My phone buzzes on the kitchen counter as I’m preparing the girls’ breakfast. It’s an unknown number, but I answer anyway, in case it’s Gus on a work phone.
“Mrs. Fig?” says a familiar voice on the other end, and I instantly regret answering. “It’s Marie Dunlop, from the school.”
The last bit is more like a question as if I don’t know who she is.
She begins asking me how we’re coping with the lockdown and do I need any extra support, and oh yes, I see that you haven’t completed the assigned work from last week, then an uncomfortable pause before inquiring, “Is there any reason for that?”
I fumble around, making promises that it just took us a while, but we’re getting into our stride now and should be caught up in no time.
Once the call ends, I fling my phone on the counter and bury my face in my hands.
“Mommy? Who were you talking to?” Zoe asks. She’s my eldest and very nosey.
“No one, darling. Here, eat your breakfast.” I set bowls of cereal in front of Zoe and Jasmine.
Zoe brings the spoon to her mouth, then stops. “Was that the teacher?”
“She was just calling to see how we’re getting on,” I say brightly, hoping she’ll drop it.
“Was she calling about our schoolwork?”
The phone buzzes again, saving me from further questioning. It’s Gus.
“Hi honey,” I say.
“Is that Daddy?” Zoe and Jasmine ask as they try to grab the phone.
“Hang on. The munchkins want to say hello.” I hand the phone over and turn to switch on the coffeemaker. They begin telling Daddy about the teacher calling and how I’ve let them watch YouTube videos on their tablet all morning.
I quickly grab the phone back from them before they can put me in it anymore.
“What was the teacher calling for?” he asks, his tone serious and I know I’m in for a grilling.
“Just checking in, making sure we’re coping.” My voice is small, like a child that’s been caught scribbling on the couch cushion.
“She wouldn’t be calling if she wasn’t concerned.”
I say nothing and pace in front of the window, pausing to look at the young plants on our windowsill. The chili plant is starting to bloom. In the garden, the sparrows peck away at their feeder while the starlings flap in the birdbath, their joie de vivre at odds with the rain cloud hanging over my head.
“Are you falling behind with the work?” he asks.
Dust motes drift in the sunlight streaming through the window. I move a layer of dust that has gathered around the plant pots with my fingertip.
“Only a little,” I lie.
“Well? What’s the problem?”
I sigh, swiping my fringe from my forehead. “I just need to get a routine going.”
“Have you done any work this morning?”
“We’ve not even finished breakfast yet.”
“It’s half nine. The kids would normally be in school by now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe don’t treat it like a school holiday, that’s all.”
“Well, what about you?” I snap. “Has the tech come yet? Or are you still lying in your bunk watching DVDs?”
I hear the springs on his mattress creak, so I know I’m right. He’s been stranded on an oil rig in the North Sea for over a week now, waiting for equipment to arrive, which I suspect may never get there with everything that’s going on.
“Alright, alright. Keep your hair on.” He chuckles in that irritating way.
Holding the phone away from my ear, I blow out a long breath, causing the clump of dust to float down to the floor.
“Look,” I say after a moment, “it’s not easy. Every teacher is trying to be more creative than the next. Last week, they wanted a video of us re-enacting the bloody Gruffalo!” I drop into a nearby armchair, thinking about the footage of me with a poisonous wart on my nose and hoping it doesn’t get posted online by accident.
“If you’re struggling, make a timetable and stick to it,” he says. “I should be home next week. I can help you then.”
“Can’t wait,” I say, rolling my eyes.
While I wait for Excel to load on my laptop, the girls continue to watch YouTube on their tablet. An Australian lady is gushing over one of those dolls that have about fifty plastic wrappers for every little accessory. I grimace when I hear her cooing over a super-rare edition, knowing the girls are just lapping up this stuff.
In a normal world, families up and down the country would have had the kids breakfasted and out the door for school. But this isn’t a normal world.
Zoe’s Cheerios have puffed up to twice their size.
“Zoe, turn that off now and finish your breakfast,” I say, but she and little Jasmine continue to stare at the screen like braindead zombies.
“Just five more minutes,” she says, lifting a spoonful.
“That stuff will rot your brain,” I grumble, though no one is listening.
I decide to ignore it for now so I can enjoy one more coffee before we get to work.
I click into the news app on my phone, which flashes up with yesterday’s daily death toll figures. Italy is the worst affected, and—from what the headlines are feeding us—we are only four weeks behind them. I slurp my coffee and try not to panic.
A WhatsApp notification pops up from one of the moms in the class support group. I am in the group only because my kids are in the same class as theirs, not because any of them are my friends or would actually talk to me. It’s like high school all over again. I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with bitchy cliques or playground politics when I grew up, but school pickup is worse. I feel like I’m 12 again, only this time I’m not wearing patent Doc Martins with multicolored laces.
