we would always stop for a conversation with Allen. A proper conversation, too, not the drifting-onwards-while-saying-words-for-courtesy’s-sake kind. Mithril wouldn’t have missed a step over one of those. Carefully, deliberately, I set the dog-cart’s wheel brake, and looked up, under my eyebrows.
Allen was loping across the field towards us, waving cheerfully. His dark chestnut queue was copper in the sun, his shirt piebald with dust. I should have known he’d be in the north field at this time of day, working on his beloved airplane. Then again, I probably had known.
He paused at Mithril’s head for a minute, to fondle her nose and whisper sweet-talk in her ear. Then he was beside me, leaning on the low side of the dog-cart, his brilliant green eyes twinkling down at me.
“Not in a hurry today, Persis?”
I had to tip my head back to look into his face. “Mithril saw you,” I laughed back. “She wanted an excuse for grazing your field. She always likes grass best when it’s sprinkled with titanium dust.”
It’s hardly surprising if, after a foal and a child have grown up together, the horse knows the girl’s habits almost better than the girl herself. It sometimes amused and sometimes infuriated me, but it was always a good excuse.
“Sensible horse.” Allen reached out to rub her sleek rump affectionately. “It’s the easiest way to get your essential minerals, eh, Mithril? You keep at it, and maybe you’ll teach Persis to take things a bit more lightly, too.”
“There is such a thing as being productive,” I retorted severely.
“There’s also a time when being normal is a good thing.” Allen glanced back at me, half teasing, half serious. “I don’t know where you get your bent for rushing around, doing this, that, and the other, from. Your mother is a masterpiece in making haste slowly. I’ve never known a woman who could get more done in a day, but I’ve never seen her in a hurry.”
“Probably I’m a throwback to the grandparent generation,” I offered lightly. “Grandma Elisabeth says that they taught their children and grandchildren to take time and make time, but never broke the habit of rush themselves.”
“At least they were the generation who saw that the world needed it,” Allen returned. “Maybe you’ll see for your children.”
“Took a pandemic to show them,” I countered defensively.
Allen cocked his head thoughtfully. I knew his expression when he was about to veer off on some tangent. “It showed them a lot of things, didn’t it? I can’t imagine the world of the grandparents’ stories. Jets in the sky and cars on the road, noise and stink and fossil fuels used for everything.”
“You’re building a jet yourself,” I accused him. “And they needn’t even have phased them out. Back then it was the end of the world from global warming; now they’re panicking because we’re heading for an ice age.”
“Although they were right about one thing – that drastic action put paid to most forms of pollution,” Allen pointed out fairly. “As for my Lady the Stagni Can, she’s a museum piece – an artifact. Even if I wanted to, and even if airplanes weren’t obsolete, I could never fly her – the tax is prohibitive even without the initial license fees.”
“It must have been wonderful, though.” As usual, Allen and I were accidentally switching positions in the argument; but I didn’t notice. Wistfully I gazed up the field to where the half-built fighter jet gleamed in the sun; the newest titanium sheets caught the light like mirrors, blindingly bright. Lady Stagni Can, a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Allen had recited the name so often that I knew it off by heart. “I mean, to see the world from so high up, moving so fast – and the stunts in those old videos – they’re unbelievable.”
“Probably the pilot was sick when he first invented one by accident,” Allan remarked practically, and I came back to earth with a jolt and a laugh. Mithril was grazing peacefully, her thick silver tail slowly switching; a tortoiseshell butterfly darted erratically between the shafts of the dog-cart, brilliant orange against the black of the carbon-fibre. My hair whipped across my face in the wind, and I put up a hand to push it back.
“Aha!” Allen arrested my hand in midair, pinning the glove between thumb and finger. “A perfect example of the change in the world, Persis. Fifty years ago, no one would have thought of wearing gloves. Now, only a boldface girl would go without. Actually, bold-hand would be more appropriate, wouldn’t it?”
In spite of myself, I burst into a peal of laughter. “I’ve no idea. In your personal language, maybe. But don’t forget that it started off as wearing those disgusting blue latex gloves, simply to avoid infection. And now…” I displayed my elegant, white kid driving gloves with very feminine satisfaction.
“Very nice,” Allen pronounced, scrutinising the dainty item of apparel with a critical eye. “I shall have to get some for myself, to protect my hands while I’m working on the Lady. Cut titanium has very sharp edges, you know. Can I try yours on, Persis?”
“I should think not! You’d split them at every seam – and besides, you’ve already got black smudges on the back.” I tried ineffectually to rectify the damage.
“Soak it in dock leaf tincture overnight,” Allen recommended, eyeing the stains, unperturbed. “I’ve had to do that myself several times. It generally works.”
“You’ve tried it before – with a kid glove?” I pounced.
Mithril only twitched an ear at Allen’s ringing laughter. It was a familiar sound. “No, Pussy, mostly white shirts! My mother threatened to make me wash them myself – so I got the stains out before giving them to her!”
“You might as well have finished the job if you got so far,” I observed, discreetly ignoring the use of my babyish nickname. “I enjoy washing day. Even when I was too young to help properly, I remember Mother giving me a little tub and some tough bits of laundry, and I’d splash away enthusiastically before running off to chase the soap bubbles around the garden.” I gave up on my precious gloves and returned my attention to Allen. “I don’t know if we have any dock in the herb garden. Would sorrel work? That’s as sour, and I imagine that it’s the oxalic acid which affects the stain?”
