#Flash Fiction: Finding the New Normal

The Venetian Holiday

Holding hands, we gazed out over the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge. Matt squeezed my hand, for he realised tears would be close. I’d planned this trip for our wedding anniversary 10 years previously. Despite our vastly differing tastes and interests, I’d been so delighted to discover this was the one place appearing high on both our bucket lists, and so had started a long campaign to make this shared dream come true. Five long years of careful financial planning had allowed me to save sufficient for us to not only travel to Venice, but to travel in style – and the late summer of 2020 when we’d both be retiring was the chosen date.

Our children wanted us to throw a big party to celebrate, but I was determined to put every penny into our dream trip. Our eldest son even suggested I was being selfish, putting our wishes over those of the family but – for once – I’d not backed down.

“Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing! It’s the first time in our married lives we’ve ever put our own wishes above the needs and wishes of you all. And if not now when, after decades of hard work, we reach our 60th year – when will we ever get a chance? We want to go while we’re healthy enough to truly enjoy our shared dream and, if that’s selfish, then so be it.”

But all my planning, my careful saving, my resolute decision-making came to nought, when Italy became struck down with the virus. And Italy was not alone, for the virus steadily reached out it’s fingers far and wide around the world.

Initially placed into the safety of isolation by our children, Matt & I had to come out of safety to support our children when their families displayed symptoms which forced them to quarantine. Eventually the virus caught up with us both, nearly claiming the life of my beloved husband.

For a long time afterwards, we didn’t feel like celebrating the survival of our family by travelling away from home. Only after the widespread vaccination programme was pronounced effective, did we decide to divert those holiday savings into throwing a party to celebrate.

Community connections built during the virus had remained solid, so the invitee list was over 200 strong. A local farmer friend donated an unused field and everyone we knew with a BBQ was roped in to bring it along, together with garden chairs, parasols and gazebos, while we supplied the charcoal, firelighters, food and drink. Two local bands were hired to play and a couple of dance floors were set up. The music varied from wartime swing and jive to more recent chart hits for the younger party goers – some of who camped overnight. On the day itself, people poured into the field carrying brightly coloured balloons and party streamers with which to decorate the gazebos and parasols. The community spirit even extended to the joint clean-up the following day. A party’s been held on the same field at about the same date every year since. Of course, it’s all jointly funded now and the organisation gets handed round to a different group each year, but still it’s a memorable and hugely enjoyable community day out.

As another milestone anniversary celebration approached, our children asked whether we still hoped to see Venice. They couldn’t offer us a grand trip, but maybe a little visit would be an appreciated gift? Our initial reaction was it was a dream which belonged to our old lives. But, having been encouraged to think it over, our minds slowly changed.

So, here we are, on the second day of our holiday. Venice is bustling but, without the cruise ships and with the restriction on visitor numbers, it’s less crowded, and there’s no jostling of gondolas in the canals. The water in the canals isn’t quite as clear as those photos taken during 2020’s lock down, and there are no dolphins to be seen. When I told Matt over a coffee in St Mark’s Square how disappointed I was not to see dolphins, he positively roared with laughter, telling me that particular story had been an example of the false news which was all too commonplace back then.

As we sat there laughing at my silliness, a waiter arrived. Giving us a little bow, he wished us “Felice anniversario!” before depositing a bottle of Prosecco with two glasses on our table. Matt smiled at having managed to get one over on me in the organisation stakes, before popping open the bottle and pouring out two glasses. In our truly awful Italian accents we chinked glasses, exclaiming “felice anniversario!” to each other.

Sipping our Prosecco as the shadows grew longer in St Mark’s Square, we agreed this was the most perfect holiday ever.

© Debra Carey, 2020


 

A new kind of life

Julie made her way purposefully through the crowd milling in the High Street, attempting to balance the competing needs to be mindful of the world around her and to get her ‘heart points’ in.  Walking briskly enough to get her heart rate up was a challenge in this throng, but not impossible, and being more mindful meant that it was easier to spot the gaps that she could slip through.

The town centre was a sort of architectural ‘curate’s egg’: good in parts.  The council had spotted in time the need to protect the older buildings, without turning them into a sort of old world twee gimmick.  It was unfortunate that there’d been enough development before this to overshadow the courtyards and shop fronts of the old quarter.

Julie turned off the main thoroughfare into a quiet, romanesque court-yard.   A fountain, underplanted with bright flowers, brought a much needed sense of calm to the scene.   The courtyard was home to a dozen or so shops, included two cafes whose tables spilled out onto the cobbles to take advantage of the fresh air and sunshine.  By unspoken mutual agreement, and perhaps a little pressure from the other shops, the tables did not fill the courtyard; they were discrete clusters outside their respective establishments, leaving room to roam and breathe.

“Julie! Julie! Over here!” Tansy was half out of her seat, waving like a dervish.  As ever, she was attracting attention.  Before, the startled and bemused expressions of others would have bothered her a lot, but now she noticed the attention, the commotion, and dismissed it.

“Hi Tansy! You’re looking well.  Sorry to have kept you.”

“Oh, I’ve only just got here and snagged the table.  I nearly missed the courtyard, but your directions were impeccable.”

