Days Like These - Liz Champion

Days Like These

The story below is a little different to my usual Slice of Life stories. It’s longer — more a full cake than a slice. It’s a 20-minute read. I hope you enjoy it.

Days Like These

Wednesday 30 December 2020

‘It’s sold out,’ Chris says when I walk into the kitchen early on Wednesday morning.

‘What do you mean, sold out?’ I ask. ‘There were 800 tickets yesterday.’

‘No, 800 tickets on Monday. Yesterday it’d gone down to 86.’

‘And they’ve all gone?’

He nods and holds out his phone to show me the website. Sold out, it says in big red letters.

‘We should have booked.’ I know I’m stating the obvious. ‘Why didn’t we book?’

‘You said to leave it until on the day — see what the weather was doing.’

‘My fault…’ I pull out a chair and slump down. ‘I didn’t think they’d sell out. Olivia will be so disappointed. I’m disappointed.’

After not seeing my niece for weeks, not even over Christmas, I’d promised her a day out — somewhere outside where we could spend time with her but minimise the virus risk for everyone. A visit to the sculpture park seemed perfect. I didn’t expect 800 other people to have the same idea.

‘We’ll have to do something else,’ Chris says, looking just as upset as I feel, but trying to sound positive.

After months of living with coronavirus, my positivity tank is empty. ‘Yes, but what? There’s a pandemic on. Everything’s shut.’

‘We’ll think of something,’ he says, and the way he says it, with such optimism, really annoys me.

‘This always happens to us.’ My voice is rising. ‘We can’t organise anything.’ I take a deep breath, trying but failing to stay calm.

The stress and anxiety I’ve felt about the pandemic has built up so much lately that the slightest thing triggers a major meltdown. In the last few weeks, the online supermarket shop, which should be a straightforward transaction, has reduced me to tears, twice. I know I’m not being rational, but I can’t help it. My ability to cope has been pushed to its limit. I need to calm down.

Chris makes us a cup of tea and we sit in the kitchen, staring out of the window — me calming down, him thinking of exciting ways to entertain an eight-year-old in the middle of a pandemic. We sip our drinks in silence, waiting for inspiration to strike.

It doesn’t. When I’ve finished my tea, I stand up and move towards the kettle. ‘Do you want another?’

Chris nods. ‘Please.’

I fill the kettle, flick the switch, and wait impatiently for it to boil. Outside, the sky is heavy. ‘It looks like it might snow.’ And I’ve no sooner said it than the flakes are falling. Slow and steady at first, but then faster. In a few minutes, a light dusting covers the patio. A few minutes more and the world has turned white.

‘It’s a good job we didn’t book those tickets.’ I pass Chris his tea. ‘We’re not going anywhere today.’

‘We’ve saved ourselves £12,’ Chris, ever the accountant, says.

We sit at the table, sipping tea and watching the snow swirling and settling. I form a plan. ‘We’ll blame the snow and rearrange for Sunday. That’s the only other day she’s free. It should have melted by then… surely?’

Chris nods and smiles. ‘No one needs to know that we didn’t book.’

‘Exactly.’

I phone Olivia. ‘We’ll have to postpone our day out until the snow’s melted. We’ll go on Sunday instead.’

‘Okay, Auntie Liz,’ she says. ‘I’m going outside to build a snowman.’ Her voice is high, not even the slightest hint of disappointment. And that makes me happy. 

I say goodbye, and feeling calm and in control again, go straight online to book tickets. It’s only when I’m filling in my details that I worry that 800 people in one place is a lot. My worries deepen when a warning pops up on the screen.

Mixing in public is dangerous.

My heart does a strange flutter. Since when did a visit to the sculpture park come with a danger warning. These are crazy days. ‘Do you think we’ll be okay?’

‘I suppose where there’s people, there’s risk,’ Chris says.

‘But if they’ve sold 800 tickets, it’s a lot of people.’

‘It’s a big place. And they’re obviously following guidelines.’

I hold my finger over the pay now button, not sure what to do. But then I think of Olivia. In normal times, we see her all the time, but in days like these we’ve hardly seen her. ‘I’ve missed her so much.’

‘Me too,’ Chris says.

I press the button. It’s a risk we have to take.

