Paula paused before clicking on the link. Zooms had lost a lot of their appeal now that she spent so much of her work day framed, quite tastefully, at the dining table that had practically never supported food. It could be draining trying to look permanently engaged while sometimes glancing surreptitiously at her Kindle. She was adjusting to a social life that began and ended on screen, but Art in Nature for Beginners seemed like fun, and she’d expected it to be popular, not least because it was free.
“Hi,” said the teacher, so loudly that Paula adjusted her volume. Mia Cassavetes, according to the caption, lived up to the name in an embroidered shawl, her long, heavy earrings breaking through a mass of grey hair. “Edward and I were beginning to think he’d be getting a one-to-one tutorial.” She laughed.
Edward filled the third box on Paula’s laptop screen. He had a beard that made it hard to age him, and a small hoop earring that didn’t seem to be one of a pair.
“Hey,” he said quietly, and adding, “Paula” as if he’d only just noticed her name. “I’m mostly Ted.”
Oh, all the Teds I know are either toddlers or dogs, Paula thought. “Hi,” she replied, and smiled politely and briefly, as Zooms with strangers required.
“We’ll give it a few more minutes for the latecomers,” said Mia.
Paula thought her breezy confidence was faked. No one else was coming, and it would be even more awkward to make an excuse than to stay. “Oh sorry, that’s the doorbell” wasn’t convincing when visitors were banned. She could just press Leave but poor Ted might take it personally and he looked nice in a gardener/cyclist kind of way. Reminded of telling her sister Sian after a couple of glasses of wine that number crunchers were conversation crushers at parties, she decided to avoid the subject of employment, especially as his might be under attack from the virus.
“You two talk amongst yourselves,” Mia suggested. “Get acquainted.” She didn’t explain what was keeping her busy but seemed focused on paperwork of some kind. Or art materials, perhaps.
“I only have a pencil and an old tray of watercolours,” Paula told Ted. “And some faded cornflowers I probably shouldn’t have picked, poor things.” Their vivid spikiness gone, they looked lost as she held up the vase.
“Still beautiful,” he said. “I only have a pencil, and no rubber.”
Good job you’re not American, Paula thought, although she herself never said eraser. She wasn’t sure why she’d even thought something so embarrassing in such circumstances, and hoped it wasn’t because she hadn’t had sex for more than a year. Since Jamie ended it, a day after she’d risked buying him a Valentine’s card because the year before, when they hadn’t been together that long, he’d cooked a three-course meal with tea lights – admittedly as a (successful) seduction strategy.
“No mistakes then,” she said. “Were you good at school? If you tell me you got A star for GCSE I might have to leave you to your one-to-one.”
This was typical. Being uncomfortable often made her perky with guys and doubtless gave them the wrong impression. As if she was flirty or just much more self-assured than she felt.
“I didn’t even take it. I wanted to, but Dad thought I should do something more useful.”
She shook her head. “Male of the species!”
Ted grinned. “Yeah, no soul between us. You?”
“I think I have one!” That probably warranted a hand over one eye like the ‘what am I like’ emoji. “I got a C and took it hard.”
Their tutor’s screen was no longer multi-coloured but an empty black with her name in white. Paula assumed, though, that she could still hear them, so she didn’t say how disappointing it was that Mia wasn’t in a forest with a soundtrack of birdsong.
“So what made you turn up?” she asked, suspecting the lockdown loneliness guys his age probably didn’t confess to.
“With pine cones and leaves and pebbles?” He moved the screen back so she could see the varied collection on his desk. “Andy Goldworthy, I guess…” He waited for a response.
“Oh?” Paula felt exposed. The name should obviously mean something. But as if to help her out, Ted continued.
“And maybe the pine cones and leaves and pebbles applied gentle pressure. I went for a walk in the woods.”
Paula wished she could say the same but she’d slept in. Lockdown was becoming exhausting. She just murmured enviously.
“I heard a woodpecker,” he added, “like my dad’s football rattle.”
“I bet you didn’t see it, though – the woodpecker.”
“Not even with binoculars.”
He was serious, then. That made Paula feel like a dilettante. But hoping he was less committed to football, she asked whether he was a fan like his father.
He shook his head. “Nah. I’m a disappointment. You?”
A disappointment to her parents? Paula supposed not. She might have told him that she’d lost two relationships to football but Mia was back, filling her screen, arms open.
“I’m so sorry but as it’s just the two of you, and my daughter is trying to call me which is almost invariably a crisis, would you mind if we tried again another day? Maybe you two lovelies can recruit some friends?”
Their replies were much the same, the two of them, some of the words in unison. Paula was going to say goodbye and press the red Leave bar but saw a message on the Chat. From Edward, private. Do you want to keep talking?
Yes. She added her number, then waved goodbye as their host ended the call.
Did he mean now, or just sometime? With natural exhibits or without? Perhaps she’d make a cup of tea. If he rang, did it mean something beyond Art in Nature? She could put on lipstick and give her hair a comb but she wouldn’t want him to notice the difference and maybe he wouldn’t have asked if he’d seen the version of Paula required by more formal meetings. If she’d dropped in, “I’m an accountant”. Someone at a job interview once commented that she looked like an academic, and she’d felt like a fraud ever since – disappointed, in fact, in herself. Apart from the clothes she could afford: two wardrobes she might not own up to, depending…
“All right, yes, I’m sort of interested,” she muttered to herself, stirring the tea and taking it to the kitchen window. A magpie flew up from the grass, reminding her that sparrows were supposed to be rare now and she kept meaning to do one of those surveys for the RSPB.
