This is my latest short story, a competition entry written on the theme of ‘Lockdown’. Based on the previous year’s competition winning stories, the judges were expecting an uncompromising literary sign of the times.
This story is not that. Not one bit.
After a year of Covid-19, the last thing I wanted to do was write something important. As always, I wanted to do something that brought a little joy and I already had a fun idea that I wanted to write, so I did.
Now, I was under no illusions about my chances of success when I entered, and it will surprise no one to hear My New Routine was not a prize-winner. The top three stories were all excellent pieces of literature. Dreamy, poetic, hard-hitting, emotional, frightening. One came with trigger warnings for suicide and domestic violence. In a word, they were important.
My little story didn’t stand a chance.
But all is not lost! It’s getting another lease on life now with you, dear mailing list subscriber. I can already hear you thinking, ‘He’s a sore loser foisting his sloppy seconds on me’… But might I instead suggest, ‘waste not, want not’? Hah! Anyway, if you’ve enjoyed my books or other short stories, I think you might enjoy this too.
And again, thank you for signing up to my mailing list – it’s the most reliable way for me to get the word out. And as a mailing list subscriber, you’re all set to be the first to get my future stories too.
For this story, the approximate word count is 1500 words, with a reading time of 5-7 minutes.
My New Routine
G B Ralph, March 2021
What was the biggest change? Everyone being at home. All day, every day. No longer could I sneak in an afternoon nap or cheeky snack without Jennifer or the kids getting on my case.
Long ago I recognised and accepted I was a creature of habit. With this realisation I had constructed my near-perfect life. It was just how I liked it. Of course, there were parts of my day I’d rather do without, but being pragmatic, I understood you took the good with the bad. I liked to think enduring these aspects of my life meant I could better appreciate the rest.
To take the household’s morning routine as an example: absolute chaos. But, if I’m being honest, it barely lasted half an hour. The chaos began with alarms blaring, swiftly followed by the fighting for the bathroom. Then it progressed downstairs where Jennifer would be packing bags, preparing lunches, and coaxing the children to eat their breakfast. Hard-earned experience had taught me to keep well away while all this was going on. Safer to have my breakfast once the kitchen was clear. This way there was little danger of anyone tripping over anybody else or otherwise getting in the way. Then, despite the abrupt and violent eruption, they soon flowed out the door. With that, the turmoil subsided and blessed silence returned. Not another soul in the house. And it would remain that way for much of the day. In a word: bliss.
Just as we had our household routines, so did everyone else on the street. As an early riser, I knew the movements of my neighbourhood, right from the moment the street groaned awake. Every day at dawn, the lady from number 17 emerged, wrapped in her faded pink fluffy dressing gown. She’d sneak out in the low light, glance each way up the street, snatch a neighbour’s newspaper before slinging it under her arm and shuffling back through her front door. It was the same procedure every morning. Though I noticed she never stole from the same neighbour two days in a row lest anyone get suspicious.
Across the street at number 22, once a week around midday, the man would bring a woman back to the house. She was not the woman who shared his house the rest of the time. The pair were never inside for more than 15 minutes before they were back out and off again. Then, in the early evening, he would return as usual, as would his wife.
As much as I enjoyed observing my street from the comfort of my home, sometimes I would feel the loneliness creeping up on me. In times such as these, I might coincide my walk out the front gate with the postie doing their rounds. He was a friendly chap, always happy to greet me and make small talk as he delivered our mail. Often that was enough, and I could return to the house, the interaction and dose of fresh air having lifted my mood.
Now, from my descriptions, you may believe me to be some elderly busybody frittering away his days twitching the curtains back and mooching off Jennifer. I assure you that could not be further from the truth. Approaching middle age, I contributed my fair share to this household, though I expect I was more efficient in how I went about it than many. I found the work rewarding, even if my family didn’t appreciate my efforts as much as I thought they should. And I knew others begrudged me my lifestyle: the fulfilment I achieved from my work, my ample leisure time, and the freedom of the house – while it lasted, anyway.
I had my routine, my set way of getting things done, mapped out each day. But as I say, I’m a creature of habit, so each day was much like the last. However, this was all thrown out one week when everyone else stayed home too – not only in the evenings and weekends, but all day as well.
I was out of sorts, to put it mildly. I enjoyed social interaction, but only occasionally, and only on my own terms. The initial shock left me in a funk for days, but following that I resigned myself to my new situation and tried to make the best of it.
I learnt to snatch naps and snacks when no one else was looking, lest Jennifer accuse me of laziness or pronounce dire forecasts of impending obesity. And the kids, well, they were no good either as far as naps were concerned – much too noisy.
I soon discovered the best time to get a little shut-eye was when everyone was captivated by their screens – or pretending to be, at least. During the day it was client meetings for Jennifer and classes for the kids. To the casual observer they looked engaged, but they weren’t – I knew this because they’d leap on any distraction, such as me passing by.
The evenings were another story. They were back in front of their screens again, but seemed happier about it.
As my house was filled with family, day and night, I spent much more time outside, grateful for the continued warm weather. Sometimes I’d go for a walk by myself down the street, but often I’d spend time in the backyard.
While out there, I couldn’t help but notice Jennifer had stocked the garden shed, filling it with everything that normally belonged at the back of the pantry. Each day she’d duck out to the shops and come back with more until the shed was packed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. She’d also taken to poking cans and rolls of toilet paper around the house in all the quiet nooks I didn’t think anyone else had noticed. It was just another change, one of many. I didn’t interfere, understanding that as I was learning to cope with these changes, so was she. And if this is how she dealt with it, so be it.
Anyway, time in the backyard was pleasant. I could get much of my work done out there well enough, and there were other jobs around the section I’d been meaning to get to for so long. These soon received the attention they deserved.
All this might have been fine, if it was only our household spending our days at home. Our neighbourhood had previously been abandoned between breakfast and dinner, but it was now everyone’s entire life. And with such upheaval, like myself, many others were on edge. I exchanged greetings with the neighbours, keeping interactions civil even when circumstances became strained. Even when they were rowdier than they had any need to be. Or let the kids play with the garden hose, splashing water over the fence with no warning or apology.
After a few tense situations, we established new boundaries and ways to live alongside each other in these unusual times, to respect everyone’s need for space, both within our family and our neighbourhood. I even became friendly with some locals over the fence – maintaining an appropriate distance though, of course.
Today was another new day in our new normal. Some things had stayed the same, such as the lady from number 17 and her daily excursion to retrieve the morning paper. But many things had changed, and I was coming to terms with that.
I now had my breakfast in the relative quiet before the chaos, instead of after.
‘There you are, my handsome boy,’ Jennifer said, bending down to top up my bowl with biscuits and jellied meat.
For a moment I ignored the food and rubbed against her shin instead, signalling my other demand. ‘Oh, very well,’ she said, running her hand from the top of my head right along my back. Then, to top it off, she scratched at the base of my tail with those long fingernails of hers, just how I liked it. ‘Now, eat up before the kids come downstairs.’
Satisfied with my pat, I was happy to oblige. As well as being divine, my morning meal gave me the sustenance required to patrol the boundary – my first shift of the day. Once everyone had settled down for a session in front of their screens, I might grab a quick morning nap, preferably in the front window where the sun hit just right. After that I would go about my day – supervising the street, snacking, patrolling for mice, napping, and maintaining the backyard territory. And if I was feeling magnanimous, I might let the kids pat me – once or twice, but no more than that – and only if they didn’t pull my tail.
Just like everyone else, I was settling into my new routine.
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