Short story By Emily Byrne
Header Image by Sandra Ahn-Mode
“Really Archibald, you’re such a pain!” Mama Dotty shouted at her husband. Their only daughter, Jennifer was too lost in her excitement and apprehension to let this bickering annoy her as it usually would. So, she continued to tuck into her cornflakes, toast and marmalade jam. For finally, the first day of Fresher’s week at St Mildew’s University had arrived.
Even though the Cazoobavirus pandemic meant that distancing measures would be in place, symptomatic students would have to isolate and also might not be able to travel home for Christmas, (this had caused Jennifer and her mother… mostly Jennifer’s mother, sleepless nights) the infection rates in Dorset and at St Mildew’s were low. This was probably the only reason Mama Dotty was allowing her daughter to study this year as planned. It had been a difficult summer to process with the virus sweeping the globe and the sadness and sympathies for the families who had lost loved ones plaguing Jennifer’s thoughts. Thank goodness Jennifer’s trusted sidekick, dear old Jimmy the dog had been by her side throughout the summer hols, trotting at her heels and keeping her positive with his tremendously cheeky personality. Now the morning of moving out to University was finally here, Jennifer felt absolutely delighted at the prospect of her new-found independence. She was off to study English Literature and dreamed to one day become a teacher. It all seemed like jolly good fun.
Time seemed to stand still as the lolling countryside and stretches of luscious fields rolled past as Jennifer sat on the train with Papa Archibald & Mama Dotty, facemasks covering their mouths and noses. The closest family were sat at the other end of the carriage and signs reading “Cazoobavirus – Stay safe. Keep a distance. Wear a mask. Stop the virus spreading”adorned the walls of the train as it trundled towards St Mildred’s.
On the near horizon, a collection of magnificent buildings clustered at the very edge of a jagged, blackened cliff. The scene was eerie and dream-like as surly clouds surged in the sky. In stark contrast, the cliff was met at its mouth by the crashing, turbulent and mesmerizing September sea. A vast collection of pointed spires stuck out high into the skyline. Supporting these spires were colossal, red-brick structures, adorned with ornate, tall windows and decorated with sweeping outdoor staircases winding in endless spirals from the tip of the buildings to the ground. Right before Jennifer’s eyes, St Mildew’s loomed ominously ahead. Her draw dropped as she marvelled at her new home. “There she is. Muma, Papa, isn’t she beautiful!” Jennifer yelped.
Papa Archibald and Mama Dotty had hoped to join Jennifer through the gates to help her move into her dormitory, though due to restrictions they had to wave goodbye at the campus entrance. Had Jennifer known what was awaiting her, she would have held her mother and father for longer and that little bit tighter. Chaperones were on hand to help buggy luggage and belongings to students’ halls of residents. Jennifer was in St. Helen’s building, floor four, room two. Students had been informed of details of their accommodation and social distancing restrictions by personal telegram, delivered by a web link from Stella Stern, the University campus coordinator.
The walk up the cliff was rather brisk and blustery, but also awe-inspiringly beautiful. Jennifer felt like she was literally on the top of the world as she looked out over the cliff onto the crashing, frothing sea. She was guided by winding stone paths and a bobbing trail of students.
On tenterhooks and with butterflies in her belly, Jennifer drummed three times on the door of floor four. Little did Jennifer know that this same door would soon become a symbol for isolation and imprisonment. Seconds later, the door was answered by a tall, broad girl with an untidy cropped shock of blond sandy hair, dressed entirely in boy’s clothing. “Good day! You must be Jennifer. I’m George. NEVER GEORGINA. The rest of the bunch are here already. Welcome to floor 4 old pip.” After a nervous giggle and a tentative and rather awkward elbow-touch handshake, Jennifer smiled and replied “Goodness. How spiffing to meet you!” She stepped into the warm, but strikingly basic threshold.
Sat, at a slight distance to one another in a huddle round a rather shabby dining table, were three other chums. George introduced; Daniel, a short and stocky brunette chap with brown cropped hair, Margo, a stunning, slim girl with auburn hair and a twinkling smile and Daisy, a petite blonde with large, sparkling green eyes and bouncing wavy hair. After hours of bonding over the pandemic and lockdown, their upbringings and their hometowns, the five’s friendship was cemented. “We shall call ourselves the fabulous five!” Margo exclaimed. “This University lark really is a hoor-ah, hey?” Jennifer replied in jest. The five chuckled tremendously. So, the fabulous five thought, let the adventures begin.
