After the first month of lockdown, Pippa hated everything about her apartment. Its circuit of interiors seemed to have lately grown as tiny and as bare as a patio. Boredom chased her around it endlessly, from the kitchen to her bedroom and from her bedroom to the living room and from window to window to stare blankly out of each of them in turn. As she stalked through these rooms, her body would twang with impatience, like a guitar string that was being plunked by a child who couldn’t play the simplest tune. This apartment had become so familiar that everything that she rested her eyes on now made her want to scream from the bottom of her lungs.
After the second month of lockdown, Pippa hated everything about her community. There were only so many combinations of different walks that you could take around its streets. Pippa wished that a tornado might come slicing through the neighbourhood, scattering its buildings and making the landscape interesting to look at again. In Marchmont, however, the likelihood of this occurring was probably negligible. Any tornados that whipped themselves up on the Meadows would soon wind down and expire with a rueful sigh amongst these drowsy, middle-class tenements.
Pippa hated the lockdown more than she had hated anything or anybody in her entire life. And although her life had not been long, it was normally tremendously busy with ongoing hatreds. Tycienski, who was fond of teasing her, called her “an angry little dwarf.” Yet whilst she could be explosively aggressive and scornful with her family and friends, she always tended to be more fair-minded with the shortcomings, even the annoying habits, of those who she knew less well. Perhaps this was how she had latched onto the stranger outside the supermarket.
Here, everybody had to queue at intervals of two metres, as though they were being laid out like traffic cones and a go-kart was coming shortly to weave around them. There was a one in, one out system and a big man in a hefty plastic visor stood opposite the perspex entrance directing it. This morning, everybody marooned on their demarcated spot was studying their phones or waiting while their thoughts played faintly in their minds like muzak. Pippa did not need to look twice at this queue; everybody was unremarkable and dressed in colourless, shapeless coats and gripping crumpled bags. This was how she noticed the stranger.
He actually came dancing around the side of the supermarket, with a fretful, complicated spring in his step. He was peeking sharply at everybody, almost bug-eyed with alertness. He could not seem to tear his gaze from the faces of the people in the queue, a man who watched people’s faces intently and anxiously, like a baby does. “Tikky-tikky,” he sang to himself under his breath. “Tikky-tikky. Tikky-tikky-tikky.”
He was in his late twenties but squirmingly boyish. The drab and dated smartness of his clothes, with a featureless grey t-shirt tucked into beige trousers, made him look undeniably Eastern-European.
He joined the end of the queue, behind an old woman who had brought along an ancient leather grocery bag on wheels and who had just joined up behind Pippa. “Tikky-tikky,” he sang louder, apparently reinvigorated now that he was in the queue. He glanced shyly at Pippa. When she didn’t react, he turned away and started dancing again, as though his dancing was a fire that would go out if it was neglected for a few seconds. “Tikky-tikky. Tikky-tikky-tikky.”
The old woman crossed her arms and glared at him. “Eh, you shut your pan,” she muttered to herself. It was as if she was commenting on the actions of a bird or some mindless thing that was disturbing her.
He blinked and whistled at her in surprise, before renewing his dance ever more excitedly. “Tikky-tikky. Tikky-tikky-tikky!”
I am going to fuck this guy, Pippa thought, in a decision so slight that, a moment later, she could not recall when or how her mind had moved. It was like when someone’s eye falls on a university campus in a brochure and in a heartbeat their future has been settled. Pippa had not slept with a boy for over two months and to her this was the equivalent of a decade. She had tried to arrange hook-ups online – not on Tinder (she wasn’t this maddened) but by ringing numbers that had been preserved by chance on her phone. She had been shocked by how seriously some previously fun and liberal folk were now taking the lockdown. It was as if the government had pressed a button and deleted the whole city’s libido.
Pippa had been further frustrated by Tori. Whilst she was in Edinburgh, Pippa was crashing at her cousin’s apartment. Pippa had been waylaid by the fridge one morning and spoken to with a sternness that had reduced her to a hot, breathless silence. “Nobody is coming here,” Tori warned, as if she had stepped through all of Pippa’s usual nonsense and straight into the unguarded cockpit of her mind. “No friends, no guys. If I wasn’t pregnant, I might be moderately flexible. But I am, so don’t fuck with me on this. You understand?”
