Negative, a short story by William Wall
An elderly man faces being tested for Covid in this award-winning writer’s story
A mural by street artist Lionel Stanhope depicts a painting by Jan van Eyck wearing a protective face mask in south London last year. Photograph: EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga
At 73 he wakes to a cough most days. But this morning he was finding it hard to fill his lungs. No matter how deeply he inhaled he had the feeling there was a void at the bottom that no air reached.
He had been dreaming of drowning – he was four years old and his older brother was holding a stone-throwing competition at high tide on the sawmills pier. It was a dream but it was real too. It actually happened. One August or September evening, the full belly of a spring tide. The competition was to see whose stone would make the biggest splash. He had found a chunk of limestone loosened from the quay wall, almost as big as himself, almost too heavy to carry. And then he had simply forgotten to let go and the stone had carried him outwards and downwards.
He could still remember what the sea bottom looked like, the frondy kelp, the rusty cans. He let go of the stone when he reached bottom but the return seemed to take forever. He went down again and only on his second rising did his brother manage to grab him by the hair and haul him out. By then he had been breathing water.
And so dreams of drowning came to him periodically and it was always that summer high tide, the skeleton of the kelp and the littered bottom. Often he woke coughing and spluttering or gasping.
At his age there was always a danger he’d cough his lungs up.
So this morning he phoned the doctor but the number was engaged. He called over and over again. When he eventually got through the doctor asked the questions. Sore throat? Yes. Breathing difficulty? Not above normal. Cough? Yes. Temperature? No. And so on. She concluded he had a bad cold but he was to call her back if anything changed. In the meantime she would schedule a Covid test and he should self-isolate. I’ve been self-isolating for 50 years, girl, he said. They had a laugh about that. Old friends. She was close to retiring and he would miss her.
Now he was waiting on the call back from the testing centre and in the meantime he was googling people’s experiences on his iPad. People being intubated. People lying on their fronts for weeks. Induced coma. How did they put the tube in? He had never really been ill, never been in hospital. There were photographs of intensive care units, all machinery and people in masks and gowns. The thought of anyone putting something in his mouth brought him out in a cold sweat.
He knew he should stop but a macabre fascination drew him on. Each link struck him like a prophecy, Google his oracle. The one thought that consoled him was that they were survivor stories. His heart was strong. So the doctor was always telling him.
The doorbell rang to drag him away. A courier was standing outside, mask over her face.
I’m sorry, I forgot my mask, he said.
She smiled. It’s fine. I just need to give you this. No need to sign.
She handed him a small plastic-wrapped package and went back to her van. He knew it was a book. He had two on order. At the van door she stopped and turned round. Everything ok? she asked.
He nodded. Sad old time, he said.
She walked back towards his door.
No, he said holding out his hand like a traffic policeman halting traffic, don’t come any closer. I’m waiting for a test.
She stopped 10 feet away. Do you have someone with you?
He shook his head and the shaking brought on a fit of coughing. When he looked up she had taken four steps backwards. He could see she was shocked.
I’m upsetting you, he said.
No, she said, it’s something else. It’s my father. It’s just…
I know what you mean.
She made a gesture with the flat of her hand that looked like she was fanning her face.
I don’t think I have it, he said. It’s just a cold. A bad cold. Sore throat is not a symptom apparently.
She took another step backwards.
I have a bad chest, he said. I used to smoke. You know the way. I gave them up years ago.
He tapped his chest. Leaves a mark, I have a cough at the best of times.
Do you have any friends? People you could call?
He shook his head again and immediately regretted it. He was spinning. The garden in front of him refused to steady. He leaned his head against the door jamb until everything slowed down.
I’d better go back, he said eventually. I’m in a bad way all right.
Take care now, the courier said. Are you sure there’s no one?
But she didn’t go. She waited until he went inside. He closed the door but he could still see her shape through the glass panel, a liquid shadow in the middle distance. He went into the front room and watched until she got back into the van. He couldn’t say why but he wanted her to stay.
She was leaning on the steering wheel, her head on her hands. When she lifted her head she was crying. He could see the tears. One thing that old age had not affected was his distance vision. She found a tissue and blew her nose and started the engine. Why was she crying? And still she did not move. She looked at his door again. He wanted to go out to ask if she was all right, but he was self-isolating according to instructions. The ancient exigencies of quarantine. Noli me tangere. Except he was no one’s saviour. He would be lucky if he could save himself Eventually she pulled out and drove off. He heard himself make a little cry when she put it in gear. Where did that come from? He didn’t even know her.
