Isolated By Claire Maxwell

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“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.”

Marcy had one eye on Boris Johnson and one eye on the Instagram stories of a guy she’d met on Tinder and fucked twice five years ago. He (not Boris) was drinking bellinis on top of the Shard with his new girlfriend. He’d tagged her – @hannaaaaaa95 – so Marcy could see that she was both blond and, by the looks of a recent beach-themed holiday picture, thin enough to feel comfortable sitting down in a bikini.

The special news broadcast was still playing on her laptop and next to the BBC iPlayer tab – currently open – were 10 other tabs, each taunting her with essays, features and millennial hot takes by writers far better than she would ever be. She clicked on one, copied the URL and pasted it onto her Twitter feed with the caption ‘THIS’. It was immediately liked by a 50-year-old white man who had retweeted all of her output since 2009.
Marcy slid her bare legs off the bed and wandered into the kitchen. Her pills were on the side – a lovely wooden counter-top that she didn’t look after properly so had patches of black mould around the taps. She picked them up, popped one out of the foil and tipped it into her mouth. She grabbed her water bottle (plastic, single use), and gulped. Instantly, the placebo effect of stillness was upon her. A dulling of the tension that had been plaguing her for the past few hours, making her knuckles itch. Marcy opened the fridge door, slightly sticky to the touch, and grabbed the half empty (half full?) bottle of Pinot Grigio. She poured herself a glass and closed her eyes, took a deep yoga-breath and thought yup, things are looking up.

Back on her bed, propped up on an elbow, she clicked back onto the Prime Minister’s speech. His hands were moving as if independent from his body – an attempt at guidance… power. This way to safety, madam. Maurice leapt up onto the bed and extended his neck so she could touch noses with him. He purred and snuggled down on the blanket next to her and she stroked his back and up his long voluptuous tail. She returned to Instagram – to Luke’s Stories, clicking on the little round picture of him in the corner and watching, for the fifteenth time that hour, him and @hannaaaaaa95 clinking champagne flutes.

“We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.
And therefore I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.
Thank you.”

Marcy smiled into the black mirror of her phone screen and downed her glass of cold white wine.

**

“Why haven’t you been answering your phone or replying to my texts?” Her mum asked. It was two days after the country had gone into government-sanctioned lockdown and her mum’s voice was shrill. Marcy hesitated. She’d seen that her mother, Deborah, had messaged her but she hadn’t clicked on it, not wanting those little ticks to turn blue. She had a total of three unread messages inside the green app. None were the ones she wanted.

‘Sorry mum. I’ve been swamped. Writing. You know? I’ve got about three pitches out at the moment,’ a lie, ‘and two commissions I’m working on.’ Another lie.

Her mum sighed. Marcy could feel the look Deborah was giving her dad. Him, sitting in the corner of their elaborately wallpapered living room in his elaborately upholstered armchair, a lamp shining down on his book, trying to concentrate on the words on the page instead of his wife’s phone calls that she always insisted making in front of him. Well this is where I keep my notepad, Graham!

‘Did you watch the Prime Minister’s speech? A moment of history!’ Deborah loved Netflix’s The Crown. ‘Are you going to be okay there? Why don’t you come home and live with us until this is over?’ Marcy felt her phone buzz and, thrilled, needed to end this call immediately.

‘No. I’m fine. I’m busy. I’ve got Maurice. I’m fine. I’ve actually got to go.’

‘Oh okay.’ Disappointment. ‘Will you be able to pay the rent this month or do you need some help again?’ Patronising. She couldn’t have that.

‘I’ll be fine! Plenty of work going on at the moment. Better go!’ She hung up the phone and checked her messages: four unread. The latest was from Jacob. Jacob, who she’d met two weeks ago and made her hum with an anticipation she hadn’t felt for years. Jacob, who could be the answer to it all. She stared at the ceiling. A spider was crawling across the flaky white paint, making its way to the web in the corner. Making its way home. She tapped a response, checked it for spelling errors, then for potential humiliation, then pressed send.

For almost 32 hours Marcy had been prepping for isolation. She was gleeful. She’d ordered a crate of natural wines from a company with a very nice logo. She’d placed a huge Ocado order which included 20 packs of filled ravioli, 30 loo rolls and 15 boxes of Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. She already had a cupboard stocked to the rafters with soap and hand sanitizing gel: a prerequisite of the life she’d accepted. Now she just needed to call the GP – Dr Peddar – who was wise to her quirks but not unreasonable.

