Image: Black and White by Malevich (@Pixels)
“March the sixteenth 2021!” announced George that morning, finding it rather ironic that, exactly one year since the lockdown began, Lecomte should send one of his percussive e-mails rattling off that ‘the team’ should “Come back into the office, for an ‘urgent meeting to discuss the next steps of the financial package to re-float the European economy.’
“Lecomte’s never really adjusted to teleworking” said George to Patricia, as he was preparing to leave the house. “He still likes ‘the let’s-get-everyone-round-the-campfire’ feel,” in a tone of undisguised irony. “It’s not hard to imagine him in his shorts running a scout camp. He’s like some sort of ERA-Akela whose biggest thrill in life is to order his pack to ‘Strike camp! Fetch that kindling! Skin that rabbit! Ging Gang Goolee Goolee Goolee Watcha!” Patricia stood quietly by, waiting for her peck on the cheek. “Any moment he’ll have us singing songs in a circle to help build back team spirit after lockdown!”
Back in Brussels, George had mixed feelings about being in the office once again. On the one hand, whatever he thought about individual colleagues, George was a sociable sort of fellow and appreciated diversity in life, and in opinion. But Lecomte’s example didn’t entirely inspire him. As soon as Lecomte felt out of sight in his office, he discarded his mask and began to talk effusively about the “Exciting task before us” and quipping about “These ridiculous hygiene rules made to make our lives misery.” Once he got going with his pal Jernej, the statistician, there was no stopping the two of them.
“Let’s face it, the stats demonstrate we won’t be needing to visit any clandestine bars anymore, hey Guy. Back to our local, I say!” bragged Jernej as he opened Lecomte’s office mini-bar and helped himself confidently to a chilled beer. “Fancy one, George?” asked Jernej, with more than his habitual cockiness. “I’d rather not,” replied George nervously, surprised that COVID had shifted the ethical goalposts to make chilled beer at work in the middle of the day an acceptable social norm. “There’s lots to do.”
Rather than stay longer, George hastily added the excuse of “Oh, I left something at the printer” and got up to step out.
“Always got a good excuse for ducking out, eh George?” quipped Jernej, “You really don’t know what you’ve been missing” he added as George scurried out.
George made the effort to get his work done quickly that day. He went straight home, as soon as he could, his agitated state more than evident to Patricia when he got home after midnight that night.
“Was there a lot to do, darling?” she enquired tenderly.
“Yes, yes, terrible” retorted George, brusquely adding “Pour me a whisky, can you? I’m going to get changed” and saying little more than a few sentences about his stressful day before making his way to bed.
It was only a few days later that the things took a more serious turn. George woke up earlier than normal that morning and, as usual, passed through to the kitchen to prepare the morning tea. He had noted a bit of a sore throat but it was only when he put the steaming cup to his lips that he noticed something odd.
“Allo?” he uttered to himself, “Can’t smell much.” He paused, his mind switching to Patricia’s mantra about the COVID symptoms. “It’s nothing” he reassured himself while he arranged his breakfast. He plugged in for work, as soon as he could.
But things moved quickly and by mid-morning George was starting to feel a little queasy. He could only come to one conclusion: “My God, I must have got it!”
“Oh” said Patricia, inhaling in anguish, while trying to remain objective, when George told her he wasn’t feeling at all good. “You have to go straight away to the doctor, you need a test.”
Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room in his mask, George’s normally even-handed personality seemed to desert him. For starters, he couldn’t tell if he was hot or not and flustered about the cause of his discomfort. Was it just the thought of testing positive, or because his body was genuinely telling him something was not quite right? Then George’s mood began to darken, as he felt himself passing already through the stages Patricia had repeatedly insisted on: first you lose your sense of smell, then you get a sore throat and dry cough, then you get a fever.
By the time George was asked into the nurse’s office to receive the swabs down his nasal cavity he was sweating uncomfortably. The nurse was so professional and matter-of-fact about the whole business that George started to feel a sense of inevitability for the outcome. “Positif en test antigénique. Mais il faut attendre les résultats du PCR, monsieur. Ça prend quelques jours. Vous recevrez la réponse par e-mail du labo.”
George stared vacantly at the nurse’s name badge, mute. “Maintenant vous devez vous isoler à la maison. Lisez-bien cette brochure. Les autorités compétentes vous indiqueront les prochaines étapes à suivre.”
Outside in the car, seeing it all written on George’s face, Patricia exterior look of composure belied an interior state of panic. “We’ll get you comfortable in the spare room, George” she assured him and herself at the same time. After all, she was now an expert: over the months she had read every article she could find on-line about ‘What to do when you catch COVID’. Now she had a chance to apply her knowledge.
Since the beginning of the pandemic George had sunk himself into his work and had really only addressed, what he himself liked to describe, as ’the disease, at philosophical level’. Now, the realisation that people actually catch the virus and actually get ill came as something of an unpleasant surprise to him, as did the swiftness of the developing symptoms. He spent the first night in the spare room trying to convince himself that his restlessness was due to the unfamiliar bed. But the following day his fever was high, and he was going off his food.
“What happens next?” he asked Patricia rather pathetically when the confirmation of his infection arrived. “Rest, paracetamol and patience” she replied through the crack in the door. “Keep the windows open. Drink plenty of water. And it’s time to take your temperature again” she added. “Thirty-nine point six”, cried George a few minutes later, by now with heavily aching heads and bones. “I feel like shit”, he threw out, oblivious to whether he was just speaking to himself or whether Patricia was listening on the other side of the door.
Without knowing why, after the initial shock of testing positive, the self-isolation and the onset of more severe symptoms, George adopted a gloomily passive attitude to his illness. And despite her encouraging questions of ‘Are you feeling better?’ and ‘Can I get you anything?’, Patricia began to sense an air of fatality creeping into his voice.
“Come on, George” she would encourage him, as she left another cup of hot herbal tea for him outside the bedroom door. “Stay strong, you’ll see fight this off”. But, as soon as she had said it, she knew that George, who had talked himself months ago out of the conventional way of treating COVID through ‘the building of defences’, was going to have to face the consequences of his idealism, alone. George’s way.
Three days later, just past midnight in the middle of Easter week, she sat in the kitchen with a hot cup of tea, trying to recompose herself after what she had just been through: Patricia realised she would never forget the look of fear on George’s face, as the auxiliary from the ambulance team had placed the oxygen mask over this nose and mouth, and she had blown a shaky kiss to him. George had been lifted into the fluorescent yellow van with its whirling blue light and soul chilling bleep bleep siren. and whisked off to down the road to Ottignies hospital. She was told later, to her great alarm, by a nurse down the phone with a no-nonsense voice, that he had gone straight into intensive care.
By then, George no longer knew where he was. His last memory of leaving home had been of a face: was it a young girl, or was it Patricia, or Sally what’s-her-name his first girlfriend at school, or his mother at the kindergarten door? Whoever was it who had blown him a kiss and had slowly hung her head down low?
Now he was surrounded by a group of people, fussing over him, all kitted up in white, in masks, and helmets and gloves? As the spell of the sedative ghosted him away into coma, who they were, George no longer had the energy to distinguish nor to care.
In an instant, George felt he was sitting, slumped, in a small dinghy in a vast sea. All he could see was a vast panorama of rolling, dark green waves. Through his half-closed eyes caked with tears and grime, the horizon was hazy, wavering, and far, far away. The choppy rocking of the sea brought images, in, and out, of his vista.
Now he could see – or at least sense, more than see – that it was a team of nurses who had laid him in the bed at the hospital and Patricia who had blown him that last kiss before getting in the ambulance.
Then away went the pictures and George saw blank, only able to discern when the blank was white or black. The whiteness offered his consciousness a cool feeling of peace, the black, a dark, restless fear.
As images and the blanks ebbed and flowed before him, the bodyless experience George was passing through brought his whole life as a panorama before him.
The crunch of the gravel leading to his rambling house and the blackbird singing at dusk in that wonderful garden in La Hulpe football.
The meetings of the geology society, and Michel, and the members babbling excitement with the latest fossil finds in the Ardennes.
The whirling world of financial regulation and Wichsel, Lecomte and the rest of them, and government papers, papers, papers.
That first, timid kiss on young Patricia’s cheek and the thrill of her arms tight around him.
Balmy summer drinks parties in Cambridge, the clink of the cocktail glasses and the bubbly banter of his student friends around him.
Striding out to the crease in his bright cricket whites at his school in England, oh green, brilliant, blue-skyed England.
“Nature’s flow. Learn to go” came a whisper from Lucija. “Safely home. Nature will get you,” lapped her words like gentle waves over George’s soul.
A black blank returned, George’s consciousness became enveloped, like he was drowning, worse than drowning, drowning in thick, hot, sooty gas. The blackness had seized him with fear, a fear like a suffocation, like a desperate gasping for breath. All George could do was bear the blackness, and as he confronted it, the fear morphed into pain, not his pain, but a hot pain of another, another soul, a soul he had transgressed.