He decided to ring the doctor again. He needed to hear her voice. Bedside manner she had in spades, even over the phone. But before he could get to it the phone rang. It was the call centre to say they were sending a taxi to pick him up. It would be there in 10 minutes. Instructions about wearing a mask in the taxi and not engaging the driver in conversation, sitting in the lefthand back seat, being aware of the surfaces he touched, careful not to touch his face. If he didn’t have a mask there would be a supply of disposable ones in the taxi. No payment required.
The package. Why they couldn’t just put it in the post? It’s not as if he would die waiting another week for a book. On the other hand, considering the test he was waiting for, perhaps it was just as well. The thought made him laugh and cough and feel dizzy. And he sat down in the kitchen and waited for the spell to pass.
He opened the book at the first chapter but then sat gazing out the window. He hadn’t noticed wind at the front, but it was blowing a smart gale at the back. Leaves were raining on the lawn. Only three days ago he had mown it. He thought of the fifth canto of Dante as he always did at this time of year, the souls blown around the second circle of hell like starlings in winter, no hope, no rest and not even relief from pain. Tomorrow was All Hallows Eve. When he was a boy there were games and his mother used to bake a barm back and hide things in it. What did she hide? A rag for poverty. A ring which his sister always got as if by magic. And diving in a basin of water to catch the apple in his teeth.
He hoped he would be well sedated before they put anything down his throat.
He went over his symptoms for the hundredth time. Cough, trouble filling his lungs, dizzy spells, sore throat. He didn’t have a temperature and at the best of times his lungs didn’t function well. A life of reading. He should have taken more exercise but it was too late now. At least he could still mow the lawn. And he wasn’t overweight. His sister used to say, You’re like a rasher of wind. That was one of their mother’s sayings.
I don’t think I have it, he said. He was speaking to no one unless the bluetits at the bird-feeder in the corner outside his window.
The doorbell rang. At the same time his phone alerted him that his taxi had arrived.
He put on his mask and a pair of surgical gloves. He had bought a box at the very beginning of the outbreak but this was only the second time he had used them. On the first occasion he used a gloved right hand to remove a desiccated rat from beside the central heating boiler in the shed. He poisoned the bastard. Before that he thrived on eating the leavings of the peanuts the birds dropped until a bit of fat laced with warfarin had proved more attractive. He hated rats.
The driver was waiting in the taxi. It was like stepping into a getaway car with a fellow bandit, the pair of them masked and jittery. There was a plexiglass screen between the back and the front seats. Even so, he could see the man was not reassured.
Strange old times, he said, did you ever think you’d see the day when banks would be welcoming masked customers?
The driver did not reply.
The taxi pulled out onto the street and they were off, a fairy wind of leaves lifting off the street in their wake.
I’m nearly certain I don’t have it, he said, it’s just because of my age. They’re being cautious.
The driver nodded.
They say if the test is positive I’ll know by tomorrow.
Again the driver nodded.
The silent type. Usually taxi-drivers have an opinion on everything, most of it unwelcome. He needed to cough but he thought it might upset the driver so he tried to breathe even and shallow. The reflex was intense but he was holding it back. It was always the change of air. Step out into the garden on a summer’s morning and immediately his lungs decided to complain. I’m 73 years old, he thought, when I was the driver’s age I knew no one who lived to be that old. Both of his parents died in their sixties, already old for 20 years, or so it seemed. The thought comforted him for some reason. I outlived my own expectations, he thought, and I’m not finished yet. He looked out at the passing streets, the eery empty city, the closed shops. Pubs had hoardings nailed across their windows and doors. The lights went from green to yellow to red but there were no cars except his taxi. And the river flowed on just the same.
He sat up and tapped the plexiglass.
It’s going to be negative, he said.
The lights ahead changed to red and the taxi stopped. The driver nodded. Then he unhooked the mask from his nose and pulled it down under his chin.
I had a fellow here about a month ago, he said, sitting where you are now. A plumber I think he said he was. Trained the Under Fifteens. Fit as a fiddle. Just missed the call for Manchester United when he was a kid.
What’s the point of the story?
They buried him last week.
He was positive?
Naw, the driver said, fell off a fucking roof ladder.
He exploded with laughter which turned into fit of coughing followed by dizziness. By the time he had recovered they were pulling into the forecourt of the testing centre. The driver was still chuckling.
Goes to show, the driver said, never get a plumber to fix your roof.
William Wall is the author six novels, three collections of short fiction and four volumes of poetry. His work has won many prizes including the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, the Virginia Faulkner Award and the Sean O’Faolain Prize. He has been shortlisted for many more and his 2005 novel This Is the Country was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His work has been translated into many languages and he translates from Italian. He holds a PhD in creative writing from University College Cork.