When the English first started clapping in the street, I didn’t pay much attention. My days at my morning cleaning job had been cut by then, but I still had two days a week and the next morning was one of those when I had to be up at four. I was in the middle of the usual struggle with my daughter, who thinks that bedtimes are only for children who have to go to school – I am sure I was more respectful when I was 8 – and I had no attention to spare. I think I glanced out briefly, just to check it wasn’t another fight my nephew was in, and that was all.
A few days later, though, my cousin said to me,
‘Ai, Maria, have you seen the thing they are doing now outside their houses, thanking the doctors? It is an Italian thing, for the Corona,’ she went on, ‘they learnt it in Italy first.’
My cousin thinks she is a great authority on Italy because she has a husband who can afford to take her there for a holiday. With her house with three bedrooms and another for the car, she knows so much more about everything than me. But I have lived here for longer and I did not think that the English would copy the Italians in anything. I may not talk to them, I may be invisible to them, but I watch them. It did not seem likely to me.
Still, what she said made me curious. I kept a look out, so that when it started again I was ready. I pulled aside the landlord’s broken blind and peeked out. It was louder, I thought, than before. There were people hanging out of the windows in flats along the street, people standing on their doorsteps; clapping, all clapping, as if there was a stage and actors in the middle of the street that only they could see. The strangest of all was the woman opposite. Her house – and it is a house, no split into flats or rooms for her – is so beautiful to me. It has fresh-painted sills and flowers in boxes and the blinds hang straight across and clean in all the windows. You can tell that house never has rain running down the walls where the landlord refuses to fix the leak, nor a gutter that has to wait until it falls right off onto the path before it is repaired. If I lived in that house, my life would be perfect. The woman herself was always very proper; she never had a red tag for putting something in the wrong bin. Yet there she was, in the middle of the street, shouting at the sky and banging on a saucepan with a spoon.
I did not want to join them. It is not that I do not understand about the Corona. My sister, back home, says it is terrible there. ‘Maria, they are leaving people in their houses to rot,’ she says to me. She wants to send my other nephew here to me, to be safer. He is a good boy, she says, he will be no trouble. I do not remind her that was what she said about his brother. But I did not want to thank the doctors. I remember the woman in the doctors’ surgery, when I went to register Emilia. ‘Is your mother here legally?’ she asked her. ‘Does she have papers?’ To my child, she asked this. I wanted to shout at her, as I would have done back home, but I knew I had to keep my peace. When I showed her my leave to remain, I am sure she looked disappointed.
I wanted to know, though, what they thought they were doing. I went to the front door.
‘Emilia,’ I called. ‘If you do not want to go to bed, come here and do one thing for me.’
She trailed out of the bedroom, dragging her feet. ‘What?’
‘Is that any way to speak to your mother?’ I gave the door a great tug to get it open. It has never been right since that man who thought my nephew owed him money tried to kick it in. ‘Go and ask the English lady why they are clapping in the street.’
She didn’t want to at first. She hates translating for me. ‘Everyone else’s mothers speak English,’ she said. I am sure this is not true – I have never heard her friend Khadija’s mother speak anything but Somali – but I ignored it.
‘Do as I tell you,’ I said to her, and gave her a little push to get her going.
‘It’s a pity you’re too old to learn,’ she shot back at me as she went. She is so defiant now, what will she be like when she is a teenager?
She sidled into the middle of the road and called out something to the English lady. The woman from across the street lowered her spoon. She said something back, carefully. Emilia nodded, turned back to me. Then the woman looked at me over her head and waved. I was so surprised, I half-waved back.
‘She says they’re thanking the doctors and nurses, for not leaving them to die if they can’t pay them,’ Emilia said.
I looked down at her. ‘Is that really what she said?’
‘Well, something like that. I had better go to bed now, hadn’t I?’
She skipped off down the hall to our bedroom, leaving me to try to get the door to shut.
After that, I kept a look out for the woman opposite, but I didn’t see her. I had hardly noticed at first, but I didn’t see any of the English neighbours, except for at clapping time. Me, the Polish house three doors down, the Indians on the corner, we all came and went to work or to shop as we had always done, when we had the work, but the English? They were there but not there, like some creatures of the shadows, hiding.
I thought about it while I was cleaning. We have to start so early so that the office workers don’t have to see us. They come in to a clean office every day, but they don’t have to witness the process. Amira on my crew says that we’re like ghosts to them, like spirits who clean up behind them by magic and never leave a trace behind. When she’s angry, which is most of the time, she says we should be like evil spirits to them. She hides their pens in strange places, so they’ll spend all morning looking for them. She was in a war, Amira; we try to help her as much as we can. If we are ghosts, I thought, it was as if this Time of the Corona was the day of the dead, when the living shut themselves in their houses and the ghosts roam free.
It is only for a short time, the day of the dead. There have to be limits, or where would we be? I am not sure the Corona is gone, but the Time of the Corona seems to be over. I do not have my hours back and I do not know how the rent is to be found if the offices stay closed. I may have to take my other nephew, after all. The English are out again, but I do not think it is quite as it was before. I remember my mother taught me, the point of the day of the dead is that the dead have power. We may not always see the ghosts, but they are always there, and they can act against us if we offend against them too much. I hear her gentle voice telling me that as I walk past the English again in the streets, on the bus. We are invisible, but maybe we are not powerless. Even in this bad time, it makes me smile.