“But I’m not all that interesting really, Ted,” she added. “And I might not check with you that it’s the new normal to talk to yourself at home.”
Of course that only applied to people living alone and maybe Ted didn’t. There might be a partner, male or female, in his lounge, or bed. But surely lockdown was pretty much scuppering affairs. Not before time.
The irises in the front garden opposite were riotous now, her favourites. She might not tell him that either, given that they were meant to be sexual. Even more sexual than most flowers. Paula realised that based on minimal information and some pine cones, she’d been assuming Ted was one of the good guys.
Her phone rang just as she was thinking about an insurance wee.
“Is that Paula?”
But it wasn’t. It was Greenpeace.
That evening, her sister Sian messaged to see how her weekend had been.
“Same as every other weekend,”she said. “How are Toby and Lu?”If she mentioned an aborted art course and a man who’d asked for her number, Sian would get over-excited, ask whether she liked him and take the opportunity to badmouth Jamie again. So she listened sympathetically to the trials of online schooling instead. At the end of the conversation she would have returned to her novel if she hadn’t noticed the missed call. The number was Edward’s and he’d left a message.
“Um, hello Paula. It’s Ted from Art in Nature. If you’re up for a chat now give me a call back. No worries if you don’t though. I realise you might just have been polite. Take care and stay safe.”
He sounded diffident, apologetic, nothing like Jamie. As if he was afraid he was making a fool of himself, and she would think he was hitting on her. Which he might be. This could be move-making, lockdown-style. And if she phoned straight back, she’d be playing along, which she wasn’t sure she was ready to do. Sleep on it, her dad always said, but then he was a self-proclaimed master of procrastination – apparently unlike Ted.
So she rang her father instead, with “No reason! Just miss you!” and asking him about the restrictions in France while trying not to feel envious or sad. Sian complained that there was nothing to talk about these days except the virus and the government’s negligence, but for Paula and their dad it was different. They didn’t need happenings; they had memories and alignments. He made her smile even if his wit was more Christmas cracker than late night Channel Four. “Miss you, sweetheart,” he said at the end. But he had his Mariette and his stream, and wildflowers bursting out all over the place, a sky with visible stars. He probably didn’t ache at the sound of her voice.
Then she went back to her book, breaking off to check out Andy Goldworthy, but a lack of concentration sent her to bed early. No more messages, so he wasn’t the stalking type.
Was nine thirty too late for a Sunday? Telling herself she was inflating something completely inconsequential into a soap episode, she took a breath and called. Answerphone. Now she didn’t know what to say as the bleeps signalled recording. “Sorry I missed you call,” she began, with her work tone. “We’ll catch each other eventually.”
“How are your cornflowers? Did you create anything?”
Dead. But why hadn’t she? It turned out he had, and attached an image. The composition looked lovely but it would, wouldn’t it? The colours, shapes and textures saw to that.
“I thought afterwards that it would be better to gather and create in the woods, and leave it there.”
“Yes, I think I will” she said, meaning it. “I’ll feel less self-conscious. More natural.”
Paula was surprised to find that she knew more about a thousand years of art than he did, so before she impressed him too much she recklessly told him about the day job, adding that he didn’t need to ask anything about it. “You?”
“I’m a Music teacher in schools, peripatetic. Guitar and piano. Clueless with numbers and currently resting. No government support as yet. In fact I’m not bored, I’m writing. Trying to. Songs that is. If lockdown goes on much longer I might advertise for online pupils.”
Paula had given up the Spanish guitar at fifteen and often thought she might resume when she was older, but didn’t say so. Turning up her volume, she imagined his singing voice would be more Sheeran than Grohl. They talked about the gospel choir she’d joined at uni, and the “kind of painful” gigs he’d had in bars.
“That must be horrible, being ignored and talked over.”
“Yeah. I’m not tough enough for that. I’d rather teach teenagers, even the boys. But what about you? You’re into art and music and you read, but what do you love most?”
Paula took a moment. “Flowers?” Did that sound girly? “No, trees. Trees most of all.”
“Yeah,” said Ted. “Trees most of all.”
Apart from babies, she thought. Was this fair? She was coming across like someone else, someone deeper and better. Or a bandwagon rider, a virtue signaller. “But I also have too many clothes and I’m addicted to The Voice.” Maybe she wouldn’t mention the increased spending on red wine in lockdown in case he misunderstood. “And I don’t often face up to what’s happening in the world.”
“Ah. I do. And it’s not good for me. But trees are.”
Was this a tester for a date? “So,” she said, “will you go again, to Mia’s workshop?”
“I’m not sure. You?”
“It’s been nice talking to you.”
“Maybe we can do it again.”
“Sure.” Except that you are freer and more exciting than me and if you don’t see that, I might fall in love with you fast.
When Ted told his brother Luke on a lunchtime video call the next day that he’d met someone he liked, Luke assumed he meant a Rebel.
“How would that work?” he asked after Ted said he didn’t think Paula was any kind of activist.
“Do we have to be exclusively tribal?”
“It’s possible, yeah.” Luke had a few stories of couples who had split because only one of them thought it necessary to sit in a road.
