Paul Liddle died alone in a care home at the age of seventy seven. The progression of his Alzheimer’s had been slow and steady over the last few years but it was when visits from family members were suspended that the disease took on a new, more aggressive trajectory. During the first six months of his stay in the home, on the eastern outskirts of a small town in the East Midlands, he had become known to the staff who cared for him as a gentle, agreeable man. But that was when his wife had been able to join him at his bedside. In isolation he grew irritable and truculent. He shouted abuse flecked with the terms ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’ at the masked carers and would often refuse meals as well as his medication. By the time restrictions had been lifted somewhat, the short visits that his wife was allowed to make, where the two communicated through a closed double-glazed window, brought him little comfort. The manager of the home hadn’t seen Paul for over a week before he was found cold and lifeless in his bed one warm September morning but she knew that the old man had been in quarantine after testing positive for the virus a few days earlier. She met no resistance when she suggested to the local GP on a video call that the cause of death should be recorded as COVID-19. Though Mister Saddle had neither shown nor complained of any symptoms, the mortality of the virus was not to be gainsaid. Immediately following the call with the doctor, the manager phoned the old man’s widow.
As the handset fell from the widow’s hands, the manager’s voice became a reedy murmur. It first mingled with and was then drowned out by the voice of the Health Secretary delivering a statement to Parliament on the television. The widow was already sitting down. It was her practice to sit whenever she picked up the phone and found one of the care home staff on the other end. She’d watched his deterioration with an increasing sense of impotence and dread. She’d seen his increasing vulnerability, the lack of care they took in that place. Their adherence to the rules was all for show. He had a new person in there every week, supposedly looking after him. Who could tell, now that all the families were shut out? She knew he hadn’t been taking precautions either, despite her urgings. ‘Made-up plague’ he called it.
She stared out of the window at the flame-coloured leaves of the silver birch that grew on the pavement outside, her hands resting in her lap. She saw one leaf twisted and plucked from a branch by an Autumn breeze, let out a sigh that seemed to come from a place deep, deep inside and picked up the phone again. Yes, she understood that they’d taken all precautions. Yes, she understood that she wouldn’t be able to sit with him due to the risk of infection. No, she didn’t need help informing his other loved ones.
She was unable to stop her shoulders shaking at the crematorium. But she shot her son a severe look when he halfway rose from his seat two rows behind. She quickly dabbed away her tears with a handkerchief before they made her black, homemade double-layered cloth mask wet and useless. Later, at home, she poured two glasses of whiskey and threw one out of the window. Two days later the son brough the ashes round but she didn’t let him in, making him leave them in the front porch. He wasn’t even wearing a mask. Head full of nonsense just like his father. The men in this family take nothing seriously. She scattered the ashes under the roses in the back garden. He’d spent so much time there, before disease had rendered him incapable of pruning, pulling, raking and hoeing. Of remembering what needed doing when. It was already succumbing to the weeds and the roses, while still in bloom, were getting leggy as they made a break for the sunnier spots in next door’s garden. She didn’t have the knack for gardening and wondered what would happen to it now.
It was another three weeks before she relented and allowed her son (this was the eldest – the younger one had moved to Australia nearly ten years ago), to visit with his wife and their two children. She’d insisted that they stay outside and maintain an appropriate distance at all times. They’d got the timing wrong and been caught in a downpour after ten minutes. Which was just as well – she’d felt compelled to offer them something to drink but had no idea how she was going to deal with the glasses and mugs once they’d been contaminated. From the driver’s seat of his car the son had suggested, in a raised voice which God knows how many neighbours heard, that he buy her a dog to keep her company. The other three barely looked up from their phone screens. She shook her head at him from the porch. But she had always wanted a dog. A King Charles spaniel. Paul had been allergic. So when the boy pressed her on the issue again a week later, on what he was trying to make a ritual Sunday afternoon call, she agreed that it might be a good idea.
It was a mottled black and brown Staffordshire Bull Terrier, just one year old. He knew she would have preferred a prettier dog, but they were hard to get hold of right now (in fact, they were being stolen off the streets so watch out for that) and money was tight what with the shop only open for collections and it was a good dog, and nice looking, and not badly treated or anything, from a widower, funnily enough, whose wife whose dog it was died (not the virus) and he couldn’t walk it. Alright, she said. He could bring it round tomorrow afternoon. She’d set the garage up so it could be quarantined.
