‘Lot of people in masks about, gwas.’
‘I’ve noticed, Ang.’
‘D’ye really think we should be doin’ this?’
‘We’re just providing a service.’
‘News t’me. I din’t know sellin’ false cures was a service, gwas.’
Ang leered at me from her spot inside the car boot. She’d chosen, to my displeasure, a case of antique ritual bowls (all right, old-ish, with genuine cracks painted on) as her seat, next to the proud display I was setting up for this occasion.
‘We’re not selling cures, Ang.’ I straightened the last row of shining objects. They gleamed. ‘We’re selling confidence.’
‘Dunno if that’s actually a good thing right now, gwas.’
‘Should we really be encouragin’ people t’think they can go outside wi’out fear, right now?’
I was sufficiently surprised enough to tear my attention away. ‘It’s not our job to police how people think, Ang.’
‘Aye. But mebbe we shouldn’t be contributin’ to any all-round stupidity, is what I’m sayin’.’
I stared at my coblyn companion. She may be only two and half feet tall, but I swear sometimes her conscience is a mile high. And always at the most inconvenient of times. ‘In actual fact, I would argue that we are helping to create a healthier gene pool. Only an idiot would fall for this in the first place.’
‘An’ how many d’ye think live here, gwas?’
‘Plenty,’ I snapped.
I’m sick of this town. We tried driving out of it in the first week of the Lockdown, as people seem to be calling it. Nearly had a heart attack when the police pulled us over. How was I to know we weren’t allowed to travel any more?
We were let off with a warning, so I politely nodded to the nice officer, hoped to god she hadn’t taken my licence plate, and trundled back into bloody Mansfield. I bought a newspaper on the spot, and quickly caught up on world news.
I’d stared. And rubbed my eyes. And blinked hard. When did he become Prime Minister? And how? I vaguely remembered some business with a big red bus… It had seemed unimportant at the time.
But that was besides the main point, which was this damned global virus. The world had gone mad. The country had gone mad. A lot of people were dying.
I wondered, distantly, if some bugger had found Pandora’s Box and been foolish enough to open it. That Edric Mercer, probably. He’d do anything for the glory.
But it seemed like the world had done the sensible thing and shut down. Stay outside, Hell Demons, you can’t come in. We are Socially Distancing ourselves from you.
So Ang and I also stayed put. In bloody, sodding, boring Mansfield. I wouldn’t hate it so much if only I were allowed to leave.
Living out of the car instantly took on a whole new level of challenge. Travelling with Ang is hard enough on a good day: with her constant trail of pastry crumbs; her monthly toe nail clippings bouncing off the dashboard; the nightly snoring, with a sound like a tortured chainsaw fighting its way out of a bag of bricks. Up til now, we’ve tolerated each other for so long because there has always been the distraction of my inimitable profession to add a thrill into our day. There’s nothing quite like running away from a previously-satisfied customer who now wants to kill you.
Especially one who wants to kill you because they didn’t read the label on the magic aphrodisiac you sold them and thus completely missed the fact that it was intended for geese and, as regrettably discovered after glugging the potion right in front of my table, had the unfortunate side effect of causing the user to grow feathers in an inconveniently intimate area and begin honking uncontrollably while screaming, ‘Hansard you HONK!–ing bastard! I’ll kill you HONK! you piece of HONK! HONK!’
That kind of things makes a man glad to be alive.
But it was a long time since Ang and I had last encountered any fun of that sort. The new Lockdown landscape was a barren one. There were no shady customers to serve, no devious Black Market schemes to run – every bugger was indoors. Keeping ourselves locked up in the car was a none-starter. We started to live on a perpetual walk through the streets instead. Whenever we were caught out, we were: ‘Just on our way to shops, actually!’ or ‘Just enjoying our one daily exercise, in fact!’
The closing of the public toilets, however, was a real blow to us both. There’s nothing quite like queueing outside a supermarket for two hours to make one really appreciate the need for public conveniences.
