Too much reality ( Amy Dowdey)

Posted by Barabal on Thursday, April 30. 2020 in April 2021

Too much reality

     My last client for the day Rose wiped her tears away and stuffed the tissue in her pocket. She apologized, as she always does, for crying as she gathered her things to leave. We both pulled up our masks before I pulled back the plexiglass partition clearing the way for her to leave. Without the partitions, in person therapy sessions would not be possible, and I would still only be doing telehealth sessions.  

     I told Rose, as I always do, that this is one place it is always okay to cry. I could see her eyes crinkle when she smiled as she left and said she would see me next week. I have been seeing Rose for several months now, she is still reeling from the impact of the pandemic on her family. Rose has five children. Three of whom went into medicine and worked on the frontlines with patients infected with the corona virus. Two of those children became infected themselves, and while they did recover, they were extremely ill, and it was close. This took its toll on Rose, though she does not let them see this. She is grateful her family is alive and well now. 

     We keep some distance, but I walk Rose to the door. I watch her through the window as she unlocks her bicycle, puts on her helmet and rides away. I like Rose, she has changed her lifestyle quite a bit. Not everyone has, but it was important to her. In the beginning of the pandemic while we all sheltered at home pollution levels came down since people were not driving much and the earth began to heal. Animals came closer to the cities and we now live with more awareness of their presence. Animals were always there before. In my neighborhood there was the occasional bobcat and coyote sighting but now they walk the streets and sidewalks with much less concern for humans.   We are still in our homes much of the time, so they do not retreat.  The bobcats and coyotes are helpful, they keep the rabbit and rat population under control.  There are also a lot of large birds around that were not there before. 

     The next morning my first client of the day is waiting for me when I arrive. She excitedly begins to tell me about a new job that she interviewed for and thinks that she may really have a chance of getting. Julia is not wearing long sleeves today; the weather is beginning to warm up. I can see the scar on her forearm from her wrist heading up toward the inside of her elbow. Late last summer Julia attempted suicide. It was during subsequent wave of the corona virus. 

     Julia has a beautiful voice and loves to sing but her family could not afford college and she did not want to try and pay back student loans, so she did not go to university. Julia was working as a waitress when the pandemic hit, and she lost her job. She was able to get unemployment funding, and this helped for a while, but she lost her apartment and was living in her car. In time she moved in with a few friends to share the rent. Julia became very depressed when she was not able to find any kind of work, among other things, and eventually attempted suicide. She was found in time and taken to the emergency room. Very few people were able to get inpatient psychiatric care during this time. Julia had tried but was refused. Inpatient psychiatric units are built to prevent people from isolating themselves, so they were not safe and admission criteria was very strict. Currently plexiglass is used in the common areas of psychiatric inpatient facilities to allow for admissions without placing patients at risk. After Julia was released from the hospital, she moved in with friends who were willing to help her out for a while. She is very worried about leaning on them for too long and is desperate to find a job now. 

     My caseload is full of these kinds of stories right now, including doctors and nurses traumatized by the many lives they could not save. It is a little over a year now since the pandemic hit. We have a new president and while republicans and democrats will always be at odds with each other things feel less chaotic now. A vaccination has been discovered but producing enough for everyone takes time, so we keep physically distant and wait, and hope the end of this is near. The scars from this however will last. 


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If you go down to the woods today ( Zoran Krušvar )

Posted by Barabal on Wednesday, April 29. 2020 in April 2021


If you go down to the woods today


"Do you see this Bob? Do you see?" a chubby man with cheeks red and round like a pair of tomatoes whispered to his pal. "It's beautiful! Beautiful!"

"Yes, Pat! It's breathtaking!" a thin man with thick glasses agreed, catching breath as if he were trying to prove his point. They have been walking for hours now, getting deeper and deeper into the forest, drowning in the scents of resins, clouds of pollens and shadows of tall trees. Their feet sank into the soft soil, blades of grass vainly scratched against the Gore-Tex of their expensive hiking boots, while the particles of big city smog evaporated through the pores of their skin. With every new step, they felt more connected to nature, more alive, more… well, just more!