This stranger would have to be smuggled in, Pippa schemed. He would have to be as silent as a draught under the door. She looked him over doubtfully, as he giggled and danced on the spot and crooned “tikky tikky” at the grumbling old woman next to him. The old woman was now shuffling about in annoyance and flapping her arms like a penguin. Pippa smiled at how in her mind this stranger was already tiptoeing towards her bed when she didn’t even ken his name yet.
Maybe the garden, she brooded. There was a small tenement garden that Tori’s bedroom, which was packed into the front of the apartment, was unable to keep an active eye on. Unfortunately about fifty other windows looked onto this garden from every surrounding direction, in a courtyard formation. There were bushes that might offer some thin cover. The garden would be plan B, she resolved.
“Hiya!” she called gaily to the silly, dancing man, switching herself on like a light bulb.
Amazed that she had chosen to speak to him, the stranger pulled a boxing pose and punched the air in triumph. His eyes were now resting intently on her, as if they were animals drinking lovingly from a watering hole. His eyes became huge and warm.
The grumbling woman turned to Pippa, wagging her head. “You tell this one to pack it in with all his tikky-tikky.” It was obvious by now that her grumbling was just a kind of private game with herself and that she was really amused and kind-hearted.
At that moment, the queue moved and they each took an identical step left, as if they were all participating in some extremely deliberative ballroom dance.
“Swap with me,” Pippa ordered the grumbling woman, beckoning quickly to her. In a single bob, they switched places, so that Pippa had materialised beside the stranger. The stranger stood back and nodded appreciatively at her.
She could not quite land on him though. He was still watching her appraisingly, in a signal that she had no problem reading. But whenever she tried to address him, his eyes would flash tauntingly and he would fall into mimicking the pattern of her sentences, burbling “tikky-tikky-tikky.” She started to scold him and she only stopped when she realised that her voice had become one with that of her predecessor, the grumbling woman. Next he had looked away, his mind apparently wandering, and she felt a rush of panicked powerlessness, as though she had miscalculated and stepped onto blank air. Now he was dancing again and scanning the faces of the people in the queue behind them.
When she arrived in front of the man in the plastic visor, she had to chat with him because she did this every morning. She made sure to load a certain hardness into her voice, however, to advertise to the stranger behind her that she was still really focused on him.
The man in the plastic visor said “good morning” and he asked “how are you?” Behind his plastic visor, he was like a castaway who was standing on the shore of a desert island and perceiving her from across an immense ocean of boredom.
Once Pippa had been admitted to the supermarket, she didn’t know whether or not to wait for the stranger. She drifted over to the nearest fridge and pretended to inspect the sandwiches. After a minute, she was aware of him bustling into the supermarket behind her. All at once she turned and found that she was alone. She followed hastily after him, staring with apprehension and with a sick sadness welling up inside of her. She wanted to call to him piteously. She could hear him still singing “tikky-tikky” to himself as he went on his adventure excitedly around the aisles.
Later, he was coming towards her and then, on the cusp of greeting her, he swerved and swept past, ostensibly without seeing her. His basket was empty aside from three tins of rhubarb gin and tonic and a couple of packets of microwaveable frankfurters. Of course, she saw that this was wholly in line with his character. It had become instantly unimaginable that he could have selected anything else.
Oh well, Pippa whispered to herself. This one evidently wasn’t for her. She no longer knew what she wanted to buy and she felt so dried up inside that she did not think that she could ever again swallow even the tiniest berry. She forced memories of a few familiar items to appear in her head and then she had collected enough to them in her basket to make it look like she had been shopping.
He was waiting for her outside the supermarket, standing at a little distance from the stolid, bevisored security guard. “Tikky-tikky!” he cried to his satisfaction on seeing her.
It turned out that he was very easy to lead home. He followed her like an inquisitive dog that you might pick up in a country lane.
It was only when Pippa saw Tori that she knew it to be true. There was a rare, generous opening in the fabric of the universe for her today. The sun was shining fully on her and every last cloud had been banished from the sky. Tori and her boyfriend Toby were themselves leaving the tenement to go out shopping. They were talking to each other cheerfully, their long episode of indoor dullness and resentment dispelled now that they were out in the open air. As they left, neither of them noticed Pippa and the stranger approaching. It was as if a simplistically benevolent god had enchanted the apartment to be vacated for Pippa.
