Ian Bishop

I Spy

In lock-down there is nowhere to hide. You can keep going to the shops, well yes, but when you get there everyone is watching everyone else. Keep your distance! Imagine a spy in lock-down. No freedom to suddenly blend into a crowd, to push through passengers on a platform, hide on the train then walk out into another city, or perhaps onto the train, but–straight out the other side–into those gathered to travel in the opposite direction, go with that flow, or move on out of the station altogether, free at last, the tail having lost your trail. 

    The children and I have been playing I Spy. One o’clock, on the dot: beans on toast, a cheese sandwich, a piece of savoury pie. To follow: an apple or banana, or a biscuit, if there’s one left. My drink is tea and the children suck juice through straws. We never I Spy our food, or our clothes, or the second floor balcony where we sit. Every lunchtime we sit and eat and we paint the picture out there.

     T is for tree. P is for pavement. L is for leaves. R is the road that runs down the side of the square. S is for seeds, scattered over the pavement – the flying kind, little pairs of wings. S is also for the square. P is for parking. B is for bird: where? It was there, you missed it! 

     I try to weave silent letters into our game.

     M is for moorish architecture. P is for politician. There is of course not one in the square, but I was plagued by I is for inconceivable; how the pandemic caught us up and will leave us go.

     The children see her, they said she was K: K for key worker; but by the time they’d said that, she was gone. 

     W is for woman. 

     W is for window! The square is boarded on three sides by flats with windows. S is for sun reflected in the windows, splashing in their eyes. R is for rubbish, cylindrical bins, stainless steel and placed around the pattern of the square. C (every now and again) is for: Oh there’s a car! R is red car. B is blue. G is for grey.

     W is for woman. T is for tall. C is for her coat, heavy for the time ofyear. W is for walk. S is forscarf. Some lunchtimes it’s wrapped around her face.

     R is for rain. T is for tree. S is for pavement covered in seeds. The flying kind. 

     F is for a foggy moorland cottage. A woman in long skirts is huddled proud and punished, her face has a cold look yet glows like a stove. She stays with her husband in the cottage. It is a romantic scene. Romance helps us cope with such bitter weather; there are always hidden hearts in a landscape so barren. Perhaps romance is born from drudgery. A life without letup needs to find some way of being a lighter 

     Being. Although it is the relation of the husband and wife that is 

     Bitter – as well as the weather that hangs over the distant crags, swirls in the early morning, unfurls its news of the growl that lives in the mountains.

     W! W! W! The children shout, but I’m slow on the uptake. Anyway it’s a false alarm – a repeat I spy. They gaze and munch, always on the lookout.

     In freezing weather she pulls her shawl tight. The cover makes it difficult to see her stoicism as shut away she breaths, walks the moorlands, while her husband is working. He attacks her body with his constant work, his inwardness. Cattle get fed – yet in the cottage the woman cooks the food and makes the beds – could he not have put a handful of straw down for her –  cleaned the latrine, sloshed a bucket of water against the moorland stones? During medieval times cattle lived inside and helped with warmth. The cottage on the foggy moorland holds onto its hard frost, even though the woman kept a fire burning day and night.

     She starts to sketch on stones with flint, sometimes scraps of paper she’d stolen – along with a pencil – from her husband’s table. Then, after the couple move to the city, she becomes a painter, finds herself acquainted with an art dealer who has a voracious passion for her still-life.

     Her husband sits and shrugs, still working, knowing in the larger way of things nothing untoward could ever happen to him or to the world in which he lives. 

     His wife has other ideas.

     One morning a lawman calls and serves the husband legal papers. 

     The woman is therein bound to live a single life, until the courts have ruled. She gazes at her lover from the back of a horse-drawn cab, as if it is forever, goodbye.

     C! – C! – I’ve got one. C is for clouds! 

     Oh yes! There – clouds – visible just, through the canopy of trees and the shelter of the tall buildings. 

     Pleased to have found a new piece to our picture, we clear the dishes and go inside. 

Ian Bishop teaches Philosophy and English in schools and colleges in Kent UK. His work has been published in Orbis, Interpreter’s House, Adelaide Literary magazine.