• Judy Upton

Sardines

Updated: Sep 14

a short story exploring the anxiety around returning back to work - before it's safe to do so.



I wouldn’t normally leave my bag on the outside seat, but today I desperately don’t want someone to sit next to me. We’re only a couple of stops into the commute and already people are standing. I don’t know if it’s because of people like me blocking seats or whether they want to keep their distance. Occasionally I meet another pair of wide, scared eyes over a facemask. I’m sweating, I feel claustrophobic. I want to cough like I always do when I’m nervous, but I’m managing to stifle it for now. Just the sound of a cough or sight of someone wiping a sweaty brow makes everyone flinch or glare.


All I can think about is the train’s air conditioning. For all I know it’s pumping the disease throughout the train. No one has really said whether that happens or not, have they? If it’s true then all the seat blocking and social distancing is completely pointless. From several seats away I hear what sounds like a stifled sob, but I can’t offer aid or comfort. To leave my seat would me squeezing past a number of standing passengers, brushing against them and literally occupying their airspace.


I’m staying ‘alert’, as the new slogan insists, well as alert as you can be in a crowded carriage full of hyperventilating commuters. I much preferred the previous message. ‘Stay home’. I really wish I was in Scotland or Wales where that’s still the advice. Surely it makes a lot more sense for us all to stay indoors, until they put all the trains and buses back on at least. Maybe until the infection rate drops a little more too. I tell myself that even if I catch it, it might not be too bad. Then I start to remember the faces and stories on the news, and think of two of my own friends, still both with us thankfully, but currently so weak, so breathless and suffering nightmares.


Every time the train pauses like this to wait for a signal, the panic rises inside me like lava in a volcano. Looking out the window I remember a poem we had to study at school. ‘Adlestrop’ – about a train stopping in the middle of nowhere and the passenger looking at the grass and the sky, and hearing a blackbird sing. Here I’m looking at the backs of a row of terraced houses. I’m ‘The Girl On The Train’ envying the still closed curtains of those working from home, furloughed, or more likely laid off. Yes, right now I envy them all, even the newly jobless. At least they’re not stuck, their lives ticking away, in a metal can of germs.


****


Lois gives me a wave as cross the small car park to our buildings. She’s standing outside, mask hanging round her neck while she smokes a ciggie. I’m about to explain, from two metres away of course, that the reason I’m late on my first day back is down to a slow train. But before I can say anything, she gestures towards Sam, who is on his phone.


“Sam’s just calling Yvette. Door’s locked. Seems like nobody else’s in yet.” I look at my watch. I’m almost twenty minutes late. If this were a normal day I’d be on my way to a verbal warning, unless I’d a better excuse than bloody Adlestrop. Sam finishes her call and joins us.

“Yvette’s still working from home. She didn’t even know we were starting back today.”

“I thought they said ‘go to work if you can’t do your job at home?”

“Yeah. I mean we’re production line – it’s different for the office lot.”

“So what do we do? Just wait about?”

“Yvette’s got a home number for Jonathan. Gave it to her at the Christmas party. His number I mean?” Beneath my mask I sniggered. It wasn’t even very funny, just the release of tension, and being among familiar faces, even if I could only see the top halves of them over their homemade masks.


****


I’m in the park. It’s a small one, a couple of blocks from our workplace. When the MD finally phoned Yvette back, some time after ten, he told her he didn’t want us in. She then called Sam and we discovered we’re still furloughed. They’ll send an email round when we are re-opening and he doesn’t know yet whether it will be this week or next. It all depends on logistics, whatever they are. That’s management speak for you. Still when we do go back, I don’t suppose any of them will be coming down to our place for a while. It’ll all be Zoom and Skype from their beautiful, Covid-free second homes, you can bet on that.


****


I love this park. The wind’s blowing the blossom from the trees, a couple of people are walking dogs and there’s a squirrel clinging to a tree trunk, eyeing me quizzically. The zoom lens on my phone frames the squirrel perfectly and I’m pleased with the shot. I love taking pictures. I did photography at college, imagining there might be a job on a website or newspaper at the end of it, but it seems everyone takes their own pictures now. I didn’t get one interview. When I was at school I wanted to be a wildlife camerawoman, travelling the world filming rare wildlife. I imagined myself on the Serengeti, in the Amazon, on an ice shelf filming penguins. I used to keep a diary of all the birds I’d seen from my window, the butterflies in our yard. I post my wildlife photos on Instagram and I get likes and some nice comments, but I know it’s never going to go any further than that. That particular career window has closed, if it was ever even open a crack. Increasingly I doubt that it was.


A woodpecker calls from the branches of the huge Horse Chestnut above me. I squint against the sun to try to make him out among the fans of pristine spring leaves. I might stay here taking photos for a while, just for the fresh air and the space. By the time I go back to the station the morning rush will be a memory, and the train back home will be quiet and empty. Tonight I’ll be checking my emails with a feeling of dread, seeing if Jonathan expects me to board that sardine can again tomorrow, or even the day after. Even if he doesn’t it’ll be two whole weeks before I can truly breathe easy, and know this morning’s pointless commute had been a safe one. Again I feel my mouth becoming dry, my forehead sweaty. Then from somewhere behind me a blackbird starts singing. And no it doesn’t somehow magically make everything alright. But it does make me remember to breathe deep and fight the nausea. And I remember the lines from the poem too:


And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The End.


About the author: Judy Upton, an award-winning playwright. You can watch her latest play here, or find out more about her here.


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