Allen twinkled at me. “It’s you who’s going into plant biochemistry, not me. I’m sure you know better than I do, but yes, I think so. Speaking of university – any progress?”
I nodded, glad to talk it over with him. “I’ve pretty much decided to take Father’s advice, and defer a year. Lots of students still go at eighteen, of course, but when I contacted Birmingham they replied that they typically recommend to defer and work first, maybe even for several years. There’s a big focus on mature students at the moment.”
“I think it’s a wise focus,” Allen replied thoughtfully. “There’s a lot in this idea of the extra maturity and experience benefiting study. I’d take that route myself if I could… Didn’t your grandmother do something very similar?”
“What, her work on a quail farm? I’d hate it!” I retorted gaily. We had a tacit agreement to leave behind the fact that neither Allen nor his parents could possibly afford to send him to university, brilliant and ambitious though he was.
“No, before university! She did end up doing a lot of wacky jobs, though, afterwards, if I remember right? A blood transfusion product company – a livery stables – a biotech company – the quail farm – a book retailer – any others?”
“I think she got married after that. No, before that. I keep forgetting that women used to work out of the house back then. You’ll have to come over, some evening, and help me prise all her stories out of her again. She likes telling them to you.”
“She treats me as if I’m an adoptive grandson.” Allen nodded, well pleased, but his eyes were suddenly wistful. “It makes me wonder what it must have been like to know my own grandparents. None of your grandmother’s family died from covid-19, did they? That was rare. So few families escaped that lightly.”
“And yet – it just seems to have passed overhead for us – hasn’t it?” The words came shyly in my longing to comfort him. “It doesn’t touch our lives. It came and went, and the world carried on.”
Allen cocked an inquisitive eyebrow at me. “Translate, Persis. How does the pandemic not affect us? Haven’t we just been discussing how it changed the world?”
“But you don’t feel a might-have-been,” I attempted clumsily. I knew what I meant, but there didn’t seem to be any words to convey the thought. “Like – oh, I don’t know – like living in an old house that your grandparents knew, but that’s been renovated before you came. It feels normal to you because that’s all you’d ever known, but the old folk who knew the original would probably never quite get used to the difference – do you see?”
“I think so.” Allen leaned his chin on his hands consideringly. “We’re living within the change. We didn’t go through the transition. So what we know, is the world to us.”
“A world of three villages,” I concurred, “where the biggest event for ten years is your family moving in, because nobody shifts around the country any more. It’s a pity, in a way, the travel restrictions. Seeing the Highlands, or the coast, or someplace overseas, on the panavision can’t possibly compare with seeing them in real life.”
“Most people would still never be able to, even with no restrictions. Travel kills even businesses with the cost. Hardly any regular citizen could afford to travel for fun. Which reminds me,” he added suddenly, rummaging in a trouser pocket. “I’ve got something to show you. Is this what I think it is?”
He tipped some small object from his grimy palm to my outstretched one. Curiously, I bent over it. I saw a tarnished, battered, thumbnail-sized disc of two metals, an angular yellow ring around a grey circle bearing some half-obliterated device. It weighed heavy in my hand; there must have been good metal in it.
“Why, it’s a coin. An old pound. Where did you find it? It would be quite valuable if it wasn’t so damaged.”
“In the pumpkin patch – I was loosening the soil the other day,” Allen explained. “Curious gimmick, isn’t it? I’ve seen pictures, but I’ve never set eyes on a real coin before. Imagine bartering using lumps of metal with hardly any real value! Why did they ban them, Persis? Seems to me like a good way to get a lot for a little.”
I sighed. “The pandemic again. Coins used to circulate so rapidly that they became a big source of transmission. The government hardly needed to impose the ban – everyone was getting so nervy of physical money that they were switching to digital transfer anyway.”
Allen shook his head ruefully. “Pandemic, pandemic, pandemic – does everything circle back to it?”
I tossed my long, loose hair over the shoulders of my frock. “Even the way Grandma Elisabeth dresses her hair! Do you know those low wings she pins to the back of her head? Apparently hair dressed close became the fashion as a way to avoid tucking it back all the time – not touching the face, and all that, you know. Of course, that’s outdated now – the mark of the grandmother generation.”
“Covid-wings. Yes, of course I know them. I’ve noticed them on your grandmother, often a time. I like them – they suit her.”
Without warning Allen was reaching out to me, brushing up a sweep of my hair to hold it gently against my head.
“I think they’d suit you, too …”
I felt my heart jumping strangely. Instinctively I tried to shift away, say something, break the spell of his touch. Allen was looking at me with an expression I didn’t recognise – as if I was something he’d never seen before. He seemed as startled as I was. But he didn’t move away. Neither did I.
Grandma Elisabeth was right. It’s better to take time. Oh, always better.
It was Mithril who eventually broke the long moment. Snorting, she tossed up her head and made a determined plunge forward – her old trick for slipping the insecure wheel-brake. The dog-cart jolted forwards, and there was a confused moment of reins everywhere, hair falling in a veil over my face, Allen’s fingers suddenly snatched away. I blurted out a jumbled exclamation – something about having had no idea how late it was – and hastily turned Mithril back to the road, hiding my crimson cheeks.
Once on the white track, a safe distance away, I turned back to wave. Allen was standing where we had left him, looking after us. He flung up a hand in answer, and I could tell that he was smiling.
I’ll ask Grandma Elisabeth to show me how to put my hair up in covid-wings tomorrow.
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK