A few weeks later and I was still alive and healthy. It had been almost two months in the warehouse of doom, and I was craving some respite from the long ten-hour days. Fortunately for me, Amazon started operating this VTO scheme (voluntary time off). It appeared the company branch had hired too many people and now they were overstaffed when there wasn’t enough work coming it. As a result, VTO was offered to you in which you could go home of your accord without pay. Naturally, I would snap their hand off as soon as they offered it me. “VTO?” a man with a notepad and a piece of paper would ask me. I looked at him like some sort of angel. He’d take down my details and return fifteen minutes later to confirm it. Once relieved of my burdensome duty, I’d happily marched out of the warehouse into the spring sunshine with a smile on my face. I’d then slowly walk home through the countryside, stopping again to watch some squirrels live out their lives simply in the woods. Ahh yes, once again I’d get a tinge of jealousy with my furry friends. I watched them burying their nuts and appreciating there was more purpose in that than what I was doing at Amazon. Soon after, I’d get home and see my mother standing in the kitchen. “How come you’re home?” she would ask me.
“No work again today mum’.
“That’s a shame, you must be losing a lot of money with all this time off.”
“Yeah.. yeah… terrible isn’t it.”
After that, I’d then sit in the garden with a pack of beer sunbathing and listening to music all day. I actually had quite a bit of money behind me due to my low living costs and not being able to blow my money on benders down the pub, so I’d treat myself to some top-quality Belgian beers from the local shop. Sometimes I’d also order takeaway, maybe even treat myself to a cigar. All of this tasted extra sweeter knowing that I had dodged another day of employment with my corporate overlord. Occasionally I could feel the glare of my mother from the kitchen window, watching her one son living like a retired person at the age of thirty. Yes, accept it mother. Accept me how I am. This is the life for me. I didn’t ask to be brought into this world; you forced me into this painful and perplexing existence, let me at least try and get through it in a way that is slightly tolerable.
While sitting there smoking my cigars and sipping my Belgian beers, I’d get reflective about the chaos that was happening in the world. Of course, by this point it was becoming clear that the government response to the outbreak was a hysterical overreaction that was going to eventually cause more harm than it prevented, but right now hysteria was king and I could see that this way of life was the norm for the foreseeable future. I guess I was okay with it. As an introvert the lockdown was no huge shock or blow to me; avoiding people and crowds had been a pastime of mine for many years now, and the whole thing was somewhat surreal and interesting to a degree. Still, everyone had their limit and mine mainly came in not being able to go out and try to pull women in bars. While lockdown may have caused most couples to be screwing more often than usual, single people were more alone than ever – unable to stumble around dancefloors trying to attract mating partners through drunken chatter and bad dance moves. There was now only one way to get potentially laid – and that meant resorting back to the dating apps and websites.
I remade my profile and went online to check out the hoards of other horny, lonely, locked-down people like myself. Of course, many bios of people on the dating apps were now full of the line ‘lockdown brought me here.’ I guess it was true; it was a period in time when people had to find new ways to kill time in their lives, and these apps served that function well. The journey between the maternity ward and the crematorium was going slower than ever, but thankfully smartphones could keep us hypnotised for a good proportion of it.
I didn’t really have much going for me before the pandemic started, but at least I had my own place. Now I was back to living with my parents – which just about rounded me off as the quintessential, stereotypical thirty-year-old loser. I was without a career, without a car, without my own place, and generally without much of a clue about anything at all. I guess I at least had a job. I could even say I was ‘an essential worker’ – as the government had labelled me. Right now, about half the population were sitting at home not working at all while still receiving 80% of their pay. This section of people was basically the middle class – the people who worked white-collar jobs on computers or in offices. The working-class were still out there keeping society running by stacking shelves, delivering parcels, nursing patients, and working on factory assembly lines. Yes, like my other working-class comrades, I was a modern-day hero – a hero who stood at a conveyor-belt line all day helping people get their orders of luxury anal lube. I tried that angle when girls asked what it was that I did but it appeared for some reason many weren’t too impressed by my heroics. Still, I didn’t care – I had my premium Belgian lager and fake Cuban cigars while sitting in the sun on a Wednesday afternoon. I was a success in my own mind for the time being.
