‘Should we say we’re worried about her welfare?’
Lockdown is being lifted, gradually. But by rights, Carys and Wynstill shouldn’t be making the 12-mile journey across Powys to see her sister. You were supposed to stay local, unless you were going on some kind of mercy mission, to check whether someone was still alive or not. Carys imagines armed policemen guarding a barricaded checkpoint on the bridge at Builth Wells.
‘If we’re stopped, I mean?’
Wyn snorts. Anyone acquainted withTeleri, knowsshe’s never had trouble looking after herself. Carys can see her now, elbowing global pandemics aside. To the right – biff! To the left –baff!
Wyn is driving. He seems calm. They make idle chatter as they wind their way through the sun-drenched lanes, commenting on the grassy hedges, the froth of cow parsley, reminiscing how lovely it has been with less traffic; how they’ve been able to hear the cuckoo calling from all the way across the valley on a still evening. It would have been idyllic if they’d been allowed to see their kids on the other side of the country. And their son is about to become a father.
One of the many advantages of lockdown has been the absence of obligation. Sisterly visits have beenstrictly prohibited. The percentage chance of face-to-face discord has been reduced to zero. Friction has been placed in quarantine.
Under normal conditions, the time betweenvisitswould followa predictable pattern:
Phase 1: lasting four to six weeks. This phase is like a long sigh of relief. The last visit has(usually) passed without incident, and the next won’t take place for many weeks to come. And… relax.
Phase 2: lasting anything between a week and three months, depending on how many convenient obstacles Carys can engineer. This phase is characterized by a growing sense of guilt i.e. surely one must be able to have a have a meaningful relationship with one’s only sister, and hope i.e. perhaps all those other incidents werejust imagined.
Phase 3: when all possible excuses have been used up and/or a visit is imminent. This phase is generally characterized by dread.
The meadows fly past in a blur. Carys reminds herself that everything will be fine as long as they remember not to talk about anything such as work, career, politics or Brexit. It is usually safe to talk about the children (as long as she doesn’t mention their private education) or home renovations, or more recently, the availability of reliable home delivery. Any topic, which can possibly turn competitive, is off-limits. If Carys makes a slip over the phone (signaled by an ominous intake of breath on the other side) she has learned how to retrieve the situation by pretending that the postman – the very impatient postman – is at the door.
‘Sorry! Got to go!’ Carys loves her postman. He’s interrupted many an acidic conversation in his time.
They arrive. Park up. Carys has already signalled, by text, that they don’t intend to go in to the house, and she’s deliberately chosen a glorious day so they cansit outside.
The first encounter with my new grandchild will NOT be via video link.
My first baby gift will NOT be a virus.
‘Ah, THERE you are!’ They hear the shout as they round the side of the Grade II listed vicarage.
Teleri, her husband Roger and their two teenage sons are looking at them as if they’ve just emerged from an impenetrable jungle.
‘We wondered where you’d got to!’
We didn’t get lost on your enormous estate, if that was what you were thinking.
They come up the steps on to the extensive south-facing patio and the first problem presents itself. There is only one table and a modest canopy.A ‘very important job in management’ clearly doesn’t prepare one for the challenge of trying to seat six people in the shade.
There’s no way we’re all going to sit in the shade AND keep our distance.
There follows a series of awkward gestures that are supposed to convey virtual hugs. They even wave at each other. Carys places the coolbag of tonics on the table and, standing well back, explains that they’ve been produced by a local artisan.
Teleri looks vaguely alarmed and responds with a killer serve. ‘Tea anyone?’ which would have been all right if the umpire was paying attention. He could have called ‘First serve!’ as the opponent wasn’t ready, but instead,Carys’s husband, the one who should have been cheering from the sidelines, says,
‘I’d LOVE a cup of tea.’
Telerismirks. The first points on the scoreboard are hers: husband fails to backparanoid wife on Covid-free refreshments.
‘What about you, Carys? Tea?’
Arsenic is what she really means.
‘No, thanks. I’ll just have a tonic.’
‘Without gin!’ There is much guffawing.
Gin-less tonic is hysterical.
‘A glass then?’
That would defy the whole purpose of bringing drinks in an attempt to avoid your potentially infected crockery.
‘I’ll drink out of the bottle, thanks. We brought an opener.’
Teleri rolls her eyeslanguidly, like some Holywood siren searching for the best lighting,and for some peculiar reason she feels obliged to investigate the coolbag. She gives the contents a cursory fettle, then flicks the lid shut with a laugh.
‘I washed my HANDS!’
Carys glances at her watch. They’ve been thereseven minutes.
There is a lull around the table, as well there might be. They all look exhausted.
‘Ah, so how is everyone?’
They talk about non-controversial subjects: food, weather, entertaining podcasts. Carys takes the flavoured tonics out of the bag, trying not to handle them too much. She chooses one for herself. Rhubarb. It makes a satisfying pffft sound as she opens it.