She grabbed the stranger’s hand and practically shook his arm off with joy. “Come on!” she yelped. Warmly, he slid his arm around her waist and they both ran for it. The world seemed to tumble away, flimsily, in a whirl of cardboard scenery, as they raced up to her bedroom. Once they were inside and their shopping had dropped to the carpet, discarded, she was awed by the sudden certainty that this was going to be good.
The stranger slowed down and he became gentle and very attentive. There were going to be none of the usual shocks – nothing unhygienic once he had undressed or nothing brusque, no shudder as he grabbed her jaw impetuously and his eyes became flinty. He wanted to kiss her for a long time before they reached the bed. He stroked her hair very tenderly.
“Tikky-tikky” he grunted sweetly.
The problem was that she very rapidly abandoned all of her customary control and vigilance. He knocked everything but himself out of her brain, leaving nothing but a rolling knowledge of his flesh and its gears and pistons and rhythms. Pippa became so engulfed in pleasure that she listened to the moaning that lapped steadily against the walls and ceiling without recognising it as her own. But she came up short when there was a series of bangs on the bedroom door.
It was Tori and her voice was gritty and squeaky with rage.
Now there was a pounding that made the door bark in its frame. This must be Toby.
The stranger extracted himself. He lay back amongst the bedsheets and peered down his nose at the door, as one might do through a pince-nez. He glanced at Pippa and then calmly, he fell into waiting.
Pippa scrambled to her feet. Her thin, bare legs shot into jeans, snapped up in a trice. The door now pounded in a great, prolonged gobbling of fury. She flung on a jumper and of course it was the wrong way around and she could not disentangle any route out of it again. When she finally opened the door and surrendered, Tori’s gaunt, glaring face pressed on eerily into the room like a silent, invading tank. Pippa was weeping before she could catch herself and now it was too late to bundle it up again.
“Please,” she sobbed. “Please Tori, please let me have this. I deserve it. I just deserve it just this once.”
Tori shook her head fiercely. “I’m pregnant,” she hissed. “I’m going to have a baby. And you’ve let a stranger into our flat who could give us all the coronavirus.”
It was the first time that these three flatmates had said or heard the word “coronavirus” for ages. They all stopped, confused for a second. Somehow, the term had sounded strangely archaic.
Pippa did not know what to do and all that she could muster was sorrowful rounds of weaker and weaker pleading. “Please,” she repeated. “I have to have this. It’s been so long and you don’t know how hard it’s been for me. Please Tori, please. Just let me have this. Please… don’t be… don’t be…”
When the stranger spoke, their hearts all dived in fright, thoroughly spooked. Until that moment, it hadn’t seemed possible that he could actually talk like a human being would. He lay back against a pillow, under a strategically-placed duvet but spread-eagled and with his legs spreading luxuriantly. His lips twitched and when he spoke his voice sounded richly interesting and intelligent. His accent was clearly Polish but his English was as perfect as dutifully clipped and manicured fingernails.
“Do you realise, my friends, how illogical this situation is. You surely must have an inkling?”
“It would be a lot more logical if you got dressed and left my apartment at once,” Tori fumed crossly.
The stranger looked bored and his head lolled back. Yet then he had released a patient smile that was not, at bottom, a smile. He began again.
“I was referring, if I may say so, to this situation as a whole. To what you call, nonsensically, ‘the coronavirus.’ Do you realise how illogical this is?”
They all stood waiting, surprised.
“How so?” Pippa pursued cautiously. She wished that she had gotten hold of his name whilst she had had the chance.
“Why, when we were walking back from the supermarket together, people on the pavements were jumping frantically out of our way, in order to keep what they call ‘the social distance.’ But this makes no sense. Even your own World Health Organisation doubts that the virus can be caught outdoors.”
They could only continue to listen.
“And a gigantic mad edifice has been built out of this. Last week, the police cleared Portobello beach, moving hundreds of people on. This, after it’s been admitted from the outset that there is scarcely any possibility of catching the virus in the open air.”
Toby looked troubled. “Sure, buddy but, I mean, of course there will be discrepancies and areas that they never get entirely right.”
