written by: Peter Astle
“You can’t be serious,” Jane said. “You’ll be thrown in jail.”
Paul shrugged. “We might as well be in jail. Besides, this is important. It’s just one night.”
“It’s martial law,” Jane reminded him. “Public gatherings are illegal.”
“It’s a private gathering. Everyone will be wearing masks and gloves.”
Jane clattered dinner plates in the sink. Melody, their skinny tabby cat, leapt off the table and curled by her feet. “Are you out of your mind? Seriously, Paul. Thousands of deaths every day, police drones monitoring the streets. We can’t even go food shopping now.”
That was true. All food retailers were now officially closed to the public. Public places had been shut down indefinitely. Home deliveries were mandatory. Full lockdown was now in force across the globe. The virus had spread so fast, Armageddon was the word on everyone’s lips. And Paul Swain was climbing the walls.
After the second month of lockdown, when the global death toll reached unimaginable numbers, politicians across the world had no other choice but to enforce total self-isolation. The motorcyclists who left essential food supplies on doorsteps across the country wore sanitised gloves, and surgical masks behind their helmets. They rarely spoke to the customers they delivered to.
Social media was clogged with messages of doom. Many people sought sanctuary in private online groups – religious and otherwise – that offered some light at the end of the tunnel. Paul Swain, landlord of the Bulls Head in Buxton, had developed one such group. He called it ‘The Gathering’. All thirty-six private members were former customers of the Derbyshire pub, which had been forced to close three months ago due to the world-wide pandemic. Many customers were elderly, completely isolated, scared, desperate for human contact. The online group provided some company, discussion and distraction, but it wasn’t enough. People needed people.
“I’ve contacted everyone in the group,” Paul said. “None of them have the symptoms.”
Jane rattled cutlery in the sink. “If there’s a chance that even one of them has the virus, it’s not a chance worth taking. I’m a key worker, Paul. This afternoon I had to turn away Vera Howard from intensive care. Maddie Howard’s sister, for crying out loud. This thing has to stop.”
Paul knew all about Maddie Howard. Just about everyone in the country did. Paul sipped his mug of tea. “It’s a bit late for that now. They’ll all be coming tonight, around eight o’clock.”
Jane dropped a Denby cereal dish. It smashed on the stone floor tiles next to sink. Melody shot across the kitchen as though a bomb had exploded.
By nine o’clock the beer was flowing at the Bulls Head. Behind the bar, Paul grinned as he served drinks to customers he’d not seen in three months. Everyone wore the agreed surgical gloves and masks, pulling up the mask to take a drink. Blackout curtains hung at each window, a precaution someone in the private group had suggested to thwart the police observation drones. Jane flatly refused to attend. Right now, she was upstairs on the office computer, deleting every thread from ‘The Gathering’ homepage.
Reverend Frank Pendleton came across to the bar, leaned towards Paul and whispered through his mask. “Maddie’s outside.”
Paul pulled the vicar to one side. “She can’t be.”
“She called the Neighbourhood phoneline. We’ve been offering welfare services, remember?”
Paul nodded. The health authorities and the military were so overstretched, the clergy had been called upon by the government to offer personal pastoral support to the over-seventies. Many had no internet access, no means of socialising other than the phone. Frank Pendleton was part of the government funded initiative, Neighbourhood Welfare, designed to help alleviate the psychological effects of complete isolation. He and two dozen volunteers spent up to six hours a day and night talking to the elderly across Derbyshire, keeping them informed, keeping them safe, keeping them company.
“How the hell did Maddie find out about this?”
“It wasn’t me who took the call. Loose lips and all that. I’ve no idea. But she’s in the car park right now, arms folded across her chest. Collared me a few minutes ago as I was coming in. She wants to talk to your wife.”
Paul blew out his cheeks. “Jane mentioned something about her sister, Vera. Did she say what it was about?”
“Only that she’d call the police if Jane won’t speak to her.”
Paul snatched up the entrance hatch at the end of the bar. “Mind helping out behind here?”
Frank gave a salute and slipped behind the bar.
Customers patted Paul on the back with gloved hands as he made his way towards the stairs in the corridor. He’d not done a headcount, but he was pretty sure that all thirty-six members had made it tonight. Someone amongst this group had alerted Maddie to the gathering, but there was no time to worry about that now. He ran up the stairs, two at a time. Jane was in the office hammering away at the computer keyboard, her back towards him.
“Maddie’s outside,” he said. “She wants to talk to you.”
Jane continued to type. “I’m shutting down your little group.”
“She says she’s going to call the police if you don’t see her.”
Jane turned to look at him. In twenty years of marriage he’d seen her angry, but nothing like this. Written on her face was pure fury, maybe even a touch of disgust. “The world is falling apart and you––against all medical advice–– decide to throw a party.”
“It’s not a party. It’s a private gathering. We’re all masked and protected.”
“It’s against the law. You could be arrested. Fined heavily. We’re in total lockdown, Paul. Social distancing is law. What were you thinking of?”
