All of life before seemed like a fairy tale now. Days when she could go to movies, see friends and linger over Sunday lunches, spend evenings at gigs before Ubering home, fly away with Matthew and have a weekend in a remote Airbnb.
Because Matthew worked in the hospital, he had to be particularly careful. He couldn’t risk infecting his wife and child. He didn’t want to risk infecting Phoebe. They had separate bedrooms anyway, he and Zara, he’d said. She at one end of the house, him at the other. Since the baby was born, she’d lost interest in sex. Phoebe supposed most men having affairs said that about their wives.
Phoebe decided it was time for a toast. She’d put her book on ice, after all. An advance copy that had arrived yesterday, while thousands more brooded in the warehouse waiting for their big day. The publisher and the publicist had Zoom-called and assured her that spring next year her book would be launched. Yes, the marketing budget would be reduced and the market would be a little crowded given all the other delayed books, but its time would come. Phoebe was still their newest star and her story, well, the media was going to love it. Phoebe had felt rather sick at this. But the publicist had assured her that very few writers had such a good hook. The crime fiction writer with the murdered sister.
What they didn’t discuss was that the book industry might be dead by then, and pre-pandemic art out of date. In a year we might discover that no one had been reading anything in captivity. They’d been watching TikTok and making babies.
She heard her phone ping. Her cooking friends had started a group called Lockdown Love where they posted silly, funny, and — worst of all — inspiring messages to cheer each other up. This one was a link to an article encouraging people to toss away their old consuming selves and invent something new that would work for everyone beyond this.
A noise welled up in Phoebe, an inhuman thing, a banshee wail of loss and frustration, as if it had been waiting years to erupt. I want my life back, she wanted to rage at someone. I want to buy cheap clothing online. I know it’s made in some sweatshop that tortures women and small children. I want to eat strawberries from California any month of the year.
I want to buy roses from Ecuador and I don’t care about the flight miles and the fucking carbon footprint. I was born to consume. If I don’t consume, my existential loneliness will get completely out of control and I will realise that I’m a flea in a population of eight billion fleas sucking on the host and turning it anaemic. I’ll realise I’m going to die. I’ll die and be forgotten and this bloody planet with its mountains, rivers, sunrises and sunsets will go on forever. Nothing here will miss me. In fact, it would be better off without me.
Phoebe popped the cork and watched the prosecco froth in the glass. She slid open the freezer drawer and saw that already the bag holding the book was frosting over. She tapped her drink on the edge of it.
‘Cheers, book,’ she said. ‘Cheers 2020. Cheers to nature. Rocking it, baby. Starry skies in Beijing. Deer wandering the streets of Japan. Goats in Wales staring at all the people behind glass. Humans? Well, we humans are not doing so well. A few months back Trump was going to bomb Iran just to arc things up in the Middle East before the election in November. Now he’s inciting revolution. Weinstein’s in jail and it only took 78 women to get him there. Australia was on fire for months. We almost wiped out the koalas. The platypus is on its way to extinction, too. There’s weird sea warming near New Zealand, and the kelp forests around Tasmania are dead. The Barrier Reef is bleached beyond recognition. Plans for a giant coal mine, and a copper one, too — that’s going to improve things for sure. Our oxygen cylinder, the Amazon, is in the red while the government of Brazil has taken to shooting anyone opposed to deforestation. A 16-year old is our world’s visionary and our favourite politician is a smiley, sensible woman from New Zealand. So cheers to the pangolins who sent a virus to save us. Cheers pangolins. Or bats. Or industrial farming. Whatever it was that brought 2020 to its knees. But I want my life back now. Ok? I promise to be better. I think I promise. It’s hard to tell.’
She thought of the last time she had touched Matthew. They’d gone away for a weekend, him supposedly at a conference. They’d walked a remote beach and spent hours in the outdoor bath reading to one another. Then the stay-at-home order was announced.
‘I miss you,’ he’d said. ‘I miss you already.’
In that moment, even without the nasty voice weighing in, she’d known that Matthew was not going to be the man sitting on some verandah with her when they were very old. Not the man who’d make her laugh until their false teeth fell out. But she hadn’t been brave enough to end it. It was too easy, too decadent, this relationship with no commitment and luxurious perks.
Her phone pinged again. She picked it up and read the Lockdown Love message. It said: There is evidence that trees communicate over great expanses, sending nourishment, messages and support. And they do all this grounded in place, unable to speak, reach or move around. We are like that right now, separate, unable to touch, yet deeply connected and sharing our love over these distances…
Phoebe sat on the kitchen stool and watched the clouds rolling across the sky. She let the prosecco languish. She knew that what she was contemplating was an aberration, but dark times called for drastic measures. It was a sort of sacrilege, possibly. But then so was putting a book in the freezer, she supposed.
Towards evening, she pulled a fresh lasagne from the oven. While it had baked, she’d cleaned up the kitchen and changed the sheets. Then she’d showered and put on jeans, a hoodie, socks and shoes. She hadn’t worn shoes or driven anywhere in a week, and it felt good. Within the hour, each of Phoebe’s friends had received a takeaway container labelled Lockdown Lasagne.
* * *
Twelve months later, Matthew was long gone and her face was across all the arts media. Phoebe’s friends threw her a dinner party. Lockdown Lasagne was the celebratory dish. Its secret? The addition of peas — not in the meat sauce, but in the cheesy sauce, which somehow made it a hit.
Heather Rose is the author of eight novels. Her latest novel is the bestselling political thriller Bruny. Her novel The Museum of Modern Love won the Stella Prize and the Christina Stead Prize.
This story first appeared in SL magazine, Winter 2020.