Marcy picked up the packet of pills on the side-board and counted how many were left: five. She went into her bedroom, clambered over the bed and hung off the side, pulling open the drawer of her bedside-table and grabbing the box that was in there. She counted those pills out, heart beating ever so slightly too fast: 12. She went back into the kitchen and popped the cork from the bottle of red wine that she’d left on the table last night, pistachio shells surrounding it like a crop circle. She poured herself a large glass and took a gulp. A dribble of the blood red liquid trickled down her cheek and dripped onto her white t-shirt.

The phone rang two and a half times and then a tired sounding woman with a low Scottish accent answered. ‘Three Triangles Medical Practice, how can I help?’

‘Hi there. I need an appointment with Dr Peddar please.’

The receptionist asked first for her date of birth, then her name, then the nature of her problem.

The nature of her problem: she woke at 3am every morning, heart racing, back slicked with night sweat; she dreamt of terrorist attacks – massive bombs going off a mile away, then half a mile, then, just as she woke…; according to her iPhone she spent on average 6 hours and 23 minutes on Instagram or Facebook or Linkedin stalking men she’d kissed in clubs more than five years ago; her knuckles bled and her wrists were scabbed; she only ate packaged goods; she hadn’t seen her best friend Kate in four months.

‘To discuss my medication,’ Marcy paused. ‘Mental health.’

‘Okay I can book you in for a phone consultation at 3.05pm.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Keep your phone near you. They won’t ring again.’

Marcy lay down on her bed, her head propped up with pillows, and pulled her laptop onto her stomach. What she’d told her mum earlier hadn’t actually been a complete lie. She was working on something. She was masterfully weaving herself a life she wanted to live. It was a shame it was only conducted via text message, sure, but she was excelling at the project.

At 3.10pm Dr Peddar called and was, indeed, very reasonable. She prescribed new pills and said she’d have the chemist send them to Marcy’s flat. Relief flooded through her and she smiled, hanging up the phone.

**

Two weeks ago, she’d woken up and felt different. It was rare, these days, but occasionally Marcy would feel like her former self: vaguely capable of human interaction. It would only last a day or two, but she would seize it and feel fantastic. That evening she’d dabbed liquid blush on her cheeks and lips, swiped mascara onto her eyelashes and brushed her long hair like a child with a prized doll. She slipped a dark, midnight blue dress over her head, the thin satin straps caressing her collarbone, the soft material skimming her braless breasts, and tied the ribbons of her heeled sandals around her newly shaven ankles. The hairs on her arms standing to attention: anticipation.

“I’ll have a vodka soda please. With fresh lime and ice.” She was sitting on a bar stool at a new place 10 minutes from her flat. She’d seen people geo-tagging it on Instagram: selfies in the dark bathroom and badly lit images of sashimi. The man behind the bar, making her drink, had one sleeve of tattoos. A tiger was snarling at her from atop his right bicep. As he placed the drink in front of her on top of a carefully folded napkin she took a picture and uploaded it to her Stories. She included the tiger emoji.
Marcy spent a lot of time at her flat and though she was mostly happy with this arrangement, she was very aware that she was in many ways abnormal. Looking around, now, she witnessed groups of loud women in too-short too-shiny dresses dissolving into peals of laughter. Couples were holding hands over their tables, trying not to singe their sleeves on the tea lights placed in front of them for performative romance.

She had a group of girl friends from school who were still close. She was part of their Whatsapp group and every day there would be amusing gifs flying back and forth, and arrangements for dinners and BBQs and drinks and cinema trips. She was mostly quiet. She watched it happening as her phone ding, ding, dinged. The anxiety would creep in and she’d treat it with another pill, pulling the duvet closer to her chin. They didn’t expect her to come. Perhaps they didn’t even realise she was part of the group anymore. Scrolling back through the conversation to find the last green message – the last message she had sent the group – she noted it was from seven months ago and read congratulations babe xx.

In the bar: she picked up her phone and messaged Kate. Technically her best friend. Mainly because she read feminist books and mental health memoirs and that meant she was more empathetic and interested in conversation beyond who another girl from school was currently fucking.

Do you fancy a wine? I’m at Kito and in need of a drinking buddy before we’re only allowed to elbow bump.

Casual. Normal. Marcy’s top lip was damp.

