‘Why don’t you go and read a book?’ I suggested to Amber. Anything to dissuade her from rifling through more of my things.
‘There’s only a few left, and they’re kids’ ones.’
Amber viewed lockdown as an excuse to go on a cleaning, decluttering and DIY rampage, insisting it was the only uninterrupted time we’d ever have to get on top of the house.
‘I aren’t gonna replace that tile if that’s what you think.’
She’d already left the room to re-mop the bathroom floor.
I ventured upstairs on Day Fifteen to discover my CDs spread across the floor of the box room. It was half-nursery, half-study—my desk a sheet of MDF laid across Ash’s cot. Approximately thirty CDs had been dropped into a pristine Britannia packing box as part of Operation Quarantine. I was one step away from flinging the wind chime through the window, but I didn’t have the energy to wrestle with the safety lock.
‘Most of those are signed.’
One was a pre-Parachutes promo by Coldplay. Amber shrugged. She had her back to me, wearing thick single-use latex gloves.
‘You never listen to ’em anyway.’
‘Because you got rid of the CD player!’
I started comfort-drinking as lockdown dragged on. Lie-ins became de rigeur, my commitment to home-schooling our eldest two waning to non-existence. All three of our kids were iPhone-literate anyway; what more did they need to know? Some days, Amber would struggle downstairs, her arm raised against the light, asking which split digraphs and Scholastic video-quizzes we’d been working on.
‘It’s a school day?’
That reminded me: I had university homework of my own.
We had one laptop between five of us. A heavyweight Lenovo relic, it had cost ninety pounds in a flash-sale. Memory-deprived, it took five minutes to reach the screensaver, then another five to Chrome-crank its way online. At least Amber’s iPhone 11 supported online learning, but writing essays on a device that auto-suggested every word—even with the function disabled—wasn’t ideal. I couldn’t write ‘student number’ without becoming a ‘stupid numpty’. I campaigned for a laptop timetable guaranteeing equal screen-time for all. Bagging the graveyard shift between 10 p.m. and midnight, I had a conversation with myself concerning the shortest of straws.
Day Twenty heralded swift physical decline to honour my plummeting mental health.
‘Could be a cold,’ Amber sniffed. ‘Or early-onset hay fever.’
Buckling under back ache, I dragged myself upstairs following an uncontested self-referral. Shivering, I raised the thermostat ten degrees and struggled into our unmade bed fully dressed. Waking to stomach pains, I berated myself for having taken multiple co-codamol doses without food. I was now coughing like a coal miner who smoked sixty a day. Deep, phlegmy wake-up calls. I would have stayed in bed were it not for Amber experiencing an ME flare-up. The kids wouldn’t feed or dress themselves—not to say they couldn’t.
Keen to stay abreast of Jasper and Ruby’s progress, schoolteacher Mrs Gray rang once a week to check that we were keeping up with the daily worksheets. There was never a good time to talk: there was always at least one child crying about some injustice or other. She rang on Day Twenty-Six, a split-second before Jasper started screaming. He sounded as if he had sustained a nasty injury; I punched End Call without apology. Entering the kitchen, I found him sprawled, naked, on his back, his right eye bruised, tears swabbing his cheeks. Ruby, though younger, towered over him. She was wearing a pair of Jane Asher oven gloves.
I gave Jasper a cuddle, marched Ruby to the Naughty Step, then shut myself in the downstairs toilet to return Mrs Gray’s call—only to hear Jasper crying again. This time he was face down in the living room, wedged between the sofa and wall. Behind him lay a steaming mix-trail of urine and excrement.
A number three.
Amber entered at that point, halting beside the TV. She folded her arms and cocked her head.
Dry-heaving, she fled through the French windows, unaware that our neighbour’s earless cat had shown the same disrespect to her daff-dominated flowerbeds.
The tabby didn’t know any better. But Jasper? He was seven.
We clearly needed words, split digraphs notwithstanding.