Joyce Butler has been shortlisted twice for the Atlantis Short Story Contest in 2015 & 2017 respectively. One of these stories was published in their inaugural short story anthology 2018/2019. In 2018, she received mentoring on my novel, The Spitfire through a series of Mslexia online workshops from Novelist and Poet, Carolyn Jess Cooke. In 2020, her essay Walking Through Lockdown was published on pendemic.ie along with a follow-up essay Coughing and Covid Tests, also published on the From Whispers to Roars website as part of their Quarantine series.
By Joyce Butler
In the time just before, during what had once been considered normality, Ciara believed in nothing more than checking her bank balance every second Friday to make sure she’d been paid.
Pre-pandemic, life had consisted of a half seven iphone alarm each morning and getting into work before half nine. Then relishing a piece of chocolate with her coffee on the half ten tea break. Her office job of twenty years, had become one long trundling conveyor belt of answering the telephone, typing and polishing the golden handcuffs of midlife.
At first, during the manic March lockdown, she’d felt like she was living the dream. Working from home meant no more trying to beat the flashing car family school run and gave more time to eating a leisurely breakfast of porridge with lemon green tea.
She had been daring too, sitting through a whole work zoom meeting in a white shirt and chewing gum grey pyjama ends. Not that any of her colleagues would’ve noticed, their expressions of progressive unease continuously ignored her telepathic messages of ‘Will you just shut the f**k up and be done please?’
And after a week of wearing her ‘online red’ lipstick, she began to miss properly leaving her rented flat. It wasn’t so much a matter of the walls closing in as clawing at her. The experience of walking to the service station on the corner wasn’t really the same as playing her Far from the Madding Crowd cd in the car on a Monday morning, imagining she was Bathsheba Everdene, quietly cantering over the hills of Dorset in the opening sequence of the film. Or pondering on the absolute filthiness of Alan Bates in a shepherd’s smock. Listening to that haunting flute intro had gotten her through many a desolate week.
And the walk from the carpark over to the office had always made her feel quite glamorous, in her mad men red pencil skirt, knowing if she lived to be one hundred, she would never own anything as beautiful as the terrace of Edwardian Townhouses opposite, guiding her on her way.
Lockdown also opened her mind to the condiments of what kept her above the dotted line of self-pity. Deciding what clothes to put on every day for work had made her a success at nothing in particular, other than surviving. But now, her daily land of make believe was gone away and there was nothing to replace it with.
She was starting to get spots again too, from what had seemed like a brainwave of jostling the whole day and night beauty routine into one five minute frenzy of cleanse, cloth polish then bed.
And what exactly was lounge wear? Changing your pyjamas more than once a month? Her life had been pretty pathetic pre-pandemic, but it’s the current mode of non-existence, painfully presented itself to her, whilst pulling some peri-menopausal chin hairs out with tweezers.
At work she had felt subliminally important, with a purpose of repeatedly gazing out her office window, watching colleagues to-ing and fro-ing from the building opposite, along with a middle aged man who changed his coat every time he walked around the block. And nothing chipped away at the soul quite like the sound of clipping keys on a keyboard. But a month of remote clipping was shrinking hers faster than a boil wash.
Yet within weeks all her colleagues seemed to adjust to ‘remote working’. She’d never seen so many cyber space smiles and genuine conviviality, like a Brady Bunch tic tac toe grid.
Weekends were not really week ends anymore either. Now she was no longer sure where Tuesday followed Monday. There was no eluding herself that her past life, small and insignificant as it had been, was at least a way of living. Now her life was reduced down to nothing more than a keyboard and a dongle. It didn’t matter how she looked, how many spots she had or what she wore on Zoom. She, along with everyone else had been lessened to the size of a selfie, with only a minute beep in the vastness of space connecting them.
And as lockdown continued to wear itself inwards, she wondered would the world ever be free to enjoy the little things again. Like the upward curl she felt at the corners of her mouth, pressing ‘play’ on the cd player in her car. Or inhaling the crispness of morning, pounding up work stairs and hanging her coat in an office with a view through large windows, to a world she had once been a part of. Then silently, letting them all know with her red lips parted and sparkly cardigan pressed, that she was there, and she was one of them.