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short story

title. The Quarantine Visits

date. 2020

Owl.jpeg

This was written during the UK Covid-19 Lockdown of 2020.

The Quarantine Visits

His room was fantastic. He had had no say in it, though he took pride in it, for it was undeniably his. It was not a reflection of him, and he was not a reflection of it. But it was his. It had lights, L.E.D ones that cut out of his ceiling a humming, glowing rectangle, it had an entertaining area, that was clearly once often used. Two opposing leather sofas split apart by a coffee table. There were books on it that weren’t his, purely ornamental ones that he knew the other tenants hadn’t read either. He had a bed in the room which looked like a cot for royalty. Four bulbous orbs at each four corners that pulled and narrowed into beams that ran up to the ceiling. He was not emotional about his room, but his bed upset him on the best of days. It had been especially troubling since the quarantine began. Shoved against a wall like a cowering beast, eccentric limbs so long that they seemed to warp and constrict. The light leapt through the window by it and showered him unpredictably. The bars on the window would split the light into streaks of assault, which he would feebly try and coil like a snake to avoid in the mornings. There was no curtain, as the possibility of him having someone else in his bed was not a possibility. Of all the things he had not decided on for his room, the bed was what irked him.

 

Yes, he had tried to move it, from every angle in the room. Attempting to move it from within the bed seemed the most effective, where he planted his feet upon the bars of the window and fit his shoulder under one of the wooden orbs, but with the heaviest push from his chopstick legs he had still not been able to move it an inch. He had lain there exhausted and felt a rare comfort from the sheets, he closed his eyes and pictured the bed he used to share with his wife. He must have fallen asleep, for the nurses woke him and gave him a fright. He thought for a second he was being suffocated by a plastic shopping bag, but it was just the sleeve of her protective suit. They seemed frightened too.

 

You would think that night would be better, but of course, there were the owls. Such beautiful creatures, that made the most musical of sounds. But he had learnt that the sounds were not for him to relish. They were for each other, and they were random, with no timing nor repetition, the antithesis of music. Perhaps the quarantine had made them more brazen, for there were certainly a lot of them outside, hundreds it seemed like. He would always sleep on the side of the bed far from the window, to quieten the hooting. However, his neck stiffened there, and turning over meant he would sometimes catch a glimpse of them. It began as a treat, who could not get lost in those amber eyes, where light and time swirl still in their black pupils. The trees had all but turned away from him, the wind was disinterested, but they perched there in a dutiful line, winking and watching. He initially felt proud, he had always considered owls something enchanting, a lost woodland creature, but the feeling and novelty of it had been lost long ago. There was a viewing party nowadays, and not his, but theirs. A constellation of eyes on you, three’s a crowd.

 

But of course, he was old, and he would sleep. He would try and focus in on the coughs of his elderly peers, his bunkmates in adjacent rooms. That sound was predictably human, and the coughs always went un-responded. That was comforting, and the home’s collective restlessness would reliably send him off to sleep. Short sleep, interrupted by that gloriously rude sunshine. He had politely asked the nurses if they could help him move the bed, but it could not be moved, it had been there since Victorian times and weighed a literal ton. So, he had asked for a curtain, at which the two nurses he was speaking to exchanged a glance and replied that the sun was good for him, no point in sleeping all day. The conversation had taken place before the quarantine, and he wondered if he should re-rally his efforts now the situation with the bed was direr. They were so busy though, and cries over owls and sunshine would seem so childish at a time like this, maybe it would make them laugh, maybe increase the burden.

 

The quarantine had taken away his visiting rights, which he understood was for his own good, but he had grown a typical vulnerability in how much he loved and missed his remaining family. He had had to learn to use a mobile phone (poorly) to have chats with his daughter, but they were difficult, she could not hide her fear and would often upset him with her tears. The nurses were the opposite, very tight-lipped about their concern; very strong people. Quietly he longed for the days of intentional lolling off during chats with visiting family, or resident friends, of boring the nurses with asinine stories of adventures that he did not have. The chairs downstairs were designed for elderly people to do this; he had hoped the sofas in his room would be similar. He tried sleeping on them once. But the pain in his back from a deflated cushion had made it unbearable, and the act of getting out of the sofa took around half an hour and left him quite lightheaded.

