Came Back Positive (Absence)

Every day more people go missing from the office. Unless they are a close friend, their absence is never explained. Having noticed they are not there and have not been for several days, one simply has to ask aloud—‘What happened to Chris?’ A close friend will step forward with an answer, or an acquaintance with a rumour, or a fellow with a shrug of the shoulders. It is highly likely that there are e-mails circulating within the management about the numbers, but lower down this information does not filter through. The receptionist – who has had another injection into her lips, 100ml as opposed to the usual 50ml, and is displaying blue bruising on her misshapen slabs of sensitive flesh – comes around with the temperature gun and takes everybody’s reading. One struggles to take their eyes off her self-inflicted deformities as she reads your temperature back to you: thirty-six-point-seven. Decidedly average. People want to be average at a time like this. If someone coughs, then the duller members of staff call out—‘Burn him! Burn him!’ and find it most amusing, but it is not; it was not amusing first time, it is not amusing now. Desks free up. The room and the rooms become quieter. Maybe nobody will notice you are not there, that used to be a good thing.
    The numbers are never given. The staff, kept in the dark, is always in danger. At first, it objected the risks and argued with the directors, but slowly, as is the way – and that of human nature – it tired and succumbed, complied wordlessly. The workers, because of either a proclivity for gossip or a universal camaraderie, discuss everything. If any secret exists, then within minutes, and through various channels, it is exposed, confessed, admitted, announced, shared; its route to freedom so convoluted and complex that to trace the origin would be nigh on impossible. Interestingly, the secrets seldom mutate between their start and their finish; they come out on the other side perfectly intact and unmanipulated, as though through each exchange it was cherished honourably.
    Two of the three directors, I. and P., insisted that people came into the office, and, because of that, garnered a fair amount of dislike among their employees.
    P. was the first to contract the virus. It was quickly deduced that he had caught it on the train home on a Friday night (the second of October). His condition deteriorated over the weekend until he struggled to breathe. The test came back positive. His son, who shared the same train journey with him, came back negative. Both isolated; one was short of breath. The office became alert. It was thought that his absence might revitalise a sense of joviality in the office, but it did not; people became nervous, silent. More people were told to isolate.
    I. continued to come in, organise and attend meetings, cough in them incessantly, and then, resigned, took the test.
    This morning my friend read his phone then turned to me—‘You mustn’t tell anyone this, but… Covid has landed...!’ I. had been tested positive. The one remaining director made a series of phonecalls – having kicked me out of a meeting we were having – and then sent out an e-mail saying that staff were to work from home. Meanwhile the television set in the breakout area was turned up for the prime minister’s address; his words echoing through the halls and meeting rooms. Whether or not one wished to hear his ridiculous accent was irrelevant, because such announcements were meant to be projected throughout households, workspaces, hospitals and waiting rooms, airports and shopping centres, translated over the BBC world service for thousands of miles to anybody who cared.
    Slowly the office cleared out. Although the staff had been waiting for such an announcement, it affected upon them a most glum mood. Each left prematurely, uttering a sombre yet sincere—‘Take care’ to those around them. Although the office-lockdown would only last four days – until the end of the week – who really knew how long it would go on? ‘Why don’t you go for a drink,’ my mother said—‘You don’t know when you’ll be able to do it again.’
    It rained. I wanted to work my contracted hours, despite my friends having left hours ago. Contracted hours were normal. I walked back to the station in the rain through dead streets and dead buildings and I passed the road down which I would have turned to return to my flat. How long will this one last? There is talk of things ending in the spring. This all started in the spring. I ask ‘what is spring’ when the days draw in so closely that it is overwhelming and the sunrises dulled. The train leaked the rain. Young people headed back into the counties with huge suitcases. The train was breaking down and terminated early in a nearby town. Ten minutes till the next one, they said. I waited ten minutes. Another train did not come.