“Look boys,” I explain as the schools begin to close. “We’re not talking summer holidays, here"

"If you carry on like this, I am going to go completely insane. And I don’t think you want Mummy to be insane, now, do you?”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“What we need to think about is: how would you feel if I died?”

It is 8.45am, and I’ve phoned Mum, who is self-isolating, to try to cheer her up. I hadn’t been expecting to confront her mortality before breakfast, but I decide to roll with it.

“What are we looking for, a number out of ten?” I ask, opening the fridge. There’s not a lot in it; Husband tried to do a Sainsbury’s shop last night, but all they had left was weird green vegetarian sausages and gluten-free bread. He came back with haunting tales of deserted aisles and people squabbling over beer.

“What, they didn’t have a single avocado?” I asked. He shook his head, and this, for some reason, was when the terror really hit me. It’s been coming on in ever-bigger waves, a gathering tsunami. Still, perhaps one upside of global turmoil will be that we’ll finally get around to cutting down on carbs.

Thankfully, before Mum can go into the hypotheticals of her death in any more detail, there is a loud wail from the sitting room.

“Muuuuuuum! It’s not fair! Larry’s cheating!” 

My ten-year-old son Larry and his seven-year-old brother Moe are playing “pants cricket”. It’s an innovation they came up with to get around my ban on ball games inside the house: one of them bats with a cushion, the other one bowls a pair of pants. There are many complex and ever-changing rules around fours and sixes that are a recurring source of intense conflict.

I tell Mum that I’ll call her back and go in to calm the situation down. Just as I walk in the door, Larry aims a flying kick at Moe, who collapses on the floor, crying. 

My pulse rate immediately rises, but I have developed some pretty impressive inner resources over a decade of motherhood. I close my eyes, take a couple of deep breaths and imagine being alone on a tropical beach. 

The soft sand is warm between my toes; the sea is brilliant blue. Palm trees sway gently in the breeze, and I am about to tuck in to a delicious rum cocktail. Then I open my eyes again, just in time to prevent Larry from stamping on Moe’s head.

“Look, boys,” I say, kneeling down on the floor beside Moe’s weeping body. “The schools are shutting, and we’re going to be spending a lot of time together. We’re not talking summer holidays, here, we’re talking… more like a short prison sentence. I’d just like to ask you, well beg you in fact, to cut out the fighting.”

Moe puts his hands over his ears and starts to sing loudly. This is his new way of responding to any request or challenge he doesn’t like. I know he does it to annoy me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it really, really annoys me.

“The thing is, darlings,” I say, keeping my voice very carefully level, “that if you carry on like this, and I’m stuck in the house with you for four months, I am going to go completely insane. And I don’t think you want Mummy to be insane, now, do you?”

This comes out sounding rather more sinister than I had intended it to. But fortunately Moe can’t hear me, and Larry is too busy practising his pants bowling to take any notice. 

I go back into the kitchen and distract myself by listening to the radio while making our really weird breakfast. The gluten-free bread crumbles to sawdust when I butter it, and the sausages seem to get greener as they cook. Meanwhile airports are closing; hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs; supermarkets are bringing in rationing. And despite it all, Boris Johnson is still sounding irritatingly perky. After a few minutes, mindful of my mental health, I turn it off.

“It’s a crazy old world out there, boys,” I say as we sit down to eat. 

Moe turns around to look out of the window. Out on our patio, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary is happening. A snail is making its way very slowly down the glass.

“No it’s not,” he says. And I feel a rush of intense gratitude towards him. 

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

This article appears in the 25 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor

Free trial CSS