I carried on sifting through the profiles of potential lockdown lovers, mindlessly swiping left and right like a bewitched addict. I eventually matched with some girl called Eloise. She popped up asking me where a photo of myself on a mountain was taken. She herself had pictures of her in the woods and walking her dogs. All in all, she seemed like an actual human-being; there were no fake lips, ridiculous pouts, and her face wasn’t totally plastered in makeup. Our conversation quickly started flowing. We talked about hiking and camping. We talked about our lives and music and what we were doing to stay sane. I didn’t know whether it was cause we were both bored as hell or there was an actual connection between us, but we ended up talking for hours on end. I sat there in my parents garden texting her until the sun went down and my beers had run dry. It seemed that for once I actually had found a girl I enjoyed talking to.
I eventually put my phone down and took myself inside the house. I poured myself a juice and went to sit in the living room where my parents were reliably found watching their five hours of TV for the evening. They asked me if I knew I was going to be working in the morning.
“Well, I’ll definitely go in, but it depends how much work they have for me whether I’ll stay or not.”
“It’s ridiculous that is,” my dad said. “Making you go into work and then sending you home. They should give you half a day’s pay just for dragging you in.”
“Yeah, well, it’s Amazon. They’re not exactly known for treating their workers with any respect or dignity.” (Of course, Amazon weren’t ‘sending me home’, rather I was volunteering to go home and sit in my parent’s garden all day, but they didn’t need to know that.)
“So what are your plans when all this is over?” my mum asked.
“I’ll probably just stay here now I reckon. I’m quite happy here chilling in the garden all day with a few beers.” I really couldn’t resist throwing some bait out.
“Yes, well you can forget about that,” my dad snapped. “As soon as this is over you’ll have to go out and get your own place or start paying £100 a week at least. You’re thirty years old now; you were too old to be staying here five years ago, let alone now.” I sat there with a bored and blank stare. Every line that came out of their mouths was so painfully predictable that you could see it from a mile off. I thought they were done but then my mum repeated a line she had used about fifty times previously.
“I just don’t understand why you got that degree if you didn’t want to use it. Your sister got her degree and is now working in what she studied…”
“Good for her, but I don’t want what she wants.”
“Well, you should do. You should already be earning £30,000 a year by now with your degree. You should be aiming for £40,000, £50,000…. Even more. Not doing whatever the hell it is that you’re doing – which is nothing. Why don’t you get a proper job, like everybody else.”
“No thanks,” I said, after a moment of non-reflection. “I don’t wanna be another person who spends all the days of my life at work, then comes home to watch TV for five hours before going to sleep. And then only use the money for things that I don’t need and make me miserable – like a rug.” Such a clear personal swipe set my dad off on a rant, saying some vague things about me being brainwashed, and deluded, and whatever else it was that explained why I thought differently to them. I wanted to tell them not to bother procreating just to pressure their offspring into living a life that only satisfies themselves, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered. I simply realised the cold, harsh reality of my current existential situation and went up to my bedroom for some much-needed solitude. I then looked up out the window at those stars once again. I imagined meeting sneaking off to meet this girl somewhere, and running off to start a new life in the forest. I imagined living in peace and harmony like the squirrels. I imagined spending the rest of my days in some sort of tolerable space.
The days at work recommenced as the warehouse got busy again. Each morning I’d look around for the angel with the notepad coming around to ask if I wanted to go home, but sadly he was nowhere to be found. It appeared there was no escape out into the spring sunshine, and the long days at work were back as the norm. Fortunately I had at least managed to get myself back onto the inbound section of work where I could stand alone and not talk to anyone. I was back to living in my own head and daydreaming the days away. I was also spending a lot of time texting Eloise on my phone. At work we, of course, weren’t permitted to use our phones. Not a problem; I left some boxes stacked on my workstation and used them as cover while I texted her throughout the day. Sometimes I’d even go for a fifteen-minute toilet break just to spend some time chatting to her. I didn’t even need to daydream the days away by writing my new literary masterpiece in my head; I could simply write to her while imagining how it would be when we finally met. I knew my work-rate was going to be even poorer than usual, and I was waiting for the man with the laptop to come around and get me to justify my incompetence. There was nothing really to say, other than I didn’t care. I was really at the stage where any concern for my job was zero – a dismissal at this point would have been a sweet and merciful relief.
