Remember the early days of 2020, when COVID deaths were mounting daily, hospitals were being overwhelmed, there was no vaccine in sight, cities across the world were going into Lockdown and no one knew when or if things would get back to normal? Life as we’d known it was on hold. The contacts and conveniences and small collective freedoms that we’d taken for granted were no longer available to us. We had to learn to cope with isolation, with not leaving the house, with having free time without the freedom to use it. We kept hope alive and fear at bay by trying new things. It turned out that one of the commonest reactions to the end of the world as we knew it was baking. At least, that was the upside. The downside was depression, paranoia and domestic violence.
Ben Winters clearly remembers those days and in these three stories, he brought them back to me, reminding me of how things were, exploring what that did to us and adding just enough humour to make me smile and be glad that we’re not in lockdown anymore.
‘The Crimson Parrot’: there’s a title to conjure with! It sounds like something from a Saturday Matinee at the cinemas that, as I type this, I realise are too far in the past for most people to remember. It’s a title that suggests plots, and heists and nefarious doings. This is what the story would have been about, except now, the gang planning all of that is working from home and the mark they’d planned to ambush can’t travel. Ben Winters delivered perfectly-timed drôle humour that any of us who have tried to work with people who have never used Zoom before and who are coping with patchy wifi and improvised domestic workspaces that are frequently but unpredictably invaded by family members, will recognise and empathise with. The characters are straight from Central Casting but that just adds to the fun. The plot has enough twists to keep the story moving and to keep me guessing to the end.
‘The Cape House’, a story of two brothers, brought together for the first time in decades by their father’s funeral and then trapped in their childhood home when lockdown bites, was a much darker tale. It was a first-person account that seemed fairly low-key at first but which gains a slow menace as the narrator starts to unravel and is shown to be not just unreliable but certifiable. This is a nicely crafted acknowledgement of the pressure on mental health of discontinuous change combined with enforced isolation with a person you wouldn’t normally spend time with. I thought the ending was satisfying and showed an escalating sense of things going out of control.
‘Stop Motion‘, another title loaded with potential meanings in a time of COVID, is a sort of ‘Rear Window‘ re-write only with Lockdown taking the place of a broken leg. I had a lot of fun with this mostly tongue-in-cheek story. The main character, a young woman who has a history of starting things and not finishing them, is determined to use her enforced isolation to return to some of her abandoned projects and do something useful. This amused me as I know a lot of us felt this way at the start of Lockdown before folding under the combined weight or anxiety, isolation and boredom. Our heroine’s attempt at Stop Motion photography accidentally results in pictures that she convinces herself show that one of her neighbours has murdered his husband. What I loved most about this story was that Ben Winters kept me equally interested in the young woman’s state of mind and her relationship with her recently-dumped-but-now-needed-to-help-in-her-investigation boyfriend as I was in whether a murder had been committed and whether anyone would believe it if it had.
If you have a few hours to fill and you want to take a trip back to 2020 headspace, give ‘Inside Jobs’ a try. Each story has its own narrator and they all do a great job.