Sunday 3 January 2021

When Sunday comes, it’s cold and icy, snow still on the ground, but the sun is shining. I’m not brave enough to tackle the snowy hills of Holmfirth in my little Yaris, so we arrange to meet my sister and Olivia in the Co-op car park at eleven o’clock.

They are already there when we turn in — parked at the far end, away from shoppers. Olivia is hanging out of the door, dressed in a bright pink coat with matching hat, scarf and gloves. She spots us and starts waving.

I beep the car horn. She waves more. ‘Auntie Liz, Uncle Chris,’ she shouts. ‘You’re here.’

I wave back. ‘Oh, look at her.’

‘She’s so lovely,’ Chris says.

The pair of us are on the brink of tears. I take a deep breath. Chris does the same.

My sister climbs out of her car and bundles Olivia into ours. ‘She’s looking forward to a day out,’ she says. ‘And so am I. I’ll get some peace.’ She’s back in her car and driving away before I’ve even put my car into gear.

‘Mummy’s in a hurry,’ Olivia says.

‘I know. There’s no stopping her.’

We watch her car turn onto the main road and disappear into the distance.

Olivia takes a pink Peppa Pig mask from her pocket and puts it on. ‘Do you like my mask?’

‘Love it.’

Our disposable masks are nowhere near as colourful, but we’ve all agreed to wear them in the car. With our masks on and windows down, we set off for our socially distanced adventure.

Olivia as usual talks non-stop. ‘Are we nearly there yet? How many minutes until we arrive? How many more minutes? What exhibitions are on? Will the unicorn be there? Are we nearly there yet?’

I focus on driving, and Chris gives the updates. ‘Almost there. Nine minutes. Four minutes. Sculptures of some sort. Yes, to the unicorn. Two minutes,’ he says.

‘We’re here,’ I say, turning into the sweeping driveway of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, negotiating the bumpy cattle grid and heading for the car park behind a line of other cars. ‘It’s busy. I’ve never seen it this busy.’

‘Chicken!’ Olivia shouts.

I slam on my brakes. ‘Where?’

‘There!’ She points to a sculpture of a giant chicken on the brow of the hill.

‘I thought you meant a real one.’ My heart is thudding.

She laughs, and in the rear-view mirror I see her roll her eyes. ‘No, Auntie Liz, a sculpture.’

The Pop Rooster is over ten feet high, covered in hundreds of glazed tiles in red, black and orange. I’m not sure how I missed it.

We scramble out of the car and head for a closer look. And as we do, I’m not sure what comes over me — I do a chicken impression, flapping my arms like wings and making a clucking noise. ‘I can’t believe I’ve just done a chicken impression in front of all these people.’

Olivia laughs. ‘It wasn’t even a good impression.’

After the Pop Rooster we head into the park, which is where we encounter our first obstacle: a gate. I hold my hand out to stop Olivia charging straight through it. ‘Wait. Just a second.’

In normal times, I would have reached out, opened the gate, and walked into the park without giving it a thought. In coronavirus times, it’s not that simple. It could be riddled with virus. I stand and watch what other people are doing.

‘No one’s bothered.’ I turn to Chris. ‘Why aren’t they bothered?’

Chris looks from me to the gate and back again. He takes a step towards it. He’s going to be reckless and open it… with his hands! Before he does, I grab a tissue from my bag and elbow him out of the way. I use the tissue to move the bolt, and usher Chris and Olivia safely through. I then stuff the potentially virus-ridden tissue into the side pocket of Chris’s bag.

‘That’s the coronavirus pocket,’ I tell them, looking around to see if other families are doing the same. If they are, they’re being very discreet. ‘Are we the only ones who have a coronavirus pocket and are taking care? No wonder it’s spreading.’

Olivia laughs. ‘Coronavirus pocket. Mummy is always shouting sanitise. Wherever we go. Sanitise!’ She skips ahead, her cheeks already turning pink from the cold. ‘Sanitise!’ She does a karate chop, like she’s a superhero on a mission to fight the virus. ‘And take that, Corona!’

I wonder what impact the pandemic is having on her and other children. She seems remarkably resilient — probably doing much better than me, but I worry about longer term. She runs further away, laughing — happy to enjoy the moment.

Chris and I follow, tiptoeing carefully down the hill. Olivia bends down, scooping up snow and forming it into a ball.

‘No,’ I say, but the snowball is already coming towards me. And then another. ‘No,’ I say again, even though I know she’ll take no notice. Since the day she was born, I have always said ‘yes’ to Olivia. When her mum says ‘no’, she looks to me and I say ‘yes’. The problem now is that she takes no notice of anything I say.

While other children walk quietly with their families, Olivia runs wild, laughing and shrieking.

‘She doesn’t do this with her mum.’ I turn to Chris. ‘Maybe it’s time to establish some ground rules.’

Chris jumps to the side, missing a snowball. ‘I think we’re past that.’

We have no choice but to get pummelled by snowballs.

Olivia runs on, collecting snow, throwing it, all the time laughing. She’s so busy causing mischief that she doesn’t pay attention to where she’s walking. She trips over some uneven ground and drops to her knees like she’s about to pray.

‘We’ve only been here five minutes,’ Chris says.

Olivia gets up, looks down at the mud patches on her knees, laughs, and then turns to me. ‘Do you have wipes, Auntie Liz?’

‘Do I have wipes? I never leave home without them.’ I walk towards her. I’m so focused on taking them from my bag and wondering what her mum will say when I return her daughter muddy and dishevelled that I don’t see the poo. I don’t see it until Olivia has wiped the mud off her trousers and I get a whiff.

‘Look at that, Liv! It’s a good job you weren’t a few metres to the right, you’d have landed straight in it… It’s like dinosaur dung. What kind of animal does that belong to?’

The three of us stare at the poo. It’s huge and fresh and there’s a footprint on it — some poor unsuspecting person has trodden right in it.

‘Was it you, Auntie Liz?’

A quick check of my new walking boots shows that, yes, the poor, unsuspecting person is me. The treads on my shoes are now filled with poo from an animal that I can’t even name. I tap my foot, trying to dislodge it, then wipe it in the snow. Meanwhile, Olivia and Chris fall about laughing. I glance around. No other families are making such a scene — just us.

We continue walking. The entire park is covered in all sorts of poo. Rabbit poo and sheep droppings and this dinosaur dung. ‘Deer?’ I ask Chris. ‘Do you think it’s deer?’

‘It was only twelve quid,’ he says.

‘Funny. I don’t know what kind of animal would make a mess like that. It’s not a sheep or a cow or a duck.’

‘Auntie Liz.’ Olivia sounds serious. ‘You’re very focused on the poo. You should be looking at the sculptures.’

‘It’s fascinating,’ I tell her. ‘There’s lots of animals here. Look…’ I point to a herd of sheep running down a hillside on the far side of the park. ‘It’s such a lovely place.’

We walk past the picnic area, which is already filling up with hungry families. Signs around the park ask visitors to eat their picnic in the designated areas. Despite this, I make a mental note not to eat our food here. With so many people in one place, it’s asking for trouble. It’ll be like Coronavirus Central. We’ll eat on a bench at the far side of the park, past the sheep, near our favourite sculpture of the unicorn. We’ll tidy up. No one will ever know.

On the way, we stop at the lower lake to see The Virgin Mother, a ten-metre-tall sculpture with a cross-section revealing a foetus curled within the womb.

‘Why is the woman cut in half?’ Olivia stares up at the pregnant belly, eyes blinking.

‘It’s a Damien Hirst,’ I say. ‘I think he’s making a statement about the female body and how beautiful it is.’ I’m impressed by how knowledgeable I sound, academic almost. In actual fact, I haven’t a clue. 

‘The baby’s upside down.’ She tilts her head sideways. ‘Does it mind?’

‘No, it’s happy that way. That’s how it’s meant to be.’

‘Shall we move on?’ Chris says.

A short walk up the hill and we arrive at The Hat Makes the Man. This one has hats assembled in stacks which — according to the website — have intentionally phallic supports. The hats, it says, are a symbol of repressed male desire. 

‘This one’s a bit odd,’ Olivia says, running round it.

Next is Charity, a sculpture of a young girl wearing a calliper and cradling a teddy bear and a donations box that reads, ‘Please give generously’. Olivia crouches down in front of it. ‘She’s asking for charity. People have thrown coins.’ She reaches her hand towards them.