‘Anyone else?’ she asks. No takers. The boys look as if they are slowly poaching in the afternoon sun, so theyall shuffle their chairs around in attempt to get them into the shade. It makes little difference.
Tea is brought out on an ostentatious tray. A large mug with ‘Top Dog’ emblazoned on it is placed triumphantly in front of the husband-collaborator.
‘Are you sure you don’t want TEA?’ saysTeleri, her voice rising to an incredulous crescendo. Her perfectly chiselled hair seems to squeak in the breeze as if it’s playing the lead role in a film about cold war spies.
You just want me to say it again so you can liquidise me with your glare.
Carystakes a defiant swig oftonic. The boys look on, slightly open-mouthed. Is that awe, or are they gobsmacked by her audacity?
‘Am I letting the side down?’ she asks the eldest. He smiles a smile of collusion. Or it could be a wince, because he knows what’s coming next.
Telerihas gone back to the kitchen and when she reappears, the tray isfreshly laden with a homemade Victoria sponge, dusted with an immaculate layer of pristine icing sugar. She shimmies her way to the table and presents it like the head of a defeated antagonist. Carys imagines it, skewered by thevictor’s flag. It says,‘Go on, refuse my cake, why don’t you?’
‘Sponge?’ says Teleri. It really isn’t a question.
The collaborator gets some first, an extra large slice, with oozing blood-red raspberry jam.
Sometimes the only way ahead is through.
Everyone eats cake.
They say how tasty it is. How light and fluffy. How well-risen with only a hint of deflation towards the centre.
In the lull, and judging the question to be relatively risk-free, Carys asks the eldest how his Saturday job is going. Do the customers behave?
‘Oh, no. They don’t do social distancing.They’re forever coming in, hanging around, just chatting.’
‘Small shop, is it?’
‘Yes. No room to move.’
Carysglances at her plate and is dismayed to see that her cake has disappeared.Did shereally eat it all on auto-pilot, in a gustatory panic?
The sticky fork and jam-streaked plate glisten in the scorching sunlight.
Then, there’s a dramatic change of subject.
‘So. What do you think the Chancellor will do about the economy?’
Teleri has directed the question at Wyn with all the tetchiness of a hotshot chief executive who has been conducting interviews all day, and who still has five more to do, even though she already knows who she wants for the job. She hasn’t directed it at Carys, obviously, because Carys doesn’t know anything at all that Teleri wants to know.
Wyntakes time swallowing the last of his cake.
‘Well, in truth, there is little he can do that will have any significance in a global context. Whether we like it or not, we are now a bit part player, economically. So for all the current government’s bluster, it is the action taken in the U.S., China or Europe that really matters.’
Oh, bravo! Bit part player!
Carys almost drums her feet on the decking but stops herself just in time. The raspberry streak on her plate takes on a new significance. Wasn’t it some Chinese philosopher who recommended overcoming your adversaries by joining them under a garden canopy, hugging their rattan chairs, and stabbing them with your cake fork when they least expected it?
Of course, it can’t last. This conversation has taken them away from economics (i.e. safe) towards politics (i.e. definitely out of bounds), so they move on to the virtues of gluten-free flour and ordering shorts online.
They’re back in the car, but not before all the niceties are carefully observed: lovely cake, thank you for the tonics, enjoy the rest of your week, stay away from the customers.
They wind their way back through the lanes. The fields seem to have changed colour since they drove that way earlier.A blackbird, caught by surprise in the middle of the road, darts off to the hedge. There are pigeons and sparrows and wagtails.
‘Are there more birds?’
‘You just notice them more.’
Collaborator turned freedom fighter.
Tall pink campion is in bloom. Fiery crocosmia spills out over a garden hedge. They pass a field of barley that has green swells like the sea.
Carys thinks, in lockdown, strange things happen to time. The world before seems a lifetime away, and things that were utterly forgotten have come back up close.
Mesmerized by the shimmering road, and the warm breeze through the open windows, Carys sees herself and Teleri. They have been racing around, as you do when you’re seven and nine.
Their mother says,‘Stand still, so I can see you properly.’
They skid to a halt like little soldiers, not really aware that their lives are about to change. It’s such a little thing, looking back.
Their mother, without moving towards them,observes them from a distance. She looks from one to the other, left to right, right to left, as if they are objects in a museum cabinet, as if she has never set eyes on them before. She looks at their hair, the shape of their foreheads, their noses, their dirty knees, the colour of their eyes.
At first, the girls giggle, not quite sure what to make of this scrutiny. But then they notice there is something else in the look, not just a mother’s wonderment. She is taking in the measure of them. One has better hair, the other a daintier nose; one a better shape, the other less knobbly knees.
The girls are released and return to their games, but they will never be free of that look.
Impress me, it seemed to say. Come up to my high bar.
Only one of you can ever be best.
Only one of you can win.