“The community, actually,” Paul said. “The older people. They’re all going stir crazy out there on their own.”
“Better to be stir crazy than to pass the virus on.”
Paul knew it was pointless arguing with his wife on this one. As an intensive care unit worker, Jane was part of the ‘Keep Your Distance’ campaign from the outset.
“If you don’t speak with her, she’ll call the police. Do we need that?”
“I can’t speak to her. She’s suing the hospital. We’ve been told to have no contact with her whatsoever. You know the trouble she’s caused.”
Paul knew. It had made national headlines. Local hero Maddie Howard was taking the hospital to court for age discrimination––and according to her lawyers, she would win.
Two months ago, when the virus hit its first peak, the emergency services were stretched beyond their limits. Senior doctors had to make tough decisions as to who and who not to treat in intensive care. It was no first come first served situation.
Various factors were taken into consideration when it came to allocating intensive care unit beds, and age was one of them. Maddie’s lawyers obtained a leaked bed-allocation document that showed a system whereby patients were scored. In a nutshell, the older the patient, the lower the overall score, and the less likely they’d be treated. What it meant in reality was that if two people presented exactly the same symptoms––say an eighty-year-old and a thirty-year-old––the younger patient would get the ICU bed. Younger people recovered more quickly, thus freeing up the bed for other patients. Maddie was eighty-three when she called the hospital with a fever. She was turned away, even though there were beds. The beds went to younger, more ‘efficient’ patients. The same source at the hospital who leaked the bed-allocation document to the media also provided Maddie with this nugget of information.
Ill as she was, Maddie went straight to the press. The story caused a media storm in the tabloids and serious discussion in the broadsheets. Terms like ‘institutionalist ageism’, ‘playing God’, and ‘utilitarianism’ were debated in the House of Commons. The hospital released a brief statement––they had little choice given the public outcry and the existence of the leaked bed-allocation document––which said although they could not comment on individual cases, in a state of national emergency, it had ‘Now become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care’.
This fanned the flames even further. When Maddie’s story went viral, the Prime Minister was forced to make a statement outside Number 10. He admitted the National Health Service was currently overstretched but measures were being implemented to safeguard the public: retired doctors and nurses were to return to work, there was government funding for more intensive care units across the country, the majority of workers’ wages would be paid by the government in this time of crisis, and new initiatives like Neighbourhood Welfare––which specifically provided support to the elderly––were being rolled out across the country.
At no point did he mention Maddie Howard.
He repeated the mantra about washing hands and even manged a brief smile after his now familiar parting shot––“Stay indoors, stay informed, stay safe” ––before hotfooting it back through the famous black door.
That was just the start of it.
Fortunately, Maddie Howard recovered. Unfortunately, she became more irascible. Through social media she built a huge following amongst the elderly across the UK as the world slid towards total lockdown. In television and radio interviews Maddie stated, with some eloquence, that she was seeking no financial compensation from the hospital, nor from the government. She spoke with the authority of the Belper headmistress she once was. What she sought was justice for the elderly, equality of medical care for a generation of equal importance. In these turbulent times, the most vulnerable people in society were being sent home to die. Someone had to do something.
“She called Neighbourhood Welfare,” said Paul. “Her sister’s ill.”
“I know. I was the one who had to turn her away this afternoon, remember?”
“Which might be the reason why she wants to speak with you.”
“I don’t make the rules, Paul.”
“Please speak to her. I’ll come with you.”
Jane opened the drawer under the computer desk and pulled out a fresh surgical mask and a pair of thin protective gloves. “I’ll speak to her if you promise to send everyone home. This gathering has to stop.”
Paul held up two gloved palms. “Let’s see what she wants.”
From the very start of total lockdown people fell into two camps: those who stuck to the rules, and those who did not.
Working in an intensive care unit, Jane had no choice other than to tow the line. Working in the pub industry, Paul did not. Sure, he washed his hands, wore surgical gloves and masks when they became compulsory, but social distancing was not so easy. Many of his regular customers were old. The pub was their haven, their social playground, their sanctuary. Paul understood the logic behind social distancing, but human contact was essential. Lockdown may have slowed down the spread of the virus, but total isolation for many people was a living nightmare. For Paul, the one-off gathering was about restoring what was before. Even if just for one night.
Maddie Howard stood in the carpark wearing standard surgical gloves and mask, arms crossed against her chest, just as Frank Pendleton had described. She stood no more than five feet tall but somehow managed to look formidable despite wearing a pink cardigan and matching tracksuit bottoms. The Champion for the Elderly stood before them, defiant, unashamed, and angry as hell.
“I’m sorry about Vera,” Jane said, folding her own arms to mirror Maddie’s. “I had no choice.”
Paul stayed back, six feet behind his wife, close to the stone steps at entrance of the pub.
“I’ve not come to argue,” Maddie said. “I’ve come to deliver a message to my friends.”
Jane said nothing.
“You want to come inside?” Paul asked.