 

Everyone was suffering greatly through quarantine, he did not feel special in that, but the virus for all its blatant brutality had found such creative ways to affect him, and his sleep, that it had begun to feel a personal attack. The owls had been at the limit of tolerability, and the echoes of his neighbours the soothing solution, but the coughs had lost their comfort. They had taken the role of a swan-song like omen, as the night after a fit, the coughing rooms would be replaced with silent walls. One by one, the calming reassurances of his friend’s restlessness would leave, one by one, leaving him clutching his duvet like a child, grieving but knowing that the death of his friends would still not be the last punishment, for his whole nights would soon be consumed by the incoherent hooting of those bulbous devils, and the leeching glow of their eternal, whirlpool eyes. The nights in the home would shrink quieter, and the nights outside would grow louder. He could only wait, as a whimper would never send them away.

 

One morning, after a few hours of intermittent sleep, a nurse, Lara, brought him breakfast and told him that the quarantine would soon end, and he could leave his room again. The fantasy had his mind leap out of the bed past her and jump down the stairs, two at a time into the shared living room where he would take the blue blanket, not the brown, out of the basket and bundle up in the armchair looking out to the garden. But the thought stayed in his mind and did not travel to any of his limbs. The tiredness had overcome him, and his body would now choose the tumultuous but immediate sleep over the hard-earned one, so he smiled at Lara, and told her he was going to stay up here for a bit longer. She asked him what he would like for lunch, but he was asleep.

He awoke in the bowels of night to sounds of war, he had trained himself to not open his eyes when he woke, sometimes granting him an ignorant peace, but the light had tricked him, he thought the warm glow meant morning, but it was the heat of their glare. Like locusts, they filled up his window, piling on top of each-other and forcing in between each other’s crevices to plant their beady eyes on the glass, they screamed, they screamed into each other and at him, their feathers stabbed into their eyeballs but they did not blink. Tonight, he yelled back at them, his anger hot for rattling the cage they had put him in, he even crouched on his bed to bang at the window back, it called more of them, he heard beasts flying in to the back of the flurry, heavy thuds of feather and bone as if all the owls in England had come together for his torment. He screamed now and did not care to wake anyone for he knew his friends were already gone, he cried and pulled at the bars of the window to open it, he would let them in and fight them with his hands if he could. He felt hands upon shoulders, and was shocked that they had gotten behind him. But the hands were soft, bare, bare skin he had not felt in months. Lara pulled him down on to his back, and still he could not help but yell, he could see from the bed they were becoming one, fusing their bodies together to muster the strength to shatter the window and hoot at him through day and night so he may never be allowed to sleep or dream of different times again.

 

They gave him a different room, with a different window. All rooms were identical, but this window had a curtain. Lara was gone, she had touched him and her fate was now uncertain. If he had time to feel guilty, he would have been consumed by it, but on the third week of quarantine, as new nurses in carrier bag suits tucked him in, he acknowledged he was dying. Just a thought. Then a thought of his wife, brushing their teeth together, her dry hair on his neck and cool breath as she kissed him on the cheek. He remembered the night as if it were one moment, but he knew it had been their ritual. A hard kiss and a soft embrace, wrapped up in dressing gowns, wrapped up in each other. Warm. After enough time savouring the memory, he rolled his head over willingly to the new window. There were 3 of them, perched on the windowsill. One of them shook their head and the ripples travelled down their entire body. They weren’t hooting, and the coughs were long gone. They must know too, he thought, that he needed to sleep. He left the curtain up, his eyes fell shut, and the home that was not his home became true to its silence as its final resident passed away.

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