It could have been five minutes or it could have been three hours. But at some point while waiting on that bar stool she felt eyes on her. The man with the tiger tattoo had floppy curly hair hanging over one eye, and he was staring at her. When she met his eyes he looked away, back at the customer he was pulling a pint for and she got a good look at the side of his face. Smooth, young, no facial hair. He took payment from the customer – a balding man in his mid-30s wearing an expensive suit – and walked back over to Marcy.

‘Another drink?’ He asked.

‘What do you recommend?’ She replied.

For the rest of the night she was another person. She quickly forgot about her invitation to Kate and so was denied the chance to be annoyed when there was no response. Whenever he wasn’t serving someone else, he would walk over to her spot, rest his elbows on the bar and his chin in his palm and ask her about what she liked to read and watch and study. For the first time in a long time she felt able to present herself as someone with interests – with a favourite author or a particular love of Nora Ephron films – not just as a patient or recluse or someone’s disappointing daughter.
She was on a high that wasn’t anything to do with little foil packets of pills and when he asked for her phone number at midnight, as the bar was closing, she gave it to him without hesitation.

**

It was three weeks after Boris Johnson announced a compulsory lockdown and Marcy was on a roll. The exact same Ocado order would arrive every Saturday morning, she would create a bleach solution in the washing up bowl and wipe down every item before putting it into the fridge. Hand soap was still unavailable at supermarkets but Marcy’s supplies were still going strong. She wondered why people had only just realised that washing your hands was important. The guys who owned Carex must be having a wonderful year.

Every day her alarm would go off at 8.30am and, if Maurice hadn’t woken her up already asking for his breakfast, she would drag herself to standing position and go into the kitchen to make a coffee. This was her favourite part of the day. Filling the Moka pot with ground coffee and water, pouring the milk into the Nespresso frother and pressing the button. Warming her favourite mug with boiling water from the kettle. She would always get back into bed with her coffee and as she walked back to the bedroom Maurice’s soft tail would sway against her ankles as he followed her in.

Marcy liked being alone: the quiet, the freedom to do with her day whatever she wanted. She didn’t have anyone to tell her to do more work, to do any work, or that it might be a good idea to get some fresh air. Her mum would call every day but mostly she ignored it, sometimes dropping her a text a few hours later to say sorry but she was extremely busy. Sometimes she considered what it might be like to be alone forever. To fully adopt the role of the recluse. She was unhappy with the portrayal of reclusivity in the media – ugly, sad, dirty, hairy – and wondered if, perhaps, she could remarket the lifestyle. The problem, though, was always comparison. No matter how content she felt within her four walls, she was too aware of what everyone else was doing. She’d considered giving up social media but had concluded that was not the answer – she needed a foot into the world, a digital version of people-watching that meant she was never (never?) truly lonely.

Of course, Jacob’s arrival in her life had thrown a spanner in the works, but Marcy was terrified to discover that she liked it. The excitement and anticipation. The flirting. The window into an old life. A new life. A different life. The timing couldn’t have been better. Although Jacob expressed keen interest in seeing her again, it was out of their hands. The entire country – the world! – was unable to go on a date. They were content, for the time being, with conducting their burgeoning relationship via text, Facetime and by Googling the shit out of each other. (Marcy was disappointed to discover that her digital footprint was far more extensive than Jacob’s, who only had a private Facebook page he’d last updated in 2013).

Now, lying on her bed with Maurice curled up beside her on his favourite blanket, Marcy returned to the lit-up screen that told her Jacob was typing. She flicked back to the home screen and waited, and seconds later his new message appeared in the form of a banner. She waited five minutes before opening it properly.

Haha, we should start a film club. Though potentially it would need to be exclusive to sci-fi because I can’t be dealing with discussing anything involving Ryan Gosling for any length of time.

What about First Man? He was good in that. AND IT’S IN SPACE. Partly.
Ps. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a fucking great movie.

Immediately, seen. He was waiting.

**

One morning in late May, Marcy woke up to her 8.30 alarm. She walked through to the kitchen as normal and started to prepare her coffee. The flat felt still and quiet, though the window was slightly open and she could hear birds chirping happily in the morning sun. Isolated. It was a feeling she thought she ought to feel but rarely did. Today, though, is was all over her like a rash. She looked down at the floor, over at Maurice’s food bowl, and her stomach dropped into her feet. Where the fuck was Maurice? Marcy ran over to the sash window in the kitchen and yanked it further open, sticking her head out and looking down at the quiet street below. She paced from room to room (there weren’t many), shaking her cat’s treat bag and calling his name. She looked under the bed and the sofa, behind doors and bookcases and inside cupboards. Tears were prickling and her breathing was fast and hard. Where the fuck are my pills? She found two in their foil packet on the armrest of the sofa and dry swallowed them both. She pulled jeans onto her shaking legs and a hoodie over her head, grabbed her keys, and for the first time in over two months descended the communal staircase in her apartment building.

