Staying safe in lockdown, 2031
A night to remember. It’s April, 2031. The lockdown goes on. I have been indoors for 10 years, cut off from the outside world. I draw back the curtain and observe the barren wasteland where the local school once stood, the pitch overgrown, the buildings long empty, the teachers still picketing outside for more money.
Just at that, I hear a vibrating hum followed almost instantly by a piercing melody. “Good Jesus Christ!” I exclaim with a start, before realising that it’s just the mobile phone ringing. I’m jumpy these days. Ever since the virus arrived, really.
I put my gun back in its holster, sanitise my hands and hit ‘answer’. It’s my friend. Why would he be ringing me? I start to worry again.
“Is everything okay? What are they like today?” I answer, frantically.
“What are what like?” he replies, puzzled.
“The case numbers!” I shriek,” The bloody case numbers per 100,000 of the population! Last I heard Longford is crawling with it. What’s the f**king R number? Tell me!”
“Calm down,” says my buddy, alarmed. “Relax. Don’t worry. The pandemic is almost over, remember? You’ve been hiding in your house a long time, that’s all. There’s no need to be scared any more. We’re moving to Level 1.3.
“I was just wondering if you’d be on for meeting up for a few pints later?”
I scratched my head. “What’s that?” I ask.
“It’s a measure of alcohol, comes in a tall glass,” he sighs. “Lord bless us and stay safe, do you remember nothing from the pre-lockdown days?”
“It’s all a blur,” I say sadly, before perking up. “What the hell, why not? Will you send me the link to the Zoom meeting?”
“No need for a link,” he says, “have you not heard? We are allowed to meet up in person now.”
“How will we get to Dublin, though, with the checkpoints?” I wonder.
“The checkpoints are gone,” my friend replies triumphantly, “and we won’t need to go to Dublin. Oh no. We can get a drink right here, in Cavan.”
“Haha,” I laugh. “And I suppose hotels and restaurants are making a comeback too? Ya have yer shite. Good luck.”
Just as I’m about to hang up, though, I hear his voice again.
“Wait, wait, I’m serious,” he implores. “There’s an old-style wet pub opening up on the Bailieborough Road. Where the chapel used to be?”
“Where the what...”
“Look, never mind, it was a religious thing from before it happened, it’s long gone,” he says. “We’ll meet at the bridge at seven.”
The time comes and we wander up the road. All is calm. Lough Ramor may have dried up (“they needed the water to make hand sanitiser,” my friend tells me) but the recording of wildlife playing over megaphones is almost as good as the real thing anyway.
On the roof of the Show Centre, now a drive-through test venue, I am comforted to see snipers keeping watch for anyone standing too close together.
As we stroll on, I notice the Ramor Theatre is now a museum, where they keep things like golf clubs and tickets to football matches and crates of beer, little artefacts to show the youngsters what the olden days were like.
“They took all the cans and put them in a can museum,” I say, amazed.
“That’s actually a line from a song now, Big Yellow Vaccine,” my friend says. “It’s a Joni Mitchell cover by Luke O’Neill. Very good actually.”
We meet a couple coming in the opposite direction.
“Lovely evening,” I announce, by way of salute.
“It is surely,” the man replies cheerily as he crosses the street, “Flatten the curve!”
“Same to yourselves,” my friend says with a wave of the hand.
We reach the wet pub. Outside, there is a statue of what appears to be a man – with the long hair and the face mask, it’s hard to tell – on a cross. It rings a bell but I just can’t place it.
Queues are forming for the grand opening night. A bouncer, in full military uniform, attempts to keep things in order.
“Come together,” he calls, “stay apart. And you,” he shouts at a drunk, “#stayathome.”
I was impressed at how he verbalised the hashtag. “The optics,” I told my friend, “are class here.”
“Any frontline workers, come to the head of the queue,” the bouncer cries. A nurse and a shopkeeper walk past. The crowd fall to their knees as one and applaud; I join in to show my gratitude.
