Queuing… a particularly British habit.
So orderly. So polite. So not Hilary.
Hilary wasn’t one to queue. Not if she could avoid it. She put it down to being half-Austrian. She had neither the time nor the inclination. Would elbow her way to the front of any line of people; knew the best place to stand as the train pulled into the station; would be the first to board a plane; took pride in sneaking past stationary cars as the motorway lanes merged into one and had no problem exaggerating her symptoms to see the doctor quickly. She was happy to admit she was impatient — rude by British standards — but she didn’t have the time to wait politely because she worked to a deadline. Deadlines she only just managed to meet.
Hilary much preferred shopping in the village shop than driving to Banbury. It had everything you needed. It might be more expensive than Lidl but only three people were allowed in at one time. They watched from behind the counter to make sure you disinfected your hands. The pace was slow, but no one was in a hurry. Not now. The queue snaked up the road, but no one minded. Not even Hilary.
One in. One out.
One in. One out.
It was remarkable how much time you could spend thinking about food when there was nothing else to do: the buying, the cooking and eating.
Time… slowed…. right… down.
It made you notice things.
Bill was all about the birds. His new app meant he could distinguish the different songs of the wagtails, thrushes and wrens. He’d swapped his decks for a pair of binoculars. Late nights for early mornings. And Sally was all about sourdough. Sending parcels round the country with post it notes stuck to the floury top of each loaf. Keep Smiling. Clap with me on Thursday. Thinking of you… Touching if a little saccharine. Hilary knew she shouldn’t judge because they both seemed so happy, but it was hard not to. And James was all about the flowers. Posting pictures of lupins and delphiniums with phallic innuendos that he found hilarious. They all found hilarious. All her housemates did except Hilary.
It all seemed so forced. This jollity. How could she be happy when she had no work? No furlough. No pay. No prospect of any work and no particular desire to learn Spanish. She hadn’t liked sewing at school so why should she take it up now? She didn’t want to bake bread, or plant flowers or become an ornithologist. She wanted to lie in the sun with a hat pulled over her eyes and pretend none of this was happening.
Bill and Sally and James were too busy being jolly to notice. Too busy being busy and talking about being busy and then talking about talking about being busy. It was exhausting. That’s why Hilary was happy to volunteer to do the shopping. There was barely a car in the road. It was quiet. She’d walk down the hill past the old fire station, past the empty tennis courts and the closed village hall and then across the tiny triangular patch of grass (they liked to call the village green) towards the shop before patiently plonking herself at the back of the queue. There was a communality that came from standing in an orderly line. It was strangely soothing. People kept their distance. They nodded politely but left you to your own thoughts. It was like being in church without the hymns or sermons and endless standing and sitting. She’d become a convert and was happy to talk about the spiritual benefits of standing in line while the others discussed compost and yeast. It had become her religion.
It was the Parkers she noticed first as she stood quietly. There were four of them, but they only had two first names between them: Thomas and Richard. It was so odd. A stonemason’s misprint perhaps? Two Thomas’s and two Richards in one family. Cousins maybe?
Plastic bag folded beneath her armpit she searched for other families.
Above the Parkers were the Parish’s. Three of them. Brothers, she imagined.
And Five Hermitages. Five. It was an uncommon name round here: Hermitage. She looked down the street at the row of cottages that ran alongside the shop and wondered which one had belonged to them. She imagined the women praying the postman wouldn’t stop in front of their homes as he slowed his bike. The postman with his stack of black framed telegrams. Removing his cap. She imagined him hesitating in front of Mrs Hermitage’s front door before he knocked. Not once or twice or even three times but five. Five times knocking on the same front door.
That morning they’d read out the names on the telly: Dr Habib Zaid. Nurses Rebecca Mack and Thomas Harvey. Sarah Dee Trollope, Mary Agyeiwana Agyapong, Angie Cunningham, Dr Yusaf Patel. Their names read out solemnly, their photos lining the wall behind the presenters. Over 100 NHS workers had now died. They were people, not just numbers.
Each night now as the numbers of those who’d died that day were read, Hilary thought of the others. The Freemans (four). The Bloxhams (three) and the Gardners. She bowed her head when she thought of the Gardners. All six of them. So much unnecessary loss. And now, when she waited outside the shop she’d reach up and place her hands on the War Memorial. Feel its coolness against the heat of the day. The names. The faces. The doctors. The nurses. Fathers. Mothers. Sons and daughters. She remembered them all.
One in. One out. One in. One out.
Victoria Pougatch is a director of Pougatch Alexander, a bespoke ghostwriting and audio memoir agency, who loves writing fiction in her spare time. She lives in Oxfordshire, England.
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