"Well, let me tell you Bob… the nature really recovered! I mean, just listen to all those birds!"

"Sure thing, sure thing, Pat… It really did… ow, is that a squirrel?"

"Where, Bob? Where?" Pat grabbed a pair of binoculars, that he always insisted on calling "a binocular" usually followed by a long speech explaining how using the plural just doesn't make any sense here, and started frantically turning his head around as if his life depended on spotting the critter. 

"Over there, on top of that… err… what kind of tree is that one? Anyway, there!" Bob pointed with his finger, which he was unable to fully extend because of an old computer games related injury.

"Well, I can't see… oh! It's there! Oh Bob, that's one fine specimen, let me tell you! Such a beautiful tail!"

"Is it fluffy?"

"It sure looks fluffy to me!"

"Isn't this great Pat? Who would have imagined that just one year of coronavirus pandemic could do so much for mother nature?"

"Oh, Bob… you haven't seen anything yet! Wait 'till we move past those trees…"

"Which ones?"

"Those… oh, just follow me, Bob."

So they walked for another while, enjoying the freshness of air amidst the lush greenery, far away from the vile stench of civilization, until they reached the edge of a meadow and Pat gave Bob a sign to get down and be quiet. They were peeking through a thick bush, Pat with his binoculars (It's a binocular!) and Bob with eyeglasses almost as powerful. 

"Look", Pat whispered "It's over there. Do you see it?"

"The mushrooms?"

"Yes, but look at them! They grow in a perfect circle! Don't you know what that is? It's a fairy ring, Bob! A fairy ring!" 

"Wow! I've never seen one of those… well, shall we go closer?"

"No, Bob. Not yet. Now we wait for a surprise."

"What kind of surprise?"

"Well, it's a bloody surprise Bob! I can't tell you what it is, right? Just wait and keep quiet."

Bob wiggled his nose and adjusted his glasses. Yes, the woods were wonderful, but he wasn't really in shape for such an adventure. Even the long ride in Pat's SUV across the gravel road proved to be demanding enough, and not to mention all the walking they did afterwards. So he was absolutely fine with just sitting down for a moment and waiting for that big surprise. He leaned against a tree, and was ready to close his eyes and take a nap, when Pat started tapping on his leg like crazy and waving to look at the meadow. Bob looked, at first everything looked normal.   

And then he saw them.

"What the… Pat?"

"It's fair folk, Bob! Pixies! Look at them, look!" he shoved the binoculars into Bob's shaky hands "Oh my God, it's a bloody Tinkerbell, oh my!"

Bob focused the binoculars and there was no mistake – a handful of pixies were flapping above the mushroom circle, fooling in mid-air, doing little loops, rolls and spins. Soon the meadow started to glitter from all the pixie dust they were sprinkling around.

Bob nodded his head towards Pat and said: "Wow!"

Pat nodded back and took the rifle off his back. He placed it firmly in the pocket of his shoulder, calmed his hands, controlled his breathing and focused on the target. His finger squeezed the trigger and a shot thundered through the forest. The flock of pixies shrieked and disappeared so quickly that neither Pat nor Bob could tell where they went. Bang and they were gone. 

All but one.

Two friends crossed the meadow carefully, with a long, warm barrel swinging threateningly from Pat's hands. In the centre of the fairy ring, still covered in sparkly dust, there was a beautiful, tiny, winged body, it's head completely shot off by Pat's bullet. The blood was flowing from it's neck like red ink from overturned vial.

"Pat… you shot a Barbie doll."

"I know, right?"

"Wow, man. What a shot! You could be a sniper or something!"

Pat was dripping with pride when he took the dead body and placed in in his bag:

"I'm gonna have this thing stuffed and placed right on my desk! I know a great taxidermist; he'll give me a discount."

Bob picked a mushroom from the circle.

"What are you going to do with that? I don't think that's safe to eat!" Pat warned him. 

"Oh, no, no… I just wanted… it sparkles."