Ted wished he hadn’t mentioned Paula but didn’t need his brother to point out a difference that could be more divisive than Brexit. Isn’t outreach a thing, he almost asked, but that would make him sound predatory. If Paula was one of the oblivious majority, it would be cruel to thrust the truth in her face. Except that in all honesty there’d be no choice, the truth being inescapably true.
“Maybe sometimes I want to talk about art and music and novels,” he told Luke. “Or listen.”
“I’ve got a Rebel friend who’s given up writing fiction now, can’t see the point.”
“I get that,” Ted admitted, and asked about Luke’s Kiwi boyfriend, Jake, whose court date had been postponed twice thanks to Covid. They were in love; Ted could tell from their voices even when there was only audio and he had to guess the arms connecting them.
“He’s good,” said Luke. “And proves my point. I couldn’t be in a relationship with a denier.”
When Ted suggested almost no one outside the government or media was still in denial, Luke said, “So-called belief without action is worse. Surely?” Ted said he didn’t like Paula being judged with no evidence.
“Ask her then? I’m not trying to sabotage your love life…”
“What love life?”
Luke had shared with Ted his idea that there were plenty of women in the local group who wouldn’t say no if Ted asked. Luke had always found it easier than Ted to talk to strangers, even their friends’ parents when they were boys. “Yeah, I got the front,”he’d told him once. “And you got the talent.”
Luke had to go then; lunch was ready. He reminded Ted that they were his bubble and he was welcome any time. With the lockdown roads jam-free, Ted could cycle over in twenty minutes and he intended to, soon.
Who was in Paula’s bubble? He hadn’t even asked.
Personally, Paula would prefer Ted to make contact, but ideologically – or politically even – she reserved the right to take the initiative. Compromising with a message as soon as she finished work, she received a quick reply, and by six they were eating supper together on screen. Her idea, which in practice felt more unsettling than the planning stage.
“I’m vegan but I swear I don’t live on beans on toast,” he assured her. “Although they’re pretty special with Marmite.” He peered at his own image and used his knuckles to wipe invisible sauce from around his mouth. “No one wants to see a bean stranded in a beard.”
Ted realised he couldn’t be accused of trying to impress, let alone seduce.
“Your beard looks bean-free to me.” She smiled then asked, “Is it about the animals or the climate?”
“Originally, the cruelty – slaughterhouses and factory farming.” Some of the footage had left quite an imprint. “Now I see the bigger picture.”
Paula felt glad she’d left the chicken in the fridge for tomorrow night, instead of adding it to the curry. “I’m not sure I can cope with big pictures,” she admitted. “The world does seem to be seriously messed up.”
Fucked, thought Ted.
“It’s so depressing,” she added, “and dysfunctional and hopeless. Let’s not talk about it.”
Ted used to feel the same, but saying so would sound patronising and not exactly cheering. But she knew, really. He heard it in her voice. It made him want to apologise, like he’d done to his dead hamster, years after its death, standing where he’d laid the lilies over the grave.
“Tell me about your lockdown,” he said, as the creamy sky outside his kitchen window rippled through with pink. “I do know that’s depressing too…”
“Oh!” she cried. “I made something. I almost forgot.”
Suddenly Paula lost all faith that it was art at all. A dog could have composed it better with paws. Yet at the time, she’d experienced a sense of satisfaction, even peace. Since nothing was glued, Goldsworthy-style, she had to take the phone to the plain white plate where she’d assembled leaves, berries and cones in a kind of free geometry.
“I enjoyed doing it, anyway,” she said.
“That’s lovely,” he said, hoping she knew he was sincere. His beans were lukewarm but he felt he was seeing her now, seeing in.
“Otherwise, my lockdown…” Did she dare use the word lonely, when she was young and fit, with a garden (albeit small) and her income wasn’t under threat? “It’s a bit grey, especially if I don’t get a tree walk in. I miss my family. Like everyone else.”
He wanted to know who she was closest to and therefore missed most, and she didn’t have to think, just go with the reflex. “Dad.” Ted listened while she told him everything she loved about her father: the loyalty, the thoughtfulness that could surprise her, a sense of humour she called child-like. “I’m always good enough for him.”
“Just not always good enough for yourself?” he guessed, hoping she felt his carefulness.
“Yes. Not always.” Paula felt exposed now. “What about you? Who’s the most important person in your life?”
Greta Thunberg might seem inappropriate, so he said, “My brother” and explained about the shared world view and activism, but also the support Luke needed when he came out at home. “Our father’s not as good as yours at loyalty. Everything’s conditional, and we both failed him, but Luke was the one he related to, the place where he invested all his precious hopes, I guess.”
Ted could see that made her sad. She said it was hard for her to understand.
“He wanted us to succeed. He can’t compute that the only success worth striving for is acting on climate and… the word is mitigating but I hate it, it’s so cold… mitigating catastrophe.”
He supposed Paula could see his emotion but it wasn’t fresh. It felt tired, as if there was a kind of resignation in what was so familiar and so embedded.
“I don’t think anyone computes that,” she said, so quietly he only just heard.
“I know. It’s counter-cultural as well as frightening. But I think they compute it O.K. in the Pacific islands…”
Paula didn’t know, now, what to say. But this wasn’t what she needed.
“Everything always comes back to it,” Ted said. “I’m sorry. Tell me what you’re reading.”
She listed a few novels by women, mostly Canadian or American, which she liked because they were slow, and homed in on relationships. In the overlap were Anna Karenina, The Book Thief, The Humans and Girl, Woman, Other – all of which they talked about, discovering that Paula’s memory for names and details made Ted’s look woolly.