While she spoke to the dog in a friendly tone – it was a handsome animal, she had to admit – she didn’t touch it for three days. She pushed food and water towards it with broom and kept well back when she let it out to do its business in the back garden. The dog destroyed anything it could get its jaws on. Plastic toys left over from when the grandchildren were younger, seed trays, a picnic hamper, a tent, a box of old blankets, bags of compost, peat and pearlite all fell victim to the pup’s pent up energy while she pondered how to walk the dog without bumping into anyone. For months she’d only been out of the house for emergencies and to visit Paul, relying on delivery services for all her shopping (which she would carefully disinfect with 99.9% isopropyl alcohol spray as she unpacked it). She’d tried to take walks in the summer but the pavements, paths and parks were always full of people. Much more than in a normal year. People were so irresponsible. They sauntered around like nothing was happening, their masks tucked away under their chin, if they wore them at all. The cyclists and joggers who’d brush within inches of her would hardly ever be wearing them as they panted and huffed and spat and dripped sweat, filling the surrounding atmosphere, the very air she was trying to breathe, with their potentially infectious excretions.
But the children were the worst. They paid no attention to the rules. Gave no thought to the consequences of their actions. When the schools were shut it wasn’t too bad: you’d see them in groups but at least they’d have the decency to try to hide their illegal socialising. Now that they were open again, they just didn’t care. They’d loiter in large groups around corner shops and bus stops and park benches and outside the schools. There was one just opposite. A secondary. The gates for the first three year groups were right across the street, only partially obscured by the young silver birch that grew between. She’d written to several supposed authorities to complain about the lack of discipline on display among the school pupils, teachers and parents at the beginning and end of the day. The headteacher, her councillors, the council’s public health team, even the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police. They’d all fobbed her off with assurances that the school was doing everything it could under incredibly difficult circumstances and that it was a question of balancing certains freedoms etc etc. She found it unbelievable that these institutions could display so little respect for human life. For after all, that’s what they were talking about here: lives were at stake. How dare they create these incredibly dangerous conditions, right outside her front door, and then all pat themselves on the back because of the way they ‘pulled together as a community’. Where was her place in this community? Where was Paul’s? It was as if there was a conspiracy to kill off the old and vulnerable, to cull the population of those deemed no longer necessary. As if the experience, the wisdom of age counted for nothing. In her day, children listened to what they were told. If they were asked to make sacrifices for the greater good, they were given no choice but to bloody well make them. Now their every whim was indulged and every one of their tantrum’s was met with simpering conciliation instead of a swift clip round the ear.
So she rose early to walk the dog, who she named Lenny after her late husband’s favourite folk singer. At six in the morning and again at seven in the evening, when the streets were mercifully clear of gangs of uniformed adolescents. But she still encountered people – the runners, the joggers, the cyclists, the people walking three abreast down the pavement, the phone-obsessed – who displayed no care, no empathy. And so these sojourns became a source of deep anxiety which her growing affection for the dog could only just overcome. She would lie awake at night fretting over which route to take the next morning, over what she should say to those who encroached on her two metres, over the best method for disinfecting herself and Lenny when she returned. She beagn eating her evening meals after their walk because the foreboding made the food taste like ashes, which disrupted her sleep even more. Then one evening as winter was drawing in and the Christmas holidays approaching, and the number of cases in the county rising rapidly, a late Amazon delivery was left in the porch by an unknown courier. Their shadow on the frosted-glass of the front door set Lenny barking, which gave the old woman an idea. She happily meditated on it for a full hour before turning in for a deep and restful sleep.
The next morning, as the sounds of lively, reckless youth arriving at the school gates rose and fell over the red tiles of her roof, she made a simple scarecrow with some of her late husband’s old gardening clothes and staked it out in the middle of the back lawn. The dog watched with its head cocked to one side as the woman approached the dummy slowly and then, once she was within two metres of it, ordered the dog to bark. She was not an experienced dog trainer, and it took almost an entire day, several YouTube sessions and countless treats before Lenny would consistently bark when she got too close to the dummy. And even then, his voice had a much friendlier tone than she was looking for. But he would learn. That night he got no walk and no dinner, and she was pleased to see the more alert, more aggressive posture which he brought to the next day’s training session. By the end of day three, she was ready to test his newly acquired skill in the real world.