While texting Eloise, I couldn’t help but let my mind run away with the idea of meeting this girl somewhere during the lockdown. I was a man of daydream fantasy; of letting stories and events take place in my imagination. I was comfortable with that because I could control them and make them exactly what I pleased – unlike reality which was brutally out of your hands. There was nothing your imagination could do when the whole situation turned to shit as things, of course, usually did. Still, I knew I couldn’t hold on to this daydream forever and we made actual plans to meet on the coming weekend.
She wasn’t actually from my city, but a small town 20 miles north. She drove down and parked in a pub carpark near to a countryside park. Before meeting her, the only thing I could focus on was my hair – it was a bushy mess that hadn’t been cut in almost three months on account of all the barbers being closed. Still, apart from the anxiety of my disheveled appearance, it was closest thing to excitement I’d felt in a while in this society that had made any sort of fun illegal.
We met in the carpark and said our first awkward hello. Then we started walking slowly around the countryside park, chatting about life, exchanging stories of our last years. She was a pale, blonde girl – a couple of years younger myself, with blue eyes and a sad but compelling look on her face. I could see there was a pain there – some sort of story that hadn’t been told or expressed – and I couldn’t help but be fascinated by her as we walked without any particular destination. The spring sunshine was still out and we eventually found a secluded place under a tree to have a picnic. This naturally led to our first kiss and eventually a little more. Sex was usually as exciting as this life got anyway, but when it was out in a public place during a national lockdown, well, I was sure that was the top thrill a person could possibly experience at that moment in time.
After a while, we got speaking about camping and decided that we’d drive back up to hers, grab her tent, and find a place somewhere to stay the night. This ended up being Sherwood forest, the home of the mythical legend Robin Hood. We pitched our tent in a secluded spot surrounded by ancient trees before opening the wine and playing some card games. Eventually we got into our sleeping bags and cuddled up while listening to some ambient music. I lay there drifting off appreciating that there was even a movie-like romance to the whole thing. The circumstance of meeting during the pandemic lockdown, and of sneaking off to go camping illegally, made it seem like we were characters in some sort of scripted story – one that was actually interesting. The whole country was gripped by fear and hysteria but there we were doing our own thing, making love in the woods, drinking wine under the stars and chatting about whatever drifted through our confused minds. For once in my life I considered that this girl was something more than another meaningless exchange of sex and temporary company. Maybe it was the whole lockdown situation getting to me, but for once I considered a normal, peaceful life alongside a woman. I considered a life of harmony and home. A life without war or wandering. A life without being indifferent and detached from it all. A life where I wasn’t just killing time while waiting to die.
I eventually got word of a little trick workers in the warehouse were using to get an extra two weeks’ holiday. The government had put in a law that if you or anyone in your household had come down with or shown symptoms of Covid-19, then you were entitled to two week’s paid leave from work as a way to help stop the spread of the virus. There was nothing your employer could do but comply; it was the law, and they couldn’t even demand proof of your claims. It was one of the few times a worker could take total advantage of their employer, and it seemed that magically everyone in the warehouse had – at some point – been living with an infected person. It seemed stupid not to also stick it to Amazon and get my two weeks’ paid leave. It was a small victory for the little man in the war that he could only naturally lose over a lifetime.
I rang them up the next day. “Yeah, my parents have just come down with symptoms. A bad cough, a fever, loss of taste and smell… I think it’s best I stay off work until we know what it is.” I usually hated chatting bullshit, but this time that bullshit coming from my mouth tasted ever so sweet. For the sake of health and safety, they had to believe everything I said, take down my details, and withdraw me from work. I put down the phone and stood there with a surreal feeling. It really was that easy; I now had two weeks’ paid freedom from the warehouse of doom. Like the owners and shareholders, I was getting money for doing nothing.
I spent the next days really hammering into my new book project. This lockdown situation was raising my creativity and one morning I managed to fire off 4000 words in one sitting. I could hear the voices of doubt once again in my head telling me I was deluded and stupid and that it was a waste of time, but I simply didn’t care. At this point being deluded and stupid and wasting my time was my own private religion. There was something nice about it, even courageous. I guess we were all deluded and stupid and wasting our time to a degree. I only had to watch my dad using his wages to order his 22nd pair of jeans or 33rd T-shirt or 7th pair of shoes. Yes, truly this was what life was all about and I was doing it in my own way, once again attempting to create literature with an edgy dystopian novel that sounded great in my own head, but probably caused anyone else reading to roll their eyes in utter disinterest.
