People play tig with traffic to avoid me. Even that wrestler guy with the bulldog tattoos and Rottweiler gets out of my way. I never thought I’d be king of the pavement, but all it took for my coronation was a deadly pathogen and making a seamless transition from pleb to key worker while wearing my postie uniform.
My girlfriend Claire would rather I wasn’t king of the pavement. She wants me condemned to the house with her to help our eight-year-old son, Paul, with his homework.
‘Did you master that parts of speech homework yet?’ I asked Paul yesterday while Claire took a well-earned break in the toilet with her phone. The wee man was too busy doing his best to ignore me, launching Iron Man at Batman’s serious face. ‘Did you hear me?’
‘Aye,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘Nouns and that.’
‘And pronouns. And verbs. And using them in a sentence and identifying them.’
‘Aye…whatever. Ah saw the worksheets.’
‘Right, put doon Spider-Man.’ He huffed and sighed. ‘Ah’ll write a sentence, and you show me your nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns. You need tae know this stuff.’
‘Because…Batman knows his pronouns and adjectives and how tae use them.’
‘Ah thought Batman wisnae real?’
‘Well, aye. But see aw they comic book heroes and films…they have writers. And aw they writers needed tae know this stuff.’
‘Aye,’ he said, picking up Iron Man.
‘Leave Iron Man…’ I wrote a sentence tooting my horn a bit and patted the seat next to me. ‘Right, give me the nouns, the pronouns, verbs and the adjectives.’
‘My dad is the greatest dad in this beautiful world,’ he read aloud. ‘He can run quicker than The Flash, and Batman is no match for him in the brain department.’ Paul laughed a wee bit too much at that for my liking, but it was a relief to see he could identify different parts of speech and wasn’t just checking how well made his toys were by chucking them about.
I get why Claire doesn’t want me working in a warehouse around hundreds of other workers, and that’s before she’s even seen the state of the toilets at my work. I’d much rather be home playing Principal Skinner, but that’s a choice I don’t have. We only just scraped the last round of bills before the world went to shit, and now Claire’s on furlough and robbed of tips and overtime. Then there’s the wider economy to consider, we don’t want it collapsing just because us postal drones didn’t rush people that new cocktail maker they ordered, do we?
The warehouse looms beneath the dark, pissing clouds. It’s amazing to think the interior is worse than the drab, utilitarian façade. I’ll spend the next ten hours in that building, worrying about bills and disease while trying to avoid all human contact.
I get inside and saturate my dry, stinging hands in this anti-bacterial slime. There are more COVID posters on the wall and walk this way and not that way signs. Even walking is becoming more complicated by the day. The sounds of machines buzzing away and clanging remind me to put more paracetamol in my pocket.
I often hear my fellow, red-eyed postie, Rab, before I see him, but he’s stuck near a parcel machine that’s going haywire. For a man who’s an atheist in the back nine of his life, he’s remarkably chipper.
‘Awright, Rab?’ I ask him from a distance of what I assume is more than two metres.
‘Barry boy! How’re things?’
‘That bad, eh?’
‘Just the usual. Claire’s goan roon the twist trying tae teach wee Paul and no being able tae get oot. Then Paul’s desperate tae play fitba and see his pals…and…well…it’s no the greatest time tae be alive, is it?’
‘Aye, but it’s better tae be alive and working than deid and unemployed, in’t it?’
‘Trust you tae make me feel like a lucky cunt.’
‘That’s whit ah’m here fir, Barry boy! You sorting here again?’
‘Aye, ah’m daein the Scottish roads…fir noo anywey.’
‘No oan the parcel machine then?’
‘Nah, no yet. But ah brought ma paracetamol just in case.’
‘Aye, the noise aff that thing is bad news…Being near the hing is bad enough. Thank fuck ah’m no trained oan it. It would get tae a heavy metal roadie, never mind a smooth jazz guy like maself.’ I laugh at a vision of Rab kicking back with a bottle of Budweiser, nodding his big, bald dome to Charles Mingus.
‘Since when did you listen tae smooth jazz?’ I ask him.
‘Since the zombie apocalypse kicked in.’
‘Is it finally getting tae you then?’
‘Well, naebody’s immune fae this bullshit, ur they? That’s the mantra. Every cunt is in this thegither…even the Queen.’
‘Aye, ah can just imagine the royal family getting their hauns dirty in here.’
‘You never know!’ Rab says.
