This Just In
Each morning delivers small disasters, like unwanted gifts from a cat who’s been stalking the streets all night: a missing button, a jam stain on the pale carpet, a paper-cut sting, the loss of signal during the breakfast news. They cower apologetically, like near-dead birds fluttering their last behind the dresser that stood in my great grandparents’ kitchen through two World Wars. Cats don’t understand malice any more than I understand war, but I’ve a feeling that birds, with their altitude and jewel-sharp eyes, know more than all of us put together. It’s a matter of perspective, and by midday I’ll have forgotten everything but the trail of feathers, my grandparents’ threadbare carpet, and the ghost of a bird rising from dust and paper.
After the Decameron
After so long in masks, we lose our faces altogether, our every expression fresh snow or an egg from a battery hen. Our communications lose nuance, but we’re so used to texts and emails that it doesn’t matter, and even the lack of punctuation makes little difference. So, when I say I’ve missed you, it could be shorthand for my incomplete life, in which I can take or leave breathing as I sit with the lights off and listen to the thunder; or it could be the only thing to say when I barely recall your name. In the sweep and dance of boulevards and pavement cafés, citizens flout good behaviour, naked and unmasked, morality shrunk to glib soundbites. A waitress, barely out of school, lays patterned china and enough cutlery to perform open heart surgery. A sudden whistle blows. You say you’ve missed me, but I don’t know what you mean.
The Lockdown Review
Certainty is the first thing to go, like the aroma of coffee in a hotel corridor when you can’t remember your room number and all the staff – who couldn’t do enough for you when you checked in, and spoke English better than you could after a two-day flight – have vanished into the rack of paperbacks left by previous guests. Contrary to popular opinion, you can judge a book by its cover, though not necessarily from a literary perspective: sometimes the narrative is less important than the blurb or the endorsements; sometimes the thumbnail author photo is all you need to justify the extra weight on the bedside cabinet. The best books are in languages you don’t understand, your own homophonic translations swerving like a waiter between tables stacked with clichés, plates of fresh-picked innovation steaming in his upheld hand. Closure is its own satisfaction, but it’s just one of countless options. You follow the scent of coffee – or is it coconut? Or gorse? – until you find yourself in front of a door, white as paper and the same as every other door you have ever opened or closed. There’s a moral if you can find it, a neat pay-off with a double-double bluff; but you don’t recognise the voices behind the door, and you have so many keys that you will probably never find the right one.
Test, Track and Trace
Following the science, I walk into the dark wood, trusting to white coats and firefly lanterns, downloadable apps, rational explanations, and familiarity with folk tales from a number of cultures. I know enough to keep my bread for the journey, rather than wasting it on trails that are nothing but a supper for crows, and to keep watch for early signs of ergotism. I follow the science through green pastures and by still waters, trailing its scats and scent markers, staying downwind and not breaking the skyline, keeping my eyes on its flattening curve, and my arrows nocked to my bowstring. I follow the science to a castle pared from paper, with white halls and a laughing host in mask and scrubs, his head loose upon his broad shoulders, his complexion brown as hazel wood, and his eyes dark as the Black Death. He tells me he’s been waiting for me for seven hundred years, offers me food I haven’t tasted since I was a boy, takes my temperature, and calls for the games to begin.
The St Anthony Helpline
As I prowl the house at goodness knows what hour, searching for a phone number jotted on the back of an envelope, I see as if for the first time the topography of abandoned trains of thought: the tectonic folds of notebooks and receipts for white goods with expired guarantees; the eroded inclines of life insurance, house insurance, car insurance, pet insurance; and the pyroclastic accumulations of rough drafts and emergency prescriptions. If time and psychotherapy have taught me one thing, it’s that landscapes aren’t to be trusted, and if they’ve taught me two things I have forgotten the other, so I call down footage from the U2 that is circling like a moth round the reading lamp, collecting data for all eventualities. On the black-and-white screen I can make out patterns of medieval fields and disused railway lines, but nothing suggesting immediate threat. I pour a tarn from a jug in the fridge, taking my bearings from the light of its closing door. An envelope slips to the floor, but before I can check it’s the right one, the phone rings, though when I answer it no one speaks.