What lay beneath…

Video chats were strange. You saw the neat hair, the tidied up face, the smart blouse or the collar and tie. But what lay beneath was a mystery. You couldn’t see what was really going on. Yet Louisa had heard of people who had been caught out, unaware that their pajama bottoms and slippers were on view to their colleagues, or that their squalid rooms and dirty washing weren’t hidden by their virtual backgrounds.

So her video chats with Sean had always that unknown. He was an oblong of moving colour on her desktop, or in the palm of her hand, his face sometimes swollen by being too close to the camera. His voice sounded thin and halting, although the timing of the conversation was hard to follow, never knowing if a pause was real or a break in the signal.

Louisa had only ever met Sean over video. She was based in Manchester, he was already out on-site in Seoul. They were working on a software project for a factory, meeting first in a group then collaborating one-to-one; jointly editing code online so that her changes cris-crossed with his. We are on the same page, he typed.

Sometimes their chat streams flowed into personal matters; where they had travelled in the years before Covid. Things they had enjoyed: gardens, galleries, live theatre. He misses Manchester, he says, but then he tells her about Seoul: like a sea of skyscrapers amongst mountains; the beer-and-chicken restaurants; the fifteenth-story driving range; the football pitch on the roof. It’s June: the monsoon season there, fiercely, sweatily hot.

Sean sends her photographs of ancient porcelain in the national museum: I’ve seen all these vases that you’d probably like. A Joeson jar with a dragon and cloud, the blue design as fine as lace on the cream-coloured ceramic. She wants to go there, but even now that Covid restrictions are lifted she can’t travel because of her husband’s operation.

At home, she gets up early – there’s always so much to do in a big house. While her husband sleeps she empties the dishwasher, hangs up the laundry, puts his bottles into the recycling bin. Then she makes herself her morning coffee, dodging around Chuck who is now getting his breakfast and is telling her: you should have left all that for me to do. She doesn’t reply. It would still be looking at her when she got home from work.

Since Chuck had the heart bypass he’s ignored the doctors’ instructions to diet and spends most of the day sitting down. He tells her to stop nagging him. If it’s not his chest, or his knees, it’s his back. She bought him a recliner that pushes him up from the seat when he presses a button.

She waits for him to take his cup and plate into the lounge before wiping butter and breadcrumbs from the worktop. She takes meat from the freezer to defrost.

It’s her custom to summon him from watching the TV when she leaves. Chuck grumbles his way to the front door to wave her off. A little kiss. Their conversation is the same each day: what she will cook for their supper, drive carefully, send me a text when you’re on your way home.

Thank heaven it’s Monday morning. There’s always an enormous sense of relief as soon as she drives out into the avenue. The summer sun is shining and at the wheel of the car, properly alone for the first time since Friday, she feels that she can breathe easy. There is hope; there is still some of her life to live.

In the office she opens her chat stream and looks again at Sean’s photographs: the gracefully shaped porcelain, with its delicate blue and white design beneath a perfect glaze. The way ceramics stay the same colour as when they were fresh from the kiln. She goes into her manager’s office and tells him she thinks she ought to be on-site for the project go-live.

Frank looks startled. ‘I wanted to send you to Seoul, but I thought you had to look after your husband.’

‘Chuck’s made a great effort to get active again,’ she lies. ‘He’ll be able to manage without me for a while. And being on-site’s the only way to see what’s really going on.’