Now he could feel the suffering of Sally, the day he had told her, coldly, way back, the very last day they left school, that he no longer loved her, he no longer cared, she could go to hell for all that. Sally had cried alone all that night, all those years ago. And callously, George had been oblivious to her feelings, wilfully ignorant of what she had lived through. But now he could see: the truth, nothing but the burning truth. He couldn’t escape, he never could have escaped. The truth must out. And as he faced the truth, square on, so the blackness turned to light.
That light brought an absolute clarity to his vision and, suddenly, George was aware he was in a drinking bar, the same bar he had first dropped Lecomte off at in the middle of the COVID lockdown.
The clandestine bar.
The bar where you needed to knock on the door with a tap-tap and a tap-tap-tap before they would let you in. The Corona bar, where Lecomte and Jernej seemed so well at home and anyone could live for a few hours, away from the cacophony of COVID, and drink what they liked, say hi and bye to anyone they met, just be themself, or someone else, for a change.
The lights went out and again George was in the dark. But now he knew what he had to do: face each blank of blackness, and see through to the pictures that would arise.
A young woman appeared through the gloom, trimly dressed in a red sequin skirt and a sleek, white blouse holding in, tightly, her ample bosom, shown off by the shimmering black feather boa round her neck. Between her slender, red nail-varnished fingers she was holding a bottle of Corona beer, the lime slice contrasted against the smear of carmine red lipstick on the rim.
“Fancy a drink, or something?” she asked George.
George felt immediately a rush of excitement in his aching neck and shoulders, sore from the administrative whipping Lecomte had given them from morning to night that day, working on that urgent legal proposal for the financial re-float package of Europe. His nostrils dilated, the pungent musk of the woman’s perfume filling his head, arousing his senses.
“No, please, allow me. Would you like another? I’ll join you” he stammered and turned to the bartender. “Deux Coronas, s’il vous plait” he asked and offered a twenty euro note. “Désolé, on paie ici seulement en coronas”, replied the barman and George was offered twenty tokens. “Ça fait seize coronas” said the barman, as he clawed the tokens back to himself leaving George with the small change.
“Call me Samantha,” said the young woman in exchange for the beer. “Your first time here?” she added in a snappy tone of sincerity, which moved George to make an effusive reply.
“It is, actually. I haven’t been out at all under COVID, it’s been terrible. Work, work, work, stuck at home. I mean, my wife….” Samantha cut his sentence. “Calm, George. You’re alright here. We’re all in the same boat. Just leave all that COVID nonsense behind and enjoy your drink. Take off your tie and jacket and put them down over there. It’s just me, and you, right now.”
George looked perplexed. “How do you know my name?” he asked rather tamely.
“Jernej is very good with people. He and I go back a long way. He was spot on describing you,” she explained, taking some playful delight in George’s awkwardness. “Besides, those of us who work in finance, we know how to get along with each other, don’t we George?” she continued, her voice melding a professional with a personal intonation, which immediately had the effect of shortening the emotional distance between them.
Even though the conversation had turned to the economic aspects of the COVID crisis, with each generalisation they discussed, Samantha was able to find a personal anecdote or illustration, which only served to further enhance her attractiveness to George. They talked and talked, George revelling in Samantha’s mix of intellectuality and femininity.
Each drink they took, and each ever more charming gesture Samantha made, drew George slowly closer and closer to her. Before he had time to realise it, Samantha had started rubbing the inside of his thigh with the slender fingers of her strong, dextrous hand. Aroused, George suddenly grabbed her scarf and pulled her face towards his, their mouths fusing into a voracious kiss. George wrapped his arms around her, as she continued rubbing and stroking his groin. The embrace was long, carnal, passionate.
Then, abruptly, George stopped. “No” he said, stepping apart from Samantha, leaving her with her brilliant, wet lips wide open.
“I can’t, not just now. But, but…” he spluttered, “…tell me you like me”.
Samantha looked puzzled. “Why, of course I do, George” she replied calmly. “There’s nothing to worry about, we’re all safe here at the Corona. Come, sit down” she said gesturing gently to George.
“But George, where are you going?”
George had turned away from Samantha and the bright, myriad lights of the bar in front of him. Now he was scanning agitatedly the dimmed alcoves where the other drinkers were huddled in intimate, low-voiced conversations. He snatched up his jacket and made for the door.
“George!” called Samantha.
Then, flinging open the entrance door, all George could hear was Jernej throwing out behind him one of his typical taunts. “Hey George, you really don’t know what you’re missing,” as he marched down the dark, cold street to his car.