They headed back towards the car, one of them carrying a shiny mushroom, the other a doll-sized female corpse. The shadows grew as the hours passed and the afternoon light turned golden when they finally reached the place where they were parked.

"What a day, a Bob? What a day!" said Pat as he was opening the door.

"You can say that again, Pat. I never expected to have such a great trip to the forest. Thank you for taking me!"

"No problem, pal. You are welcome to join me any time. If you want, I can teach you to shoot! I'm not saying every man has to know how to shoot, but you know… it's a valuable skill. Now get inside and let's go, it's getting late."

They sat in the car, fastened their seatbelts and Pat turned the key.

The car remained silent.

"What the…" Pat turned the key again but to no avail. He cursed, pulled the lever and went back out to open the hood. Bob heard him yell and shout obscenities in furious anger.

"What happened?" Bob asked and stepped outside to take a look. There where the motor was supposed to be, stood a pile of metal scraps. All cables were cut, bits disassembled, plastic parts shredded to pieces. There were scratches everywhere, they looked like little…

 "Claws?" Bob looked puzzled. "Does this look like some kind of little claws?"

"Yes Bob", Pat cowered his face with both hands "Those were claws. The car is ruined. It was a gremlin."


"A gremlin. They do this kind of things; they love to destroy engines and machines. Obviously, gremlin population also recovered… Fuck!"

"Shall we call some help, Pat?"

"Do you have signal here? Cause I surely don't! Bloody gremlins! Fuck, fuck, fuck! Now we're screwed!" he banged his fist against the side of the car. The remains of the engine cluttered.

"So… I guess there's nothing much to do here but start walking towards the main road. Once we're there, we'll find someone…" Bob shrugged.

"Walking? We drove for an hour straight from the main road here. If we are supposed to walk there, it's gonna take us… I don't know… eight hours or something like that. We're not gonna make it!"

"Oh, come on. Yes, it's a lot, yes it's going to be painful but it's not like we're doomed! We will walk those eight hours, get some sore muscles… hell, mine are sore already! And in the morning, we'll be home." 

Pat stared at him, his face pale, his mouth open. He stood like that for a half a minute, and then he said: "Let's go."

They grabbed their bags, the rifle and started walking down the gravel road. Pat was moving his lips and cursing their luck, gremlins and mother nature. He was pushing the tempo and Bob had a hard time trying to keep up with him:

"Pat, slow down a bit. This is not a race, I can't go this fast."

"We have to move, It's getting dark."

"I know Pat, but It's not like we can do anything about that. We still have hours to walk, it will get dark eventually. The gravel is white, if there is any light from the stars or the moon, we'll be able to see the road."

We'll have plenty of light. Fuck! God damn it!"

"Oh… you seem to know that for a fact?"

"Yes I know, Bob. I check those things. The moon will be fucking full tonight!"

Bob stopped.

"Is that… Pat, is that what bothers you? The moon? Is that why you are so upset?"

Pat said nothing.

"Pat… answer me, please! We have seen pixies and the gremlin chewed your engine. Is there… is there something else in the woods… that has recovered? That has to do… with the moon?"    

 Pat took his rifle and started loading it, still not saying anything.

"Listen Pat, you are scaring me. Say something, please!"

"Bullets won't stop them, Bob. They won't. But I have to ask you one thing; if they come… can you shoot me? Because I don't think I can shoot myself."

No one said anything else. At some point they started walking again, as fast as they could, and soon the night was upon them, and the bright moon spilled its silver from above. Their hearts were banging, the sweat soaked their clothes and the blisters blossomed with blood on their feet.

Bob was thinking about shortness of his breath and swore a silent, solemn oath that he will start exercising regularly once he returns home. He was so consumed by fatigue and pain, that he forgot why they were rushing in the first place. But the sound reminded him.

It started as a low, distant tone, echoing through the darkness. Then it turned to a growling rumble and finally the pitch changed, and the sound became a nightmarish, blood chilling howl.