‘Nah, there’s nae chance ae them baring their arses in they disgusting toilets fir oor wages.’
‘Ah feel sorry fir the cleaners. They need something stronger than Dettol tae a job in there!’
‘Aye, a tactical airstrike.’
‘Aw well,’ Rab says, heading for the toilet. ‘Ah’ll need tae take ma chances in there or shit maself.’
A temp worker comes up to me with a parcel meant for my road, and another nearly hits me as he throws a parcel over my head. Other workers can’t really get out of your way in this warehouse. The building was already too small, and now there’s a new parcel machine taking up valuable space and millions of extra parcels getting ordered online. People try to sanitise their hands and get gloves while a line of people are up their arses and nearly clipping them with metal containers filled to the top with boxes.But this is it: we need to keep working, so we try to pretend things are semi-normal and not down tools even when we were set for strike action a few months ago.
‘Whit’s happening wae the strike noo then?’ I ask Rab when he gets back to sorting parcels from his mission to the toilet.
‘That’s oan the back burner,’ Rab says. ‘We’ve tae dae oor duty for Amazon and ASOS.’
‘Aye, while the bastards shovelling these platitudes have no done theirs.’
‘C’mon, Barry. Have you no heard we’re superheroes noo?’
‘If ah wanted tae be a superhero, ah’d roll aboot in radioactive waste wae a spider.’ Rab laughs and cocks his head to the side. I can see his philosophical outlook turning the gears again.
‘Still, it’s like Christmas wae the overtime, in’t it!’ he says—ever the optimist. ‘Ah did sixty-seven hours last week. You might as well wae the pubs and everything being shut.’
‘Aye, who disnae want tae work sixty-seven-hour weeks during a pandemic?’
‘Ah’m saving for a holiday tae Spain or Mexico!’
‘A holiday? We’re no even allowed tae enter another postcode, never mind go abroad.’
‘Aye, but this isnae permanent…Dae you no want tae get away wance this virus shite is ere?’
‘Ah’m daein sixty-odd hours just tae make sure ah keep the lights oan and stuff in the fridge. Ah’ll settle for a decent sleep and no spreading a virus for the time being.’
‘If you need a loan or that, just ask me. Ah know you’re good fir it.’
‘Nah, you’re awright, Rab. Thanks anywey.’
Rab’s told me umpteen times I need to take the overtime while it’s going; work, work, work because it never lasts. Then again, Claire’s telling me my health is my wealth. And she’s right—she usually is. But having disposable income makes a big difference to your health. We can’t pay all of our bills, get rid of debt and keep a stocked fridge with my good health. I don’t have your exorbitant rent, Mr Landlord, but I’m feeling am-a-zing! That’s nice, pal, cough up, or you’re out on your arse.
‘You shouldnae touch your face,’ Rab says when I scratch an itch on my cheek and take a drink of water.
‘Aye, ah know. It was a reflex…The wan time ah touch ma face, and you’re aw ere me like you’re ma parole officer.’
‘Well, just think ae it like it’s an itch oan your balls. You’re no gonnae start pawing them oan the warehouse flair, ur ye?’
‘Thanks fir the nuggets of wisdom.’
When you’re not supposed to touch your face, the word itchy rattles around your skull. It’s psychosomatic, says the meek, distant voice of sanity. He’s drifting in and out these days, and the others are taking over—those that remind me we’ve got an outstanding electric bill and my girlfriend is stuck in the house all day trying to help teach a kid who wants to do anything but learn arithmetic in our living room. Thank Christ, a week of annual leave is nearly here.
It started with a headache at work. It didn’t go away. The first day of annual leave, and it’s too hot for Heaven or Earth. I was baffled by the panic merchants hoarding toilet roll, but now I’m the one driving the porcelain lorry one second and leaping on it the other.
‘You alright?’ Claire asks, peering into the bedroom she’s been turfed out of. This is now my quarantine den where Claire and Paul can’t take more than two steps into. One of those chinless Tory gonks did tell us all to use different bathrooms as well, but that’s difficult when you’re just lucky enough to have one.
‘Dae ah look alright?’ I ask, forcing a smile. She squints her eyes from a safer than safe distance.
‘Nah, you look terrible.’ Thank you very much.
‘It’s probably just a bit of food poisoning.’ That’s it, convince yourself it’s food poisoning, then if the coughing gets worse, get a zoom call with a priest. Better to recant and hedge your bets.