When it emerged that they both liked twentieth century poetry, Ted suggested, “Next time let’s each share a poem we like. That is, if you want to do this again.”
“Without climate change?” she could have said, but then there wouldn’t be a next time, and that would be what she deserved.
They identified a time at the end of the week. When his face disappeared, Paula felt disatisfied with herself and the world. She probably wasn’t good enough for him. Unless being helped out of dystopian thinking was what he didn’t know he needed. He wouldn’t be thinking about activism if they kissed.
She wondered whether he’d thought about kissing her.
Looking up the town Paula had named, Ted discovered that it was in a safe Tory seat. She’d described it as commutersville; he pictured lawns mown for money. He supposed accountants were overpaid but the surroundings that framed her on screen weren’t flashy, just tidy. Orderly, with a hint of colour-coordination. It wouldn’t altogether surprise him if there was something in it that she’d ordered alphabetically. Luke would probably warn him off with OCD but her polite kind of normality interested him. And her smile might not be the wide, dentally showy kind but it promised something… cheeky, but not yet loosed. He’d met so many middle-class Rebel women who considered themselves not just law-abiding in their previous lives but well-behaved, with vicarage manners. It didn’t stop them locking-on. He liked the way she slowly tucked stray hair behind her ear as if she had to think hard to master the knack of it, or enjoyed the feel of the skin there.
Before the pandemic she said she came to concerts, exhibitions and modern dance. Not activism. The London she was familiar with didn’t include streets like his – which reminded Ted to stop paying ridiculous rent for a tiny flat with virtually no kitchen. He wondered whether the air tasted better where she lived, and whether she loved trees enough to protect them from HS2.
The search for the right poem took a while but Paula lost her adult self in the words she found she still knew from GCSE, and the scenes they belonged to: the most dilapidated of all the original classrooms where the English teacher always opened the windows and girls groaned, then shivered theatrically – but Paula didn’t mind hyperthermia if it neutralised the smell. Mrs Barber, who kept the sexy portrait of John Donne stuck to her ring binder, wore pencil skirts with splits and never ended the lesson when the bell rang, as if nothing could be more important than literature. “You’d be wasted on digits,”she’d told Paula; maybe she was.
Ted almost forgot the poem element. Not the call; he thought about Paula between practices and XR chats, sometimes during too. On walks and when he ate, with or without baked beans. When he finally accepted Luke’s offer of their spare room until he started earning money again, and finally, at the last minute, when he began an online search. Time expanded without warning until he smiled to see Paula releasing her hair from a pony tail.
“Hey. How’s it going?” Suddenly he felt awkward, not himself but exposed.
“I’m fine. Staying safe, dodging runners that blast and huff past.” She admitted that the daily figures were shocking but didn’t mention a kind of addiction that drew her to them every evening. It turned out that since they last spoke they’d both learned of someone they knew who was seriously ill. Cue to check on their respective parents, and his grandmother.
“They closed the care home to visitors. Mum talks to her on Face Time now and then but she doesn’t know what’s going on. I don’t think she’d recognise me now.” Ted had been intending for a while to call her like he used to. “She was beside herself when I was first arrested, but not for long because she promptly forgot. We used to be really close.”
He told Paula how supportive his gran was when Luke came out. “She even said she’d join XR if she was younger and had all her marbles in place.” Would that trigger silence? A sideways glance? A change of subject?
Paula raised her eyebrows and nodded, glad for him – but sorry too. “Do you feel you’ve lost her?”
“She’s losing herself, bit by bit. Cell by cell. But she’s cheerful. I guess most of us would be happier if we were out of it.” He remembered the Aussie protest where people on a beach stuck their heads in the sand.
Paula knew he was talking about bigger crises than Covid. “Probably. I used to avoid politics but it’s harder at home, with all that extra time.”
“Yeah, cheerfulness isn’t really compatible with following the News.” Ted wondered whether she was happy – or had been, before Lockdown. He didn’t even know whether she’d been married but he guessed she’d been hurt. People were. “But do you think happiness is overrated? I mean, are we too dependent on it, too focused on finding it and unrealistic about the chances of holding onto it?”
“That’s very rational. Dispassionate.”
“I’m not! I’m neither, I mean.”
Paula felt a sudden reckless surge she’d action before she reconsidered. “People equate happiness with the right relationship. With being in love. It seems… a narrow view, really.”
“In a big, wide, complex world. I suppose that’s why we have to keep it small. Me-centred. Domestic. A kind of escape and protection, like a drug.”
“So have you been in love – if you don’t mind the question?”
Ted remembered how in Before Sunrise the couple who met on the train avoided this area while they fell for each other. He’d been a romantic when he saw that film. “I’ve thought I was,” he answered.
“Me too. When it ended with Jamie I thought I’d rather have missed out on the elation to be spared the wretchedness.” The word brought back the meaning; she felt it in her body and heard it in her voice. “But that’s wrong. I don’t really want a grey life.” She smiled to speed recovery. “Contrary to appearances,” she might have added, but he wouldn’t want her to dis herself.
“Me neither. Some risks are worth taking.” Ted ran his fingers through his hair, which he noticed looked uncombed. “So is this a risk?”
“A woman talking to a man about relationships?”
He grinned. “Yeah. I mean, we haven’t talked about Art in Nature and no one’s mentioned the poems.”