Sammy’s mom asks the group how to upload answers to the reading book project, and I break into a cold sweat as I realize it is another thing I haven’t started yet.
Daisy’s mom replies instantly with instructions, making me frown into my coffee—only Sammy’s mom would get an instant answer like that. I’m pretty sure if I posted anything, it would fester unanswered for a week.
The Excel spreadsheet finally loads, so I get to work creating the timetable, factoring in a half-hour break in the morning and afternoon, and an hour for lunch. We will catch up in no time, I tell myself as I print it off.
Day 1—Super-Efficient Timetable in Action
The teacher wants the kids to make a video re-enacting a story that I have read to them. After a few mishaps where Jasmine almost brains herself mid-dive off the bed while pretending to be a dragon, I attempt to upload the 15-minute video from my phone to the school’s “cloud.” The next three hours are a swirl of loading wheel spinners, frozen screens, and muttered curses until I give up, deciding its impossible. We will catch up tomorrow, I promise myself.
Day 2—Slightly Behind
I decide not to dwell on the work missed yesterday—there is always Saturday. I start by setting Zoe some reading while I do a counting task with Jasmine. In a perfect mothering moment, I fetch the box of marbles for Jasmine to count. We begin flying through the lessons, and I wonder if I missed my calling as a teacher until I find Jasmine with a red marble stuck up her nose. I spend most of the morning trying to coax her out of the cupboard. She then makes me promise not to come at her with the tweezers and Vaseline anymore. After eating lunch with the marble up her nose, she eventually lets me near her when I bribe her with sweets. The marble comes out with minimal fuss, and the kids spend the next hour barreling around the garden after eating most of their supply of Haribo while I fix myself a tall G&T with a fried egg Haribo garnish (because neither of them like the fried egg ones).
Day 3—Quite Behind Now
Spelling this morning. Nice and easy, no mishaps. I am filled with a sense that things will be better now and confident that we have learned from the issues of Days 1 and 2.
In the afternoon, we attempt “mental maths.” Zoe’s teacher has posted many PDFs that need printing, which is unfortunate because we are out of printing paper. I spend the next two hours drawing the million math problems into her jotter while the girls fight over LEGO bricks. We only complete one page before admitting defeat.
Day 4—We Are So Behind
My timetable isn’t working. I don’t know how we are ever going to catch up. The kids have sensed my panic and are hiding from me. Once I coax Zoe out of her hiding place, we continue with “mental maths.”
“Ok, how much do you owe me?” I slide a pound coin over to her after explaining it for the 50th time, but I’m pretty sure she has grasped it now.
“Em.…” She gapes up at me, not even trying to figure it out, just looking at me for the answer.
I close my eyes and breathe out a long breath through my nose. My stomach growls—we should have stopped for a break by now, but I am desperate to complete this section before lunch. I repeat the question one more time.
Sensing my tension, Zoe gulps, tears welling in her eyes. Great, she’s going to cry now.
I slap my hand on the table, making her jump.
“Zoe, I don’t have time for this. Look at the coins and count them.”
Her chin quivers. She looks scared.
Suddenly, I am 10 years old, and my mom is asking me to tell her the answer to a maths problem. Her voice has taken on the quiet tone she always uses just before she’s about to lose her shit. She breathes out a long slow breath through her nose then stabs her pen at the sums written on the page.
“How can you not know this?” she asks in staccato, tapping her pen with each sharp word. Her eyebrows furrow low over her eyes, covering her lashes like hairy caterpillars. I want to crawl under the table and never come out again.
I take a punt.
“11?” My voice is whispered and shaky.
She slams her hand down on the table. Her chair screeches across the wooden floor as she storms off, banging the dining room door behind her.
I sit at the table, not knowing if I should carry on or wait for her to come back.
Wiping tears from my cheeks, I sit and wait.
A tear slides down Zoe’s cheek. I look into her hazel eyes—which always lighten to green when she cries—and my heart feels heavy.
Jasmine comes over to pat Zoe’s shoulder. “Don’t be sad, Zoe,” she says, and my heart breaks as I realize I am the worst parent in the world.
For dinner, I make them their favorite pizza and chips. I let Zoe pick the story before bed, and while I cuddle them goodnight, I squeeze her in my arms and tell her I’m sorry.
In bed, feeling wretched and lonesome, I realize that if I die tomorrow, their last memories of me would be stressing over schoolwork. I try to think of one pleasant moment we have shared this week and can’t come up with anything. I rub circles in my temples, worrying that I am a failure. Worrying that everyone else has it all figured out. And worst of all, worrying about what the kids think of me. I close my eyes and promise myself that I will do better. There will be no more timetables. No more stressing over schoolwork. We’ll catch up eventually, I reassure myself, unaware of what is to come.
