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Isolation – a short story by Teresa Waugh

Blog | By Teresa Waugh | Mar 24, 2020

Isolation (Credit: Bert Kaufmann)

Novelist Teresa Waugh tells the tale of an elderly lady, tormented by coronavirus-induced isolation


Great-Aunt Annie sat alone in her house. She had been alone for weeks and was beginning to wonder whether or not she was losing her mind. Since she was in her mid-eighties she realised that it was highly possible. Yet she could still do the crossword and remember what she did yesterday and although she no longer had anyone to play with, she still enjoyed the bridge column in the newspaper. She could remember all the books she had read recently of which there were many and she could remember the name of the Prime Minister which was one thing she would gladly have forgotten.

She had never imagined that it could ever be like this, sitting on her own day after day with not even a cat for company. After her last cat died she had not wanted another for who would look after it when she died?

What, she ceaselessly asked herself, was she supposed to do in the event of getting ill. Should she just go and lie on her bed and patiently wait there alone, to die?

What a waste of time at this stage of her life when she still had her faculties about her, not to be able to go to Rome as she had planned, not to be able to go to the theatre or the cinema or just to the supermarket with its empty shelves. Even the supermarket with those empty shelves would be a distraction.

What a waste of time when, after all, one didn’t have much of that precious commodity left. What a waste of time, sitting at home all day listening to the preachy self-satisfied voices of the radio - to endless repetition and gloomy prognosis. Not even The Archers provided light relief any more.

The endless silence was almost the worst thing. A silence that seemed capable of drowning out the music she played in an attempt to drown it and to drown her thoughts. Thoughts which grew bleaker every day however hard she tried to remind herself that she was not the only one. All round the country thousands of old people like herself were, like herself, condemned to this Purgatory - all in the name of saving their lives. She rather wished she could have caught the disease at an early stage since, being in good health, she felt sure she would have survived and then she would have been free again. Free to stretch her wings and to feel alive. Free to go to the ruddy supermarket, free to sit on a bench in the park and talk to a stranger. Free to go for a proper walk.

She had always been accustomed to taking exercise and supposed that housework counted as some sort of exercise but during the last interminable weeks she had taken to walking up and down her narrow stairs ten or twenty times a day until the carpet began to wear thin.

She supposed that once the ban was lifted old people in every town and village, every hamlet up and down the country would swarm out into the lanes and streets, frail and pale and mad from their incarceration, wild-eyed with excitement and amazement at the sight of the devastated world the virus had left in its wake. Then, of course, one by one, they would succumb. Someone hadn’t thought it through.

Who ever imagined that the arbitrary locking away of over 15% of the population might be a good idea? There was something amiss about the thinking and something singularly unpleasant about having the groceries left anonymously outside the front door, as if she were some kind of pariah or leper, although she was perfectly healthy - so far.

Every day one or other of her nieces telephoned which was always a pleasure but Frances said she wouldn’t dare call for fear of infecting her aunt. You never knew. Frances worked in the City, travelling back and forth on the tube every day. She could easily be carrying the virus. Caroline lived in Northumberland.

Great-Aunt Annie would have loved to see Frances in person. Just as she would have loved to see any member of her family, even those she used to find annoying. She began to worry that she would never see any of them again or, for that matter, any human being ever and so took to ringing people she hadn’t bothered to ring before, just to say hello - or was it good-bye?

The voice of a brother-in-law for whom she had never particularly cared was suddenly music to her ears. His wife, being only sixty-five, was at liberty to go out and about, to pick up the virus and bring it home to him, whereas he was not allowed to do so for himself.

She rang old friends from the past, all, like her, cooped up, isolated, exiled from society - all feeling as though they were going mad - and younger ones who said it was all for her own safety.

But it’s only to keep you safe, they said.

Let me get the ruddy disease and risk it, she thought.

Remember to wash your hands for at least twenty seconds, they said. Or for the time it takes to sing two verses of the National Anthem. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Why did she have to keep washing her hands when she had been nowhere? Had she picked up germs from Amazon’s cardboard wrapping? Had she touched her face after picking up the package from Amazon? She found herself checking on the internet to find out which surfaces were most porous or most likely to carry germs. None of it made any sense.

Wash your mobile, they said.

Wash my mobile? I must be mad. No one but she had touched her mobile. It had been nowhere. Could she pick up her own germs and give them back to herself?

Wear rubber gloves. Wear rubber gloves. What for? Rubber gloves can pick up germs as easily as your hands.

Don’t touch your face. Don’t touch your face. We touch our faces on average sixteen times an hour. Who worked that one out? But don’t touch your face. Her face began to itch - her nose, her lips, her cheeks, her chin - but do try not to touch your face.

She found herself putting on rubber gloves to do the meanest household task. She found herself washing her mobile again and again. She found herself frantically trying not to touch her face. She must be going mad.

During the weeks of isolation she had read, among other things, the whole of A la recherché du temps perdu, most of Dickens, a very long book about the French Revolution, War and Peace twice, The Brothers Karamazov once, one or two lengthy biographies, a great many thrillers and modern novels, even Moby Dick. She was sick of the lot of them.