“We could just be lonely, or curious.” Paula smiled. It felt like a game now and she was surprised by his playfulness. Or perhaps it was directness. People who thought time was short weren’t likely to waste it. “Maybe I’m both. But I was looking forward to this call.”
“Yeah, so was I.”
“You haven’t seen how big my hips are.” Paula stood, offering the evidence to back up the claim.
“What! Come on!”
“Tell the truth, Extinction Rebellion says, right? Guys have pointed it out before so I thought I’d get in first.”
“Paula… They were shits.”
Now he’d think she was insecure, when really she meant that men had no right, she wasn’t going to be diminished and she was working towards loving her body.
“We haven’t even said how old we are,” she said.
She laughed. “So young!” He didn’t look worried. She added, “Same as me.” They compared birthdays and she calculated. “You’re fifty-two days older, but that’s an age gap I can overlook.”
“Very gracious.” He grinned. “Shall we meet, when we can?”
Paula knew caution should keep her non-committal but if he felt like a trip out of London there was a forest she could take him to…
“I’d like that.”
It crossed Ted’s mind that he had no idea how this worked and no certainty that they’d connect off-screen, but the thought of walking beside her made him happy.
Really, thought Paula, she’d like that very much – if she dared. Remembering the poem, she shared her screen.
“Do you want to read it to me?”
“No. I mean, I might kill it. Hear it directly, in your head, with no intermediary.”
She watched his eyes on it, slowly absorbing. Thinking of tenterhooks, she felt almost as if she’d written it, and wished she’d chosen something shorter. But she’d been to Hardy’s house and read these poems in his garden, where he’d mourned.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “He loved her more after she’d died. Or maybe he mourned the lack or loss of love.” Luke would be laughing at him now.
She nodded. “Please don’t tell me yours is The Charge of the Light Brigade or that boy on the burning deck.”
He looked crestfallen before he grinned. The screen he shared showed Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone Sang. “My dad’s favourite!” she told him, and he began to read – not in an actorly way, but low-octane, meditative. She felt moved.
He talked about everyday militarism and how he might be a Pacifist now. Paula said her grandfather was in the R.A.F., loved her and died young.
“You loved him too.”
“Mmm. I was only ten and I just couldn’t cope with the idea that he was in this coffin being carried by men in black suits. My other grandpa was a Methodist minister,” she volunteered. “We’ve steered clear of religion, haven’t we? He was kind but distant. Dad always felt as if his affections were divided among the congregation. I suppose I’m agnostic. It doesn’t work praying for people you love not to die. I suppose it might work better if you pray for help with how to live.”
Ted considered that. “Do you think Trump tries that?” He winced. “I’m open to the possibility of God, and who doesn’t rate Jesus? But at the moment what makes most sense to me is loving what fundamentalists call creation, and taking care of each other and all living things – like fundamentalists often don’t.”
“Mmm,” said Paula. “That seems… very reasonable. Rational.”
Remembering the District Judge who remarked when sentencing that no reasonable person would have acted as he did, Ted didn’t suggest she told the courts that.
“I didn’t mention that I’ve been arrested.” He explained about Waterloo Bridge and Section 14. Paula said she’d seen some footage and the long line of police arriving was pretty scary. “It’s meant to be. Jake, my brother’s partner, isn’t arrestable because he’s black, been stopped for nothing a few times. They treated me well – white privilege, right? And it served its purpose, got climate into the headlines. Dad behaved as if I’d mugged the Queen.” He stopped, and apologised for talking too much.
“It’s fine. It’s just… outside my experience.”
“You’re a law-abiding citizen.”
“Yes.” She wanted to tell him she was concerned too. But what did she actually do about this emergency that had taken over his life? Tell Greenpeace she’d rather not increase her standing order just now. At least the pandemic meant her car was off the road.
There was so much Ted could tell her, if he wanted to leave her shaken. Maybe Luke was right. Relationships were hard enough without the prospective end of civilisation getting in the way. He heard a phone ring in her nice, suburban house.
“That’s my dad,” she said. “Do you mind? He can be hard to get hold of.”
“Of course. You go. We can catch up soon.”
Ted wondered whether she was relieved, or at least some part of her welcomed the intervention. He supposed time would tell.
“So he’s a troublemaker?” Paula could hear the smile in her father’s voice. “Good for him. We can’t leave everything to schoolkids.”
“It makes me feel so…inadequate. Feeble.”
“You have a career and a mortgage. He’s a jobbing musician with time on his hands and nothing much to lose. Except you, if he scares you off.”
“The thing is I’m so… drawn to him. If we never actually meet I’m always going to wonder what I passed up on.”
“Meet somewhere public. A park. It might all feel very different in person. But all this talk seems much more promising than a physical encounter in a nightclub.”
Her father asked her to let him know how it went. It was only at the end of the conversation that he mentioned his neighbour being rushed to hospital with the virus.
“Dad! That’s awful. Have you… you haven’t been chatting up close?”
“Pas du tout. I obey the gendarmes. Helene’s beside herself. I’ve told her to knock if she needs anything, any time, day or night.”
“Take care though, Dad.”
“Says the love-struck woman ready to take the train to meet a stranger at the epicentre of the pandemic!”
She told him, not for the first time, that fit as he considered himself approaching sixty, he was at much greater risk than her.
“Tell your mum to look after herself,” he added, unexpectedly.
“You could tell her yourself.”