The five decided to spend the early evening drinking lashings of beer at the Barmy Professor, one of several of the historic pubs decorating St Mildew’s campus. Posters plastered around the otherwise warm, stony pub read:“Stay safe. Keep your distance. Don’t meet in groups larger than six. Isolate if you become infected or symptomatic, or come into contact with someone who is infected or symptomatic”. When combined with the presence of patrolling campus marshals, plastic distancing screens and a need to register entry to the pub through St Mildew’s Cazoobavirus App, the fabulous five felt slightly unnerved. None-the-less, a spiffing time was had by all. Once 9:30pm hit, the five downed their beer lashings, in order to be out of the pub before the 10pm curfew hit, put in place by the government in a bid to stop the virus from spreading.
“What a first-rate time we’ve had.” Daisy smiled. “Indeed. What are we going to have for tea then, five?” asked Daniel, picking up his keys and wallet from the table. “Ham and turkey sandwiches, bags of lettuce, hard-boiled eggs, heaps of tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer!” Squealed Margo. Mummy packed a picnic.” “Oh wizard”, exclaimed Daniel. They were all excited for this exquisite feast and so they walked out into the crisp October air to wander back to the flat.
“I say, what an exciting time of it.” Jennifer smiled as she waved goodbye to Margo and Daisy who perched on the kitchen counter with a small glass of red wine in each of their hands. George and Daniel had retired to bed shortly after cramming themselves full of portion after portion of turkey sandwiches. George had mentioned she felt she was starting to lose her sense of taste and smell, but all Jennifer could focus on was in spite of this, how much her and Daniel could eat! Little did the fabulous five know of what was in store for them. As Jennifer snuggled up in her quilt like a toasty bug, ignorance was bliss. “Well, St Mildew’s really doesn’t seem all that different in the pandemic” she thought.
The sun rose over the jagged lines of the walls and roofs of St Mildew’s campus, catching the light of the windows of the little matchbox student rooms. In floor four, room two, Jennifer woke with an abrupt start. The first thing she noticed was that her throat was in agony. It felt like she had swallowed razor blades. Readying herself for her first set of virtual lectures, Jennifer couldn’t stop coughing. The cough was persistent and dry. Her temperature felt like it was sky-high and even with the window open, she couldn’t shift the feeling that she was burning up.
At 8:50am, Jennifer nipped into the kitchen to make a quick coffee to get her through a double lecture on Darwin’s Origins of the Species for her English theory class. Daisy was sat, looking sad and overwhelmed at the dining table. “You look like how I feel” muttered Daisy, playing miserably with her untouched bowl of porridge. Jennifer described her symptoms in a panicked flurry. “George and Margo feel the same, their temperatures are through the roof and neither of them can stop coughing. It’s only Daniel who says he feels OK. Lucky blighter,” warbled Daisy in a husky voice.
Jennifer couldn’t get the image of the posters in the Barmy Professor out of her head. “Stay safe. Keep your distance. Don’t meet in groups larger than six. Isolate if you become infected or symptomatic, or come into contact with someone who is infected or symptomatic.” The fabulous five met for an emergency kitchen meeting at 8:55am. They all agreed as four out of their five were suffering with more than one symptom of Cazoobavirus, they should follow the governmental guidelines and isolate for two weeks. So, just like that… isolation began.
Not only were Jennifer and the fabulous five forced to isolate from the outside world entirely, but also from each other. The five were confined to their bedrooms and had to ration food packages sent from St Mildew’s. These packages were delivered by Matron, a particularly frosty and spiky woman, whom Jennifer assumed was in her late fifties, though she was dressed in head-to-toe PPE whenever she knocked on the door. Matron spoke with a condescending tone and always passed on bottles of questionable medicines, ordering the four to take them at intervals. The food parcels cost seven shillings to be delivered and Matron always turned up days late, without warning. To their disgust, the first food package consisted of mouldy bread, milk, dried goods and an assortment of entirely rotten vegetables, not fit for human consumption. Such was the manor of Matron, that none of the five felt brave enough to complain about the quality of their costly food packages.
The five kept up communication through a WhatsApp group, though missed social interaction with each other terribly. Trips to the kitchen were conducted on a rota basis, in a bid to protect Daniel from catching the virus. This felt other-worldly and strange. The fabulous five’s fortnight of fresher’s fun had been cut short. Had Jennifer known that their night at the pub would be their last for the foreseeable future, she would have made her lashings of beer last that little bit longer.
As the days and weeks in isolation rolled on, Jennifer would have given the world to hear dear Papa Archibald and Muma Dotty’s voices in person. The only way Jennifer had been able to speak to her parents was over panicked phone calls and frantic texts. She would happily listen to them bickering away as she was trying to eat her cornflakes. Jennifer’s mouth felt so dry and tasteless, that she couldn’t imagine stomaching even a single cornflake now. Jennifer longed to cuddle dear Jimmy the dog and breathe in his musky scent.
Jennifer found trying to keep up with her studies relentless. Even getting up to visit the bathroom was followed by half an hour of feeling short of breath and entailed disinfecting every surface she had touched. One night, Jennifer could have sworn she heard someone rattling at the door chain of floor flour, screeching “One of you doesn’t have Coronavirus. We’ve come to give it to you!” The screech was supported by squeals of menacing laughter. “What a frightful mess” and “what a perfectly sinister individual!” Jennifer thought, shuddering and unsure if she was asleep or awake as she drifted into the delirium of fever.
As the days dragged on, Jennifer’s room began to feel sinister and unwelcoming, a vessel to harbour her troubled, worried thoughts. The walls of floor four, St. Helen’s seemed to be closing in on Jennifer and the rest of the fabulous five. The walls which had become those of the halls of horror.
Finally, the fabulous five’s quarantine came to an end. The four were no longer symptomatic of the Cazoobavirus as proved by tests sent by the University. Daniel had remained uninfected, astonishingly. The entire experience had been lonely and emotionally traumatic. Jennifer would happily never experience the dreary presence of Matron ever again, even if it had been at a distance!
At last, free to go on jolly jape adventures after what had felt like a lifetime of being locked in horror halls, the fabulous five finally reassembled and headed out to the University grounds. They were wrapped up in coats, gloves, scarves and hats like little multi-coloured marshmallows.
Never had the crisp Autumn air smelt so fresh, thought Jennifer. The fabulous five chatted and ran through the dewy grass like children, feeling more grateful than ever before for the outside world and nature’s beauty. They relished the crisp autumn leaves and their stunning coastal surroundings. As they peeped over the cliff-edge, the menacing waves lashed against the rocks. All the five could see was the sea for miles and miles. “I say, isn’t the fresh air doing the power of good?” Margo called out, her white smile twinkling in the sunlight. “It’s jolly well a dream!” Daniel exclaimed.
One thing was for sure: the last fortnight had been horrendous. Jennifer couldn’t help but feel terrified for the state of the world and of Coroobavirus, it’s menacing hold and endless fevers and delirium still haunted her in her dreams. She feared terribly for all those infected because she knew of their pain. The fabulous five knew they were lucky in some sense, as their cases were mild. They all felt fearfully worried for those with severe cases.
Jennifer also longed to spend Christmas with Mama Dotty, Papa Archibald and dear Jimmy the dog by the fire, toasting chestnuts, stuffing themselves with turkey and heaps of vegetables, foraging for herbs in the allotment and sitting around the grand, sparkling Christmas tree sipping perfectly wizard bucks-fizz. She could picture it as she gazed idly out at sea. It was a distant wish rather than a reality. The government had ordered yesterday, that all University students without considerable mitigations remain at University throughout the Christmas holidays and even on Christmas day. The prospect of a socially distanced Christmas meal in the Barmy Professor wasn’t all that spiffing.
Snapping herself out of the gloomy mood which had overwhelmed her this month, Jennifer engaged in heaps of jolly good fun with the fabulous five to take her mind off things. The bright side of the situation, (for Mama Dotty always encouraged Jennifer to find the silver lining in every cloud), was the fabulous five had formed an unbreakable friendship and they now had each other to depend on. That and many tremendously jolly adventures to look forward to.
“I say old five, isn’t it truly splendid to be free?” exclaimed George, her masculine face beaming. “Quite right, dear chums of mine” Replied Jennifer, a sudden smile plastering itself over her face. Jennifer saw George, Daniel, Daisy and Margo’s faces light up as they grinned back at her. Little did the fabulous five know that this new-found freedom was only the start of the years of super-fun they would come to encounter together.