Smug Ellen’s face looms enormous on the screen as Liz ducks past to take the last free boardroom chair. When she sits, a nerdy guy shakes his head.
‘That’s an isolation seat.’
‘OK,’ she whispers. ‘But I’m late. I need to sit down.’
‘You can’t. We need to stay at least one chair away from each other.’
Now might be as good a time as any to explain that she’s spent two entire weeks climbing her Farrow and Ball-painted flat walls in self-isolation. Corona holds no fear for Liz. She’s become immune.
‘You need to move,’ he says again. ‘It’s not safe.’
So much for sneaking in unseen. Her boss scribbles something on a notepad. Liz drags her isolation seat level with the boardroom door.
‘The thing to remember is take care of each other.’ Smug Ellen’s tinny voice crackles through black-grilled speakers set into a long grey table. ‘Check in and make sure we’re all doing fine.’
Eyes roll as she launches into a self-aggrandising story of how she plans to spend her evenings knocking on the doors of old folk to ask if they need emergency supplies. She’s already signed up to be an official volunteer.
‘Likely so she gets to shop in Tesco during the special hours,’ Derek from the Sales Team says, and heads nod.
Liz has no idea what he means. Derek is her work husband. One of the few people she still likes at Allied Recruitment.
Smug Ellen ends the meeting by suggesting they all say out loud the one thing they feel grateful for in what she calls ‘difficult times’.
Liz has heard that phrase too often. The words lose all impact. Like when people say sorry after letting a door slam in your face.
‘I’m grateful for having lived through Corona,’ she says and looks around. ‘Now I’m immune.’
Nobody appears sure what sort of face to pull.
Liz hit a nerve.
‘So if anybody fancies going to the pub after work, I’m buying,’ she says, determined to lighten the mood. ‘First drinks only. No doubles.’
Nervous looks are exchanged.
Determined to win over the room, she claps her hand to her mouth and does comedy bug eyes. ‘I forgot, the pub’s are out of bounds.’
‘Face,’ everyone yells.
The ferocity causes Liz to startle.
‘OK,’ she says, still rattled. ‘Some other time.’
Smug Ellen’s face vanishes and people file out.
One by one.
* * * * *
‘Why did everyone shout?’ she asks Derek as they join a line to use the office kettle.
‘BoJo’s latest advice,’ he says, and when she wrinkles her nose, he explains further. ‘Boris Johnson reckons we need to learn new behaviours. Each time someone touches their nose or mouth or eyes, you yell ‘face’.’
‘Why the hell would anyone sane do that?’
‘To relearn nasty habits.’
‘Is that what’s passing for government advice?’
Out of habit Liz avoids the news. When Corona took over the headlines, she unplugged her TV, stopped going online and rediscovered the joy of a book. Let others spend their days worried where they might secure the next loo roll. When a doctor in a mask confirmed she had Corona, it came as a surprise. Fair enough, she’d refused to become a total nob-head and deny NHS workers protective clothing, but she’d used handwash and lived off Deliveroo.
‘You and me are the only ones who know,’ Derek says.
‘BoJo acts like Corona is the black death. People think if they so much as touch a door handle they’ll die in pain.’
‘Are things that bad?’
‘I went to Waitrose this morning. They’re out of olives.’
‘No.’ Liz feigns shock. ‘Tell me they’re OK for quinoa.’
She nods at Derek for his coffee cup.
‘We’re not allowed to make drinks for each other,’ he says. ‘HR policy.’
She doesn’t bother arguing.
* * * * *
Liz only spots an unfamiliar number flash up on her phone by chance. She’s listening to music on her headphones thanks to the office no talking rule. Words spread germs.
‘It’s Brett,’ a familiar voice says when she answers. ‘How’s your day going?’
She gave him her number after much pestering.
‘Full-on,’ she says. ‘We’re being made to sit two metres apart and most people are working from home.’
‘Wish we could do that.’
Brett worked in Boots, behind the pharmacy counter. His day was taken up arguing with people determined to panic buy paracetamol. Angry customers blamed him for the lack of hand sanitiser.
‘They’ve impounded the staff kitchen.’ Brett sounds mournful. ‘We have to bring drinks from home.’
She looks up as Helen from reception walks past with a roll of yellow tape and starts to stick strips around the stationery cupboard.
‘We’re about to ration sticky notes,’ Liz says. ‘The world might as well end tomorrow.’
Derek sits down at the next desk. She turns away to stop him eavesdropping.
‘Are you getting the bus home?’ she says, part hoping they might spend more time laughing at this weird world.
‘That’s why I’m calling,’ Brett says. ‘There are no buses.’
‘OK … so, we’ll share an Uber.’
‘The app says there’s a four hour wait. I might hire a car. Do you fancy going half?’
‘I can’t drive.’
A bubble of joy lifts inside. How come she never spoke to this weird guy before?
‘Is that a yes?’ he says.
What else was she going to spend her wages on? Most of the shops were closed. Cafes were shut. Pubs were now only fit for pariahs.
‘It’s a yes,’ she says.
‘OK, I’ll pick you up at six.’
Liz’s working day ended at five, but she didn’t mind hanging around. She’d find something to do.
‘Hot date?’ Derek asks when she puts down her phone. ‘Your latest boyfriend?’
‘What?’ Her skin prickles. ‘No.’
‘It’s just you did that giggle thing you always do when you talk to someone you fancy.’
‘What giggle thing?’
Derek purses his lips and skips from one foot to the other.
‘Oh, you.’ He affects a lisp. ‘You’re such a powerful man, maybe you can help me carry this big heavy box of paper.’
Liz glares. A year ago, she tried to cop off with Andy from the tech team, and still her best work friend won’t let her forget the shame of hearing about his husband and two adopted children.
‘It’s my neighbour, if you must know,’ she says. ‘And he’s most likely gay too.’