Behind us, I spot two amorous teenagers without face masks. A sixth sense tells me they may be about to kiss and, enraged, I take out my phone to call the guards when my friend intervenes.
“They’re in each other’s bubble,” he says, “that’s allowed under Level 1.3. Let them at it.” I reluctantly concede.
At the door, a robot stands in our way. “Present your vaccine passport, please,” it drones.
I move my face closer to the scanner until it detects the barcode tattooed on my forehead. “Vaccine accepted,” intones the robot. “Status, amber. You may drink 3.2 units of alcohol. Your curfew time is 10.36pm. Stay safe.”
I disinfect my hands in a little bowl built into the wall. Above it, I can just about make out an old sign, which seems to read ‘holy water’. Huh. Not much changes, I think to myself.
Inside the cavernous building is a bar at the top and rows of pews all the way back to the door. I make my way up the main aisle. I’d swear I was at a wedding here one time, back in the old days, when you could invite as many as you wanted. I shudder at the thought. There could be a couple of hundred there those times, dancing, partying. You never know what you’d catch.
As I begin to get my bearings, I notice a television flickering behind the bar. I observe, could it be, yes, it is, it’s Sam McConkey, a little greyer of lock now but fresh as a daisy still, in the hot seat, presenting the Late Late Show.
The bar man looms into view.
“One of these ‘pints’ for my friend,” I announce grandly, “and I’ll have whatever else is popular.”
“A pint and a corona, certainly, wash-your-hands,” says the bar man, whistling to himself as he goes.
“And coming up after the break,” Sam is saying, “we will be joined by some very special guests, an Taoiseach Claire Byrne and an Tánaiste, Prof Philip Nolan Who Tracks The Virus. We’ll be back just after these commercial breaks. Stay safe.”
The bar man places the drinks on the counter. “Thank you, Tony,” I say.
“We’re in it together,” he smiles.
I hold firm on my beer bottle and survey the scene. In the corner, two lads are throwing darts; each are playing on a different side of the board so as to socially distance. Smart thinking, that.
After a few minutes, someone asks Tony to change the channel. He disinfects the remote control and points it at the screen.
Zap. There’s another talk show on RTÉ in which Dermot Bannon, Pat Shortt and Nathan Carter discuss the challenges of designing houses/telling jokes/singing country and western music in the midst of a pandemic.
Zap. Dr Luke O’Neill and the Face Masks, live in concert. Zap. A hidden camera show, hosted by Stephen Donnelly. Zap. It’s George Lee, older now but unmistakeable, still solemn as an undertaker. My eyes glaze over. Zap. Zap. Zaaaaap!
“Ah, turn it off to f**k,” I say eventually, my patience growing thin and my thirst growing thick.
What the hell, I think, I’ve been away a long time. I decide to buy a drink for the bar.
“Next one’s on me, boys,” I yell. Cheers go up from various sections. “Ha-ho! Fair play Fitzpatrick,” I faintly hear in the far corner. “Stay safe!” shouts another man, throwing his visor in the air in jubilation.
“Why are they so happy?” I ask the bar man, “sure it’s only one drink.”
“Under the Abundance of Caution Act, they are allowed to accept one drink per annum above their quota and independent of a meal so long as it’s bought by a stranger between 9pm and 10pm of a Friday,” he explains.
“Janey Mac, that’s a good one. Throw me out a double vodka when you’re ready,” I call.
“Do you want a variant in that?”
“A dash of white,” I say.
“Jeez,” say Tony, “you’re really going for it tonight. You sure you can handle it?”
“The next two drinks are crucial,” I reply.
I down my half-one and glance at my watch. I can’t believe the time: 10 bells. If I don’t get out of here soon, the alarm on my ankle tag will go off.
So, I make my excuses and slip out the side door.
“What’s the name of this spot anyway?” I ask, as I clock out. “I can’t wait to come back, restrictions permitting and staying safe and washing my hands, of course.”
“The New Normal,” says my friend, “witty title isn’t it?” as he walks off humming that same catchy tune from earlier, the tune I can’t get out of my head these days.
You don’t know what you got till it’s gone…