After the Plague: getting back to routine

by Ken Smith

Photo: Ken Smith

A café.  Open again, at last; a place for people to come together, after the great isolation.

A soft warm light shines inside.  There’s a cheering wash of voices but there’s something too in the fabric of the walls and the chairs which suggests bruising.  The café is starting to heal itself: a little more of it stitches itself together with every visitor, with every coffee drinker returning to where they once spent their time. There are not so many people here today as to make it a vibrant re-birth but there’s enough for a mist of optimism to shimmer; though floating underneath is a thin cloud of risk, a sense of daring in being here. 

Away from the conversationalists sits Mary.  She needed to return here; it had been her routine in the days before, giving her a rhythm and a ritual.  She sits at a small table beside a wall, clothed in greys and faded florals, not unkempt but as if the vitality had been drained from her with the colours of her clothes.  There’s a history contained under the flat brown hair – she’d taught at a local school, before becoming too experienced and too expensive and then a little too absent-minded to be kept on.  She had cared deeply, making sure the children received their due, resisting those who were dubious or sly, seeking to comfort and explain life’s oddness or the Thirty Years War to those in front of her who seemed anxious or ashamed.  She was a small-framed, diminutive woman, unflustered, self-effacing.  When faced with a particularly awkward or belligerent child, she would lift herself up to her full five-foot-two and become frighteningly impressive.

Arthritis has been slowing her down but recent disappointments have slowed her down more.  Their weight has imperceptibly changed the shape of her spine.  She’s passed over the threshold of the things which she had once been able to walk through easily, into a heavier place.  At the small round table, sketchy remembrances of the power and the pleasure she once possessed pass through her.  Wrapped around it, enjoying its enduring warmth, she scrapes out the last fragments of porridge from its carton, a frown of concentration across her brow.  When she finishes, she sits back in her chair and looks down for a few moments, lost for a little longer in thought; before straightening up and coming back into the world around her; though in coming back to it, she seems to look about with caution.   

She places the emptied carton and coffee cup on her tray and returns them to the counter and then goes back to her chair.  From it she lifts her coat and slowly puts it on, placing a protective outer layer on herself.  The coat has a residual smartness but, in the swirl of putting it on, there’s a glimpse of torn lining.   She walks to the gap in the counter, taking small steps and walking with the merest stoop.  She stops short of intruding on the official space behind it, the compressed brown world of the busy baristas, who are nervously pursing their own healing, and holds out a few coins, offering to pay.  It’s a very discreet, almost hidden gesture but one that fully acknowledges her obligation.  One of the staff comes across and leans down to her, placing a friendly hand on her shoulder and shakes his head, saying something she can’t hear.  She moves half a step away and puts the money back unhurriedly in her purse and walks out of the café.

Outside she pauses and searches in her pocket for the notes that now form her memory of the practical things she must do.  The notes have become stepping-stones across a rushing stream into which she would otherwise be swept away, with its cold confusion of things not done.  A few doors further down the High Street is the butchers.  She enters and pauses, confronted by the still familiar and arresting combination of order and the promise of sustenance with the echoing jeopardy of knives slicing through flesh.  The butcher remembers her and welcomes her back with a friendly: “Hello, Mary, how’ve you been?”

She stands waiting, barely visible, like a candle flickering in the daylight.  After her modest order is assembled and bagged, she holds out her library card to pay, before realising her mistake.  She replaces it in her purse and finds her credit card, inserting it into the reader.  She makes two failed attempts at entering her PIN before the butcher suggests contactless payment but the reader bleeps angrily and declines to co-operate.  Further along the counter a tall man, whose fast car is casually straddling the double yellow line in front of the shop, is buying a large quantity of beef.  He calls out to the butcher: “’S’alright John, I’ll cover it for ‘er”.  The butcher reaches over the counter and hands across her purchases: “It’s ok Mary, it’s sorted now”.  She smiles, unaware of the kindness that has been done to her.

Outside again: the sun pushes the clouds further apart and shines down on the people who have ventured into town.  They are unmasked now, eyes and mouths reunited, freed to express apology, irritation or fellowship more clearly.  Mary passes through them, down the hill towards home, her own mask still in her handbag, just in case.

At the bottom of the hill, set back from the road behind ancient trees near the edge of the town, stands the church.  It’s a fine fourteenth-century building, made with an abundance of flint and conviction.  The darkness of the windows is softened by the curves of their tracery.  The square tower looks back up to the town, over the nearby trees, showing the time and waving a diocesan flag.  The building is marked by some changes made down the centuries but it has calmly survived them and kept its principles intact.  On this spring morning, its solid presence amidst the neatness of the graveyard signals continuity. 

Mary walks through the lychgate, carries her shopping bag.  She passes between lines of daffodils and then leaves the path that runs on toward the church porch, stepping carefully between graves to find her husband’s, on the farther sunlit, south side of the church.  It’s been five years now since he became an absence and still, she finds it remarkable: how this steadying life force that walked with her under immeasurable skies, just stopped.  She can’t remember when she was last here but she knows it wasn’t very long ago.  It was another beat within the rhythm and ritual.

She stands before his gravestone partly nonplussed, partly comforted.  A warm breeze moves through her clothes.  She looks down at the ground, underneath which her husband waits, and finds herself surprised at how she is noticing each single, sharply green blade of spring grass.  Not for the first time, she tells him: “All the world’s been shut away, my love, all the world’s been shut away”.

(2021 - All rights remain with the author)

Author Bio
Ken is a writer of musings, miniatures and memoires and is based in Colchester. He is a Writers' Forum prize winner and contributed to the Patrician Press "My Europe" anthology and to the Arts Council "Essex Belongs to Us" project. 


Twitter: @CleancoachKen