The last time my wife Anna showed me two lines on a test, I felt on top of the world. Elated. Exhilarated. But now? A sense of dread filled me. This was not a pregnancy test.
Far from it. The opposite, in fact. Positive. COVID positive.
My test was negative. Anna assured me that things would be fine. Except, they weren’t. Not in the least. She was the glue that bound our family together. With her out of action, things were bound to go wrong. As if they weren’t messy already. My daughter June, and I weren’t even on talking terms.
The reason? Matters of the heart. What else?
June insisted that I meet and approve of her boyfriend. She had met him on an exchange program in Europe. I sent her to exchange knowledge, and she ended up exchanging her heart, instead.
Youngsters, these days. How typical.
I made my displeasure known. Reminded her she was only twenty-three. She sulked. Threw a tantrum. A massive one. In the end, they broke up, and June retreated into a shell, fuming and furious. I refused to relent. My only daughter dallying around with a jobless chef. Not happening! Over my dead body.
I helped Anna settle in her room, where she would quarantine until the virus left her body. Luckily, we had a two-storeyed house. I’d stay on the ground floor, along with Martha, our housekeeper. Anna would stay upstairs. June had a room on the same floor. Her anger had driven her to self-quarantine herself even before there was a need to.
I wiped the sweat off my silvery brows. Things would settle down.
“Martha, please make soup for dinner. Also, bake cookies. Anna loves them.”
“Yes, Sir. Poor Ma’am! She will be up and about in no time.”
I had to get back to work. Loads to catch up on. The library had lent me historical manuscripts for my research work. My academic paper would not write itself.
“Sir, did you mount the COVID tracker to the gate?”
“Gosh! No! Thanks for the reminder, Martha!”
According to Government guidelines, any house with a COVID patient had to put up a tracker. Once the tracker was fixed, no one could enter the house, not until the person tested negative.
I replaced the batteries in the tracker. It was eight in the evening, and quite dark. I set off to the gate, passing our garden en route. I installed the device on our gate. It beeped a bright red; a shiny beacon in the darkness warning people to stay away.
My job done, I returned, admiring the roses that Anna had lovingly planted. That’s when I heard it. Footsteps shuffling. Gentle rustling. From the bushes.
A trespasser? An animal? A thief?
I flashed my mobile’s torch directly at the bushes. A silhouette was visible.
“Anyone there? Come out or I’ll shoot!”
Who was I kidding? Shoot? With what?
It was an empty threat, but it worked. Out emerged a sheepish-looking man. My eyesight was not what it used to be, but I’d estimate his age to be around twenty-five. Or twenty-six. Thereabout.
“I’m sorry. I’m Bill. I’m here for my Aunt Edith’s seventieth birthday….”
“Were you searching for Aunt Edith in the bushes?”
That’s when I heard another movement.
Was my garden infested with intruders? How ludicrous! Simply Absurd.
A woman in her mid-thirties stepped out, startling both of us. She was holding an intricate vase.
“Hi, I’m Lindsay. I’m heading towards Edith’s place for her seventieth. In the dark, every house looks the same. Is this 73, Hargrove Lane?”
I didn’t know anyone called Edith. But then, I never socialized.
“This is 13, Hargrove Lane.”
“Oh! Sorry! Wrong house! I’ll leave.”
I stared incredulously.
“Both of you are going to the same party. Do you know each other?”
“I’m Bill, Edith’s nephew.”
“My mother was Edith’s friend. Sorry, I don’t know Bill,” apologized Lindsay, as she made her way to the gate.
I stopped her. If she tried opening the gate, the tracker would beep uncontrollably. The police would then be alerted to check if we had violated the infectious diseases act.
“Wait! You can’t leave. Biohazard Alert. My wife is down with COVID.”
“Oh no! This tracker wasn’t here when I entered.”
“I just put it up. You’re in the red zone now. To leave, you need an authorized COVID test administered by Government officials.”
“OK. Let’s call help.”
Lindsay dialled the helpline, keeping her phone on speaker.
You have reached the Public Health Department. We are closed for the day. Our operating hours are between 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
I was stuck with two trespassers on my property for a full night. I shook my head in frustration.
Why, Universe, why?
“Can we go inside? It’s cold out here,” stammered Bill.
I frowned at him, not knowing what to do. In the end, empathy won me over.
My compassion would be the death of me. No doubt.
“OK, come in. But first, show me your IDs please.”
Lindsay readily handed over hers.
Bill looked blank. “I left mine at home.”
I grimaced. What should I do? Trust him? Or not?
Ultimately, I permitted both into my home.
Eleven more hours. I could do this. Right?
While Martha helped my uninvited guests settle down, I called my friend, Inspector Simon. He comforted me.
“Hang in there, old chap. The trespassers are probably harmless. As long as they aren’t armed, just keep an eye on them. I can’t do much in a biohazard zone.”
