Millennium Bug


So it came after all, she thinks, staring out of the window at the rain. It falls in heavy handfuls, flicking fingers at the glass. She’s not thinking about the rain but about the millennium bug that they prepared for twenty years ago (can it really be twenty?) It hadn’t come. Patient, it had waited until all preparations had been dismantled with a combination of relief and disdain, transformed itself, bided its time, then hit. Out of nowhere. A perfect storm.

Eleanor watches a bird dart between daffodils. They frown down, yellow flutes tilted, humbled by the unexpected downpour. As we all are, she thinks, we who like to feel we’re in control.

She traces the path of a drop with her finger. It falls in zigzags across the glass slowly, then all at once. She thinks of her children both far away, unable to visit, unable to help. At least Richard is here, busy in his study, as he always is. She calls up. “Coffee?”

No reply. Not unusual.

Sunshine flares. The sky holds its breath; rain stops. She breathes and puts her coffee cup down. The fridge is nearly empty. On the side, a curve of mouldy bananas.

“Just going shopping!” she calls.

“OK…”

Her jacket and hat feel slippery and unfamiliar. Somewhere during those early days of isolation, winter buttoned his coat and left. How could she not have noticed? But really she knows why. It’s the impending doom of everything, the loneliness, the fear. It fills every corner of you, even your senses.

Outside it is eerily still. Curtains are drawn, windows ajar (to let the germs out). Cars crouch on drives like sulking cats. A neighbour is trimming his front lawn. As she rattles past with her shopping trolley, she arranges her face in a smile but he does not raise his head. She wishes she knew her neighbours better but she and Richard only moved here a year ago, and it was one of those estates where the houses are spaced apart. She loves it in the country but misses the terraced friendships in their old road.

The path to the shop is along twitterns. She had once looked this up – Sussex-speak for narrow paths that go betwixt and between buildings. Her feet move to the rhythm of the words as she thinks of them – betwixt and between, betwixt and between. How strange and old fashioned they sound today. Would a child even know their meaning?

On the way, she sees a jogger, a dog, people with shopping or children. She looks at them all hopefully but they rush past, eyes down. Even the dog. As she walks, she counts the money in her red purse. Since Coronovirus hit, Richard’s work has taken a knocking and they’ve stopped using cards. Now she shops like her mother did, with a weekly wadge of crisp tenners spat reluctantly from the cash machine. The banks are not happy. Everyone wants their money. Everyone is afraid.

The supermarket is heaving though it’s not yet 9. She puts her small trolley in the big one and wheels it around and between: women on phones, men with babies, tantrumming toddlers, policemen. The latter look bored. One is writing a shopping list, another playing what looks like Trolley Football with a small boy. It’s been some time since the police were really needed, as most people seem happy with the Rule of Three. Last week, a young mum with four pleading children looked on the point of tears in the confectionary aisle.

“Have something different!” she’d almost shouted at one daughter. Everyone knows siblings must have the same. Calmly, Eleanor had taken the fourth bar of Cadbury’s and put it in her trolley.

“I’ll buy it for you,” she’d said, “Meet me in the car park. I’m the stripy trolley.” The girl – because to Ellie, the mum was a girl – had almost cried.

Today, at the checkout, she is anxious. Usually careful about what she buys, she’d been distracted by the toddlers and the trolley football and lost the plot. There are new distancing barriers by the till so it’s hard to see what the final amount is. When the cashier tells her – brightly, red lipsticked, as if announcing a lottery winner – her heart sinks.

“I…I’m sorry,” she says, “I’ll have to put some back.”

The queue falls silent. Then there is a murmur, a collective sigh. The cashier’s smile freezes.

“How much do you have to spend, Madam?” Eleanor whispers the amount.

“I’m sorry? I can’t hear you…” She flushes, tries again.

“Well, that’s twenty pounds worth needing to go back then. Can you deselect the items please?”

Deselect? With part of her brain, she is wanting to correct this young thing on her choice of vocabulary. The other part is scrambling across the items half-packed into the trolley. Which ones can she do without?

“Here, move along!” She turns, her heart in her mouth, her cheeks burning. Behind her is a huge man with an earring and a tattoo. He has lovely eyes and is gesturing to her, smiling, For a split second she can’t understand what he wants. But then she looks down. Her eyes widen.

“Oh no!” she says, “Thank you so much but I couldn’t possibly!” but the man just shakes his head and gives the money to the cashier.

“There you go,” he says, “All done.”

“But…”

“Pack your trolley, Mrs,” He starts getting his bags ready, “We’re all in this together aren’t we? Now move along. I need to get this lot sorted.” His eyes are twinkling.

Like the girl she helped last week, Eleanor is close to tears. Hastily, she stuffs the remaining items into her trolley and puts her purse away. She looks back at the man.

“Thank you,” she says, but he is packing his bags and shouting at his wife, and doesn’t hear her.

She trails home slowly, the trolley heavy, her arms tired. But something has lifted. She thinks, at last the heroes of the day are supermarket workers, carers, nurses, cleaners. And scary men covered in tatoos who help old ladies in supermarkets. She lifts her head. It is spring. The sun smiles from a blue and white sky. It bounces off glass, brightens brick, dries daffodils’ tears. Front gardens are replete with tulips, magnolia, tiny tete a tete. She is filled with pleasure. There’s a tree clouded in sugared pink, a stretch of lawn like uncut velvet. Suddenly, the trolley feels lighter, and so does she.

“You’re out early!” The neighbour rests from his lawn trimming. He stretches his back. “Did you get what you needed?”

“I did, thank you. Lovely day!” They keep their distance but they smile, a small but frank exchange of solidarity.

As she enters the kitchen, puffing, she decides not to tell Richard about the twenty pounds (a man has his pride). But the kindness stays, filling every corner of her, even her senses. She pauses by the window, watching trees opposite the house. They are so tall and thin and never still even when there’s no wind. One fell during the last storm and leans for support across others. She sees it’s in bud. Even trees adapt, move on, bear each other up.

She hums while she makes coffee – a snatch from an old hymn her mother used to sing.

The bananas rot quietly on the side. She will make a banana cake. No, she’ll make two and take one to the neighbour. She sets about mashing the bananas, filled with a nameless energy.

When Richard comes into the kitchen, drawn by the noise, he’s horrified. His usually calm and gentle wife is karate chopping the kitchen side with a rolling pin and yelling, apparently at some kind of insect.

“We’ll get you, Millennium Bug! We’ll smash you! You simply won’t survive. We’ll kill you with kindness…”

Richard flees.

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