Pat started running. Bob tried to follow, but his legs betrayed him and he fell, unable to stand up.

The howling became louder, clearer, closer.

The nature really recovered, Bob thought.

It really did. 




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Pas la danse macabre ( Lizzie )

Posted by Barabal on Wednesday, April 29. 2020 in April 2021

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Game of Numbers ( Tom Williams )

Posted by Barabal on Tuesday, April 28. 2020 in April 2021


Game of Numbers 

The Prime Minister takes his seat at the Cabinet table. All the video screens are on.

“Right. Let’s get started.”

The daily ritual starts. First there is the Press Conference – or the Daily Numbers, as it is generally
known. Of course, nowadays there is no actual press. ( There are, after all, no actual newspapers 
- an early casualty of what is officially known as the Great Chinese Plague. )

“For today’s numbers …” The Prime Minister looks solemnly at the camera. “We have Priti Patel.”
Patel was a wiz with numbers. That’s what they kept her on for. It was the only time she was ever
seen. There were rumours that she was being kept in a storage unit somewhere, waiting all day 
for her chance to read the Daily Number.

“What’s the number today, Priti?”

The feed switched to a storage unit somewhere and the erstwhile Home Secretary’s face appeared.

“Eleventy thousand two hundred and twumpty, five thousand six hundred and two.”

The screen switches again and Laura Kuenssberg’s face appears. She wasn’t a journalist anymore:
she had been elevated to the House of Lords and now sat in the Cabinet. After all, the Prime 
Minister reasoned, after so many years of representing the Government, it was only fair that she 
be put on the payroll.

“That number is a number,” says Kuenssberg. “But is the government confident that it is the 
number we need?”

“It’s a very good number,” replies the Prime Minister. “But I’m confident that it will be ramped 
up. Probably by the end of March.”

“It’s April,” says Kuenssberg, her old journalistic skills kicking in from force of habit.

“I said May,” says the Prime Minister.

“I’m so sorry,” says Kuenssberg. “I must have misheard.”

The Prime Minister gives her a forgiving smile and makes a mental note to have her medication
increased. “Didn’t you have a question about deaths in care homes, Laura?”

“Did I?” An arm appears on the screen that shows Laura’s face and a sheet of paper flutters onto
 the desk in front of her.  "Oh, yes. I wanted to know if there had been any improvement on 
deaths in care homes."

“I'm glad you asked me that question. I have to report that 87% of the residents in care homes 
have succumbed to the virus but we can do better. We have arranged for more care assistants to
visit. Thousands of additional care assistants are being recruited and each on will now visit a 
dozen homes every week. Obviously we can’t provide screening immediately, but we will get to it 
soon – probably by the end of …” He checks a note in front of him. “May. We’re ramping up to 
achieve that. And I am confident that by the end of May there will be no more old people dying in
 care homes. Isn’t that so, Chief Scientific Advisor?”

The video switches to a harassed looking middle aged man. “If we look at this graph…” He 
gestures vaguely at a graph at the side of the screen. “We can see this red line shows a decline
 in the number of old people dying in care, until it reaches zero by the end of May.”

“Yes,” says the PM. “It’s very exciting. And the blue line reaches zero by the end of May as well.
That’s how ramped up we're going to be. What is the blue line, Chief Scientific Adviser?"

"That's the number of surviving old people in care homes."

The PM doesn’t miss a beat. He’s an old hand at these press conferences now. He just moves on to
the next question. No need to wait for Kuenssberg to ask it. No, press straight on. Efficiency, 
that’s the thing. No time to waste.

“Much the same is true of prisons, except we won’t be employing care assistants obviously. But 
we will be testing. Everybody, every day. Actually, we will be using some of the care assistants
for that too, only obviously they won’t be in a caring role. No caring at all. And no masks. What 
do  you think the result of that will be, Chief Scientific Adviser?”

“Well, as you can see in this graph…” He gestures vaguely again.

A voice is heard off-screen. “We haven’t changed the graph.”

“Haven’t we?” The Chief Scientific Officer turns and peers at it. “No worries. They’re pretty much
identical really.”