Day 5—I’m Calling It a Four-Day Week
This morning, nestled in amongst the torrent of grave news bulletins and depressing death toll figures, is an update from the weather presenter, Dean Malcolm—or Dean the Dish if you read the local tabloids. I marvel at how he always looks so well-groomed when everyone else is tangling with crazy lockdown hair. You can tell all the other news presenters are struggling to look “news ready” with no one on hair and make-up to greet them at four o’clock each morning. But no matter the lockdown woes, you can always rely on Dean to bring a ray of sunshine.
“And this band of low pressure will come pushing in from the North bringing stormy conditions and gale force winds of around 60 mph …”
Great, I huff as I sip my coffee on the couch. Even Dean is full of doom and gloom today. I look out at the hulking great trampoline in the garden and bite my lip, wondering if gale-force winds could budge that thing.
I pick up my phone and dial Gus.
He answers on the second ring, probably bored from watching Predator for the zillionth time.
“There’s a big storm coming in tonight. They’ve put us on an amber warning level,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s pretty choppy out here on the rig,” he says, sounding a little queasy.
“Do you think I need to worry about the kids’ trampoline?”
“Yep, you better get it tied up.”
I roll my eyes. He always loves to dramatize everything, but I’m sure if he were here, he wouldn’t be worried. Sixty-mile-an-hour winds aren’t that bad, surely; 100 mile an hour maybe, but 60?
After hanging up with Gus, I call Heather, my best friend from school. You can always rely on her to be practical; she would know.
“I don’t know, hon,” she says, “maybe this time Gus is right.”
After a brief conversation, where she tells me she cut her son’s hair using a mixing bowl, and now he looks like Spock, we hang up.
Not bothering to change out of my blue and white striped jammy bottoms, I pull my wellies over them. I know it’s a special look but decide it’s fine because we’re in a pandemic with zero chance of visitors.
I trudge across the garden to the shed. Inside is a mountain of junk; I shake my head. Gus is such a messy bastard. Most of the junk is under a giant tarp that Gus has bunged in, not bothering to fold it or store it away. He had shoved the lawnmower on top of the tarp and then rammed his mountain bike in for good measure.
I pinch a bit of tarp between my forefinger and thumb and peek underneath. There are cobwebs with tools and pots scattered on the floor and more cobwebs with dead flies tangled in.
There is no way I am lifting everything out by myself just to get covered in dead bugs and spiders. I don’t even know if Gus has any rope in there to tie down the trampoline. He didn’t sound so sure on the phone.
I search around for something else to use and find a pile of spare slabs in the wood store. After lugging them across the garden, I perch them on the metal legs of the trampoline. Task complete, I dust off my hands, noting the ominous black clouds in the distance. The wind is picking up now, and seagulls are drifting like kites in the sky. I hustle back to the comforts of the cottage to hunker down for the evening.
It’s close to midnight, and gale-force winds howl around the cottage, scouring for a way to get in. The old windows moan, and outside, a drainpipe bangs against the side of the wall in a hollow, tuneless jingle.
I usually enjoy it when Gus is away because I can starfish in bed and not have to worry about being accused of snoring too loud. But tonight, I have Jasmine plastered to my left side, and Zoe draped over my other side. The cottage creaks, and I hear a loud thud and wonder what to do if a madman gets in. Cuddling the girls closer, I decide it might be an idea to shop around online for a baseball bat.
Day 6—Houston, We Have a Problem
The sound of the kids hollering in the living room wakens me. I pry my eyes open into slits as bright sunlight drifts through the cracks in the curtain. The clock reads 6:43 a.m. I lurch up from bed to see what the heck is going on.
“The iPad!” Zoe wails, jabbing her finger at the screen.
“The TV,” Jasmine whines, stabbing at the NOW TV remote. I grab the remote and begin pressing buttons, my eyes still half shut.
That’s when I spot it. On the other side of the living room, perched on the windowsill. I stop breathing for a moment: A solid red light stares back from the internet router.
After switching it on and off a few times—pausing only to make myself a coffee as I realize this is not going to be a quick fix—I then try to phone Gus and realize I have no phone signal either.
Scrambling for what to do next, I tune the TV for terrestrial channels—all five of them—before getting us ready to head into town to see about using a phone.
I envision Mrs. Doke from the local shop spraying me with disinfectant before letting me anywhere near her phone’s mouthpiece. But when we get there, she tells us that the storm has caused major disruptions with the phone lines to the entire village. So, it isn’t just our little cottage on the hill.