They encountered their first jogger shortly after entering the park – spandexed, ear-budded, oblivious. The results were very satisfying. The pitbull leaped forward on the taut lead, roaring its guttural warning. The startled woman nearly fell into the duck pond as she scrambled to get off the path and out of the dog’s way. But the widow had had to give the spoken signal to get Lenny to bark and that was no good. It didn’t matter if she became known locally as the crazy woman with the aggressive dog, but the crazy woman who sicked her dog on every passer by would soon draw the attention of the police. So over the festive period, enjoying the triple relief of the school being closed with no definite restart date, the vaccine rollout and the cancellation of household mixing on Christmas day (she made a good show of feigning disappointment on the phone to her son and his wife), she kept Lenny lean and hungry and trained him to launch his attack without any signal at all.
The temperature outside dipped below freezing in January, but nothing kept the widow and Lenny from their walks. Gangs of loitering youths, loutish men, inconsiderate couriers, simpering Big Issue sellers, cocooned headphone wearers, aggressive beggars and blithe coffee-carriers were all sent diving for the edges of the pavement as the pair haunted their favourite routes. The widow grew in confidence, occasionally venturing into one of the larger, airier supermarkets on the high street. Though the sight of any unmasked person – staff or customer – would set her rushing for the door again. It was after one of her successful attempts, leaving the shop with some cut flowers for herself and a treat of black pudding for the dog, that she suffered Lenny’s first betrayal. She’d tied him up safely outside, assured that he was only trained to threaten those that came too close to her own person, so that people passing by on the street while she was inside were left unharassed. On her return, he was being petted by an unmasked, dishevelled-looking girl of about fourteen. He was clearly enjoying the attention. So much so that even when the widow took up his lead again the dog paid only friendly attention to the girl, despite her standing less than a metre from them. The girl – her fingernails were filthy – tried to ask about the dog’s name, heritage etc but the widow shot her an angry look and walked quickly away, pulling sharply on the lead. She stopped next to a litter bin where the high street joined the road that took them home, showed the black pudding to Lenny and then dropped it in the bin, telling him that she was incredibly disappointed in his behaviour.
Weeks of lockdown stretched into months and the catkins had grown heavy on the silver birch by the time the widow received her invitation to be vaccinated. She allowed her excitement to get the better of her, grabbing a red marker to enter the date on her kitchen calendar, before stopping, stunned, in front of the March page. Her vaccination appointment at the vaccination centre lay a full week after the schools reopened. She checked the date on the letter again. A whole week? She had already endured so much, taken so many precautions, shielded herself so well, done her duty to society to the best of her ability and now this? She had to spend a full week next to that heaving gaggle of noxious adolescents? That suppurating ulcer of pubescent heedlessness? Living under a cloud of invisible, aerosolised spittle that escaped from the sides of their masks (if they were even wearing them) with every insolent, carefree breath? Spittle that floated in through her windows, lighting on her surfaces, poisoning the very air she breathed. The dog sat on the tiled floor, listening to its master with a bemused curiosity as she paced room with a spray bottle of disinfectant, scrubbing and fulminating. Then she stopped and looked to the dog for affirmation, as if the entire diatribe had been addressed to him. She thought she found it, so she fed him some extra bacon that she’d cooked for her breakfast that morning. Lenny would not eat again for three days.
The widow heard him whining from the garage as she rummaged in cupboards for old children’s clothes left behind after visits from the grandchildren, and then again as she fashioned two new dummies to stake out in the garden. Training resumed on the third morning and by the time darkness fell, the small scarecrows had been reduced to scraps of fabric and tufts of cushion foam that drifted around the overgrown lawn on a light spring breeze, catching on the taller clumps of grass and weeds, creating the illusion of flowers and of an early summer.
