This should have been our best Christmas yet. But it all comes unravelled with the prick of a needle.
Jake has become so blasé about these finger prick tests that he doesn’t even notice the message when it first pings onto his healthcard: Status: not suitable for work. I’ve been faking mine for years, putting a spot of water mixed with a ground-up vitamin tablet into the little machine each morning. Ever since I had the girls, my iron levels rise and plummet in a way that would get me kicked out of work, too.
“It was fine yesterday!” he insists, and I raise my eyebrows. As if daily good health for 36 years means it will continue indefinitely.
“Is Daddy poorly?” Willow asks.
“No,” I say, “You can see he’s fine. He just needs to stay home.”
“So you get to play with us?” Delight shines in her face. School’s broken up for Christmas, and I’m on annual leave. Maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. A bit of extra family time. We certainly need it.
I eye him up and down. He doesn’t look ill. I remind myself what a blessing it is to live in a world where tip-top health is the priority of every employer.
Jake’s healthcard bleeps again and displays the message: Category: infectious. Authorities notified.
The knock on the door comes swiftly. It’s the building manager, in a hazmat suit, informing us to vacate within 30 minutes and not to return to the building until we are declared safe for human contact.
But I’ve never heard of a reversal of infectious status.
Healthsites do not allow infectious individuals across their thresholds. I’ve always been thankful for that… until today.
I make protests that sound feeble, even to me, towards his already retreating back. 24 minutes later, the four of us stand outside our block of flats, suitcases packed with clothes and Christmas presents, wondering where to go. Every time another human comes within three metres of us, our healthcards wail.
I have never felt like less of a person, seeing myself through the eyes of these strangers.
We shiver in our coats and boots and start walking. We head away from people. Before long the healthcard warnings become more intermittent, and eventually stop, as we approach some woodlands.
In any other situation, this would be a beautiful walk. The thick, white clouds and berry-laden holly bushes look like something from a Christmas GIF. But dragging these cases over roots is no easy task. The girls start complaining.
After a while of tripping and trudging, a house breaks into our view, its roof nestled between treetops like a fat bird perched on a nest. We up our pace and head for it, hurrying each time it drops out of view.
Jake and I exchange glances every now and then. At the first ping from our healthcards we will have to turn and head in another direction… for how long? I’m reminded of that very first Christmas, a story I haven’t thought of for years, of that tired couple with no place to go. At least I’m not about to give birth.
But those pings never come, even as we drag ourselves up the extensive driveaway of the grand manor. It takes my breath away. Houses aren’t built like this anymore.
Jake bangs on the door as snow starts to fall. It’s not like we’re expecting an answer. We know nobody is in there. Nobody alive, at least. If our silent healthcards hadn’t convinced us of that, the broken windows and weeds growing out from cracks in the walls do. The door is ajar, with the key in the lock, on the inside. Whoever last left had done so in a hurry.
Flocked wallpaper covers the walls, behind huge, filled bookcases. Candelabras hang from high ceilings, once filled with candles, but electric now… useless with no power supply.
“Why are there so many rooms?” Willow asks.
“People liked to spread out more, in the olden days.” I reply, feeling keenly how far we, now, are spread from the rest of civilisation.
Everything is covered with a layer of dust that mimics the gradually settling snow outside. The pantry is stocked with tinned food and bottled water — more than even a large family could get through in a year. The bathrooms are piled with swabs and lateral flow devices, the type my parents’ generation used when pandemics were prevalent, when infections were common, but a person wasn’t removed from society because of one.
Jake finds a saw and drags in a large spruce. He builds a fire and the girls build a den for us out of mattresses and feather duvets. We cook a tinned feast over the flames.
Jake arranges branches everywhere. The girls bring down a large jewellery case and drape finery on every branch. As the fire flickers everything sparkles with what must be priceless heirlooms.
The days pass faster than I’d have thought, in a haze of charades, stories and cuddles. Our phones are long dead, and I don’t miss them. On Christmas day we swap the presents we’ve brought and sing songs, eat double portions of tinned food. It’s simple and beautiful, everything lit by the glow of the fire and the dancing diamond light.
Maybe, after a while, we could get used to living like this. Jake could learn to hunt. The girls have each other. Do we really need to be part of society? Would we miss everyone that much?
In the early hours of Boxing Day morning, Jake’s healthcard, which has been biocharging under his pyjama top, pings again, waking the two of us up. We peer at it together and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the message: Apologies for the data error. Status: suitable for work. Category: not infectious. Authorities notified.
Katie Holloway is a UEA Creative Writing graduate who has had a diverse career, from editing niche craft magazines, to running activities for those with dementia. Her writing is fueled by strong tea and snatches of alone time. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, gardening, making preserves, or doing the school run. She lives in the south of England, and in 2022 was awarded a DYCP grant from the Arts Council England. She tweets @KatieLHWrites.