Being Neighbourly
by MG, Teddington

“She asks me to take her son.

“Pardon?” I say, tossing a salad for our evening meal. I press the phone to my cheek, listening.

“I’m afraid I will bring the virus home. Or what if he gives me the virus and I can’t work?” the single mother, who lives down the street and works as a carer, explains. “I should’ve sent him to Uganda. To be with my sister.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Yes, it’s too late.”

“He doesn’t even know me,” I say. “How old is he now?”

“Five.” Only five? I scan through my memory, counting the number of street parties which they attended. He doesn’t know me.

Her voice is raspy, worried and tired. “I’ve been working twelve-hour days. It's very difficult.”

 

She rattles off his schedule of going to an early morning childminder before school and arrangements for late pick-up. A fragile chain which would easily break if (when?) one of the links has to isolate. She waits for my response. He doesn’t know me. How could we explain this to him?

“Let me talk to some others on the street. I’ll call you back,” I say. We gather around the table, two teenagers, my husband and I. They have heard the conversation on the phone. The teens are keen for the project, ready to welcome the boy into our isolation cocoon.

“We’ll help,” my daughter says with a smile, remembering him from the street party. “He’s so cute!”

“It’s harder than it looks,” I say. “A little boy is a lot of work. And he would lose his school place if he were with us. He’d be here all the time.”

My son offers his bedroom and says he’ll move into our granny flat.

“Wouldn’t you be lonely out there? A bit scared on your own?” I ask.

The fourteen-year-old shrugs. “Maybe.”

Surreal conversation swirls, reviewing the practicalities of taking in the lad. He could be here for months. Nobody knows how long the quarantine will last. We eat our burgers and enjoy the freshly-made coleslaw. The kids dream up plans of taking him to the park and playing running around games, teaching him to play football. But I know the novelty would wane.

I rub my forehead, disbelieving how strange the world has become.”

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