We’re Never Going Back to Normal By Chris Pleasance

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I thought we were waiting. For it to be over. For things to go back the way they were.

When you stopped messaging, the lie I told myself was that your phone was broken and you couldn’t get it fixed. Deep down I was sure you were sick. I tried very hard not to imagine you in an ICU bed, plastic bubble over your head; or getting laid face down on a stretcher like those people on the news. That was my worst-case.

I didn’t sleep all last night waiting for the deadline to expire. I was in my car a minute past midnight. On the way over I prepared myself for almost everything: To find you waiting for me on the sofa, to find you sweat-drenched in bed, to find you collapsed on the floor. I even Googled the way to the nearest hospital.

But I hadn’t banked on this.

At first it was the missing shoe rack. Odd. Then I saw there were no coats by the door. No TV on the wall as I passed the living room. I panicked – I thought you’d been robbed.

It was the bed that did it. The criss-cross pattern of the bare mattress. No duvet, no pillows.

You’re gone. There’s just an outline left, a hole you used to fill: A chalky mark where your toothbrush cup stood, a dustless patch of wardrobe where you t-shirts sat, flakes of dried milk in the door of the fridge.

You decided not to wait. I guess I should be happy, considering the alternatives. But I’m not. What’s the difference? You’re gone either way.

You never meant for me to find you, that much is clear. There’s no note, no text. Not even a letter on the mat. At least if we’d gone the hospital route I could have said goodbye.

What about our place? What about our plans? What about us? And the baby. Jesus. What about the baby?

*

The tattoos and beard told me you’d be coming back to mine, but it was Vietnam that convinced me you’d be staying past breakfast.

‘…two months, in total,’ you told me over the top of a can of IPA, stood at the bar in a place so packed we had to shout into each other’s faces just to be heard. We queued to get in, shoulder-to-shoulder with the crowd. Can you imagine?

I forget the details but you’d bought a motorbike and gone cross-country. Tick and tick. My kind of man.

‘Would you go back?’

‘I’m already making plans. Vietnam is easily top five of places I’ve been.’

‘Where else have you been?’

There was a list. A long list. I remember Brazil being on it because right afterwards you started speaking Portuguese. It was an obvious play, but it worked. I swear my knees almost went.

‘What about you? Where have you been?’

I talked up a gap year trip with my boyfriend across India. He wasn’t my boyfriend in the story. And it wasn’t a gap year. Just a year out with a non-gender-specific friend. I skipped over the beach bars in Goa, the full-moon parties in Thailand. Made sure to mention the boat ride down the Ganges, yoga in Patna, our route across Myanmar. You acted impressed.

‘So, this place is super crowded,’ I said, leaning in so that the side of my body was resting against yours. An accident? No way for you to tell. ‘Do you want to go somewhere quieter?’

‘Sure thing,’ you said, warm hand coming to rest on my forearm. ‘You have somewhere in mind?’

I said I did.

*

‘How high?’

Dan put the TV on mute, switched the phone to his other ear.

‘Like, thirty eight?’

‘Really?’

‘What’s it supposed to be?’

’Are you sure it’s thirty eight?’

‘Pretty sure.’

‘Ellie.’

‘Hang on, let me put you on speaker.’

Ellie put the phone on the edge of the sink and picked up the temperature gun from the bathroom counter.

‘You still there?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What are you doing?’

She lifted up her fringe and pulled the trigger. The gun beeped. ‘Thirty seven point eight.’

‘Hmmm.’

‘Is that bad?’

‘Have you got a cough?’

‘It’s winter, Dan. Everyone’s got a cough.’

‘Hmmm.’

The line went quiet. Ellie looked at herself in the mirror. Dark hair over bright eyes, septum piercing glinting in the fluorescent light. She pulled her thumb across her cheek, dragging her lower eyelid open. What was she looking for? She picked up the temperature gun and tried again.

‘Thirty eight for sure.’ Ellie could hear the sound of voices talking from the other end. The TV was back on. ‘Dan? Are you still there?’

‘Yeah, just… just hang on a minute.’

‘Dan.’

