12+ JITTERY. 16-down, "Nervous or unable to relax (7)". That's the word. Loud voices in the street drown out the TV. I put down my crossword, walk to the front window and part the curtains. They're at it again, the neighbours across the way. I can see them pointing and shouting at each other under the pale street lights.
"Should I call the police?" I ask. But I don't answer, because talking to yourself is a sign of madness or dementia. The neighbours retreat inside, a door slams and their voices become muffled. I let the curtains drop and walk to the kitchen.
My doctor told me to have chamomile tea before bed. "It could help with your blood pressure," she said. But that was a month ago, and I'm fond of brandy nightcaps. I reach under the sink for the near-empty bottle.
"No, two tonight," I respond.
Everyone's grown jittery since the coronavirus outbreak. The neighbours argued before the lockdown, but now it's most nights and even during the day. Though, in fairness, they're not the only ones airing dirty linen in the street. I return to the front room with my brandy and pick up the crossword.
26-across, "Being alone, feeling unhappy or anxious (9)". ISOLATION.
Yes, I feel jittery and perhaps a little anxious, but I don't feel unhappy. Unlike my neighbours, I am on my own in isolation. I feel lonely some days, but there are no arguments.
11-across, "Memory of something (12)". RECOLLECTION.
Once upon a time, when the only virus we feared was the flu, the house was full of noise. But the years passed and one-by-one the children left until it was just the two of us.
20-down, "Fact of losing someone (4)". LOSS.
Like the neighbours, we had our disagreements, especially in the beginning, over money and the children. But we grew old and comfortable together, to the point where we didn't feel the need for words. Sometimes we went days without talking. Funny, it's like that now, only there's no one with whom to share the silence.
5-down, "Duty or commitment (10)". OBLIGATION
The children phoned every couple of days after the government announced the lockdown. But they've got busy lives with the grandchildren, working from home and home-schooling. And then there was that business with the cruise ship. My son joked it was the one time he wished he'd missed the boat!
15-across, "Space between two things (8)". DISTANCE
I haven't seen my grandchildren since the lockdown. My daughter phoned last week, I think. The truth is, I'm not sure. Even before this wretched virus, living alone, I lost track of the days and weeks.
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Raised voices in the street again. I tut and turn up the TV. I wish the neighbours understood we need to get through this jittery time together. "Or on your own," I chide myself aloud and sip my brandy, before returning to the crossword.
30-across, "Travelling from one place to another (7)". JOURNEY.
© 2020 Robert Fairhead
N.B. This short story is also available on the Tall And True Short Reads audio fiction podcast.
I wrote A Jittery Journey for the Australian Writers' Centre's monthly 500-word short story competition, #FuriousFiction, in June 2020. The FIRST and LAST WORDS of the story had to begin with a "J", and it had to include a GAME BEING PLAYED, and the phrase MISSED THE BOAT.
A crossword puzzle provided me with the perfect device for my first and last words and the game. And I used our jittery COVID-times to tell the journey of an older person living alone under lockdown, while the neighbours argue. As for missing the boat, who wouldn’t wish they’d missed boarding a “COVID Princess” cruise ship?
Once again, I didn't win or make the short or long lists for Furious Fiction. But I enjoyed the challenge of writing my short story in the 55-hour deadline. And I took great comfort in the knowledge June’s winning entry also featured a crossword.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert Fairhead is an editor and writer at Tall And True, and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com.
His favourite pastimes include reading and writing, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son. He is also a part-time dog trainer and runs classes at his local dog training club and through Robert's Responsible Dog Training.
Robert has worked as an electrician, a computer programmer, and a sales and marketing consultant, and he is the principal copywriter at Rocher Communications.
His book reviews and writing on dogs have appeared in newspapers and online. And in 2020, he published a collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story.
Robert has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.