Reading had always been such a pleasure for her but now she had begun to hate Artful Dodger and Mr Bumble, Peggotty and Betsy Trotwood, Swann and Odette, even Prince André Bolkonski. She’d had enough of fictional characters, imaginary creatures who mysteriously had the power to wind themselves round one’s heart but who were no substitute for the real thing.

She had read somewhere that human beings lose their individuality in isolation. That made her wonder if she and all the other lonely, isolated people shut up in their houses and flats the length and breadth of the country were somehow becoming indistinguishable one from another.

There could be no doubt that living alone and seeing no one was conducive to selfishness. Before all this happened she used to go out a good deal. She had things to do, art classes to go to, the charity shop where she helped out. She had people to see and if she hadn’t seen anyone for a day or two she would go to the corner shop or the park where she would pass the time of day with anyone willing to chat. She liked other people and was always interested in their lives. Now she had only herself to think about. She could barely remember how long it was since anyone came for a meal and she had grown tired of cooking for herself. She was tempted to drink too much.

The days stretched into weeks and the weeks into months without there ever being any real let up to her interminable boredom. She had fought it quite cheerfully to begin with but it was becoming increasingly difficult. She thought of the extraordinary courage of those people kidnapped by cruel men or cruel regimes, who, kept in solitary confinement in the dark, managed to make marks on their cell walls to measure the passage of time. Some of them survived to tell the tale and yet here was she in a comfortable little London house with music and books, a television, a radio, a telephone, the internet and, it seemed, about to go mad.

She’d wondered about horses alone in fields, could they go mad? They who, like humans, were herd animals. And alpacas. Alpacas she knew could quite simply die of loneliness. She felt tears of pity streaming down her cheeks. When all the world was in a turmoil here she was, sitting at home, weeping for theoretical horses and alpacas.

She could no longer count the days since it had all begun and wished that she too had made marks on her wall for every day since she last saw a living human being.

Why, she had repeatedly asked herself, did she so blindly obey the injunction to isolate herself. She was not especially afraid of dying, not even especially afraid of the virus. Again and again she reached the same conclusion. Despite herself she had succumbed to the mass hysteria.

Eventually there came a day when she knew she could bear it no longer. She didn’t tell her nieces that she intended to go out since they both insisted that she should take every precaution, stay in, bear up. It couldn’t last for ever. Living in a city you could never be sure of keeping a proper distance from a passer-by in the street, they said, or even in the park. And what if that passer-by were to sneeze?

It was a fine day in early spring. There would be crocuses and daffodils in the park and dogs and people. People - people - people - how she longed for people. She was trembling a little as she stepped out of her front door - it seemed so strange after all this while. Then off she went, briskly, head in air with a tremendous sense of relief and new-found freedom.

It was a short walk to the park which, as she had foreseen looked clean and shining in its fresh spring colours. She walked slowly, thrilled at seeing people at last - not many but a few - some walking their dogs, a woman pushing a baby in a buggy, a runner dressed in slimy lycra, a group of schoolchildren elbowing each other and giggling, an old man leaning on a stick spitting angrily at the ground. She loved them all.

Rejoicing in this new-found freedom she decided to look for a bench where she might sit and watch the world go by.

She hadn’t been sitting for long when to her amazement a man came and sat down beside her. Had he not heard of the two metre rule? The distance between them on the bench was barely two foot.

She looked at him and saw that he wore a rough looking black jacket with the hood pulled down over his forehead so that she could hardly see his face which was dark and unshaven. A good-looking face as far as she could see. Not old. Not young.

He turned to address her, having, she supposed, felt her gaze upon him and so they fell into conversation.

They talked for a long time. Or rather he talked for a long time, telling her that he was homeless, that he had been sleeping rough since all this began. He was glad to be able to talk to someone as these days people were only too ready to turn their backs, to keep you at arms’ length. He felt shunned even by some of his fellow rough sleepers and the one thing he missed was human company. There were charities around trying to help get people get off the streets - he could get a hot meal most days - but he had reached the point where he felt he deserved to be where he was. It was hard at times especially in the winter but he had grown accustomed to his lot.

He talked and talked and went on talking, talking about his life, his childhood, the circumstances that led to his being homeless. and she, forgetting everything else, listened avidly. She almost felt she shouldn’t leave him but she did have to go home at some stage.

As she stood up to go, he turned and with a faint smile thanked her for listening.

‘I’ll be in the park again tomorrow,’ she said.

Walking home she felt extraordinarily light-hearted - even happy. He was a decent man who had fallen on hard times she thought and she was glad that he had chosen to talk to her. She didn’t for one minute think about the virus.

Then all of a sudden just as she was about to cross the road she felt dizzy. She put her hand to her head, ‘don’t touch you face … don’t touch your face,’ she heard an inner voice say as a wave of nausea engulfed her. Before she knew anything more she had collapsed into the road. Paramedics did their best to revive her but she was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.

‘Cardiac arrest,’ Frances told her sister. ‘Just like that, with no warning and she’d never had a day’s illness in her life.’