‘Don’t touch!’ My virus radar is going into overdrive.

She stands up. ‘Should we give her some money?’

‘No,’ Chris says, walking away.

Just a few metres from Charity is the unicorn. On one side it’s a beautiful white unicorn, on the other half its skin is flayed, revealing red, pink and yellow musculature and tissues.

‘I just love this,’ I say, because anything remotely like a horse will always get my interest.

‘I’m hungry,’ Olivia says. ‘Can we have our picnic?’

We head for a bench next to the unicorn and overlooking Charity. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic — away from the crowds, just us and a few sheep. I lift out our sandwiches, pass one each to Chris and Olivia and take one for myself. We sit in silence, munching away.

Despite the virus and the sadness and anxiety of the last year, we’ve had some happy times. And, more than anything, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things — nothing beats the simple pleasure of sitting on a park bench eating a cheese sandwich with my husband and niece. 

The sun is shining, the air is fresh, and all the stress that’s been building up inside me, reaching intolerable levels, starts to melt. I look around at the beautiful countryside, enjoying the peace. Even Olivia — now she is eating — is quiet. Calm descends… and then Chris jumps up. ‘I need the loo.’

‘Can’t you hold it?’

‘No.’ He moves from one foot to the other, a pained expression on his face. ‘No, I really need to go.’

‘There’s a portable toilet.’ When I’d planned this day out, I’d hoped we’d be able to manage without having to risk our lives by using potentially virus-riddled public toilets. ‘But it’s miles away.’

‘I have to go.’

I sigh. ‘It’s like having a small child.’

He opens his rucksack and takes out antibacterial wipes, a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitiser and a mask, stuffing them into his pocket (not the coronavirus pocket), before going on his way. He walks quickly, like he’s in a speed walking race — all wiggling hips and tiny strides — and then breaks into a run.

‘Look at him running,’ Olivia says.

‘He’ll have to run quicker — the toilets are on the other side of the park.’

The two of us laugh. We sit and watch him getting smaller and smaller as he races across the park’s 500 acres.

‘Shall we wait for Uncle Chris or eat without him?’

‘He could be a while.’

We carry on eating. Olivia finishes all our sandwiches (leaving half for Chris), before making a start on her own supplies. She opens her bag and pulls out enough food to feed everyone in the park. There are Jaffa Cakes, her Granny Jackie’s buns, crisps and even a family-sized packet of Toffifee. I’m not sure how she squeezed it all into her small rucksack. 

The rustling sound of the Toffifee being opened draws the attention of one of the sheep. It lifts its head, fixes its eyes on us, and trots over. I get to my feet, moving behind the bench while stuffing the food back into the bag.

‘It wants to share.’ Olivia runs to a safe distance.

The sheep knocks me out of the way and shoves its head into the bag. ‘No!’ I use my firmest voice. ‘Shoo.’ I pull the bag towards me and zip it up as quickly as I can, but I’m not quick enough. The sheep comes at me from another angle, getting closer and closer, until it has me firmly wedged. I have the sheep pressed against me on one side, and the bench on the other.

‘Are you stuck, Auntie Liz?’

‘It’ll move in a minute.’ I nudge it with my bum, but it doesn’t budge. ‘It’s very stubborn.’ I push again. It stands firm, holding its ground.

Olivia laughs loudly. The sheep baas.

People in the park are looking our way, bemused by the situation we’ve found ourselves in. We’re attracting quite a crowd.

‘Give it a cheese sandwich,’ a man shouts.

‘We’re not sharing.’ I give it another nudge.

It’s having none of it. I have no choice but to slide around its rear end, hoping it doesn’t kick out. Once I’m free, I move to the other side of the bench to where Olivia is still trying to eat her Toffifee. ‘Put everything away,’ I tell her. ‘It’ll soon go when it realises we don’t have anything.’

Except it doesn’t. There is no fooling this sheep. It can smell the food. Again it tries to open Olivia’s rucksack. ‘I don’t know what Granny Jackie put in those buns, but it’s not leaving without trying one.’

I look around at the other animals, hoping they don’t come over to see what all the commotion is about.