We exchanged pleasantries. I hung up.
I took a closer look at my guests. Lindsay had red hair and was quite good-looking. Bill had an aura of nervousness about him.
Lindsay exclaimed, “You have such a beautiful home! Your wife sure pays attention to detail. Oh! Is that your daughter?”
She gushed over a photo of the three of us. Me looking dapper, with my thick silver hair, Anna resplendent as ever, and June, sandwiched between us, her eyes twinkling.
Good old times.
Martha set up the table, laying extra plates. “Oh Sir, I forgot to bake the cookies!”
“I can help!” volunteered Bill.
I cocked a brow.
The kitchen was where we stocked knives. And other sharp objects. Dangerous ones. Oh no!
I rushed behind Bill, with a chopping board as a shield. Just in case.
My fears proved unfounded. Bill busied himself with the cookie batter. Convinced that he would do no harm, I returned to Lindsay.
“Where is your daughter?” she persisted.
“Upstairs. She’ll come down later. Lindsay, do you live around here?”
“No. I’m from downtown. I’m visiting Edith, since my mother wished me to. She wanted to pass a family vase onto her, something she couldn’t do herself because she fell sick. Mother passed away recently.”
“Oh! I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. I regret not being close to her when she was around. I guess this is my way of making amends.”
Lindsay’s sombre confession made me introspect.
Was I being too harsh on June? But I was her father. I wanted the best for her. My little girl. My doll.
“I’ve loaded the cookies into the oven!” Bill announced.
“What do you do, Bill?” I inquired.
“I’m currently in between jobs.”
I shook my head. In my time, things were simpler. Much simpler.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from the North. It’s my first time in these parts, visiting my Aunt Edith.”
Martha served the soup.
“I’m going upstairs to serve Ma’am and Miss June their dinner.”
“Let me help you!” Bill volunteered.
“No!” I roared.
“This is not a bloody homestay. It’s a biohazard zone. The dangerous kind. Stay put!”
Subdued, Bill sat down abruptly. Martha headed upstairs. We took our seats at the dining table, slurping soup. Lindsay chatted with me.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a history professor.”
“That’s fascinating! History was one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember the chapter on how Rome burned….”
Burning. A pungent odour. Fumes.
“The oven!” Lindsay and I screamed together, while Bill still looked blank.
“How can you not smell that?” I admonished Bill.
We rushed into the kitchen; our eyes watering due to the fumes. Bill was apologetic as he pulled out the cookies, now burnt.
“I’ll make another batch.”
Hadn’t he done sufficient damage? Enough! No more!
“I’ve messaged Edith that we can visit her only tomorrow!” Lindsay’s chirpy voice cut through the tension.
“Who is ‘we’?” asked Bill.
“You and me, dearie.”
“Oh really! That’s strange because….”
Whatever Bill was about to say was drowned by the sound of the doorbell.
The doorbell? Who was it now? Wasn’t the half-crazed pandemic tracker warning enough, to stay away?
I pinched the bridge of my nose to ensure my mask was tight. I probably looked like black thunder. Whoever was on the other side of the door, ought to be scared. Very scared.
I was intercepted by Martha who returned with the food trays.
“Let me get it, Sir.”
She scurried to open the door and retuned a minute later.
“It’s a Mr. Ray. He is here for Edith.”
What was going on? Why did everyone land up at my door seeking Edith?
My newest intruder was a youngish man in his early twenties, with a mop of jet-black hair and an inherent air of awkwardness, looking vaguely familiar.
“Did you not see the tracker? How did you get in?” I demanded.
“Side-gate, Sir. I’m so sorry. I think I’m at the wrong house.”
The man could ‘think’ too. Miraculous!
Ray ran his hand through his hair, nervously.
“Mrs. Edith hired me to help out at her seventieth.”
Good Lord! This was a circus. One hundred percent.
I asked Martha to secure the side-gate. It had been my mistake.
Anna. I missed Anna. My sweet Anna. She could handle all this and more.
If I ever met Edith, I’d give that woman a piece of my mind. She owed me one.
“I need to use the restroom!” cried Bill.
“Down the hallway. Right side.”
Lindsay warmed up to Ray, as he devoured the soup Martha served him. The clock struck ten.
Only two hours had elapsed. It felt longer. Infinitely longer.
“Ray, where are you from?”
Thud! Boom! Crash!
I raced towards the restroom. It was unlocked and empty. Looking out of the window, I saw Bill in a crumpled heap. Judging by his groans, I assessed that he was injured. But only mildly so.
Was he trying to escape? Why?
Ray helped bring Bill back in. He hobbled.
“Err. I thought I saw a light in the bushes. I leaned, lost my balance, and fell down.”
Gobbledygook! Daylight couldn’t come soon enough.