‘You need a test.’
‘Ah checked again—still none available.’
‘Ah wish ah could gie you a hug.’
‘Don’t worry. Ah’m no shitting Jackson Pollocks every twenty minutes, so ah must be on the mend.’ Now I’ll just need to pray I can get back to work as soon as possible to start hammering the overtime again and make up for the lost time.
The pavement is no longer mine. A few months after the twilight zone of empty city streets, people are out in force to guard statues. Claire and I walk past some of the precious statues and join a socially distanced rally to support a pay rise for NHS workers.
There are people brought to tears by testimony from a nurse and applauding for all her effort.You’d think this is a cause everyone would get behind, but it still brings out naysayers, and two of these dickheads are angry men with loud voices.
‘Look at aw these NHS workers moaning aboot their wages when they should just be grateful tae have a joab!’ I hear one dickhead say to another.Aye, let’s justfuck them and give them the clap instead of a long-overdue pay rise for risking their health.
‘Did you hear them?’ Claire asks.
‘Aye. The empathy oan these troglodytes makes me go weak at the knees.’
‘Why even come tae a rally if they feel that way? Just stay away and gie us aw peace.’
‘They’d know aw aboot it if they were jobless or oan furlough!’ Dickhead 1 says to Dickhead 2 while passing him half bottle of vodka. Swipe right for self-interest and swipe left on empathy.
‘People bitching and trying tae destroy statues,’ Dickhead 2 says. ‘The country’s gone tae the dogs.’
‘They’ll no be pulling doon statues while ah’m aboot!’ Dickhead 1 says.
‘Let’s move far away fae them before ah boot them,’ I say to Claire.
‘Whit’s wrong wae they arseholes?’ Claire says.
‘They care more aboot deid people they’d never heard ae a month ago than actual living people who might be a bit different tae them.’
‘Aye, ah’d rather shit ma insides out again than be like that.’
Taking Rab for a pint was my way to thank him for loaning me a wedge from his holiday fund. ‘Aw pints are oan me,’ I tell him.
‘Don’t be daft.’
‘Ah mean it, mate. Ah don’t even want tae see your wallet. You helped pull me oot a hole last July after ah was ill.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Ah dae say so.’ I take a drink from a lovely, well-poured pint. How I’ve missed this and a bit of normality.
‘How’s Claire daein noo?’
‘She’s happy tae be back at work.’
‘Amen tae that.’
‘The wee man is enjoying seeing his pals again as well and getting tae kick the ball aboot…It was murder fir a while, but we aw got through it without losing oor marbles.’
‘That’s good…Kids need their routines. And you need whit’s left ae your marbles.’
‘They teachers are saints daein that joab.’
‘Aye, society needs tae realise who really does the heavy lifting: nurses, doctors, teachers, carers, cleaners…’
‘Jesus, Barry, ah wouldnae go that far.’
Claire comes back in from work with a smile on her face and a bag full of crisps and chocolate. ‘You look happy,’ I say to her.
‘Ah wouldnae go that far. It’s nice tae be back and earning mair and seeing aw the old faces. Ah just hope it lasts this time, and we don’t go back tae a full lockdown.’
‘The vaccines should stoap that….’
‘So, where’s ma wee hero? Where’s the next Henrik Larsson?’
‘Rattle that bag of crap there, and he’ll come running. You should’ve seen him oot there! Two goals he scored, and he nearly had a hat trick! The wee man’s got talent…just like his da.’
‘You’re such a big hit fir yourself.’
‘It’s just genetics, darling…He gets his good looks and intelligence fae you.’
‘You must be eftir something,’ Claire says. ‘Ah need tae be at his next game.’
‘Paul!’ I shout, knowing he’s going to make me stand to get his attention. I knock on his bedroom door and see him with his headphones on watching Messi highlights on YouTube. ‘There’s your mum in.’ Paul’s like the wind in a hurry when he’s playing football and when his mum knows he’s scored a few goals.
‘Save some crisps fir me,’ I tell him.
‘You can have the crumbs.’
‘There’s the goal machine!’ Claire says, rubbing his hair and kissing his cheek.
‘You should’ve seen me, Ma! Ah’m gonnae be top scorer this year! No even that virus will stoap me noo!’
John Tinney is a Glaswegian writer. You can find some of his work in 404 INK Literary Magazine, A Kist of Thistles, Every Day Fiction, Razur Cuts Magazine and other venues.