During Week Three, we spent one very blissful night in a hotel that was opened up for homeless people. Turns out that travelling with a sort-of-looks-like-a-child-if-you-really-squint coblyn-in-disguise is a great way of being fast-tracked towards the comfiest beds. And a shower. And hot food. And the lack of Ang’s smell. And mine, come to that. I should have found a way to bottle the feeling – I’d give it a trendy modern name like, ‘Bottled Bliss: the Self-Care Edition’ and sell it slyly from the sidelines of a posh farmers’ market.
Ever since, I’ve been working hard on our next commercial venture. A true merchant of enterprise doesn’t let a lack of customers bother him! He finds new ones! He discovers their most pressing needs and finds a way to fulfil them!
Ang watched me rearrange the goods one final time. They had to look perfect.
‘This ain’t you,’ she said, shifting uncomfortably. ‘Where’s the magic in this ysbwriel?’
‘In this what?’
‘Oh.’ I shook my head. ‘Ang. Haven’t you learned anything yet? Where does real magic live?’
She glared suspiciously. ‘Live? It dun’t live anywhere!’
‘You’re wrong.’ I tapped the side of my head. ‘It lives in people’s heads.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Oh. That kind o’ magic. Thought you was on about the real stuff. Spells and hexes and that.’
‘The beauty of the human mind, Ang, is that you don’t necessarily need a spell to bewitch someone. Now, are you ready for this?’
‘Do I have to, gwas?’
‘Equal partnership, remember?’
She slipped out of the boot, grumbling under her breath. Today she was wearing – instead of her usual grubby waistcoat and trousers – a dress. It was a flowery pink spring dress, perfect for the season, but with long arms to cover Ang’s bony parchment skin. It was probably meant for a four year old, but swamped Ang’s wizened coblyn frame.
‘And the hat,’ I said.
She glowered and snatched it from my hands. It was the widest brimmed sunhat I could find from the local charity shop. She rammed it on her head.
It sort of covered her pointy ears, and if she looked down you might be forgiven for thinking there was a little girl under there somewhere.
‘Stop laughin’,’ she hissed.
‘I’m not,’ I lied, turning my back.
‘You best not be enjoyin’ this, gwas, or I’ll have yer hide. Give me the wretched phone.’
It was shiny, black, and rectangular, and the only reason I knew it was a Samsung was because it was written on the back. Technology is not, you might say, my strong point.
We’d ‘rescued’ it from a bin. That is to say, we spent many, many hours digging through the rubbish bags of upscale houses in the hopes of finding some kind of discarded smartphone. I wasn’t entirely certain we would find one, but I should have known not to lose faith in the natural wastefulness of my fellow man. On reflection, it would have been easier (and less disgusting) to just steal one – but that’s not my style. I’m no thief.
Ang waited until the sun peeked out into full view, just as we planned. A nice obscuring shine on that cracked phone screen, and too bright for anyone to question why the sweet little girl wasn’t looking upwards all that much. She walked to the edge of the park where small groups of picnickers were spread on blankets in the sun. There was a conscientious smattering of surgical masks and face scarves among them – but that didn’t worry me. I was sure I could rely on human nature to overcome any rational thought that might be lurking in the herd.
I saw Ang’s shoulders heave in a breath. And then…
‘AaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH–’ Pause. ‘–AAAAAAAHHHHHH! It burns! It hurts! It’s coming through the phone! Help! Gerrit off! Aaaaaahh! Anyone listenin’? I said ‘Aaaaaahh,’ ye bastards.’
It was probably the gravelliest child’s scream those people had ever heard, but it certainly turned heads. I waited for the first few groups to rise, and then entered the stage.
I swooped down on Ang like a guardian angel. ‘What’s wrong, girl? What’s hurts? Here, that phone! Let me have it!’ I held it up to the sun, my face aghast with horror and amazement. ‘No. Not another one. Quickly, come with me!’ I dragged Ang back to the car and theatrically whipped open the boot.
A hesitant crowd followed us, instinctively bunching towards the potential threat, but trying to be socially distanced about it.
