“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.”
It wasn’t a shock. As a 39-year-old asthmatic, I had already stopped going out for anything other than food for a week now, as the spread of COVID-19 became more and more alarming.
But now I didn’t even want to go out to the shops, I told my daughter on FaceTime. She was in New Zealand on her gap year, where flights back to the UK were rapidly dwindling.
“I’m sure we can find someone to pick up some food for you, Mum,” she told me. “I bet if you asked Dad-”
“I’m not asking him.”
“Okay… what about your friends? Is there anyone at the gallery-”
“No one nearby, Elsie. And I’m sure they’ve all got their own problems to worry about. I don’t want to be-”
“You’re not, Mum. I’m pretty sure I still have some friends around home, I’ll post on my Facebook, hang on-”
“Post what, Elsie? Elsie?”
“Done. I just said that you’re asthmatic and have to self-isolate and asked if there’s anyone nearby who can help you with your shopping.”
Got someone! You remember my old tutor, David? He’s staying with his mum at the moment in the flat beneath ours. He’s offered to help you out- text him.
David Tutor – add to contacts
I remembered David. He had tutored Elsie in her 11+ exams when she was applying for grammar school. His mother was quite elderly now, and I was glad to hear she had someone looking after her, though it didn’t surprise me. David had always been a very nice boy. But I still didn’t want to ask someone I hardly knew to help.
My phone buzzed with another message, and when I saw it my heart twisted.
Everything all right, Dawn? I saw you’re in self-isolation, do you need me to get you anything? Anything you need, just ask.
It was from Rob, Elsie’s father and my ex-husband. We had split up five years ago, when he confessed his year-long affair with a friend’s wife. The affair hadn’t outlasted our divorce.
Elsie had told me he had since cleaned up his act, but I tried to no longer think of him. We had been on the edge of twenty years together when he had confessed his affair. He had been my first love. We had grown up together, had Elsie together, and I had supported him through various failing ventures, giving up being my career a full-time artist. He had thrown all of that away. And yet, when I received messages like this from him… I was the one who felt bad.
So I texted David.
I was in the shower the next day when my doorbell rang, and on my doorstep were two bags of shopping. He had managed to get everything I’d asked for, and a packet of shortbread, which hadn’t been on my list.
I mentioned this to Elsie when we spoke later that night, and she told me David had asked her what he could buy that would cheer me up in self-isolation. Shortbread had always been a treat in our house.
Elsie had not been able to get a flight back, as the only flights available were more than we could afford, as the gallery had closed for the foreseeable future. She assured me that she was absolutely fine staying with her friends, and returned to talking about David.
“He was always lovely. Don’t you remember him offering to water the plants for us when we went to Italy that summer? I’m surprised he’s not married by now, if I’m honest. He’s gorgeous, don’t you think?
“What?” I laughed.
“I had a huge crush on him, with those long eyelashes and dimples,” Elsie laughed. “My first big crush, I think. You didn’t notice?”
“I didn’t see him today, he just dropped off the shopping.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll notice, when you see him.”
“Wasn’t he way older than you?”
“Yeah, ten years. But that didn’t put me off at eleven, and it won’t now!”
“Okay,” I said, laughing. “I’ll let you know.”
But I didn’t see David again when he dropped off my groceries the week after, or the week after that. But one day, there was an envelope inside one of the bags.
I opened it and inside was a plain white card with a geometric design of a bird on the front. The bird was silver, with orange tips to its wings, and its head was thrown back as if in the middle of a loud cry. I recognised it as the same bird which stood on my dining table, a sculpture of twisted wire. Even though the style was completely different, I knew it at once. Even the lines in the design echoed exactly where the wire twisted to create the anatomy of my sculpture.
I opened the card.
Happy birthday Dawn!
I’m so sorry you have to spend your birthday alone. But if you like, I added a bottle of my favourite wine, and as it’s set to be a nice evening, we could both have a drink on our balconies together to toast your birthday.
The gesture made me well up. I had been trying to keep busy today, cleaning the flat again, talking to my colleagues at the gallery, ignoring the Rob’s texts wishing me happy birthday and asking if he could come over. But the melancholy of spending my 40th alone, with my daughter so far away, had sunk in anyway.
I texted David.
Thank you so much, David. I’d love to.
So, after dinner, I poured myself a glass of his wine and went out to sit on my balcony.
It wasn’t much of a view, mainly obscured by the office block across the street, but you could see a slice of the park, and the sun was setting over it, casting long shadows over the green.
“Dawn?” A voice asked from beneath me.
