She’d never paid attention to drug stories. Not that she knew many people who told them, certainly not these days. But in the eighties she’d known a few of what her mother called ‘druggy types’ (the kind her mother was convinced had AIDS) and she’d zoned out when they spoke of these experiences. Probably she would’ve said this was because other people’s trips, like other people’s dreams, were not at all interesting. Now, three weeks in to lockdown, Malina’s sixty-eighth birthday, she wonders if this is true or whether she’d secretly been afraid of listening.
It is too late, this realisation. She has little sense of what to expect but she’s already extracted one bluish mushroom cap, crumbled it into the glass as instructed, poured hot water over it, drunk at least half, and positioned herself on the sofa. She feels good following instructions at least.
A text arrives. Sarah Klein.
Happy birthday Malina
Maybe because the text addresses her by name without exclamation, or without addressing the crisis they all face, or because she has spent so long in the flat on her own fearing human contact even from innocent-looking children in the building, but Malina receives it as a rebuke. Sarah makes a point of remembering birthdays, including other peoples’ kids, which Malina forgets even when there is no pandemic. Then again, she is technically on drugs. Maybe this is paranoid thinking.
A memory: the first time she saw people share a joint, when she was told that the way she was staring at someone (the man she later married) made him feel uncomfortable. Her eyes, she knows, tend to bulge. She has had her thyroid checked. It’s fine.
The elastic speed with which she is plunged into that moment with her ex-husband and then removed from it, like one of those awful rides, is sickening. She is returned to the empty flat and the present day with nausea, and then another strange feeling. Breathlessness. It rises like a bruise over her ribs. The elegiac kind of pain her own youth hardly merits. Or is that the onset of a symptom? She curses Sarah for intruding on what the young man, when he delivered the jar and politely retreated while she paid, had unironically called her ‘safe place’.
‘Shelter in place,’ he’d crooned in his jarringly American voice as she tapped her card to his reader, already part of his patter, ‘was the perfect time to trip’.
Sarah was the mother of Paul, who had been a friend of Malina’s son. The boys were no longer friends, but Sarah continued to send these threatening messages. In quarantine she had ramped them up, sending what must be round robins like:
What do you need?
If Malina doesn’t answer, she simply sends the same terse message again.
What do you need?
The answer is: nothing that Sarah could now give. She runs an independent bookshop where Malina had recently tried to get a job.
Malina’s heart sinks further as she catches sight of their last exchange, before all this. She rereads the speech she had composed. Words agonised over for several days. Sarah’s response was brief. A lot shorter than Malina’s text that now seems excruciatingly verbose.
No vacancies at the moment but would be happy to have a chat as, in her experience, people tend to glamorise working in bookshops.
Malina feels the same surge of rage as when these words first appeared. She’d intended to flatter Sarah, who boasted about her reading habits and her bookshop and her life spent serving the community. Malina couldn’t very well have made her proposal by saying she knew it was a boring job.
When the rage subsides she is left with nostalgia again. The exchange only happened at the beginning of March and already that is a lifetime ago. A time of petty rivalries. Of needs that had seemed sharp but which are now soft. How rendable civilisation is.
Malina had wanted to present herself to Sarah as a retired woman looking to be of use, to do something for the community – albeit paid. The truth was she needed money and had just about had it with other people. She was limited in choice by her sparse CV and advancing age, but also by the panopticon of women like Sarah in her life who would be sure to observe her stacking supermarket shelves. Working in a bookshop would invite less comment.
How long had it been? Not more than twenty minutes. Since the mushroom. Twenty-one days since the country had been stopped.
It was hard to tell if she was feeling anything. She tended toward existential angst on birthdays anyway. Misanthropy too, and it was especially difficult not to view people as carriers of disease right now. After the divorce she’d organised a big birthday party only to cancel the whole thing at short notice without explanation. The explanation was that she’d realised she loathed every person on her list. Likely they too had only accepted the invitation in order to revel in her humiliation. To feel their own marriages redeemed by it.
This is not, presumably, the best mindset for psychedelics. She messages the young man again.
How will I know if it’s working?
He comes back immediately with
(How did they type so fast?)