“I could. Love you, sweetheart. Don’t work too hard. And don’t let him worry you. Covid is bringing emissions down. Maybe we won’t go back to our old destructive ways when it ends.”
“I wish.” Paula had seen a phrase on a nearby wall: ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE. Surely it must be, but what would it look like?
Ted was in a message exchange with his Affinity Group when he remembered Lynda, who’d been married for thirty-odd years, saying that her husband dismissed XR as alarmists, so she did what she had to do and they just didn’t talk about it.
Is Jim still anti?
Oh yes, more than ever since Canning Town.
Must be really difficult at home?
He used to try to talk me out of actions. Now we just watch a lot of telly. You can count on the BBC not to mention the climate.
Cue for an emoji. Ted just couldn’t get his head around that. His parents weren’t in synch with him or Luke but they mostly had the same ideas and vocabulary. And their own worlds – at least, before lockdown – but their intersection was mostly a fit. They’d certainly been equally pleased when Amie left him, probably on the grounds of her piercings and her habit of muttering, “Holy shit!” when she remembered not to make that “Fuck me!”
It must be the pandemic, Ted reflected, that was inflating every little thing. Luke would say he was missing sex but it was more than that. Touch mattered. And he hadn’t even held Paula’s hand.
Waiting outside the station, Paula felt the hot air moisten under the mask she’d stitched herself from some flowery cotton. She checked her phone again in case he’d been delayed at some point on the tube, or there were cancellations at Euston. No messages, so he’d be on time. Might he be experiencing the same tightness of anticipation, or did it simply make sense to him, in a speculative way, to find out whether they felt anything at all? Either way, they’d find out and she hoped she could breathe more easily than she seemed to be managing as she watched the doors.
There he was. In a mask massed with multi-coloured doves, Ted was longer and thinner than she’d expected. Instead of straggling behind his ears, his thick hair was pulled up into a man bun that was messy. Skin less pale than on screen made more of the freckles on his forehead, and there was a hint of stubble where his beard had been. Paula felt the brightness of her smile and guessed at his from the creases under his eyes.
“It’s good to see you,” he said.
Paula didn’t suppose her long dress obscured the hips she’d warned him about but he wouldn’t have forgotten. She probably remembered everything he’d ever said. A windy gust blew her own hair across her cheek. Then, when her hand dropped, he took it and part of her wanted to swing her arm and his like a child who might break into a skip, but moving along towards the high street they kept talking about nothing very much as if they hadn’t noticed the new connection.
“I see what you mean,” he said, looking at the Wellness Clinic between the empty tea shop with broderie anglaise tablecloths and the window advertising tailoring. Paula excused her house as one of the few affordable places in the town and told him the town council now had three Greens among the Tories and Lib Dems.
She found herself using the walk like a ride on a tour bus, but Ted didn’t seem to mind. She began to feel slightly ashamed of having spent ninety percent of her days in this nice town, but when they passed the private school she was relieved to remind him she went to the local comprehensive.
“I know I’ve had a sheltered life,” she said, as they waited to cross the road.
“Me too, in a way, for a long time.”
“But now you choose…?”
Ted scorned what he called a consumer lifestyle, materialism, conforming.
“Like your parents?”
“Mmm. It’s kind of sad. They think I’ll surrender eventually. And the weird thing is that Dad especially would love me to be some kind of rock star, when being rich and famous screws you over while it trashes the planet.”
Paula would have to ask him at some point about how to calculate hers, and then reduce it. Suddenly she hoped he wouldn’t open her wardrobe doors.
“We can have lunch al fresco,” she said, looking up to the sky and hoping its blue wasn’t really draining away. “I’ve got a little garden and it’s looking a bit more cared for thanks to lockdown.”
“Unlike me,” said Ted, looking down on his own creases.
“You’re fine. I’m glad you’re here. Just a bit… nervous.”
He stopped, squeezed her hand a little and looked above the mask at her subtly-outlined and shaded eyes. “I’m glad too. And it’s kind of strange, meeting for the first time when it feels like we know each other so… well.”
She’d been thinking intimately but that suggested sex and she didn’t want to admit that spectre into the feast, even though…
“Mmm. Better than we would if we’d met at a party and been to the cinema or a concert or two,” she confirmed. “I don’t know why I said that when I never liked parties even before the virus.”
“Yeah. I’d rather be sober with a crowd of rebels on Waterloo Bridge, talking, singing, holding hands, meditating. Eating together. That was the best party.” She must think everything came back to the same core, which it did.
“It looked amazing,” Paula said. Such a silly word. She’d watched film footage and half-wished she’d dropped by to experience the community with the trees and flowers and lorry stage. “I was dimly aware. That’s the whole trouble, I guess. People are just dimly aware, and choosing the mist over clarity.”
He pulled down his mask now that they were moving away from the shops and no one was approaching. He checked that was OK and she did the same.
“Mist over clarity sounds like bliss.”
“But it’s not! Not now…”
“Thanks to me.” He hoped his look invited her to talk bravely.
Paula stepped aside as a young mum with a buggy advanced towards them. It was so hard to know how afraid to be.
“I admire you…”
“I wish I was a different person, as principled as you.” Paula heard her voice fracture. Did she mean it? But hadn’t she always tried to do the right thing? Been a good girl?
“I like you exactly as you are.” Ted wondered whether that was strictly true, since he would be seriously happy to recruit her. But wasn’t he happy now?
