It’s Thursday morning and the house is bubbling with activity at seven o’clock. After six months of watching the early bird rise, eat his worm and fly home before anyone stirred in our house, this feels unnatural. It’s the first day of the autumn school term and we are all a bundle of nerves.
My son has packed and repacked his school bag over the weekend, checking his school list for any bits of stationery or equipment he might have missed. The school has been adamant in its correspondence: no equipment or stationery will be given or shared with students. They must ensure they carry what they need to avoid cross contamination. I put my coffee cup down to help him. He complains again that his tummy hurts. I know it’s the worry that he might forget something and get a detention, so I go over the prepared speech he should deliver in case of he forgets or can’t find his way to one of his classes. ‘Apologise first and ask for help. If they shout, explain you are anxious and it makes it hard for you to remember directions under duress.’ He gives me a look and tells me some of the adults he deals with don’t care. They are more concerned with moving crowds and settling the younger newcomers to the school. They won’t have time to deal with him. I give him a reassuring hug but we both know he has to grow up and just deal with getting lost in the new buildings they’ve erected during lockdown.
My daughter realises that she has not packed a mask yet and starts to panic because the only clean masks we have are the material masks with funny smiles printed across the front. She refuses to take one, breaking down into hysterics when I shout from the kitchen, where I’m dealing with her brother, that it doesn’t matter. It matters to her. It matters a lot. She doesn’t want to have a funny smile etched across her face for most of the day. She doesn’t want to be the odd one out. She’s going to be a senior and even though lockdown left her out of the social loop, she still had social media to contend with and that dictates what cool and what is not in the new accessory we carry with us just to breathe easier when we step outside into society.
I rummage through the tumble dryer, hoping the batch of masks we used over the weekend have somehow hitched a ride to the other side of the laundry. Yes! I’m in luck. Two plain black masks pop out and I silently cheer. She hugs me tight and the relief in her eyes speaks volumes.
Both children have survived lockdown without meeting up with friends or going out. Limited exposure to the outside world kept them safe. And us. Being high risk meant taking the warnings seriously and playing by the government rules. Not that it made a difference to their older siblings who pandered towards the conspiracy theories that Covid-19 was contrived, to downright refusing to stay boxed up for the summer. The division in our family life has been apparent. The younger two and ourselves now refer to our grouping as the ‘core four’, excluding the older siblings who shirked the responsibilities of helping us all stay safe. As the core four, we have watched the news and prayed for some miracle that would slow the spread of the virus down so that we wouldn’t be at risk. Now that it has, the return to the outside world feels daunting.
Time is ticking away. My daughter wants to leave. She’s promised her friends she would meet up with them and walk together to school. I mutter something about social distancing and she looks at me. We both know that, as much as the schools will try to keep their bubbles and make everyone wash their hands, stagger breaks and lunch times, and change school start times, the children will still congregate. After all, that is their culture. That is what they know. It takes years to change tradition and we are only at the beginning; the pioneers of a new world.
I go over the list with her again before hugging her and letting her go. The front door closes, trapping me inside and her out. She is now free to roam. My mind goes wild with the possibilities and scenarios she’s going to have to face over the next five hours. Before I know it, it’s time for my son to leave. He looks so small and vulnerable and his bag makes him hunch over. I offer him a ride to school which he gladly accepts.
The village High Street looks like an overpopulated anthill teeming with worker ants scurrying to and fro. They are wearing blue uniforms and carry handbags and satchels. Packed pavements spit out random bodies onto the road, slowing the traffic down to a crawl. The scent of perfume, deodorant and pheromones waft in through the open car window. I shut it quickly, switching to aircon. Our eyes absorb the sights and sounds of the morning traffic and I despair. Parents, children, bicycles and pushchairs fight for dominance on the narrow pathways. No one is wearing a face mask. No one remembers the death toll rising each day through April and May. They have forgotten the long days of looking out of windows, wondering if the lone stranger spotted stalking the empty streets was a carrier or victim. Now, they mix like a deadly cocktail, swirling the moisture carried on their breath through open, unprotected mouths and noses. Each one trying to reach their final destination: the local schools and businesses.
We drive to the bottom of the hill that leads to my son’s place of education. I park on the side of the road and let out a big sigh. He is clutching the back seat, excited to get going now that he sees familiar faces. My fear and anxiety release in a tirade of commands: keep away from them; don’t touch the handrails; don’t touch your face or chew on your pen; wash your hands at break and lunch; be safe!
I watch his receding figure as it gets swallowed up in the sea of blue churning at the school gates. The government promised us safety at school, better mental heath for the children and a return to normal routine to free parents to work. Doubts dance in my tummy and burn in my chest. Why do I feel like I’ve just sent my kids to a factory where they will be converted into ticking time bombs then sent home? Am I looking at my silent killers filling the streets and standing at the corner shop with their friends? I guess time will tell.