She does not want to tell him she can’t open links on her ‘dumbphone’, as her son and his children call it. She goes to power up the computer. Malina stopped paying for her broadband several weeks ago but her upstairs neighbour once used her machine to send an email, after he’d locked himself out while getting his nightly takeaway. Malina still has access to VM64 ENVY, which is now, in her mind, his name.
It was better this way. It stopped her looking up symptoms and awful news reports at every waking moment. She scrolls down, reaching the section on ‘trip-sitters’. Just as she begins to question her decision to embark on her ‘journey’ alone, someone taps on the front door. Malina freezes. She looks down at her hand, curved around the mouse on the mouse pad with the picture of her son jumping into a lake. The lake where he contracted the parasite, though of course he didn’t know that then, suspended above the darker blue, forever falling from the safe, light blue of the sky.
Had it always looked so old, her hand, or was this it – the start? She blinks and stares harder at the skin now thickening over the bones like bark. Her hands were dry from all the soap. Maybe she was losing it. But she had needed this – to escape her own mind. The pressure on her thoughts.
The sound comes again but louder. However vulnerable she might feel conducting this escape alone, it was surely worse to have an unexpected visitor.
Cautiously, Malina tiptoes toward the door and puts her eye to the spy hole. The painted wood is cold against her cheek. VM64 ENVY is visible.
‘Malina?’ her neighbours voice comes in, disconnected from his head. ‘It’s Sean.’
She holds her breath. Hears her heart thudding like a ball in a far-off court.
‘Hey Malina. Just wanted to ask if you were using my Wi-Fi. It’s no problem – just wanted to check it was you.’
Malina hesitates then opens the door. Sean takes two steps back until his shoulders touch the opposite wall.
‘Hi,’ he says. ‘Sorry to bother. How are you?’
‘Oh, no – I didn’t realise –’
‘No, no, that’s OK. I have an app that pings me when someone connects. It’s been doing it a lot the last few weeks and I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t someone I didn’t know.’
She nods uncertainly, then says,
‘I’ve heard there are lots of scammers taking advantage of the panic.’
Sean is hard to pinpoint in terms of age. He is a widower, that she knows. In civilian life he did something in IT maybe. His face is kind. He wears a grey fleece. Is not, she notices, wearing shoes.
She had been about to apologise and close the door but he folds his arms and leans against the wall as if he wants to chat.
‘So how’s things with you? Have you got everything you need?’
She can’t think of a response so she smiles, wondering if she seems guilty. Their interactions are usually confined to passing each other on the stairs or on the front path that leads up to the main door. Even before corona they maintained this kind of distance. Every morning for years she has heard him descending past her floor and every evening, the jangle of his keys in the lock above hers when he returns. The absence of this routine, she now realises, is probably partly to blame for how bad she’s been feeling lately.
‘It’s my birthday,’ she hears herself tell him.
When she stopped trying to be normal it was fine.
Now he is sitting on Malina’s sofa, ashamed of his socked feet, holding a drink with ice that is getting warm. Malina is probably a bit less than two metres away, on her massage stool, trying not to let the wheels roll under her as she takes deep breaths. Sean still a little surprised to be invited in, surprised at himself for accepting too. He has been inside this flat only once when Malina hosted the residents’ AGM. It had seemed to him then that she must only very rarely, if ever, have company. It was obvious in the way she moved – such awkward ceremony – and passed around unappetising food. And it strikes him again now, because she seems much more relaxed with him. Also how altered the exact same layout as his own flat can look.
‘How have you been finding it then?’
He doesn’t want to patronise, though he wonders about her age. Presumably she is in at least one vulnerable group.
‘Is your son bringing food?’
‘My son’s in Canada. That’s where he lives now, with his wife and the girls.’
‘I see. That’s hard.’
‘Not really. He has his own life. I wouldn’t be allowed to see them anyway.’
She shrugs and exits the massage stool in order to lie on her back. Patterns are forming on the ceiling but she has to keep her head at a certain angle to stop them turning into microscopic images of the virus. She is sick to death of those images.
After what feels like hours, she sits up to show him that she is still part of the conversation. He is looking at her leg and she sees him looking.
‘It’s bigger,’ she says flatly.
He looks away.
‘Because of my Micro scooter. I try to change the pushing leg sometimes but my right calf is already twice the size.’
He’d had no idea the scooter kept in the main entrance belonged to her. He’d thought its owner must have been a child.