I heard footsteps and someone descending the stairs. June!
“Daddy, what’s all this ruckus?”
She stopped in her tracks, startled.
She regained her composure.
“Didn’t know we were having a party!”
“Aunt Edith is having one, not us. We are just incidental.”
“Let’s make the most of the evening!” suggested Lindsay cheerfully.
I looked at June’s face. It had transformed. Hopeful. Chirpy. Glowing. Young people loved company. I could do this for her.
“OK. Why not?”
“Great! Shall we play games? We’ve not had game night in a while!”
We huddled in the hall. Lindsay next to me. Bill on the armchair. Ray and June, on the couch.
“Let’s play Dumb Charades!”
The session turned out to be educational. Who knew that ‘the revenge of the killer tomatoes’ was an actual movie? I also learned that ‘Fifty shades of grey’ wasn’t a paint catalogue.
June and Ray made a good team, emerging as the eventual winners. Bill redeemed himself by making a second batch of cookies that were delectable. Lindsay’s jokes cracked everyone up.
The clock struck twelve. I yawned. Bedtime.
“Bill and Ray, you can crash on the couch. Lindsay, what about you?”
“I can sleep on the armchair.”
“Good night, Daddy!” June kissed me on the cheek.
We could make amends. Become friends, again. Perhaps.
I woke up at 6:00 AM, the next morning. I wanted to catch up on my work. Hopefully, in the next 1-2 hours, the health department guys would be here, test us, and give us all a clean chit. And finally, my guests could leave for their Aunt Edith’s. High Time. Long Overdue.
Martha was already up and about. She handed me a cup of hot coffee. I booted my computer, whistling a tune. Today I’d have a frank chat with June. If that boy meant so much to her, I might agree to meet him. Anything to get my little girl to smile. Even if it meant cavorting with the devil. Urgh!
I video-called Anna, to check if she slept well. She was already aware that we had guests.
“You have company while I recuperate. Consider it a godsend. I even heard June whistling happily.”
A thought occurred.
“Anna honey, do you know an Edith?”
“Not on this lane. Perhaps, she moved in recently?”
On an impulse, I googled Edith, 73, Hargrove Lane.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch. How strange!
I opened my drawer to review my manuscripts. An empty space stared back at me.
I was flabbergasted. Shattered.
Why didn’t I keep my manuscripts under lock and key? In my defence, I hadn’t anticipated company.
The manuscripts were very valuable. It would cost me my life savings to repay the library. More importantly, I didn’t want these priceless relics to fall into the wrong hands. After all, the reader does not steal, and the thief does not read. *
I ran through the events of the previous night. A feeling of unease overwhelmed me. Strangers had overrun my home like locusts.
The culprit? One of Bill, Lindsay, or Ray. Or all three?
The manuscripts had be recovered at any cost. Pronto. Post-haste.
Martha served coffee. June arrived, looking radiant.
“Good morning, Daddy! I checked on Mummy, and she is feeling much better.”
I addressed the trio of guests.
“Hullo everybody! I have called the Public Health Helpline. They will be here in an hour to carry out the tests. If you test negative, you may leave the house. If positive, you will be transported to a quarantine facility. Since we have an hour to kill, shall we play one more game?”
They stared at me curiously.
“Ray! Bill! Lindsay! On the count of three. Please answer together. What did we have for dessert yesterday?”
“Cookies!” they exclaimed in unison.
After two or three innocuous questions, they relaxed, and let down their guard. I went in for the kill.
“What’s Edith’s surname?”
“White.” “Thomas.” “Braverman.”
One person. Three different surnames? No one knew her! Liars! Imposters!
“I don’t need to know your backstory or why you are here. One of you took my valuable manuscript. Who is going to confess?”
“This is insulting!” exclaimed Lindsay.
Bill voiced similar sentiments. Ray hung his head. Guilt?
“My friend, Inspector Simon will be here soon, and all of you will go to jail. “
Martha dropped her tray with a clang.
“Please don’t, Sir. Ray is innocent.”
“How do you know that?”
“He’s my son, Sir!”
What? Eu Tu, Martha?
“Ray fell into wrong company. He was sent to jail for petty theft. He was released last week. My boy has changed, Sir. I invited him over. Ma’am has such a kind heart; I hoped to convince her to give him a job. The tracker went up unexpectedly before I could warn Ray not to come. I thought he wouldn’t enter. But he jumped over the side-gate, and got in.”
Ray added emphatically, “I didn’t steal any manuscript.”
Which thief admitted they stole, anyway?
“Mama referenced her name. I went with the flow,” Ray added sullenly.
Of course, he did. How convenient. I cast a quizzical glance at Martha.
“I heard the others discussing Edith and her seventieth with you. In the spur of the moment, I blurted the same, hoping you would let Ray stay. And you did.”