On the day the children returned, the bright green leaves emerging from the branches of the silver birch partly obscured the widow’s view of the school gates from her bedroom window, but they did not drown out the noise. She had to turn up the volume on her radio alarm clock to hear that teahcers were nervous despite the new mask mandates and testing regimes. The widow looked at her reflection withouty expression as she tied back her hair in a severe bun. Dressed in a thick wool jumper, jeans, leather thigh boots and two masks as per the new official guidance, she pocketed two cooked sausages wrapped in foil from the kitchen fridge and then collected the half-starved Lenny from the garage. She put the agitated dog on the lead and set off for the garden gates.
The geography teacher who’d been drafted in to help maintain order at the entrance that morning was nervous. He was young and healthy so had no concerns about getting the virus, but he had only been teaching for a couple of years and he was still not entirely comfortable with the crowd-control part of the job. Besides which, he felt sorry for the children and ill-disposed towards forcing them – or their parents – to suffer any more indignities as a result of the restrictions. Luckily, everyone seemed to be aware of and on board with the updated rules and he hadn’t had to reprimand anyone yet. Yes, some of the year eight and nines were loitering in groups on the other side of the road, but that was out of his jurisdiction for now. Besdies which, they were mostly all in masks so there was no need to intervene. He tried to keep a smile in his eyes as he welcomed the children back and strained his memory to put names to the top halves of faces. Then the sudden sound of a dog barking made him jump.
At first he laughed at himself for being so jittery and reacting so strongly to such a commonplace noise. But when he turned his head to locate the source of the noise his amusement dissolved. This was not a commonplace sound at all. The dog, some kind of pitbull, was crazed and ferocious and nearly pulling its owner, an elderly woman, off her feet as it lunged at a group of year nine boys. He froze for a moment, as the sound of the animal was accompanied by a swell of shrieks and screams. He was mesmerised by the dog’s eyes, by what he thought was a mixture of fear, hunger and hatred, and by the echo of that expression in the eyes of the grey-haired old woman trying to restrain the animal. The white knuckles on her hands stood out sharply against the rest of the skin, cracked, red and raw. Then the woman let go.
He sprang forward from the gateway instinctively, pulling children inside and shouting and waving for other children and parents who were running in fear from the dog to follow. The throng of uniformed bodies must have confused the pitbull like a herd of zebra confuses a hunting lion. By the time it locked on to a target, most of the people who’d been standing around were either inside the school gates or were a safe distance away down the street. They were now turning to form an audience on both sides, getting out their phones to film the dog’s stand off with the teacher.
He stood rooted to the spot as the dog barked at him, spittle flecking from its jaws into the empty space of about six feet between them. He heard voices behind him beckoning him to join them behind the nearly-shut gate. He doubted his ability to get there in time. The dog looked like it could run much faster. But he didn’t know what else to do. He was not a dog person and couldn’t tell whether the animal’s failure to attack him thus far was a good sign or not. He tried to focus on sending out calm, positive energy to the dog, hoping that this would also stop his legs from shaking. He became aware of a murmur of excitement in the crowd behind him, and hoped that they had not spotted a fresh signal of intent in the dog’s attack. Then he felt the girl’s hand in his.
She was not wearing a mask. How strange that that was the first thing he noticed. Then he remembered talking to her earlier – what was her name? She wasn’t any of his classes – about her being exempt for some reason. She was in year eight. Always a bit scruffy with frizzy, shoulder-length mousy-brown hair and a grubby silver-coloured puffa jacket. His instinct was to put himself between her and the dog but then he realised that she was talking to the animal, trying to soothe it, and it was working. The dog fell silent for the first time in what had seemed an eternity. She squeezed his hand before stepping forward to offer her own to the dog, which sat in the road and allowed the girl to pet it and feed it some biscuits which she took from her school bag. He closed his eyes and thanked some nondescript deity for the intervention.
A howl of anguish split the air and was met with a gasp from the assembled onlookers. He opened his eyes expecting to see the girl being mauled by the dog but the animal was still receiving strokes and biscuits gladly. Then two of his colleagues ran past him towards a collapsed figure on the other side of the road – the old woman. Her dog going crazy had clearly been too much for her. He went over to see if they needed help but then remembered the girl and the dog. He turned round to tell her not to let the animal go but the spot where they’d been sitting was empty. The crowd of children and parents at the western end of the street had parted and some of them were filming the girl with their phones as she walked quickly towards the high street, the dog trotting along at her side.