Malina yawns. Sean yawns in response. This is illicit, what they are doing. Fraternising outside their respective households. Even the government press conferences are held without any press in the room. Instead, beamed to every home in the land, you see each journalist framed by their own slightly sad posters and private, domestic lives. Seeing them like this has made her question their authority.They are just as helpless as everyone else.
‘I should probably tell you I’ve taken something. For my nerves.’
There is a long pause. It seems completely normal to tell a stranger something like this now.
‘I’m using Diazepam pretty much every night myself.’
‘Well actually it’s not for my nerves. I’ve…’ she laughs. ‘I’ve taken a magic mushroom. It’s my birthday and I’ve never… done anything like it before. I wanted a way out of the house, you know, while staying very much inside.’
Her mouth is suddenly dry and she closes it, swallows firmly. There is definitely a strange sensation in her throat. She does not want to have to keep the conversation going but she does not want him to leave at all.
‘Tell me things while I lie down, if you don’t mind. I just want to listen to you speak.’
It is an effort for Sean to talk about himself at first. It’s like he’s forgotten how. He licks the corners of his mouth.
‘I think I’ve had the virus already,’ he begins. ‘It wasn’t like anything else I’ve ever felt. It’s rare to have that – a feeling you’ve never had before in your own body.’
Malina smiles dreamily, eyes closed. She thinks of childbirth. Sees little handprints like the surgical gloves that now lie strewn across pavements beside empty roads.
‘It was like something cold inside me, moving around, turning my blood to ice, and really attacking these specific areas. I could feel it arrive in such tiny nodes, you know all the little connecting points? My knuckle, the back of my neck, the inside of my arm. It made me think about how my body is all connected even as each pain felt discrete. Sorry I can’t really describe it properly. I’m better now, of course. In fact I’m probably immune, though I guess I could still be shedding it.’
He looks quickly toward his neighbour to check she is not alarmed. He is often told in his quarterly reviews that he needs to work on his delivery.He lacks a human touch when it comes to imparting information. But she continues to smile the same dreamy smile as if she wants him to continue.
‘It was before my boss sent everyone home, so I was just trying to hold the coughing in until I was crying really, and wiping down everything like a maniac. People were avoiding us in IT anyway because they think we’re all Chinese.’
Malina has opened her eyes. She is watching the words issue from his mouth like spores.
‘Where’d you get the mushrooms from?’ he asks finally.
‘I started getting phone calls from one of those volunteers. I’m on a list of vulnerable persons and the girl assigned to me got a contact when I asked.’
‘OK. I’m glad the phone calls are helpful.’
‘Do you want one?’
‘I don’t know. Isn’t it already… a strange time? I don’t know if I want to make it more strange.’
‘Ha. I don’t know,’ he said again. ‘Do I? Are you having a good time?’
‘I think so. So far it’s quite nice. Actually, if you don’t mind, I’d prefer it if you didn’t, then you can keep an eye on me. You can be my trip-sitter.’
Sean is relieved. He had felt a test of his masculinity approaching, and now he has a way out while saving face.
‘Do you…um…want to talk about what you’re experiencing then?’
Malina considers the question and shakes her head, saying:
‘Is anyone calling in to check on you? I’m guessing you’re not on a list.’
‘No. Well. My work sends an email everyday – which you know is aimed at the lawyers in the company not the IT support – about how we can take care of ourselves during this uncertain time.’
‘What do they advise?’
‘Get dressed, tick off your achievements, that kind of thing.’
‘What are your achievements?’
He smiles. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘I’ve been trying to list mine today. I like to write a list every year, for my birthday, but this time I couldn’t think of anything. I realised the only ‘new’ thing that’s happened in my life this year is the virus, and I haven’t even succeeded at that. I think I want to get it over with so I can live again, or die, which is at least better than waiting to do it.’ She grins to reassure.
‘I could still be infectious,’ he says. ‘You might have got your wish.’
When they lie together shyly on the floor, it is like no other experience either has ever felt. The fruiting bodies beside each other.Releasing tenderness.
In the morning, when he goes back upstairs, he moves by reflex to the sink, pushing twice on the soap dispenser. But this time, when he sings happy birthday, it is to his neighbour in the identical space beneath.