Your internet connection is unstable. The message sat there in the middle of the screen, mocking.
‘Quelle surprise,’ Hope jeered (for she had taken to intense interactions with inanimate objects of late). ‘My husband’s working from home set-up has the capacity to power the Starship Enterprise, my kids have developed vibration white finger from being plugged into devices so they can be educated, and there is so much bloody broadband energy fizzing around the house that the dog’s fur is positively bristling. Never mind the sodding connection being unstable, I’m becoming unstable.’
‘You all right Mum?’
‘Yes, fine, darling. Just about to Zoom my friend.’
To Zoom. Into the new world order, a new verb had been born.
‘I Zoom. You Zoom. He/She Zooms. We Zoom. They Zoom,’ Hope chanted, adding extra emphasis on the ‘z’ as you might while feeding a baby in its high chair, pretending that the loaded spoon of orange mush is a rocket.
But saying you were going to Zoom someone seemed to carry inappropriate connotations. Wasn’t there a song about it? Maybe she had misheard the word, as you do with lyrics when you’re younger. She did a quick search on her mobile, where the connection did seem to be working. Yes! She was right. ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ by Aretha Franklin in the glory days of 1985. Another quick search. ‘Zoomin’ in the song apparently referred to checking someone out or having sex with them, depending which site you looked on. Quite a step between the two. Hope started humming the song, swaying in her chair.
‘You sure you’re all right Mum?’
‘Yes, really darling. Just remembering an old song that had the word ‘zoom’ in it.’
‘Er, really? Ok. Whatevs.’
Hope was sitting in the dining room so that she could test this new way of connecting in peace. Her ten-year old seemed to have mastered it with ease. That morning there had been a class check-in with the teacher to see how everyone had fared after their first week of learning from home: a gallery of little faces, filling up the screen, adjusting to their new normal. Some parents hovering just out of shot, ready to swoop in and ask the teacher to please post more work on Google Classroom so that their child could be extended as far as possible and not lose momentum, as if on some educational stretching rack. Other parents, heads in their arms, ready to hurl the laptop across the room if the teacher referred to yet another digital learning platform they had never heard of. Another bloody password to forget.
She felt exposed, sitting there in the dining room. The curtains had been taken down, the bookshelves emptied and everything cleared out, apart from the table and chairs. The decorators had managed to get one coat of emulsion on the ceiling before lockdown, and their premature release.
There was something inherently wrong with empty bookshelves. Bookshelves were having a moment, after all. Watching the news now invariably meant people of significance, expounding upon important things from their living rooms or studies. Lately, Hope had started to zone out of what they were saying, fixating instead upon the bookshelves behind them. She wondered if the likes of Jeffrey Archer would have rows upon rows of their own books behind them. She also wondered if the props department of the BBC rushed in and dressed the shelves with books to lend authority, then realised that this could not happen when no-one was allowed out.
It was comforting to see those books making their nightly appearance. She had decided that if she was called upon to impart any advice to her daughter, it would be never to trust anyone whose house was without books. She had visited houses that reminded her of conference centres, everything perfectly curated but no books, no beating heart. If there were any books, they would have to be the ‘right’ books or colour coded for the Gram. Yes, be suspicious of a house with no books. Oh, and never trust a man who wears red trousers, especially of the chino variety. You could go a long way on this advice.
She turned from the bookshelves back to the screen. Her connection now appeared to be stable, so she pressed the ‘Join Meeting’ button, rearing back in horror, her chair scraping the floor.
‘Oh dear God,’ she gasped.
‘Mum, honestly, are you ok?’ came the disembodied voice from upstairs.
‘Yes, darling. You know that documentary by Al Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth”? Well, I’m facing it right this minute.’
‘You’re watching it?’
‘No, I’m facing it.’
‘I thought you were doing your Zoom thing. Listen, I’m gonna be busy for the next ten as I’m putting something on Tik Tok.’
‘You’re having a Tic Tac?’
‘Noooooo, TIK TOK. Honestly.’
Christ. Tic Tac, Tik Tok, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facetime. So many words to connect. She pondered over a new one she could create, pretending she was in some brainstorming meeting in an advertising agency and not stuck at home. Mmmm. What about ‘Gob Lob’ or ‘WhatsUp Chisel Chops’? She snapped back to her inconvenient truth.
A full moon that turned out to be her face loomed back at her from the screen. The full moon possessed multiple chins, sunken eyes surrounded by dark craters and hair that resembled the Professor’s in Back to The Future, although not that grey yet. She had applied a touch of make-up in anticipation of the call. After all, it was important to make the effort at a time when the days bled into the weekends with nothing to demarcate them and staying in was the new going out. In retrospect, perhaps a touch of make-up should have been a bucket-load to make a tangible difference.
She rushed into the living room to where the books from the bookshelves had been stored and grabbed several. Back in the dining room, she positioned the laptop on top of the pile of books. Better. Back to a single chin. What was that fact again about the camera adding pounds? Was that the right measurement or was it really kilos? If she positioned herself at a certain angle that was in no way comfortable to sustain for more than five minutes, she might just about look okay. The moon took up the whole of the screen as she bent forward to examine the three spots along her nose that had cropped up overnight. They were in a perfect line, perfectly spaced. Hormones having a laugh again at her expense. And were those actual nostril hairs? What the hell did you do with those? Wax them, or buy one of those mini hedge strimmer things aimed at men in those catalogues that sell self-heating loo rolls?
