Manchester, 18th March 2020
We sit out on the step between the fire escape and the gutter, cigarette smoke rolling up to the sky. A thin orange light from the gap in the open door slants across the pavement at our feet, and behind is the warmth of the pub and the sound on the telly of Boris Johnson’s latest statement. The death toll has risen but our doors are still open. I lay my head on your shoulder and watch the cigarette smoke continue upwards towards the tower blocks on either side and up to the starless sky above. You kiss the side of my head, cigarette smoke curling into my hair, as you flick the ash away into the needle-pocked gutter. There are voices behind us in the pub, although these become fainter and fewer each day as the number of cases rises and the urges to stay indoors and distance ourselves grow louder. Yet still, our doors are open. We must wait it out. We cannot afford to close until told to, but we can not afford this many staff while it is so empty. No one can. Yet still, we must open our doors and take our cigarette breaks on the step outside the fire escape in-between serving the pocketful of customers that come in each evening. So each morning, we open and wait.
You finish your cigarette and throw the stub into the darkness and the gutter. The last of the smoke disappears upwards into the sky. You stand up and brush yourself down, then take my hand and help me up, and then with one last kiss on the top of my head, we head back into the warmth of the pub, closing the fire escape door behind us.
Born in Essex, Rebecca Metcalfe studied at the University of Chester and then at the University of Liverpool. She now lives in an attic in Manchester with two black cats and (pandemic permitting) works part time in a museum and part time in a restaurant. She can be found on Twitter at @beckyannwriter