‘Is she okay…?’ someone called out.
I ignored the voice for now and plucked one of my new treasures from its resting place. It sparkled pleasingly in the light. I turned to the crowd, waving the phone at them.
‘Do any of you know what this is?’
It was hard to discern the exact expressions under the various face coverings, but I felt they ranged from confused concern for the now-quiet Ang, to polite bafflement at the man wearing a trench coat in twenty-degree weather. Not a bad starting point; I’ve had worse.
Phone, innit?’ one puzzled voice said.
I turned in its general direction. ‘No. This is a phone with an internet connection. It’s a phone with… 5G.’ I put all the dread and menace I could muster into those two syllables. The crowd didn’t take an alarmed step back like I’d hoped, but at least one or two people cocked their heads.
‘So what?’ someone else said.
‘So what? So what? You’re living in a dream world!’ I cried. ‘Wake up! What do you think really caused this pandemic, this illness sweeping our country? Everything was fine until they started putting up the 5G towers! It’s not a virus at all, that’s why! It’s radiation.’
Someone scoffed. I rounded on them.
‘You don’t believe me? What do you think happened to this poor child? Look!’ I swung the phone down next to Ang’s head.
‘Owowowow,’ she said. ‘It hurts, so it does.’
I snatched it back, before she started getting sarcastic.
‘But look!’ I shouted, holding up my creation between thumb and forefinger. It was a construction of tinfoil and wire, bent into a pleasingly occult triangle with horns. ‘This is the answer. This ingenious device blocks the negative radiation! If you attach it to your phone like so…’ I hooked it around the screen. ‘…it effectively filters the poisonous emissions, just like you believe those masks are filtering the air! It’s now completely harmless.’
I put the phone back down towards Ang. She recoiled slightly – a nice touch, I thought – but then stood straight and shrugged. ‘I dun’t feel a thing,’ she intoned.
‘You see?’ I shouted madly into the crowd. Sweat trickled down my neck. ‘Like magic! Keep yourself safe from the virus! I have more, for sale!’
‘Thought you said it wasn’t a virus,’ someone said sullenly. ‘Can’t be a virus, if it’s caused by radiation.’
‘Should that phone even have 5G?’ said someone else.
‘Isn’t it an older model?’
‘Is it even switched on?’
The crowd started to advance, albeit very slowly, so that they didn’t accidentally encroach on their neighbour’s two metre bubble.
‘Wait,’ I said desperately. ‘If you’ll just lend me your phone, ma’am…’
‘What? Have you even washed your hands today?’ was the horrified response.
‘’Ere, he didn’t even use hand sanitiser when he took that girl’s phone!’
‘And he’s standing so close to her! Are you even from the same household?!’
‘What– What is this…’ I stammered, stumbling backwards. The back of my legs hit the car.
‘Are you trying to scam people, mister?’
‘You shouldn’t be encouraging people to believe in conspiracy theories!’
‘This could cost lives, you know!’
‘When did you all become so sensible?’ I screamed.
There was a ringing silence.
Ang tugged on my coat. ‘Time to go, gwas.’
I nodded dumbly, sidled around the car and fumbled my way into the driver’s seat.
There was a slam behind me, and then Ang, perched again in the boot, said: ‘I reckon they think you’ve just kidnapped me, so prob’ly time to bolt, right?’
‘Right.’ I turned the key. ‘Right.’
The crowd broke into a run as we pulled away. We sped up, accelerating down near-empty roads, turned a few corners, and in barely any time at all we’d arrived back in the shitty side-street we’ve called home for the past six weeks.
I killed the engine and let my head thump back against the headrest.
There were scrabbling sounds as Ang manoeuvred her way through to the passenger seat. There was a slow, arduous ripping sound as the dress caught on something along the way.
‘Oh dear,’ she said sweetly. ‘Looks like it be ruined.’
‘Ye all right, gwas?’ There was an uncharacteristic note of concern in her voice.
‘Why do you ask?’