The PM looks solemn as he faces the camera. “Well, that’s today’s press briefing. Remember, if
you’re not out earning, we need you to stay home. Save money. Save the NHS.”

There is a round of applause from the video screens scattered around the cabinet table

"That was masterful, if I may say so."  The PM recognises the oleaginous voice of the Chief Lackey
and nods a polite acknowledgement towards Michael Gove’s screen.

“PMQs next, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, yes.” Gove’s voice is like treacle, only treaclier, as if he had gargled with treacle and 
now spewed it forth in praise of the PM.

PMQs used to be a nightmare, but since the Parliamentary reforms following the Great Chinese
Plague, the PM had quite come to enjoy them. He often answered questions from the Cabinet 
Room rather than travel the few hundred yards to the House. You never knew, there was always
 the outside chance of passing a voter. Best not risk it.

The video shows the chamber with the 50 selected MPs carefully spaced apart. Ever since that
awkward moment when one of his backbenchers had been seen exchanging a friendly nod with
one of the Opposition, more care had been taken to enforce social distancing. Now every MP is
accompanied by someone from the Whips’ Office wearing full hazmat protection. They carry a
symbolic whip tucked into a belt on the suit and a not-at-all-symbolic Taser holstered alongside it.
It was a while since anybody had heckled the Prime Minister.

There are the usual questions from friendly back-benchers asking if the Prime Minister would 
accept the humble gratitude of their constituencies for one measure or another. Much is made of 
the fact that the chocolate ration has been increased. The Speaker calls various Opposition MPs 
to speak and there are the usual technical problems that render their questions inaudible.

David Lammy somehow bypasses the system to get his question in, but it is only about deaths 
among the homeless, so it doesn’t matter. Ever since the homeless were rounded up and put 
into temporary dormitories back at the beginning of the plague, nobody has heard any more
from them. Lammy’s question will be forgotten even quicker than they were.

Mark Francois is called and the PM can just make out the crown of his head at the bottom of the 
video screen. “Is the Prime Minister not concerned that deaths amongst the black and ethnic 
minority community are so much greater than others?”

For a moment he is confused. It wasn’t a question he expected from Francois. Then he realises his
mistake. “I can assure the honourable member that our experts are looking hard at why deaths
amongst ethnic minorities are so much higher than amongst Eastern European workers. Be assured
that they hope to see this differential eroded soon.”

Francois sits down. The PM can’t see his face but he can imagine the satisfied smile.

“Statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

The PM beams. He’d forgotten this bit was coming up today. It’s all good news: pension payments
down, prison spending down. Even welfare for the unemployed is down as the new zero 
immigration policy combined with the substantial reduction in the size of the workforce has more
than compensated for the number of jobs lost in the economic readjustment. He wished people 
would remember to call it a readjustment and not a crash. It was only a crash if you had 
neglected to sellshort as soon as that Chinese fellow had eaten the bat. Really, people who had
lost money had only themselves to blame.

Sometimes people were so damned ungrateful. Fortunately there was no danger of protests, with
public gatherings limited to five people and those to remain the regulation two metres apart. And
the checks on ‘essential shopping’ helped too. Only the other day it seems that a suspicious 
looking couple had been into Foyles – ostensibly to pick up a colouring book for entertainment in 
lockdown – and had emerged with a copy of the works of Karl Marx. Quite shocking really. What 
can you do with such people? There was that suggestion that they could use them for a special 
series of I’m a Celebrity … to be filmed in a tiger reserve. It would go some way to filling the TV 
schedules since they’d been unable to restart production. Bloody actors complaining about 
needing to socially distance on set.

Bloody actors, bloody voters. It was all too much. Time to calm down.

He took a pocket mirror: it wouldn’t do to scratch the Cabinet table. Tradition and all that. A few
seconds later he was busy with a razor blade. He made three neat lines and curled a £20 note to
make a straw. Tradition again.

He hoovered up the coke.

God, he loved being Prime Minister.

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