‘Where’s Uncle Chris when we need him?’ Olivia says.

‘I don’t think he’d be much use.’

We spend the next twenty minutes moving in circles around the bench with the sheep in hot pursuit. It feels like we’re in a comedy sketch.

‘Go away,’ I say.

‘There’s nothing to eat here,’ Olivia tells it, at the same time taking a bite of a bun.

‘Olivia, put everything away.’

Finally, just when the sheep is realising that we’re definitely not sharing, and giving up the chase, Chris returns.

‘You’ll never believe what’s happened.’ Olivia’s voice is high. She’s clearly enjoying the afternoon’s entertainment.

‘What?’

‘Auntie Liz has been attacked by a sheep.’

‘Have you?’ There is no hiding the surprise on his face. ‘I thought they were quite docile.’

‘They’re not Uncle Chris. It wedged her against the bench and wouldn’t let her out.’

He looks towards the offending sheep, who is quietly munching on some grass.

‘Can I have my lunch now?’ he asks.

‘We’ll eat in the picnic area,’ I say. ‘I’d rather take my chances with coronavirus than risk another close encounter with a sheep.’

Picnic eaten, and after another lap of the sculpture park, the sky clouds over. Suddenly it’s darker and a few degrees colder. ‘Time to go.’ I glance at my watch. ‘Time to feed our own animals.’

We head straight to the stables, which are close to my parents’ house. Usually when we come to sort the horses, Mum and Dad stay inside, completely ignoring us. But today, on hearing that Olivia is here, they are standing at the open door holding out refreshments, looking forward to getting a socially distanced glimpse of their granddaughter.

Dad has made a batch of basic buns. ‘Fresh from the oven,’ he says, handing them over.

We stand in the cold, drinking tea and eating the lovely warm sponge. Afterwards, I get straight into the glamorous job of mucking out, Chris walks the dogs, and Olivia goes into the feed house and designs herself an outfit from bin liners. She emerges wearing a skirt, jacket and top that wouldn’t be out of place on a New York catwalk.

‘A full outfit, Auntie Liz.’ She comes into the stable and does a twirl.

‘It’s amazing.’

She gives another twirl and catwalks back into the feed house to make some accessories. The horses stand at the gate, their eyes following her every move, not sure what to make of this bin-bag model. 

She sashays back into the stable. ‘I want to go to your house, Auntie Liz.’

‘I wish you could.’

‘Why can’t I?’

‘It’s against the rules.’

‘Can we break the rules?’

‘No.’ This is one time when no really means no.

‘But I want to come back to your house.’

‘I want you to, too.’

She folds her arms, and her bottom lip trembles.

I concentrate on sweeping the stable — after a stand-off with the sheep, one with my niece is the last thing I need. ‘Soon.’ I hope that it’s not too much of a lie.

She nods and unfolds her arms. ‘Okay.’

For the first time in eight and a half years, she has listened to me. But I’m not pleased about it. I wish with every bone in my body that I could say yes.

‘Shall we have some more buns?’ I ask.

She smiles, her eyes dancing. ‘Can I keep my outfit on?’

‘Yes, of course.’

Out of everyone I know, Olivia is the only person who loves cake as much as I do. We sit on the bench on the patio eating more of Dad’s delicious bakes and wait for Chris to return from his second walk of the day.

Before we leave for home, Olivia turns to me, her face suddenly serious. ‘Auntie Liz, will you tell my mummy how many buns I’ve had?’

‘No,’ I say.

‘We won’t lie!’ Mum shouts from inside. 

‘Will you be exact? Give her a number?’

I turn to my niece. ‘Olivia, whatever happens at the sculpture park, stays at the sculpture park.’

She smiles. ‘That’s good. Just checking.’

I phone my sister and because it’s still snowy and icy, and I’m in a little Yaris, we arrange to meet in the car park of the Indian takeaway, just outside Holmfirth.

Still wearing her fashion creation, Olivia climbs into the car. We bundle the dogs into the boot and Chris gets into the passenger side. ‘If you drop me and the dogs at home, I’ll make a start on dinner.’

I don’t need telling twice. We drop him off, he says goodbye to Olivia, and then it’s just me and her.

‘Can we have the radio on?’ she asks.

