I’m early. I spot one of the larger tables at the back, sit down and order the mezze platter and a bottle of Merlot. I pour myself a glass and by the time I’ve eaten a single olive, I hear my friends coming out of the cold and through the double doors.
It’s the winter of 2012; I can’t exactly recall the month, but it’s bitterly cold. I wave at them; they see me, and they head over.
Sarah looks fabulous. I haven’t seen her in a while and before she’s even taken off her animal print faux fur coat, she dips her index finger into the houmous and pops it into her mouth. She pulls it back out again, all wet and salivary and says, ‘Yummy – I’m starving,’ and plunges the same finger back in for another dip. ‘Oh, soz,’ she tells me, remembering that I’m not a fan of double-dipping.
Her older sister Helen, my oldest friend, is with her. She can’t resist and does exactly the same, but only with more vigour: ‘mmm!’ she goes with accompanying facial expression, ‘that’s good houmous.’ I know her; she likes a wind-up, but luckily, I’m in a relaxed mood, regardless of the fact they’ve come straight off the tube and touched God knows what.
‘Never liked the stuff anyway,’ I tell them.
‘Oh, come on!’ they say, ‘don’t be like that! It’s only germs. They won’t kill you. We have immune systems. It’s only a bit of spit. It’s no different to kissing,’ and they both remind me of the time when I was a student and snogged two Anthropology students in the same night. ‘I know!’ I tell them, blushing at the memory; ‘I just don’t like the idea of it, that’s all.’
Helen pours herself a glass of wine and holds it out – chalice like and I can tell she’s about to get on her soapbox – I’m right.
‘Microbes are important,’ she says. ‘Do you know there’s up to an extra 80 million bacteria in that pot of houmous now…no wait… 160 million in that pot of houmous from both our saliva.’ Helen always was a big head; top of the year throughout school.
‘If anything, you should be thanking us,’ she says; ‘those microbes we’ve just introduced you will probably help strengthen your immune system.’ I close my eyes slowly, pretending to fall asleep; ‘meaning,’ she continues, ‘that you’ll be less likely to catch colds.’
‘Finished now?’ I say, jokingly.
‘Okay, be a germ-phobe,’ she says.
‘Boff!’ I call her – we all laugh.
Fast forward to July 2020. I live in the country – Helen, the city. It’s been a while. Helen’s settled down. She’s got a little girl. She’s four now; and a husband.
They all come to visit me and my partner, and I am shocked to see her come through the garden gate. She’s wearing a mask. I laugh out loud, she doesn’t react the way I expect her to; her eyes look serious, and she asks me where the sink is, so I take her and her daughter through to the kitchen.
I pop a bottle of Prosecco while she lifts her little girl up to the sink.
‘I must say – I am surprised to see you in that mask,’ I tell her; ‘who’s the germ-phobe now, eh?’ I jostle, trying to get a laugh.
‘Happy Birthday to you – Happy Birthday to you…’ they sing at the sink – twice. Maybe she didn’t hear me.
After she puts her daughter to bed, on the little mattress my partner kindly took down from the loft, we all move on to the red wine. It’s like the old days; all talking at once. She asks me if I’m still doing my art, so I go upstairs to show her my latest drawing. It’s a kind of collage with a portrait of Bill Gates in the centre. He’s surrounded by corporate logos and acronyms: WHO; GAVI; BBC, The Guardian.
‘I’ve called it, All Roads Lead to Gates,’ I explain.
‘Is that supposed to be Bill Gates?’ she asks while her husband stares on blankly.
‘Oh, is it that bad?’ I say, ‘I thought the likeness was pretty good myself – but it’s just a doodle really.’ I put it away.
We haven’t mentioned COVID, or the lockdown yet, but after another glass, I broach the subject; tell her I think it’s a load of nonsense; a hoax; a scam – she doesn’t agree; tells me I sound mad.
I tell her I think we are heading towards global fascism unless we stand up to this now. She tells me I’ve been brainwashed; fallen too far down the rabbit hole – tells me she’s worried about me.
I remind her of what she said that night, when she double-dipped her finger in the houmous and that she’s the one who’s been brainwashed, but she says she doesn’t remember. I do – I remember it being a really good night.
It gets heated, and then she explodes: ‘So, you’re telling me I’ve brought my daughter into a terrible world!’ she yells. I don’t know how to answer. She downs her wine, puts her glass on the table and walks out the room – a few seconds after, her husband follows her.
‘I don’t get it,’ I say to my partner. ‘The Helen I know, and love doesn’t walk away from heated debate, if anything, she thrives on it. What have I done wrong?’
She doesn’t come back down; got a headache, her husband says, and we call it a night.
The next morning, we all get ready for a trip to the playground.
‘Have you got the hand sanitiser?’ Helen asks her husband. ‘Under the buggy,’ he replies.
It’s a sunny day, so I go get their daughter a pair of pink, heart-shaped sunglasses I found in one of the drawers some time ago; not sure who they belong to, but they’re child-sized, so I guess they must have belonged to my partner’s daughter a few years back – she’s grown up now.
‘I can’t wear the sunglasses because of all the nasty germs,’ their daughter tells me. I look shocked. Helen sees my reaction.
I can’t type anymore. I close my laptop and go to get a tissue. I’m upset; no – I’m angry. Whitty! Vallance! Gates! Van-Tam! – where’s my friend? What have you done with her?
They leave that afternoon rather than stay another night and when they’ve gone, I pour myself a Merlot from the bottle we never got a chance to open.
I make a toast – to absent friends and wonder if the next time I see her, she’ll be cheering on, from outside the double-perimeter fence as I’m marched into the internment camp. I finish the bottle.
Just a week ago, she emailed me; invited my partner and I over to London, to see their new house; but only as long as we drive down, rather than come by train; to lessen the chances of either of us passing anything on when we reach the other end – I doubt we’ll go.
Funnily enough, I’ve got over my hang-up about double-dipping now.