‘I think…’ Dan’s voice was uneven, worried. ‘Ellie, I think you need to stay inside for now.’

‘Come on.’

‘They just said on the news.’

Click, beep, thirty eight. ‘Can you come over?’

‘I don’t think I can.’

‘I want you here.’

‘I want to be there too.’

‘But you’re not coming.’

‘We have to be safe’

*

Dan’s house, post-coitus. Lights low, music soft, wine close at hand. Ellie, naked, laying full stretch across the bed, legs kicked up, browsing a laptop. Dan, also naked, one knee cocked, weight propped on an elbow, one hand tracing the small of her back, the other holding his phone.

The room smells of incense and latex.

‘How about this one?’ She spins the screen towards him. He smiles.

‘Want to know something funny?’ He turns the phone screen towards her.

‘Snap!’ She laughs.

‘What are the odds?’

One bed, one bath, open plan kitchen-diner. Converted warehouse. £1,900pcm.

‘The garden’s not great though.’

‘Communal?’

‘Yeah.’

‘How many flats?’

‘I’m not sure…’

‘No parking either.’

‘Hmmm.’

Clicking on the laptop, swiping on the phone.

‘Good start though.’

‘Same taste, at least.’

‘That’s a good sign.’

A kiss, a smile.

‘Are you excited?’

‘I am.’

‘Me too.’

‘It seems so far away though.’

‘Not that far.’

‘How long?’

‘Three months,’ Dan says.

‘Three months,’ Ellie groans.

‘You’ll see, it’ll fly by.’

‘Three months is a long time,’ she says. ‘A lot can happen in three months.’

*

After you hung up I couldn’t sit down. I think I paced the living room for half an hour. I was too excited.

Yes, everything would have to change, but so what? Change can be good.

We could have been one of those couples, the kind who blog. Forget flying around the world. We could have gotten one of those vans and tricked it out. Lived out the back of it. Days on the road and nights under the stars. Put the whole thing on YouTube. Don’t forget to like and comment. Hit the subscribe button below.

Me and you, Ellie. Plus one. Our little family. I thought of all the places we could have shown him. Or her. I thought of all the adventures we could have gone on.

I thought we could make it work.

*

After the call I collapsed. I don’t think I moved for an hour. I told my friends I had no idea how you were going to react. That I had no idea how I was going to react. I was wrong.

It’s funny, how shallow the foundations of life are. How little has move for everything else to topple. I still think about what would have happened if I hadn’t said anything. Maybe we’d still be together. Maybe we would have lasted the lockdown.

Maybe.

*

‘So you haven’t got it?’

Dan’s hair’s gotten wild, almost covers his eyes.

‘No,’ Ellie’s talking on her phone so that only her head and shoulders are visible. So he can’t see the underarm hair and leg hair she’s allowed to grow. ‘At least I don’t think so.’

‘That’s great.’ He’s excited, adjusts his seating position so the laptop camera bounces around. ‘Phew! I’ve been worried.’

‘Yeah,’ she says, looking off camera. ‘I was pretty worried too.’

‘So no cough? No temperature?’

‘No cough,’ she says. ‘That’s gone.’

‘And the temperature?’

‘Well,’ she says and begins pacing. The signal drops out, blurring her picture. ‘There’s […] I have to tell you about.’

‘Baby, could you stop moving? You’re dropping in and out.’

‘Oh, sorry.’ She stops and her outline appears in the midst of a confusion of pixels. ‘Better?’

‘A bit. You were saying?’

‘So the temperature is still there.’

‘Really?’

‘And it turns out that coronavirus isn’t the only thing that will give you a temperature.’

‘What do you mean?’

A big sigh. The line crackles and Dan has to lean into the screen to hear. ‘[…] late.’

‘Sorry, one more time?’

‘I said: I’m late.’

‘Yeah, I heard that part.’

‘That was it.’

‘What do you mean: late?’

‘Late. Like: Late, late. The monthly kind of late.’

Silence. He leans away from the screen.

‘And it turns out that raised temperature can be one of the first signs of… of pregnancy.’