I switch on Penistone FM, a community station that’s a favourite of mine.

‘Can we have something else on?’

‘This is good,’ I say.

‘No. It isn’t.’

I switch channels. The Sunday charts are being counted down. I remember Sunday nights when I was her age, listening to the Top 40 in my bedroom, a cassette on standby ready to tape the songs I liked, and getting cross at Bruno Brookes for talking over the track.

This Top 40 is nothing like that. I don’t recognise any of the music. ‘Do you like this?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

I keep listening, keen to find a song I like, something catchy to sing along to. But there’s nothing. Just screeching, electronic, tinny sound. I wouldn’t want to tape any of this music. I consider turning it off, but one look at my niece, through the rear-view mirror, nodding along and shaking her shoulders, deters me. I will endure it for her.

We pull into the car park. ‘I don’t want to leave,’ Olivia says.

‘I don’t want you to.’ I turn to face her. ‘I’ve really enjoyed today. Thank you for a lovely day out.’

‘You’re welcome,’ she says.

I turn off the radio, and we sit in silence, waiting for my sister. Except it’s not my sister, it’s my brother-in-law, Mark, who pulls up next to us.

I get out of the car and open Olivia’s door. She doesn’t move.

‘We’ve listened to the Top 40 charts,’ I tell him. 

‘Is that still a thing?’

I nod. ‘It seems so.’ I put Olivia’s rucksack in the boot of his car. She still hasn’t moved.

‘Mummy’s cooking a Sunday roast,’ he says. ‘So, I’m here instead.’

A Sunday roast! Since when did my sister become a roast-making domestic goddess? But I don’t say that. ‘Sounds good,’ I say instead.

Olivia lifts her head, unclips her seat belt, then carefully slides out of the car, making sure not to crease her polyethylene attire.

Marks looks startled. ‘Is she wearing a bin bag?’

‘It’s an outfit,’ I say. ‘A jacket, top and skirt.’

‘Right.’ He nods.

Olivia stands in the middle of the car park, laughing and twirling, picking up snow and throwing it high into the air so that it sprinkles around her. ‘I’ve designed it… It’s available for pre-order.’

She picks up more snow and throws it higher. She stops when she gets a whiff of the Indian takeaway. ‘Can we get an Indian in case mummy’s cooking goes wrong?’

‘Nice try, Liv.’ I wish we were all having one because it smells delicious.

‘Time to go,’ Mark says. ‘Say bye to Auntie Liz.’

I blink, trying to hold my tears. The thought of saying goodbye to my beautiful, funny and amazing niece, not knowing when I am going to see her again, is too much.

Arms out, she steps towards me and hugs me tight. I hug her back, aware that we’re breaking all government guidelines but not caring anymore. I squeeze her, kiss the top of her head, and tell her I love her.

‘Don’t cry.’ She smiles up at me. ‘Think you’re a chicken.’

And for the second time in a day, I do a chicken impression. It’s pathetic compared to my earlier attempt, just a weak flap of my arm-wings, but it’s something. I’d rather she remembers me doing that than sobbing uncontrollably at the side of the road. 

‘I’m fine.’ I take a deep breath and pull myself together enough to get in the car, smiling and waving, trying to show that I’m happy and all is well in the world. I turn onto the main road and immediately realise I’ve gone the wrong way. I pull over, giving another wave and smile as Olivia and Mark drive past. Then I turn off the engine and let my tears fall.

I call my mum. ‘I’m crying.’

‘I’m crying too,’ she says. ‘I miss her.’

‘It’s awful.’

We cry together and talk for a good ten minutes. A man wearing a balaclava sprints from the takeaway, clutching his food to his chest. In normal times, the sight of a masked man running towards me would have instilled fear, but not now. He stops to look at me.

‘I need to go. People are giving me funny looks.’

‘We’ll be okay,’ she says. ‘This is not forever. It won’t be long before we get the vaccines.’

‘Yes, think positive.’ I hang up.

On the way home, news reports are talking of another lockdown, rising cases and a new highly infectious strain of the virus. I listen for a while, then switch to the Top 40 countdown. There’s a song I know. I tap my fingers on the steering wheel, nod my head, and sing along, keen to block out reality with the sound of the hit parade.

.

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