Maybe, she thought, he brought out the best in her. The possibilities.
Ted smiled, and leaned tentatively towards her. The kiss was soft and light, quick and both a surprise and fully signposted.
“Nearly there,” she said, imagining them on her sofa, no space between them. Or maybe he’d be most comfortable cross-legged on the floor.
They were quiet as they turned into her street and approached her house. Paula knew she should be rewilding at least some of her small garden, devoting it to the bees. But he smiled without words at the single Calla lily she hadn’t even noticed on her way out, and the forget-me-nots and Cosmos. The grass needed cutting but then so, strictly speaking, did his hair. It took a while for her to identify the right key from the bunch as he stood behind her, close enough for her to sense him waiting. Looking – at what? Now that he was about to step inside this small, comfortable, frustrating world that had limited her for so long, she felt ridiculously flustered. Through all those hours they had talked, no one had mentioned sex. And he might have brought a toothbrush.
Ted felt his smile as a new fixture as he followed her into the hallway, glancing around him at the potted gerbera, the rag rug and the shiny wooden floor that felt warm under his feet once he unfastened his sandals because she untied her espadrilles. But his focus was on her, the scented physical reality of her in three dimensions, the softness of her pale arms. How had this even happened, and also why?
In the kitchen she ran him some cold water when he declined coffee and juice. She’d bought some Prosecco that she might not mention, in case it reeked of Made in Chelsea, or Private Views at pretentious galleries. Not occupations of London bridges, anyway.
Ted sat at the table, unsure that he’d ever seen a kitchen so tidy and methodical. Paula began to cut a cake she’d left cooling on a rack.
“I baked it early this morning. It’s a vegan recipe I found. I hope it’s OK.”
“It smells great. Thank you!”
Her dad had told her, with her first real boyfriend, not to try too hard to please, because men were lazy and had egos that didn’t need to be caressed.
Ted inhaled with anticipation. The cake was soft and chewy. He hoped she wasn’t going to apologise for it. His mouth was full, and his closed, raised fingers attempting to suggest praise, when his phone rang. He wasn’t even going to check but when he saw Mum on screen at eleven on a weekday he was the one who said, “Sorry,” before answering.
Paula could just about hear his mother’s voice telling him there was Covid in the care home and his gran had died an hour ago. She watched him put his hand to his mouth and lower his head towards the table. His other hand rested loosely on the table where she laid hers around it, but that wasn’t enough. She rose and put her arms around him from behind. His mother sounded controlled, a little flat – until she said, “I hate Covid,” as if her teeth could be clamped. Ted wasn’t doing much talking, just grieving. And it wasn’t the time to kiss the back of his neck where a little hair that wasn’t captured in his topknot trailed wirily, and she could feel the heat from skin reddened by sun.
“The government didn’t protect them,” he said, putting down the phone. “They were dispensable. And none of us got to see her, and sit and be with her. I’m not even sure she knew why.”
Ted felt Paula’s breath as she told him how sorry she was. Then she sat down opposite him, hands across the table to join his. For the first time since they’d met at the station, for the first time in years, he talked and talked and talked, no full stops, just and and so and but. Because he realised as he offered his gran to Paula that apart from Luke, she was the one who understood who he was, the one who never found fault or tried to redirect. The one he loved better in return.
“Maybe she didn’t think, Where are my boys? But if I’d known, I could at least have… you know, been with her, spiritually, emotionally, whatever you want to call it when you picture someone with your whole being, let them fill you, and just love them as much as you can and hope they feel it. Ridiculously.” Paula said she didn’t think it was ridiculous at all. “In XR we talk about love a lot – love for Earth and all its life and the world’s poor – but I don’t know that I’ve ever used the word with any of my Rebel tribe, used it in capital letters, banner-sized, spelt it out: how much I love my grandma. Love, still love, not loved, never loved.”
He wiped his eyes with the back of his free hand while Paula held the other one and stroked it, surprised by its contours and liking the speckles. His words were slower now, less joined. Then he apologised, and she told him not to, and he said he didn’t know why he had.
“I let her down.”
“The government let her down,” said Paula, thinking how surprised some of her friends would be to hear that.
“But I hadn’t arranged to call her, not for a couple of weeks, more, and I was going to try to find out whether letters or cards could get through but I didn’t get round to it.” He looked up from the phone he’d been staring past for a while. “How busy could I be in a lockdown?”
Paula would have liked to say she was sure his gran knew he thought of her, but she guessed that wasn’t true. It had occurred to her so many times in the last few months that if her dad caught the virus, Eurostar might or might not take her there, depending on regulations, but in any case the hospital might leave her stranded outside. She should call him more often. Ted wasn’t the only person in the world, and – if she wasn’t kidding herself, could that be what she’d been for Ted? Had she relegated his gran to the back of his mind? She’d never ask, or know.
She asked him what he knew about his gran’s life, childhood, marriage, and he said, “Not as much as I’d like.” But he shared what he remembered. “I don’t think Mum forgave her, really, for having a war baby while her husband was in the desert, but it was the village schoolteacher she was in love with.”
Paula thought she felt rather sorrier for the soldier than the cheating wife, but knew her severe response might be skewed by the infidelity Jamie had finally admitted.
“When my grandfather was killed she thought they’d marry, but he joined up instead, and got killed in France – God, such waste – so she brought Mum up alone, ended up running a café, making the cakes, special ones, for weddings and birthdays.”