Ping! Hope shrieked and reared back again.
‘No, honestly darling, I really am fine. Just got a sho…’
‘Hooooooopppppeeeey,’ came a honeyed voice oozing from the laptop, soon accompanied by the face of its owner.
‘Oh, Perdita! There you are. Wow, it actually works. Do you like my empty bookshelves background? We had to boot the decorators out when Boris called time, so all my books are stored in the other room. I see you’ve chosen one of those funky backgrounds from the app. My daughter was playing with those the other day. That’s a great beachy one you have there.’
‘Hopey, it’s not a faux background, darling. I am “IRL” as our teens would say.’
‘In Real Life? I know I’m not speaking to a hologram, Perdita.’
‘Oh, you are adorable. What I mean is, this is a real beach behind me. Caspar and I decided to flee with the fam out here before Bozza pulled the shutters down. So, here we are for the foreseeable in our little island paradise. I’m missing Selfridges already though.’
‘Well, Selfridges is shut along with everything else, and what we’re all missing over here is bog roll and pasta.’ Hope’s thoughts drifted to the self-heating loo roll in the catalogue and wondered how business was for them.
‘Mmmm. Tell you what though, I’m so lucky I’m a natural blonde. Imagine the havoc this is going to play with everyone’s roots. I really feel for you, Hopey. Do you think you’ll just go all-out grey now? Grey can look so cool and dignified. Just look at Christine Lagarde. She’s President of the European Central Bank.’
Hope’s hand drifted up to her hair, mainly to reassure it. ‘Well, Christine Lagarde has a good twenty-four years on me for a start and I don’t think her hair was instrumental in her attaining the Presidency. It may have something to do with her scintillating intellect and the fact that she had chaired the International Monetary Fund. I’m not in possession of those attributes right now, so I’ll just persevere with the root touch up wand.’ Hope took an aggressive gulp from the glass of wine she had poured herself. ‘So, how are you all keeping occupied? It must be tough for the kids, beach notwithstanding.’ Hope detected just a hint of edge in her voice.
‘It is,’ nodded Perdita whilst pulling her lips into a childlike pout. ‘We’re coping though. I think this could be such an enriching time for the kids. Cosmo is learning how to speak French with a Provençal accent. It’s a bit more challenging than the Loire region received pronunciation, but it will come into its own when we finally complete on our villa. He’ll be so relatable to the locals working the vines.’
Hope took another gulp. ‘Relatable’, hideous and overused as it was, was not a word she would ever naturally associate with Cosmo.
Perdita continued, a flash of whitened teeth appearing through wisps of beach wavy hair. ‘Chesca is beyond creative. She’s working on a designer tampon. It’s going to take off massively and will be great for her to put in her personal statement for Uni applications.’
Hope dropped a honey roasted cashew nut and watched it bounce and skitter across the floor, trying to imagine what a designer tampon looked like. Did it have a gold embossed pull cord? Maybe it said ‘Choose Chesca’ on the packaging. Perhaps Chesca would soon branch out into design-driven panty liners. Imagine pulling down your pants in a hurry in the office loo and seeing a Banksy inspired work of art looking up at you.
She opened her mouth to tell Perdita about her week from hell when the voice shaped by a thousand espresso martinis continued on. ‘I’m so worried about Caspar.’ Perdita lowered her voice conspiratorially. ‘He’s really missing Solange. We had to let her go back to Paris to be with her family before everything shut down. She has been such an amazing nanny. I need to learn how to be a mother again. Personally, I think he’s bereft because no-one can put crisp creases in his sleeves like she can.’
Hope crunched down hard on another honey roasted cashew at the thought of ‘Caspar the Creep’ as he had been christened by school gate gossip. I reckon he’s missing the creases Solange put in his bed rather than his sleeves, Hope mused. She stopped mid-chew, wondering if she had actually said that out aloud. No, Perdita was still talking. Hope started drinking deeply from her glass.
‘Oh, and Hopey, I have big news for you. My new side-hustle. It’s going to knock that Joe Wicks right out of the park. I’m launching on You Tube next week and it’s going to be called “Pilates with P”.’
Hope spluttered, spraying her keyboard with wine as she failed to quell the rising guffaw.
‘OMG Hopey, are you ok? Are you allergic to that Merlot I gave you? It can be very tannin-heavy you know and you’re probably not as accustomed to the finer vintages.’
‘Are you sure?’ coughed Hope.
‘Yes, of course I’m sure. People not in the know can really suffer with some of these choice wines.’
‘No, not that. I mean are you sure about launching something called ‘Pilates with P’? Do you not think it risks attracting a rather choice audience?’
‘Well, that’s what I want, Hope – a select audience. Let me tell you how it’s going to work.’
Oh, please don’t, thought Hope as she dabbed the wine from her keyboard with the bottom of her least itchy cardigan. She paused for a few seconds, Perdita’s words becoming a persistent hum. ‘Perdita, I’m really sorry, but I think I’m about to lose my connection. Best of luck with the rustic French, the tampons and your P venture thing.’
Hope realised that she should have lost this connection a long time ago. She pressed the ‘Leave Meeting’ button, relishing its air of finality. Arching her back in the chair, she shook the cashew crumbs out of her bra and let out a sigh of relief. A sigh of release.
‘Mum, are you honestly really surely sure you’re ok down there?’
‘Yes darling. I am fine, thank you. I am absolutely fine.’