“It is a little out of the way, but I’ve always preferred it here to the chains in town.  Thanks for coming to see me though.  It’s been so long.”  Tansy and Julie had been great friends at university.  They’d been on different courses, joined different clubs, but had clicked as soon as they’d met in Halls, and had even survived sharing a house together.  Their lives had gone in very different directions – professionally and geographically – but they caught each other up via email and social media, talked on the phone regularly and met up a few times a year in person.

“Nonsense!  London is lovely and has so much to offer, but it’s nice to get away every now and again. And the shopping here has been phenomenal!  Yes, it must be a couple of years since we last did something – was it that city-break to Copenhagen?”

“That’s right.  But let me get you something – what would you like?”

“My usual, please” Tansy gave Julie an odd look.

“What?”

“After all this time, you don’t normally ask.”

“Ah.  Back in a minute.”

It was actually a couple of minutes: the café was busy, and Tansy had been lucky to get the table out in the sunshine, swooping in as a young couple had reluctantly finished a tête-à-tête.  Julie resumed her seat.  She took in her friend, who appeared unchanged since the last time they had met.  Fashionably dressed, cool, chic, and perhaps a little young, but with a face and figure that could carry it off, and as ever attended by a flock of shopping bags.  The scrutiny was returned.

“I like this” Tansy said, indicating the sleeveless summer dress that Julie had set off with some large bracelets and a thin belt.  “But I don’t recognise it.  It’s not Chanel’s new line is it?”

“Thank you!  I made it myself actually.”

Tansy’s eyebrows shot up.  “Noooo…You’re pulling my leg!”

“Truly!  I don’t make everything myself, but I’ve been doing more.  I’ve been doing doll’s clothes for years, and then there were costumes for school-plays.  I’ve always enjoyed sewing, but never seemed to have the time before.  Now, I make the time.”

Their drinks arrived.  Tansy actually had several ‘usuals’ depending on a combination of location, weather, and time of day.  It being a lovely summer’s afternoon, a frappucchino was placed before.  This time it was a single eye-brow that was raised as some kind of herbal tea was placed before Julie.

“Ok.  I don’t know what sick game you’re playing lady, but bring back the real Julie, right now!”

Julie laughed at the old joke.

“No, I’m serious!”  Tansy’s face attempted to look concerned but couldn’t quite manage it. “You’re not dying, are you?”

“No, I’m not dying!  What makes you say that?”

“Well… you’ve not been shopping today, you’re making your own clothes, you’re not drinking coffee, and you look like you’ve lost a load of weight…too much weight.”

“Oh! I see.  I’ve only stopped drinking coffee after midday.  I was finding it was affecting my sleep.  I like making my own clothes, and yes I have lost some weight, but I’m really careful to keep within my BMI range.  I’ve been making some changes to my lifestyle over the last couple of years.  It actually started shortly after that trip to Denmark.  I was in a bit of bad way and I was comparing myself to you and feeling a bit of a failure.”

“Oh sweetie!  Why didn’t you say something?”

“When you feel like that, you don’t really want to talk to anybody.  And then there was the whole Covid-19 thing.  I got furloughed, which in some ways was great, but it made me wonder about my usefulness, if they didn’t need me.  Absolute rubbish of course, it was just that I couldn’t work from home.  Homeschooling was tough too.  The sheer spread of what needed doing, the mass of work sent home by the school, the children being wobbly about the whole situation and missing their friends…and then the company struggled coming out of the otherside and I got laid off.”

Tansy tried to find something to say.  Her own experience had been very different, but then she already worked from home, and didn’t have children.  The only major crimp in her lifestyle had been that she couldn’t travel as much as she was used to, not for work, not for pleasure.

“Oh sweetie” she said again.

“Oh, this isn’t a sob story! Yes, there were some rough patches, some highs and lows, but the lock-down wasn’t a complete disaster.  I’m in a much better place physically and mentally than I was.  I started doing more exercise, yoga, meditation; I sorted out the garden finally;  I Konmarie’d the house; and I got a new job – which I love!  There was a pretty horrible year, a not great six months, and now it feels like there is some sort of equilibrium again.”

“Wow!  Sounds like life is perfect for you now!  Have you still got time and space for old friends?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect!  And of course there’s time for good friends.  Speaking of – what about you?”

Julie and Tansy picked up the conversation pretty much where they had set it down after their trip to Copenhagen, reminiscing about the Tivoli Gardens and the restaurants, and all the sights and sounds they’d experienced.  An hour passed quickly.

“Look, why don’t we go back to my house – we can’t hold onto this table forever.  We can enjoy the garden for a bit, and you can stay for supper.”

“What?  Do you cook now too?”

“A lot may have changed, but not everything” Julie grinned “but don’t worry, Mark is an excellent cook.”

© David Jesson, 2020


I thought it might also be helpful to repost the links to the videos on dealing with stress and anxiety that we included when we set the prompt:

  • 15 minute version for children here
  • another here, designed for adults
  • a longer one of an hour designed for people who are working in support roles at the moment, such as mental health charities.

Ellie has also written a few more short talks since then, on a range of topics, so do explore Allen Ruddock’s YouTube channel, where they are hosted, for more focused talks on a range of subjects.

 

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page 

Author: debscarey

Tweets @debsdespatches My personal blog is Debs Despatches, where I ramble on a variety of topics. I write fiction on co-hosted site Fiction Can Be Fun, where my #IWSG reflections can be found; and my Life Coaching business can be found on DebsCarey.com.

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