Paula thought she might have dispensed with the experimental baking if he’d told her that before.
“She never married again?”
He shook his head. “Mum said – a bit disapprovingly really – that she had men friends. Gran said she knew she’d never love anyone like she loved the teacher. Maurice, his name was. My grandfather. But her parents made sure his name wasn’t on the birth certificate. She didn’t have to tell Mum, of course, but she was honest enough to decide she must. I think Mum always made her pay for that – just enough, in lifelong instalments, for her to feel it.”
Ted winced. “What do I know? Not everyone plays it warm and close and open. Nobody’s fault.”
“Your mum must have grown up strong and independent, like your gran.”
He nodded. Paula wondered whether his mother would love more generously too late.
“No blame, no shame, we say in XR.” That sounded to Paula like the end of something. He sipped his water and took a bite of cake without cutting it first, which triggered a collapse of the remainder. He bent in search of what had tumbled to the floor but she retrieved it first.
She told him his mum might be blaming herself right now, and he nodded slowly, as if this was a new idea.
There was something she had to ask. “Do you need to go? Be with your mother or Luke? Because if you do I understand completely.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Thank you. I don’t know.”
It struck Paula that this would be the perfect time to go to bed and hold him, but she was afraid of how that would sound out loud. Instead she ate some cake. “This is less than a triumph,” she said, wiping traces from her teeth. “But I don’t give up.”
He smiled. “Neither do I.”
Perhaps, she thought, he only meant on saving the planet. She asked if he wanted more water but he sat up straight as if he’d made a decision. Did this mean he was leaving?
“I think… do you mind if I call Luke?”
“Of course I don’t.” She suggested the back garden and opened the door. Now she had no idea what she would do with herself, while he talked. Perhaps he was more deeply connected to his brother than he’d ever be to her. As she closed the back door, her neighbour’s cat ran along the fence and jumped down behind Ted. She watched him stroke its smooth black back along to its tail, and murmur something encouraging and appreciative.
Sitting finishing her cake, Paula thought about families and forgiveness and asked herself whether she worked hard enough at loving her parents equally, or whether love couldn’t be worked at and in any case everyone and everything was flawed and unfair, even random. No blame, no shame, but no innocence either.
If she concentrated she could probably hear what Ted was saying to his brother and that seemed cheap and presumptuous, especially if there would be no bed, so she chose something from Spotify, a jazz-rock band he’d once seen live, who didn’t seem to do tunes.
Ted hadn’t really been prepared for Luke’s tears, or the level of his anger. He found himself wishing the cat had stuck around so he could keep stroking. Imagining Luke in Jake’s arms, he pictured Paula trying to be thoughtful. Was the truth that he loved her?
Luke was talking about suing the government. It made Ted feel tired.
“I’ll come round, maybe tomorrow?” he suggested, but Luke said they should go home whatever the rules allowed.
“Mum will be beating herself up.”
That idea was alarming. Ted had never thought his parents were very good at telling the kind of truth that made a difference. Or at being happy, but what made him so good at that? Just Paula, lately. Luke said he would head over to their parents’ place after lunch, Ted that he’d cycle there tomorrow and wished he’d brought his bike on the train.
“You’re with her?”
Ending the call, Ted realised he’d been wandering around the garden without noticing the paving, the cherry tree, even the irises. He looked back at the house but couldn’t see her. Since he had stepped out barefoot, he checked the soles of his feet in the doorway. She might be the kind of woman who cleaned her kitchen floor every day. There she was, her look questioning. She cut the music.
“How is he?”
“I’m glad he’s got Jake,” he said. Was that tactless?
Paula might have replied, “You’ve got me, if you want me,” but she couldn’t. “It’s warm enough now to sit out there,” she said. “I’ve got fold-up chairs.” But he’d sit on the grass, wouldn’t he?
He hesitated. If he was going to Barking tomorrow, he’d better get the train back now, and sort out a day’s meetings he wouldn’t be joining. There was a banner drop…
“Please,” she said, “feel free to leave. There’ll be other days.”
“There will,” he said, “yeah,” hoping she knew he meant it. “I’ll call you. I’m sorry.” He assured her he remembered the way to the station, although really he’d prefer not to walk it alone.
“OK,” she said, afraid she sounded defeated. “There should be a train in fifteen minutes, if it’s running.”
“I’d better go then.” He thanked her and she said she didn’t know what for. The cake wasn’t good enough to offer as packed lunch; she produced a banana and apple from the fruit bowl and he thanked her again.
“Bye, Paula.” He kissed her cheek, just one. Nothing felt right, or enough.
Once she’d closed the door, Paula pressed her fingers to her mouth because it would be feeble to cry; he was the one with the bereavement, the shock. In the kitchen she picked up his empty glass of water and held it a moment before rinsing it round. Maybe, she told herself, he would talk with his mother, really talk, and something would shift. There’d be new understanding, and she’d be glad for him. She supposed vegan cake could be frozen? Music she hadn’t been hearing for a while still played, subdued and suddenly listless. “I love him,” she murmured, close to laughter as well as tears and shaking her head. It was just as well he’d gone if she was going to scare him off like that.
Ted almost forgot to put on his mask as a retired couple approached hand in hand. Stopping, he scrabbled in pockets for it and stepped off the kerb into a road much quieter than he was used to. He hadn’t even bought her flowers, or taken her a book to borrow.
He glanced backwards, turned as he tied on his mask, and retraced his steps to her door.