Good God. What a scam! The worst.
I didn’t expect Martha to betray me. Oh well. Motherhood and all that jazz.
Assuming this cock-and-bull story was true, I was left with Bill and Lindsay.
“Surely you don’t suspect me?” demanded Lindsay.
“You can check my bag!”
“Actually, I think I will.”
In Lindsay’s handbag, I found keys, cash, makeup, and a lighter…but no manuscript. I checked Bill’s wallet. Out of it tumbled his ID card, the one he claimed to have ‘left’ behind.
William Traynor. What? That name…
“Daddy, I can explain….” cried June suddenly.
I had forgotten she was here. It hit me. Like lightning.
William. Bill. June’s boyfriend. The good-for-nothing-unemployed-chef. HIM.
Bill spoke up.
“June ignored my calls and blocked me. I flew down here to meet her and convince you.”
This was him trying to win me over? What would he do when he wasn’t trying?
“I love June. My intentions are honest. I’m an up-and-coming chef. Unfortunately, when I caught COVID, I lost my sense of smell, and consequently, my job.”
Ah! The burned cookies. Anosmia. **
“When I reached here, I didn’t know how to meet June. I heard footsteps and watched you mount the tracker. When you caught me, I blurted out my Aunt Edith’s name. Between, she lives in Uganda.”
“Fascinating,” I intonated sarcastically.
“Once indoors, you didn’t let me upstairs. I tried to climb the pipe outside the restroom window to get to June but slipped.”
“Poor baby!” cooed June.
“Lindsay! How do you know Edith?”
“I heard Bill mentioning Edith, I repeated it.”
Bill chimed in. “I was astonished when I heard Lindsay say Aunt Edith’s name. I couldn’t contradict her, to avoid my cover being blown. So, I went along.”
The guilty safeguarding the guilty.
“Lindsay, why were you here?’
“I’ll confess. I’m broke. I saw a lovely rose garden here, and I wanted to fill my vase with roses to present to a friend for her wedding. That’s why I sneaked in. I’m really sorry. And I’m clueless about your manuscript.”
“Trespassing and plucking flowers without permission is a crime!”
“I was only thinking of a rose or two. Sorry!”
Or three. Or four. Or a bunch?
My temples throbbed. Each explanation sounded preposterous. Ridiculous. Laughable.
Like the innovative answers of my clueless students.
My question: Explain how the pyramids were constructed.
Their answers: Contractors? Aliens? Obelix? ***
My eyes fell on the heirloom vase that Lindsay had brought along. She had kept it on the mantlepiece. On an impulse, I peeked into it. It seemed hollow. My fingers caressed the bottom. It felt uneven. I applied a bit of pressure; it slid back, revealing a compartment. Out if it fell, my manuscript!
Tada! Relief. Jubilation.
Lindsay’s face transformed from cordial to menacing in a split second. She grabbed the knife kept on the table.
Simon was right. Sharp objects must be kept away from strange people. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing, isn’t it?
Lindsay lunged at June, the knife at her neck.
“Give me the manuscript, and no one gets hurt.”
My heart skipped a beat. My baby, June!
Lindsay fell to the ground, clutching her head. Bill had taken one of my award plaques from the mantelpiece and coshed her with it.
June was now in Bill’s arms, her eyes brimming with adulation.
Sweetly sickening? Sickeningly sweet? Sigh.
Inspector Simon arrested Lindsay.
She had a prior criminal record for orchestrating other local robberies. No one suspected her on account of her easy-going manner.
Her original intention was to steal roses but had inadvertently gotten invited into the house. She spotted the manuscripts in my office while looking for things to steal. She didn’t know their worth then but assumed she could resell them.
Thank God, I exposed her.
God and Aunt Edith.
Anna recovered fully.
I hired Ray as my driver, also enrolling him in evening classes at my university. After graduation, he would have better opportunities. Martha was thrilled.
Bill’s sense of smell came back gradually. Having gotten to know him better, my opinion of him did change. He resumed work as a chef. He told me that one day he hoped to start his own restaurant. I considered investing in it too.
Happy Bill. Happy June. Happy Me. Right?
June was delighted with these developments. She apologized for her behaviour, and I forgave her. Which father stayed angry with their little girl for long?
Last Sunday, Anna and I were out for a walk. We saw a mover’s truck, followed by a car. An elderly woman alighted out of the car. A new tenant. A potential neighbour.
My wife yelled, “Welcome to Hargrove Lane! I’m Anna. What’s your name?”
The Universe did have a strange sense of humour.
**Loss of smell
***Obelix from the comic series- Asterix
This is a work of fiction. I don’t think any Government is draconian enough (yet) to install COVID trackers in homes. This practice is not different from the olden ages, when red or black crosses were painted on doors to mark a house afflicted with the black plague.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!