‘Hmm,’ he says.

‘Yeah.’

‘Hmmm.’

She’s up and moving again.

‘I wasn’t going to say anything, you know? But it’s been a while. Like, six weeks. I’ve been staying off the pill in the hopes it shows up but… This hasn’t happened before. I think I was a little late last time, and I stayed off for a few days then too. I think it was around that time at yours, when we were looking at flats. And I guess, yeah…’

Dan’s sitting there listening, blank look on his face. At least – that’s what she thinks. She’s not looking, really. She’s mostly paying attention to where she’s walking. She hasn’t noticed that he’s oddly still.

‘The thing is, I can’t get a test yet because the pharmacy is closed. Obviously I’ll find somewhere else but I don’t know when I’ll be able get one and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I thought you’d want to know.’

Silence.

‘Hello, Dan?’ Nothing. She looks down. He still hasn’t moved. ‘Shit.’

Ellie runs back to where she was sitting before. Dan’s face blurs over as the signal comes back, his voice sounds like it’s echoing down a tunnel.

‘…wait for this all to be over so I can come and see you. This is going to be great for us, I promise.’

‘Hang on, what?’

‘I swear it’s going to be fine. I’m going to take such good care of you. You’ll see. It’ll be just like before, but better. I’m actually really excited.’

‘Dan, hello can you hear me?’

‘Huh?’

‘Can you hear me?’

‘Oh, yeah. Did you cut out there for a sec?’

‘I went out of signal but I’m back where I was before, can you hear me now?’

‘I can hear you now.’

‘Listen, I need to explain…’

‘You’re still cutting out. Can you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I heard you.’

*

After I realised you were gone I paced the empty flat for an hour, opening and closing cupboards, lifting up the sofa cushions, checking the wardrobe. Looking for any sign of you. Anything you might have left behind.

Eventually I found it, in the bin between the sofa and the wall. Tucked out of sight in the corner. It was underneath a little pile of disinfectant wipes and tissues. A white stick with a paper tip. I had to look up what one line across the little screen means.

Was this meant to be your goodbye? Because I have to tell you: I think I deserved a note.

*

It took me two days to get hold of a test. I started packing as soon as I had the result. One call to the landlord to cancel the extension on the agreement. I left on what would have been our moving day.

Did you go straight there when the lockdown lifted? I’m sure you did. I thought you might try to find me after that, but I still haven’t heard. I’m guessing you never tried. It wouldn’t be that hard.

Maybe you felt the same way?

*

I thought we agreed to wait for the test. Just one more thing to wait for, right?

If it’s positive, then we have that conversation. I know we didn’t agree.

But if it’s negative, then everything’s fine. That’s what we said. If it’s negative there’s no need for all that.

If it’s negative then everything can go back to the way it was.

*

I know you thought we were only waiting. But really we were changing the whole time.

I tried to write a note. I really did. I tried to put it down in words, but I couldn’t. I thought about calling to leave a message, in the middle of the night while you were sleeping. I thought words might be easier. But what if you’d answered?

*

It feels like I got stuck on pause while everyone else kept moving. The world went on turning without me. Life moved on.

I want to go back, but I can’t. I’m the one behind. I’ve got no choice but to catch up.

*

I think if I could tell you anything right now I’d tell you that there’s no going back to normal. Not after all this.

Nobody asked for it, but that’s life, right?

It all seems like a dream now, our plans. Travel round the world. Can you imagine? I can’t. Not anymore. I guess a dream is all it turned out to be.

I’m sorry we never got to say a proper goodbye, but things happened too fast. By the time I knew it was going it had already gone. I will still try to write, I promise. I just need time.

It’s a new world out there, Dan. Don’t face it carrying baggage.

And good luck. I think we’re going to need it.

glasses

Chris Pleasance

Chris Pleasance is a writer and journalist based in South London where he spends his time responsibly socially distancing and tending his veg patch. He writes about life, tweets @aspowritter, and blogs at https://theaspiringwriters.wordpress.com/

Social links:
@aspowritter
https://theaspiringwriters.wordpress.com/

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

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