This post is dedicated to my daughter, and to all others who are currently undergoing quarantine and self-isolation due to COVID-19.
When she first spotted the message on her mobile, sent by the quarantine police (as she liked to call them) scarcely an hour after arriving back home in Kraków in the middle of the night, she felt really irritated. The message had stated:
Mandatory quarantine can be regulated by the government application: Home Quarantine. You will find it in the App Store as well as in Google Play.
There was absolutely no way she could have contracted the coronavirus! And yet here she was, an enforced domestic convict without a crime, which was an oxymoron but she didn’t care. She was just so pissed off about this whole quarantine thing!
So she’d registered on the app. What choice did she have? Now was hardly the time to be bloody-minded and rebellious.
How she hated that nasty, insidious, intercontinental virus! Look at the havoc it had caused – university courses suspended, all exams to be administered online, all socialising strictly forbidden … and now here she was, back home from the London School of Economics, sentenced to two weeks of quarantine.
But things could be worse, she forced herself to consider. She could be in Italy. Or living in a tiny flat with a dysfunctional family. No escape from any of the abusers. She could be claustrophobic. She could actually have the coronavirus and be desperately ill. Some young people were also infected.
At least there was plenty of room in her house. And at least she got on well with her mum, who was always either at her laptop writing stories, or keeping up with work emails, or playing the piano. Her mum had threatened to write a story about quarantine. She just hoped that it wouldn’t include her in it.
And at least she had a lovely bedroom. And a balcony overlooking the Vistula river, meaning she could step outside and enjoy fresh air and a pretty view whenever the need overwhelmed her. (The small back garden wasn’t much use, due to being all mangled and chewed and dug up by their wretched Belgian Malinois hound.) She guessed that over the coming days she’d be spending rather a lot of time standing on that balcony gazing out at the silent street, almost totally devoid of traffic; and the indifferent river, still flowing as though nothing at all had changed in anyone’s lives.
The quarantine app was a brilliant device that the Secret Services had concocted in order to check up on you. Their cunning masterplan was to send tasks out to all quarantined people in the country, at any time of day, and to request that the given task be completed within twenty minutes. That was to make sure you really were at home, not roaming the streets indulging in a clandestine meeting with your boy/girlfriend. Doing naughty things behind the bushes in a park. Not that she had a boyfriend (anymore). Or wanted one. As if life wasn’t complicated enough! And now, with all this coronamania … who needed complications of the heart, as well as of the brain, for fuck’s sake?
It was all very 1984-ish. George Orwellian. The Secret Services had assumed the role of Big Brother throughout the country. Probably similar things were going on throughout the entire world.
Upon waking up on her first morning of quarantine, the first task the app asked her to do was take a selfie. Well, that was easy! She took it within seconds of opening the message and duly sent it to whoever was being paid to examine her youthful face at the other end, wherever the other end was. Somewhere over the rainbow? In a police car patrolling the streets? But no, according to the app, they only informed the police if you didn’t respond to their test within the mandated twenty-minute deadline.
The second task came on the second day. Another selfie! Was this all they were going to require of her? Maybe the anonymous person who was examining her photo over the rainbow was enjoying looking at her pretty face? Maybe he was planning on asking her to send him a new pic every day, and make an album of ‘Sexy Quarantine Babes’? Something to drool over when he had nothing better to do? That is, if it was a he. Somehow, she hoped it was. And surprised herself by giggling.
Third day. This time it definitely was a he. As in the young-sounding man who phoned her to ask if she’d mind stepping out onto the balcony and giving him a wave, so that he could see that she really was who she was supposed to be, and that she really was home where she was supposed to be, and then tick her off his list of possible quarantine truants.
So she slipped her soft cuddly cardigan over her delicate shoulders, pushed open the stiff balcony door, and stepped out into the chilly March air. Begrudgingly acquiescing to the uniformed man’s wishes, she gave him the requisite wave.
He looked up at her, and waved back.
Despite her irritation, she had to admit that he was … well, to put it in poncy terms, a fine specimen of masculine virility in its prime. Tall, lean, dirty blond hair, classic Slavonic blue eyes (she could tell they were blue even from her first-floor balcony; that’s how blue they were), with a coy touch of awkwardness that made him kind of cute and naïve, rather than suave and arrogant.
“Are you Miss xxx?” he called up to her in a deep voice that matched his totally cool looks. At least they hadn’t sent an ancient, grey-haired, pot-bellied cop round her way. Things could definitely be worse.
He couldn’t have been much older than her. Early to mid-twenties, she’d guess. Had he also gone to university? Did policemen go to university? Or was he a quarantine officer? Did they go to uni? But he looked too young to be any kind of officer. He was probably just a junior cop, sent out by government on a mission to fight the viral enemy.
If she confessed to him that she’d broken her quarantine yesterday by nipping out to the local shop when her mum was in the bath, would he have fined her the threatened 5000 zloty fine? Or fined her mum? She herself didn’t have 5000 zloty to spare. Would he get furious with her? Would that drop-dead gorgeous smile vanish from his cute face? (Of course she hadn’t really nipped out to the local shop. She wouldn’t dare!)
“Miss? are you -”
“Oh, sorry!” she called down to him, curtailing her daydreams. “Yes, that’s me.”
“Thank you,” he said, opening up a little pad and jotting something down in it.
Then he looked back at her. “How are you feeling?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“But you are checking your temperature twice a day, I take it?
What? No one told her she was supposed to that!!
“Of course,” she quickly replied. Didn’t want to go to prison for violating quarantine orders.
He checked something on his mobile, then returned his burning-blue eyes to her.
“So everything’s okay?”
Ah, how nice to be able to stand on one’s balcony and chat with a gorgeous young policeman, and not even have to raise your voice above the usual din of traffic from the busy road below. Now all was silence. All was peace and calm, just the gentle lapping of the river, the occasional splash of a duck skidding to a watery halt. And now … the voice of this young lanky man in blue.
“Everything’s fine,” she repeated, and suddenly it occurred to her how uncannily like Romeo & Juliet this balcony scene was. Just without the romance.
“Anything you need?”
“No, as I said, I’m fine.”
“Okay, then I’ll leave you to it.” He snapped his notebook shut.
“Leave me to what?” she said, astounded at her own bravery. Or was it stupidity?
“Well – you know. Your studying. Online, of course.”
“How do you know I’m a student?”
He actually blushed, as though caught out in the act of stalking her. “My notes say you’re a student at the London School of Economics.”
“Your notes actually say that?”
She frowned. Then swallowed. “It doesn’t seem fair that you know all sorts of stuff about me, and I know nothing about you.”
Hah! She’d flustered him!
But then he relented. “Okay. My name’s Marek Kowalski. So, there you are. Now you know something about me.” He grinned up at her.
She brushed away a wisp of hair that a sudden breeze had blown into the corner of her mouth. “So … are you going to, like, be checking up on me every day?”
He shook his head. “I might be back, I might not. It’s out of my control.”
“But -” he glanced to his left and right, as though checking for any dangling secret recording devices, “I certainly hope to be back.” His blue eyes crinkled at her.
And at last, she smiled. “Well, you know where to find me. I’m not going anywhere.”
They both laughed, their mutual gazes locked somewhere in coronaspace.
“Everything all right, sweetheart?” her mother’s voice sailed from the kitchen.
“Yes, fine!” she called back, for once actually believing her automatic response. Things could definitely be worse, that’s for sure.
Maybe all this self-isolation lark wasn’t going to be so bad, after all?