“Yes. I’ve got something to tell you all.”
Jane took a step closer. “The party’s over, Maddie. It never should have happened in the first place. We’re sending everyone home.”
“Let me speak to them first.”
“It’s impossible. I’ve been told to have no contact with you.”
“I’m dropping the court case,” Maddie said. “Things have changed.”
Once again, Jane was lost for words.
“If you want to come into the pub, that’s fine by me,” Paul said.
“What things have changed?” Jane asked.
“I’ll explain. But I need to do this face to face.”
Paul gathered everyone into the lounge for the speech. It could just about take thirty-six people.
Gloved and masked and all holding drinks, they crammed into the small space, shoulder to shoulder, hushed in anticipation. Muted handclapping came the moment Maddie walked into the room, the surgical gloves dampening the sound of the applause. For many in this room, Maddie Howard, was their hero, the Champion of the Elderly, a local ex-headteacher turned celebrity who had stood up to the Prime Minister in the glare of the media and at the height of a global crisis. Paul moved a table in the corner of the lounge to give her a spot to stand. Maddie took it and faced the crowd. She looked so small and ordinary in her prink cardigan and tracksuit bottoms, but her expression radiated confidence, chin held high, eyes falling on each member of the gathering.
“I’m here to tell you something important,” she began. “I spoke with a junior health minister today, from the government.”
Paul and Jane exchanged a glance as gasps and whispers rippled through the crowd.
“As many of you know,” she continued, “I was ill last month, like so many others. I managed to pull through at home, but only just. I was turned away from hospital even though there were ICU beds. I was turned away because of my age.”
She let that one hang in the air for a full five seconds. No one spoke, but there were plenty of glances across the room.
“The same thing happened to my sister, Vera, today. She’s seventy-seven––six years younger than me. Merely a child.”
Nervous laughter came from somewhere near the back of the lounge. Jane stepped close to Paul, squeezed his hand.
“Vera’s staying with me for now. Hopefully that will change. I can only nurse her best as I can, as safe as I can for the foreseeable future. I don’t have access to ventilators or any other intensive care equipment at home. I don’t even have Alexa.”
Another murmur of laughter from the back.
“People compare this pandemic to the war years.” Maddie shook her head. “It’s nothing like that. Those days we dug for victory, together. We worked together, fought together, survived together. We pulled together. This thing, this virus, is driving us apart, separating us, scaring us halfway to death.” She looked across to Paul. “I understand your need for this gathering, Paul. But this has to stop.”
Paul was about to protest when Jane gave his arm a firm tug.
“We can stick together through this online. We can call one another on the phone. We cannot meet in groups. My sister would not be infected today had I not ignored the advice and visited her.”
“But we’re protected,” someone shouted from the crowd, waving a gloved hand.
“Not enough,” Maddie said. “As I say, I spoke with an MP this afternoon. Angela Fox, junior health minister. Mainly about the age discrimination case, but also about the virus itself. It’s airborne but also lives on surfaces. Masks and gloves help, but they’re not enough. People touch their faces all the time. How many times have you pulled up your mask to have a drink tonight? How many surfaces have you touched tonight with those latex gloves?”
Paul went to scratch an itch on his neck. Changed his mind.
“But that’s not why I’ve come tonight.”
“I’ve come to tell you there will be new hospital guidelines in place as from tomorrow. Angela Fox is on side–– she’s pretty high up in the government food chain. She thanked me for highlighting the issues faced by the over seventies. The Prime Minister will be making an announcement tomorrow morning outside Number Ten.”
Frank Pendleton leaned over the bar. “So, you’re dropping the discrimination case?”
Jane clenched Paul’s hand.
“Yes. Angela Fox told me the new government guidelines would legally prevent any hospital discriminating on the grounds of age. Bed-allocations in intensive care units will be open to all, where available. ICU tick lists will no longer exist. Not much point in going through the courts when the rules have changed. She promised to do all that she could to find a bed for Vera. And I’d like say––”
“And you believe the words of a politician?” someone from the crowd interrupted.
Maddie composed herself, straightened her mask. “Yes, I do. Angela was genuinely shocked. Her own mother is in her late eighties, with breathing problems. She had no idea these tick-lists existed. Nor did the government.”
“Until the leak,” Frank said from across the bar.
“Until there was proof,” Maddie corrected. “There was always speculation in the media about age discrimination, plenty of anecdotes, but nothing tangible. Tough decisions had to be made by senior doctors and age was rumoured to be a factor. There was never any proof. Not until the leaked bed-allocation document. That changed everything.”
“Do we know who leaked it?” Frank asked.
Maddie offered a fleeting glance towards Paul and Jane before returning to the crowd. “We have no idea. But what I’d like to say was thank you. Thank you to whoever it was.”
Jane lowered her head. Paul gently squeezed her hand.
“Now,” Maddie said in her best headmistress’s voice. “It’s time to go home.”
- The Visitor - July 12, 2020
- The Gathering - May 13, 2020