“Apparently, some idiot’s trampoline took off in the night and crashed into the power lines up at the exchange.” She huffs disapprovingly through her floral mask while spraying a puff of Lysol over the countertop. “It has caused utter chaos. Harris told me it could take days before it’s fixed.”
I can feel the blood pounding in my ears as I wonder if it was my trampoline, and if so, could they link it back to me?
Zoe almost dobs me in then. “Our trampoline—,” but she breaks off when I stand on her foot and squeeze her hand in warning.
“Our trampoline broke last year,” I interject. “We had to get rid of it. A big green one.” I add for good measure as if the color would prove it isn’t ours.
The girls frown and Mrs. Doke eyes me suspiciously before ringing up our groceries. It doesn’t take long as the shelves are bare, leaving us with only a bag of porridge oats and a tin of condensed milk.
As we head back to the car with our meager shopping, Zoe flexes her poor hand. “What did you do that for?”
“When I’m talking to other grownups, don’t butt in,” I chide. “And don’t tell anyone about the trampoline. If anyone asks, it broke.”
A little frown hovers over her mask, and I realize I have already broken my promise.
As we drive home along the country road, the sun breaking through the last wisps of storm clouds, Jasmine asks, “Mom, does that mean no Netflix?”
“I suppose not. We will just need to play board games or something.”
The kids groan in the backseat.
“On the plus side,” I say, “it means no home-schooling for the rest of the week.” This is met with cheers. I even cheer a little myself.
At home, a quick peek in the garden reveals a conspicuously absent trampoline, with only its crater-sized impression in the grass—much like the chalk outline at the scene of a crime. I cover the evidence with the patio table and chairs.
Over the fence, amongst the spiny gorse from the farm next door, a cow watches me while chomping on some grass. We size each other up for a moment.
“You didn’t see anything,” I warn her.
I take her silence to mean we have an understanding.
Day 7—All’s Quiet on the Home Front
After playing every board game in the house, we check on the seeds we planted in seeding pots weeks ago. Once again, I brave the shed, and with the girls’ help, we uncover the spade, the hoe, the rake, and even the rope that should have been used to tie down our long-lost trampoline.
I decide the trampoline was a small price to pay for a life without the pinging of messages, the bleep of emails, and the droning of YouTube videos.
We plant the shoots into vegetable patches and clear out Daddy’s shed. Jasmine is quite the organizer.
Green chili peppers have popped out of the chili plant on our windowsill.
“How about we make a curry with these chilis?” I say while raking through the spice cupboard.
“Can we help?” Zoe asks from the kitchen table.
“Of course. You can chop the vegetables.”
“And you won’t get mad if we spill or drop something?”
“Of course not, darling.” My heart clenches as I think of all the times I have been short with them over minor things.
I sit with her at the table. “What would you like for dessert tonight? Your choice.”
Her eyes light up. “How about your homemade ice cream?”
I glance at the clock, ready to tell her that there won’t be enough time for it to set in the freezer. But then I catch myself. What does it matter if it isn’t perfect?
“Sounds good,” I tell her. She climbs into my lap and cuddles me.
When she pulls away, she strokes my cheek. “I like it when you smile, Mom.”
“I promise to smile more,” I say, nuzzling my cheek to hers.
Day 11—Peace, Love, and Chili Plants
There have been many tears these past few days. Not from me being grumpy but from my wonderful chili recipes. I have discovered a newfound taste for chilis. In my opinion, you could add them to anything.
“Mom? You don’t need to put them in everything,” Zoe grumbles while eating a chili-laced omelet.
We have already cooked a chickpea curry and chili enchilada wraps. My chili plant is in the prime spot on the windowsill, with little canes holding it up.
While pondering if it is too early for a G&T, the front door swings open, and for a moment, I’m sure it’s the madman. But then I realize it’s just Daddy with a Chewbacca-style beard.
“Daddy!” The kids dash to hug him as he sets his luggage down.
“You’re home!” I rush over for a hug, realizing how glad I am to see him.
“I tried calling but couldn’t get through,” he says, handing the girls bags of treats, which they tear into instantly.
“Well, because of your messy shed, I couldn’t find the rope to tie the trampoline down, and it’s caused a power outage up at the exchange.”
Laughing, he shrugs his jacket off before finally coming over to grab me up in one of his bear hugs. His lockdown beard bristles against my cheek.
“Only you could blame a power cut on me when I wasn’t even in the country,” he says, nestling his chin into the crook of my neck.
“Actually, it was a blessing in disguise.”
“How so?” He pulls away and looks at me.
I grin. “Because now everyone’s behind with home-schooling.”