Nonetheless, they knew that this stranger was not finished and that his remarks were developing and beginning to resemble a lecture. He was now smiling at them with a sickly radiance. “This situation with Dominic Cummings. Three days of wall-of-Cummings in the media. Endless scrutiny of some irrelevant car journey whilst everywhere around us millions of jobs and livelihoods are being pulped. Doesn’t this look and sound absolutely crazy to you?”
“Yes,” Toby conceded, “but that was just a one-off. That was just something that the media needed to get out of its system.”
“They’ve closed down every school in the country. Millions of children are being denied a comprehensive education. Millions of young, working-class lives wrecked whilst the authorities continue to maintain that the risk to children from the virus is non-existent. ‘Crazy’ would again appear to be the most suitable word for such conditions, wouldn’t you agree?”
Tori looked at Pippa inquiringly. Her eyebrow was now raised in a way that seemed to dimly reinforce the wisdom of what the stranger was saying. Pippa was shocked. It was almost as if Tori was smiling at her.
“Four people have died in Hong Kong,” the stranger laughed. “Over thirty-thousand people have died in the UK. This isn’t just illogical – it’s outrageously senseless.” They stood dumb as he started to hector them stridently, like a prosecutor who knows that he has a conviction in the bag. His voice grew ever more unbearably piercing. “Weeks of madness – months of madness – haven’t you realised it yet?”
An almost hysterical terror galloped through Pippa as she understood that he was addressing her and her alone. He was sitting up in the bed, rising inexorably, his eyes fixed on her and shining like two bleak, vicious dots. “It’s a dream. YOU ARE HAVING A DREAM.”
With an almost imperceptible disjointing, like skipping over a comma in a sentence, Pippa looked up into fresh daylight. Not that washed-out, pearly light, with its tinge of sad sunflower yellow, which picks its way through a dream. This was pale and cool – it was ordinary daylight.
The absolute horror of this winded her as if she had been kicked in the kidneys. She couldn’t breathe or speak. She sat up in her bed, as morning light fell chanting in all of its ordinariness through the bedroom window and lay chanting on the bedsheets all around her. She looked around and her mouth flapped as it attempted to work up words, any words. There were not even the stirrings of a single thought available to her.
The scales had fallen from her eyes and she recognised the true meaning of this saying. A completely rendered world had dropped and rattled away like a few bits.
How could this be possible? How could a dream be so long and so detailed, with week after week, and day after day, of realistic minor events?
She was very frightened. She sat in the bed with her body shaking, keeping the panic held jigging under her knees. Frantically, she tried to calm her mind down, to bring it back down to a level that felt safe and reliable.
Of course, it was an illusion. She had experienced a very rare kind of dream but from somewhere within herself the knowledge reached her that dreams can behave like this. They can give you an impression that months, sometimes even years, have passed. There is nothing inside the dreaming brain that corresponds with time out in the real world. Tucked up inside itself, the brain can hallucinate and spin its weightless cobwebs without limit.
She became aware that Tori was walking past outside her bedroom. She could tell it was Tori – Toby always clumped like a bear. She could not speak to Tori right now – it would be excruciating to submit to her yodelling cheerfulness. She had to sit very still in her bed and concentrate solemnly on processing this dream that had been shared with her.
Wildly, she tried to remember going to bed. Yes, a few hours ago she had undressed for bed as normal. To her relief, this memory remained clear and firm.
After about ten minutes, she had calmed down sufficiently to be able to get up and prepare for college. The dream had since disintegrated into a puddle of weak light and a couple of chance wisps. It seemed increasingly stupid now and it was coming down, in a succession of jolts, so that the meaninglessness of it was being ever more sharply clarified. She marvelled, disconcerted, at how she could have ever taken it so seriously.
No time for breakfast. She would grab something from the supermarket on her way to her lecture, if there was time.
There was – she had three minutes. She plunged in, pushing past people.
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry!” She jumped back mortified. She had trodden on a lady’s foot.
“Nae bother, darling. I’ll live.”
It was by accident that she crossed the drinks aisle. There was a guy standing in it, examining the label on a can of rhubarb gin and tonic. “Tikky-tikky,” he muttered under his breath.
For some reason, this annoyed Pippa. She shot around, her fists clenching by her sides. “Hey pal, did you say something to me?”
He blinked at her. “Nope.”