I did all of this while sat in my parent’s garden, drinking those Belgian beers and getting a tan unlike I’d ever had before. Of course, I also spent a lot of time chatting to Eloise who was taking over my mind more than I was comfortable with. After our little camping trip, I wanted to see her again at the nearest opportunity. Such a feeling was strange. Here at the age of thirty, my hard shell may have finally been cracking and I was feeling enamoured by another human-being. Naturally, I weighed up whether she was just another escape – an escape from my parents, my job, myself, and my general living situation – but I wasn’t so sure. There was an actual feeling of joy from speaking to her as my fingers typed away for sometimes hours on my phone. Naturally I was cautious and untrusting of this foreign feeling, but I followed it anyway. There really wasn’t a choice in the matter. I was a passenger on some sort of strange trip I hadn’t taken before.
Our next meeting was for two days over the weekend. Again, we loaded up on food, wine and music playlists, then found a place we could go and camp. This time we headed out to the Peak District in the centre of the country. Camping at this point was strictly forbidden so we walked for a while along a path before finding a hidden section of woodland where we could reside in peace. We set up our tent beside a stream and made some lunch. Then we went on a hike to the top of a big hill that overlooked a valley. With the sun setting over the rolling green hills, we drank from a bottle of wine and chatted about life. She was soon drunk and told me about her ex-boyfriend. She also told me she had had an abortion, and that her mother was abusive as a child, and that she had been ‘taken advantage of’ when she was a teenager. My initial inclination of her being a hurt soul were true. I guess I was no guru or genius; almost everybody was hurt or damaged in some way, but some were clearly more wounded than others. I think her vulnerability and damage only attracted me more towards her. I knew the general consent was not to go for damaged people, but I couldn’t help but be allured by such marred creatures. Probably I was just attracted to one of my own kind, but also I was always distrusting of those who bore little damage. Surely they had used some sort of cheat to make it through the fire without being burnt. Surely they didn’t know what it was really like to be human. Surely there was something wrong with them by having everything right with them.
Eventually the sun started to set and we made our way back down to the campsite. We cuddled up together in our sleeping bags as the soft sound of the music from the speaker played. Raindrops pattered on the leaves on the trees above while we lay there like we were in some sort of womb or cocoon.
“So what is it you’re looking for?” she asked me, just after a kiss.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, in life. You seem to be like me, in a transient place in your life, what is it you want for your future after all this pandemic shit is done?”
“A beer down the pub, I guess.”
“Come on Bryan, seriously…”
“Well, you deserve honesty, and the truth is I don’t really know. I’ve always just kind of drifted around and meandered through life. I only went to university because it was easier than getting a job and nothing much has really held my attention for too long. I don’t have any attraction to some sort of job, or goal, or grand purpose. I like writing but I don’t expect that to amount to anything really. I guess I’m just looking for a place that is tolerable. Some sort of way of getting by and seeing out this life without having to endure too much trouble or discomfort.”
“You don’t hope for much, do you?”
“I’m just realistic about things.”
“I’m not so sure. I think I see more lust for life than just that in your eyes. You speak like a pessimist, but I think within you is a disappointed idealist. You can’t just be looking for a ‘tolerable space’ – there’s more to life than that. I’ve had rough times and felt defeated many times in my life. But still, I can’t help but hope for something better in the future. A future with a home, a family, a reason for being, you know? A future with peace and happiness and even excitement about what each day brings. Don’t you want all of those things? Life is a struggle yes, but don’t you want to get something great out of it?” At that point I could feel that she was sussing me out and trying to ascertain if I was actually compatible with the kind of future she wanted. When she talked about family and home, I couldn’t help but think of my parents’ life. That way of life had only seemed like a secret prison to me and I didn’t see how I could get anything out of it other than the feeling of being trapped even more than I already was. This is the problem with getting too close to a woman, I thought. They eventually wanted you to settle down into their suburban, happy family fantasy which nearly always turned out in wreckage. You had the divorces, the alcoholism, the arguments, the quiet desperation as the days drifted on and on without any spark. The smiling family photos were veils to the truth of the suffocating reality that most people lived in. I didn’t know what to say something that would disappoint her. The last thing someone like her needed was to crush or belittle her one dream that kept her limping on across the tempestuous plains of life.
“It’s good for you that you know what you want and I hope you get what you’re looking for. But for me, I guess I’ll just see what life brings, if anything at all.” After I said that, we both went quiet and drifted off to sleep as the rain continued to drip down upon our tent from the trees above.