Eleven Days In

Gav bent down to pierce a tee into the soil beneath fine tips of wet grass that pricked against his fingertips. As he straightened, he became short of breath, a rush of blood to the head, stars poking themselves over his field of vision and wobble-dribbling over the surface of the eye. A puff of breath, unsteady. The tee in the ground was crooked and could not have Atlas’d a golf ball.
    The first meeting of the year was at noon, and already it seemed too soon. Two floating heads, the older of the pair peering down his nose at the depleted team, ignoring new year’s wisecracks, and declaring—‘Don’t get in touch with… or … or … for that matter.’ The three weeks of break had broken a few. Working from home, it was difficult to know what had happened to everyone. The camaraderie in the employees had been near shattered. We were in the middle of a cold snap, the beginning of which had seen Gav retreat anxiously from the golf course, dragging his bag, butting the back of heels, hoping to make it, hoping and hoping, to the car where he panted into the front seat and regained himself, glancing out the window to check not looking, yeah, small heads disappearing below the knoll. Not covid, the doctor had said, so an x-ray. In books of children learning the alphabet it is always either xylophone or x-ray. Xylem comes later, then it reaches in tall bunches beyond the window of the radiologist’s office where he is informed that he has a ‘partially collapsed lung’ and a pneumonia. He never knew you could get a pneumonia. Gav wonders how much of his lung has collapsed; for a moment, until he is shown the scan at the end of an explanatory finger, he believes that it might be the bottom of the lung. The shape of a lung always seemed a constant, and now, collapsed, he imagines a bizarre, distorted shape in his chest, and how the space left behind has been filled. ‘Gav’s gonna be off for a few weeks so I need you two to get on without him for the foreseeable.’ ‘You can have a pneumonia?’ he asked the doctor, who nodded. The first course of antibiotics failed, the second, found on the edge of death in the midst of a nightmare, began to do something. ‘We can’t have you in here,’ they said—‘all the beds are taken.’ So, he rested at home, which he preferred, he said, the new year coming and going in an exhausting dizziness of napping and unable to move from the sofa. Instinctively he picked up the white diffuser to spray menthol nicotine to the back of his throat, but the doctor had warned him against it. He put it down and searched through the channels for some golf to watch. There was a rerun of the 2008 Masters. During one of the breaks, he said to his wife, who was at the Sunday table, assembling a puzzle she had received for Christmas—‘Feel like I’m leaving the guys in the shit.’ She looked up and tsked, rolled her eyes. After a while—‘How you getting on with it?’ She lowered her glasses—‘I’ve no idea why my mum bought me a… thousand-piece puzzle for Christmas.’ They chuckled and Gav coughed, reached for the white diffuser, then withdrew his hand.
    ‘And don’t try to get in touch with Bandy, either. He’s also off for the foreseeable.’ That word was getting thrown around a lot, as if, eleven days into our new year, the concept of time was hard to define, and what stretched out before us was only uncertain. Foreseeable. ‘Yeah,’ I said—‘already spoken to him.’ He had unloaded upon me most earnestly as I chased away the taste of my first coffee with a cigarette; it is a new year, but the taste of the latter still perfectly underlines the taste of the former. A long rambling text – like his e-mails – where he disclosed that he was on antidepressants, and they were leaving him feeling like shit all day and in a haze. His father is remarkably successful., you may have heard of him. I told him not to worry, to rest up. He started up a business with a friend at university, who then went on to have a breakdown and disappear, seizing all the money. We had only been working on a project for a couple of months, and although he was not my sort of person, there was something, even in bitterness, I found endearing about him. As he quickly lost control or alienated architects and structural engineers in meetings with his cold manner, terse demeanour, there was a part of me that started, indirectly, with a strange warmth towards him. He never left his flat when the lockdown got announced. His beautiful girlfriend went out and bought the groceries. He maintained this kind of form in front of his webcam, this posture of authority, the background a blur of grey winter window and chaotic, messy living. He was quiet and serious, yet on the nights out he attended he would try to convey an air of joviality. Nobody knew where he got the money, but he drove an expensive sports car; he never seemed the type to take a penny off his father if he could help it. At the beginning of December his grandfather died, and he announced it with the same openness as he had disclosed his antidepressant difficulty. ‘Going to funeral today. I’ll be able to work up till I have to leave.’ Did not know what to make of him, but caught myself staring at his particular rectangle during meetings, searching for signals or tells, his back upright, his eyes away from the lens. The building industry makes little room for mental health, and so I was taken aback by how genuinely my boss expressed sympathy and understanding for his absence. Still he stared down his nose—‘So you two will just have to make do between the pair of you for now. Let’s see how we get on.’
    Cynthia has nothing to do with me, so her predicament reached me through back-channels, and although I have little-to-no interaction with her, she is where my story ends. At university I would, during those lonely years, go to an awful café in a shopping centre, and take my seat there, very often, so that I became a regular. It was where I thought to myself and listened to music, and where I would stare at a group of people who also spent far too much time there. They all seemed years ahead of me in every sense of the phrase, positively too, like they grasped their twenties with such fervour and joy that one could hardly believe it. They were how imagined every student to be, and I was terribly envious of them. Everything I felt I had been denied to me landed on them, and they radiated with life! Occasionally the manager would walk over and tell them they must order something, so one would go to the till and order another round of coffees, and then they would sit down and continue talking enthusiastically and animated, and I would spectate, smiling, from the other side of the seating area. They were Greek. Cynthia was nothing like that. She walked around the office, rubbing her pregnant belly, with a confused worried look on her face, her brow pinched, craning her neck looking for someone or other. She was not confident with English – although it was quite good – and when she talked she would utter these long Uhhhhsounds, so elongated she sounded like a malfunctioning computer stuttering over a fifty-six-kay connection. Her father came over just before Christmas to look after Cynthia’s child while her and her husband were at work. The husband is a bus driver. The father looked after the kid and then he got covid so he could not do that anymore, then Cynthia got covid. The father, the pregnant daughter, and the grandson stayed at home as the husband stayed too, unable to drive the buses. The baby is due in April. Cynthia stays in bed and she rubs her belly, talking softest, flowing Greek to her husband and her father and her son, and she rubs her belly. There is a draught coming off the window as the father stumbles in, asks if she wants a cup of tea, as the child wanders from his father’s hand to visit his mother, pulls at the duvet, where it has collected from the dangling sheet. ‘It’s really cold out there,’ husband says, helping the infant onto the bed as he walks over to the window and looks out, hoping not to see a bus pass by. ‘Have work called you?’ Without waiting for a response—‘Your father wants to take Vangelis down the park. I told him it’s out of the question.’ Cynthia is telling her son to be gentle on her belly, looks up, about to raise her voice, but allows her husband to deal with her father. A food delivery tomorrow morning between six and eight. The baby will be okay, the baby will be okay. ‘Gentle, yes?’ she mothers softly—‘Be gentle, Vangelis, like this.’ The flat is getting smaller, the flat is getting stuffier.