“David, hi! What a lovely evening, you were right. How did you know it was my birthday? Oh, wait, Elsie?”
“Yes, she told me.”
“And the bird? Did she send you the card or something?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I designed that.”
“You did? But- it’s exactly like the-”
“I know,” I thought I heard embarrassment in his voice. “I loved that sculpture when I used to visit. The silver phoenix. I’ve still never seen anything like it.” Just as I was wondering whether I should admit I made it while I was at art school, he added, “You are very talented.”
“How did you know it is mine?”
“You told me once. Elsie was back late from school, and while we were waiting for her, you told me about your work.”
“You did! I actually went to see the exhibition you were working on after you told me about it. The blindfolded maze? It was incredible.”
“Really?” The blindfolded maze had been my first art installation, when I moved away from visual sculptures and towards a more sensory experience. Viewers would arrive individually in specific time-slots, were blindfolded, and entered a maze with a group of strangers. The walls themselves were tactile, made of different fabrics, and the floor changed throughout the maze, from crunching pebbles to sand to wood chippings. But the feel of the maze was a distraction. “How did you find it?”
“I really enjoyed it. I had a really good group, and they noticed how some of the floor textures kept coming back- that we were walking in circles.”
“Did you figure it out?”
“Only when we came out, after. It was a labyrinth, right? Only one path, all the way through?”
“I wanted to see how people responded to taking a journey with people they didn’t know. I found that the vulnerability of the blindfolds brought people together- they spoke the way no one usually does with strangers, and they helped each other through. They were small groups, but almost everyone always came out altogether, even though they didn’t know each other going in.”
David was silent for a few moments.
“I like that very much.” He paused. “You know, it was after talking to you that I decided to change my degree.”
“Really? What did you study? You were doing Chemistry, last I can remember.”
“I changed to Graphic Design. I’d been unsure about Chemistry throughout my first year, and I had really missed my Art A Level. And that day, we had a long talk about your career, and about how art is used to connect people, and after that I applied to transfer courses. I never saw you alone after that to talk to you about it, and guess I was too shy to tell you what an effect you’d had on me.”
“Wow,” I replied, astonished. “So what do you do now?”
“I’m a graphic designer. I work for an agency which helps charities run campaigns for social change.”
“That’s fantastic, David. Do you enjoy it?”
“I love it. I’ll show you what we do, sometime, if you like.”
“I’d like that very much.”
David and I began to have a sunset drink together every night. He told me about the campaign he was working on remotely to fundraise for meals for vulnerable children. I told him about the gallery’s plans to publish the VR exhibition we had been planning for this summer online.
One day, he set up a projector and screened My Tutor, an 80s coming-of-age romance, on the office block opposite us. We realised we weren’t the only ones watching it when, in one of the racy scenes, we heard a couple giggling above us.
The movie had been about a failing student who had begun an affair with his older tutor. It had been his suggestion. I wondered if perhaps Elsie’s feelings had not been one-sided.
I began to accept calls from Elsie’s father, at her repeated request. He told me about walking his neighbour’s dog and picking up groceries. He clearly wanted me to believe he was a changed man, but the conversations were the same, one-sided monologues they had been for years before the divorce.
“I wish I could… have another go. Make different decisions,” I told David that night.
“Your marriage, you mean?”
“At life. I don’t regret my marriage. It brought me Elsie. And our love was beautiful when we were young. We grew up together, became adults together, parents together. But after that… I wish I’d seen how different we had become. If I’d realised that sooner, we could have had a happy ending, not a soiled one, and I wouldn’t have spent the past few years feeling like I wasn’t enough. But I was too romantic- I thought it had to be my first love, or none at all.”
“It is a powerful thing, a first love.”
“You’re not over yours, yet, either?”
“No, I’m not,” he replied, and would say no more about it.
The day lockdown was lifted, Elsie’s father called. He wanted to reconnect. This crisis had changed him, he missed me, he wanted to rebuild.
Had he changed? Could we really rebuild what we had lost?
The doorbell rang. I knew who it was before I opened the door.
I meant to thank him. But in all this time, I had never seen David’s face. Looking at him now, I couldn’t find the breath to speak.
His smile had not changed, and neither had the way he looked at me. He was so familiar, and yet, his face and his posture spoke of the maturity he had grown into.
He wasn’t holding my groceries today. Just a bottle of the wine we had shared every night for so long.
“Shall we drink together, tonight?” He asked.
I held open the door.
A first love is a short story written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2020, with the writing prompts: Romance / Isolation / A graphic designer.
Great writing Nina