With each fit of coughing my lungs rear themselves up with the swell of a great ocean, as strange images present themselves inside my mind. I am not myself when I am sick, but vulnerable and so easily swept away through strong currents of unwellness. And all the while my body is wanting, willing me back to the easier times of good health that I pine for. I pray each coughing fit is the last as I sit on my bed, hating the weakness within, while fear continues to rise up within, prickling the surface of my skin.
Still I know I must do something and take a deep breath against it. For it is enough now to just keep breathing. But this fear isn’t all mine, it grows stronger, becoming a collective, spreading more rapidly than the virus it has inspired. Yet after one particularly bad fit of coughing my lungs seem to comfort me, like two soft cushions at my back and I find myself loving and appreciating them for it. A thing I’ve never done before.
A few days later I am driving toward the Covid-19 Test Centre, a run-down school that has been closed for several years. The swings in the playground are not broken, and I wish I could sit on them, feeling the breeze of more innocent times on my slumped shoulders. But I’m not allowed to leave the car, having been instructed to roll up my windows on entering.
A Security Guard hand signals me to stop and I have to wait several minutes while the hot May sun draws perspiration through my hairline. I wipe it away, looking in the rearview mirror at my grey roots, which suddenly appear to be so much stronger. Then I roll down the window as the Security Guard approaches, handing me an information pack before quickly stepping back to the required social distance. He gestures where to park before moving me on. As I pull in and stop, I count five other cars with masked drivers taking up all the spaces, so I keep my windows rolled up and put on my mask. The world outside has slowed down to the beat of our communal breaths as we watch each other and wait.
My breath sounds uncomfortable and forced, reminding me of Darth Vadar. I check my phone which is hard to read, as the mask nearly covers my eyes. Yet wearing it I notice I am aware of everyone here and everything. The air inside the car becomes hot and heavy and I know I must open the window, but I don’t want to. The virus could so easily be out there, ascending through the air to the summer sun and my lungs have had enough to contend with. Still my breath heaves in the warm stuffy air so I have to give in and window goes down. I hope my mask will protect me. Because in spite of everything, I don’t believe I have Covid-19.
The Security Guard approaches again, telling me to follow my neighbouring car which has just reversed out. So I drive on in slow silence, away from the playground. Rounding a corner with only the muffled sounds of tyres rolling over ramps to relieve my introspection. A younger masked Security Guard approaches the car, as a single story off-white building with a tunnelled entrance reveals itself. It’s all very E.T. and I jump as my phone rings but, not recognising the number, I do not answer.
The Security Guard motions me to reverse, and I keep going until he tells me to stop. Then a Nurse in protective clothing walks out of the building and everything begins to slow down again. She motions me to roll down my window, and observing the required social distance, asks loudly if I just received a phone call, explaining it was from her.
She goes through the procedure of swabbing the back of my throat and inside my nose. I look at her uneasily, even though there is kindness and concern in her demeanor. But none of this is normal and nobody can make it that way. She asks me how I am feeling as a fit of coughing engulfs my reply of ‘not too bad.’ She swiftly backs away while I cover my mouth with both hands, turning in the opposite direction, thinking how tiresome all of this is.
She makes three extremely uncomfortable swabs to the back of my throat with a cotton bud before she is successful, and I gag several times before she is happy with her specimen. Then having a cotton bud pushed up through my nostril is equally as awful but necessary. When she is all done, she tells me to look after myself as I turn the car around, happily driving out of there and back into the sunshine.
But I realise again how unfamiliar my world has become as I push my foot down slightly on the accelerator. I watching people out walking as they’ve always done, but now no-one is talking. Children no longer run around and play, but cycle quietly alongside their parents. We are all carrying the weight of wanting our normal to return. But how long will it be? Nobody really knows. We all hope the end is in sight. But maybe, like a rainbow, it will always be just around the next corner.
Joyce Butler is married with two children and lives and works in Waterford, Ireland. She has been shortlisted twice for the Atlantis Short Story Contest, with one of the stories published in their inaugural Short Story Collection, 2019. She has also had several poems and essays published.