There were only two or three people on the street outside but the sight of them made her gasp. Her vision was swimming and the light of the morning was too bright. She squinted and bent over and forced herself to take four deep breaths. An empty Tesco bag blew past her in the breeze. She called and called his name and shakily guided her legs down street after street after street. She saw other cats. They looked at her, bemused and unfriendly, and her tears fell more heavily.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been outside but she was becoming hysterical. A woman in a face mask holding two heavy shopping bags looked at her with concern and called out to ask if she was okay. Marcy avoided her eyes, panicked and crazed, and ran down a side street still calling for Maurice – begging him, pleading with him to come to her so they could return home. To safety.

She sat down on the pavement and put her head in her hands, her jaw clenched and aching. She was only vaguely aware of the potential germs the street beneath her was contaminating her jeans with. She reached into her pocket for her phone and dialled.

‘Mum? I need you.’

Deborah arrived 20 minutes later and found her still crouched at the side of the road with yesterday’s mascara in Halloween streaks down her cheeks. Her mum wrapped her arms around her and held her for a few seconds before taking her face in her hands and saying, ‘right, let’s find this cat’.

They held hands as they walked the streets and Deborah asked Marcy if Maurice had ever escaped before. (No, she was always so careful with windows). Whether there were any other houses he knew in the area. (Kate lives near the Sainsburys Local and he’s been to her house to stay before). They headed in that direction, Marcy still shaky with nerves and disorientated by the fresh air and beating sun, and when they got to Kate’s street they took a pavement each and checked every front garden and bush they could see, calling his name all the while. About halfway down the road Marcy was peering into a tree, checking each branch with her eyes and praying to a God she didn’t believe in that he or she would bring her most precious friend back to her, when she heard a soft unmistakeable sound. She spun around and there, with his paws politely placed in front of him and his big fluffy behind perched on a paving stone, Maurice cocked his head to one side and ran towards Marcy, mewing and purring and rolling onto his back. She lifted his soft warm body into her arms and buried her tear-streaked face into his tummy. Her mum ran over and burst into tears too. She wasn’t a cat person. In fact she was slightly allergic. But she was Marcy person.

The three of them walking home together, Maurice cradled in Marcy’s arms, were quite a sight. They were grinning and laughing and every masked person that passed gave them a strange look, dipping their heads, quickening their step and happily keeping the mandatory two-metre distance from this crazed human/feline trio.

**

Later than night, after Deborah had cooked them a mushroom risotto with one of the many bottles of white wine in the flat, Marcy hugged her mum and thanked her. She guided Deborah towards the front door and told her she’d text her.

She would.

She probably would.

She went into the bedroom where Maurice was lying on his favourite blanket, eyes half closed. He started purring as soon as she lay down and she rested her head on his warm pillow-like body. Her phone buzzed, but she lay there for a few minutes longer, breathing in his musty smell.

It was Jacob. She’d told him about what had happened and he sent a series of kind and concerned messages. She appreciated them, felt good and excited that he was interested, but she also felt a calm that was new when her phone lit up on the bedside table.

So it looks like lockdown restrictions are going to lift in a couple of weeks. Fancy having a socially distanced walk in the park?

Marcy looked at the message for a few moments, then over at the little foil packet sitting next to her glass of wine. She felt sick. She pictured herself getting ready for the date, dabbing lipstick onto her lips and blush onto her cheeks, descending the communal staircase she had descended manically just earlier that day. She felt more sick and took a gulp of wine, acid on her throat.

Maybe it would be a good day, she mused. Maybe. She pictured the takeaway latte they might grab from one of the cool bakeries on the high street. She thought about the sky and the trees and the warm spring breeze that would make her cheeks tingle.

She tapped out a reply.

Maybe.

###

glasses

Claire Maxwell

Claire Maxwell is a freelance literary publicist and writer. Her work has appeared in publications like iNews and The Independent. She lives in Edinburgh.

Twitter @crudites_
Instagram @clairemaxwell

Image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay

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