She hesitated. ‘You ain’t been right, lately. Like this plan wi’ the phone and the wiffy. Ye hate them smartphones. Thought ye said they took the magic out o’ things…’
Dull exasperation made my voice heavy. ‘Where is the magic right now, Ang? No one’s hosting occult markets until all this blows over. All the interesting beasties – sorry, non-humans – are in hiding just like everyone else. Not even the most delinquent members of our clientele are out and about. Even criminals have grannies they don’t want falling victim to some killer-flu. The world’s gone mad.’
‘Has it, gwas? Seems like mebbe it’s found some sense, for a while.’
‘Ha! You call that sense? I didn’t make up that 5G nonsense, you know. Someone else did it for me! And those people in the park. They can’t see their own families, but they can sit two metres away from as many strangers as they like? It’s bonkers.’
‘Dunno. Seems like a kind o’ magic t’me, gwas.’
Ang didn’t say anything for a while. I stared blankly out the window while she rustled out of the remains of her dress. Empty streets. All the people locked away, living busy lives indoors, with their families. And if you don’t have a family, you’re in it alone.
‘Do coblyns get sick?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Your family doing all right, are they?’
‘Aye. Still gets letters. This virus dun’t affect ’em much, what wi’ already being cut off from the world. It’d have t’be a fierce determined one to get across that bridge.’
‘That’s good then.’
A pause. More rustling. Ang resurfaced with a cold sausage roll.
‘Ye ever call her, gwas?’
I gave a small start. ‘What? Why’d you say that?’
Ang was staring upwards, sausage roll held halfway to her mouth in thought. ‘Seems t’me like a good time t’be thinkin’ about family, is all. They keeps us sane in hard times.’ She gave me a sidelong glance. ‘Them old folks, they needs checkin’ up on, too.’
‘Mm.’ I ran a hand through my hair, and shrugged off the stupid hot coat. ‘And when am I going to do that? There’s no privacy with you in my face all day–’
Ang tossed something into the air: I caught it reflexively. I stared down at my reliable old Nokia, a brick of a phone by today’s standards.
‘Ye should keep it somewhere safer than the footwell,’ she said drily. ‘I’m goin’ fer a walk. I’ll take the daft hat.’
The door slammed, and I was alone.
‘These phones are indestructible, you know,’ I said to the thin air.
Suddenly, the weight of the surrounding silence was quite pressing. I hadn’t noticed how much I’d relied on Ang’s constant grumbling and munching and snarking to keep it at bay. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel. The phone was heavy in my hands.
I took a deep breath.
Dialled a number.
Closed my eyes.
There was the sound of love on the other end.
‘Hi Mum. How are you?’
Thanks for reading! I hope this little short has brought you a smile.
This is a standalone episode featuring the main characters from The Jack Hansard Series. If you’re new to Hansard and enjoyed this story, you can read the full twenty episodes of Season One right here.
If you’re already a Hansard fan, this story is meant as a small gift. I know it’s been an age of waiting for Season Two to appear, and that the self-publishing process for Season One is taking up a lot of my time. I want to reassure you that progress is being made: old words are being formatted, and new words are being written. And in the meantime I hope I’ve been able to provide some good humour in the middle of this peculiar moment in history.
I want to say a heartfelt thank you for sticking with me for so long, and for continuing to give me the confidence to take this whole story further. Your comments and messages have really touched me, and it’s an honour to know so many people have read and enjoyed Jack’s misadventures so far. I want to do right by you.
I’ll keep updating through the blog as more news on the series becomes available.
Take care, and look after yourselves in these strange times.
P.S. I wouldn’t have anything against Mansfield if it weren’t for that one time when I tried to travel through it with a bunch of friends, in order to get to somewhere else. But the roads… Wouldn’t. Let. Us. Leave.
Days passed. Years. We grew old circling the same roundabouts. Our escape was engineered by tricking a Wrong Turn into becoming the right one by answering a riddle about the Highway Code.
I’m convinced Mansfieldians live inside a crack in the space-time continuum.
If you enjoyed this story, you can support the author for the price of a coffee.