The Rule of Six (8 min read)

The Rule of Six came into effect in England on Monday 14th September 2020, and applied across indoor and outdoor settings. It gave police powers to disperse gatherings of more than six people, and fine the individuals involved.
This measure was brought in as a response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The following short story was written just after the law changed.

I don’t know if it’s the same one, but there’s a spider been dangling from the ceiling for half-hour. Funny bugger, he almost gets to my shoulder and then, I don’t know. Maybe I move, maybe I breathe. Whatever it is, he disappears. Back up to the plasterboard and away into a corner. Give him a few minutes and he’ll be back again. Dangling just above me ‘til I breathe or think and scare him off.

It’s his domain, really, but I had to come up here. I was too easily spotted from the bedroom and “other people need to use the bathroom, too, missy,” so here I am.

In the attic. With a spider. I can’t say it was especially comfortable, because it wasn’t, until I found the crate. Better on my hips, knees, ankles; every bit of my body caught an ache when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, like a snot-sleeved six-year-old.

I’m sensitive to draughts these days. It’s an age thing. I’m old enough to be injured by air.

But I’ve got everything I need here. Cheese and pickle sandwich, flask of tea… there’s an old painting next to me. Thick glass and a layer of dust, but I could still see myself. I looked like such a weirdo, half-bent against the teeny-tiny window, bum out, mouth hanging open like a right yokel. I made some truly grotesque shapes with my body in order to accommodate a pair of binoculars.

We do the strangest things for love.

Oof, that shocked you, didn’t it?

Knew it.

Fact is, I’ve known Jessie Thomason forever. Her bedroom is just the other side of the wall to mine. It feels like we’re closer than when we were kids – now that we can’t spend time together. Not that we were especially close before. It’s just different now.

It’s not as if I’ve been planning this since the sandpit: that would be creepy. No, I’ve just known that there was something there, something important, since I found out that a) she could drink my mother under the table, which takes some doing, and b) she was more into horoscopes than politics. Like me. Twice.

Before all this, if Jessie ran into someone in town, she’d take it as a sign that she should ditch her plans and spend some time with them. If she missed a dental appointment, she’d put it down to fate dictating that her teeth were fine and not worth the check-up money.

Thing is, she needs everything to be in alignment before anything is said out loud. But I know that, obviously. That’s how I know it’s real.

Of course, you can’t start anything with someone who’s self-isolating. If they never set foot out of the house, you’ll never get a chance, beyond a phone call or a letter read twenty-four hours later, once the nasties have worn off. It’s hard to be romantic when everything is planned. When everything is deadly.

But you can socially distance, you can observe the rule of six, and it’s odd. You’d think it’d be the last thing on your mind – romance. Or something vaguely like it. But when anyone could get it, at any bloody moment, you don’t waste your time wondering.

Watching from a window might not sound completely… but it’s the only way I have to keep her safe. And it’s not as if I was wrong.

Here they all come.

She won’t drink like I remember. Not today. She’s there with her parents and the idiots from across the road.

When she’s at her finest, Jessie drinks like it’s nothing: perfect white teeth, happy, shining face, she looks like something out of a Canadian film. But in her back garden, with the daisies in the grass and the smell of barbecue briquettes wafting black across the lawn, her mother dressed for summer all year long, she’ll mind her manners.

She’ll hate it.

Her mum and dad (still living, happy enough not to have left) have invited Floss and Gavin from number six, and their daughter, Doucheface.

All right, fine. Dorcas.

My name suits her better. Doucheface won’t wear her mask because it makes her feel clammy and uncomfortable and it’s been a while since she was in a serious relationship, so she’s not used to feeling clammy and uncomfortable.

Point is, that’s everybody.

Jess, her parents, Gavin, Floss and Doucheface. Six. Not a body more. They have their bubble: two families with their chicken wings, their beer fridge and their antibacterial wipes.

And I can’t explain how roundly the jealousy hits me when I focus in and realise her mother’s got the good china out. For a barbecue. Like she’s dying and this is the last al fresco meal of the pandemic so why not live it up?

She shoos a cat from down the road off the table and starts spraying. She can’t risk touching it. That cat might have been anywhere.

And then I realise. Gav and Floss have been chatting with Stephen, Margery has topped up drinks – once the glasses have been all but abandoned – but I haven’t seen Jess in quite a while.

And there’s no sign of Doucheface.

And then, I see them, six feet apart, with looks conspiratorial and a smile I’ve seen before, just the other side of the privet. I’m too late. She’s in love.

And I don’t even know what I’m doing ‘til it’s done.

They’ve broken no rules.

There are only six of them.

For now.

Of course, Jess will take it as a sign. I happen by with my mother, and then the police roll in to break it up – she’ll know this new relationship has disaster written all over it.

Sure, she’ll feel sorry for me for a while. I’ve got my mother to contend with. But eventually she’ll see. She’d never have been happy with Dorcas. Not really.

In a day or two, she’ll thank me. She’ll be grateful.

We should get down there.

© Petrina Binney, 20th September 2020

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