Guest blog: William in lockdown

Over the past year or so my husband and 11yo daughter have been really enjoying reading Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books together. Yesterday she was feeling sad about the current situation, and missing her friends, and perhaps never getting to go back to the primary school she loves, so my husband wrote a Just William story just for her to cheer her up – the story of William in lockdown. I loved it so much that I am including it here as a guest post. I hope you enjoy as much as we did!

William in Lockdown

It was the Brown family’s nightmare. After 11 years in which their sole goal had been to minimise all contact with their youngest son, an unexpected pandemic was suddenly enforcing constant proximity.

William was bored. Since the instructions for social distancing were issued by powers previously unknown and, to William, irrelevant he had been unable to do those things that made life even remotely worth living. The knowledge that his companions Ginger, Henry and Douglas were also cooped up a matter of yards from his front door made for even greater torture. 

Morosely, for the hundredth time that day, he stumbled into the drawing room. 

“William, will you just sit down and do something” said Mrs Brown. 

“’s no good jus’ saying do somethin’” said William. “There’s nothin’ to do. What do you suggest doin’?” 

“Why don’t you take a book from the library?” said his ever-optimistic mother. “There are dozens of children’s books in there that you’ve never read.”

William mooched, shoulders hunched, in the direction of the library. Too late did Mrs Brown remember that Mr Brown, also forced into social distancing by the powers that be, had adopted the library as his new office and was, even now, attempting the conduct of some business of apparently vital importance.

William meandered into the library. Mr Brown was seated at the desk, staring at a computer screen. Half a dozen disembodied faces stared back from the screen, living portraits in an electronic gallery. 

“Who are those people?” exclaimed William. “They look funny.”

Mr Brown attempted to hiss a response from the corner of his mouth but nothing comprehensible emerged, at least not to William. William crossed the library and positioned himself directly in front of the computer screen, staring at each of the faces with interest. Somehow, even though he’d scarcely left the house in the last fortnight, his hair was tousled, his face was smeared and his collar askew. As was characteristic, he expressed his interest in the faces through the medium of a furious glare. William had never previously encountered the communication mechanism known as Zoom, and was unaware that just as each of the faces was visible to him, so he was visible to each of the faces. He was also unaware that he could be heard.

“Why’s that one so red and sweaty?” he asked his father with curiosity, pointing to a gentleman who, unbeknown to William, was the director of a significant local science laboratory. His father, realising that his son’s lower portion was out of sight of his teleconference companions, prodded William hard in the small of the back, with the intention of encouraging his departure.

“Ouch! Father, why are you hurting me!” William’s indignant glare turned from the red faced man to his paternal relation. Mr Brown gave up on subtlety “Get out you infernal child! This is a Board meeting!” 

“You bored? Why’s it so borin’?” said William, sympathetically. “Would you like me to liven it up a bit? Tell you what, I could get Jumble and we could do you some tricks.” William walked towards the door, with the intention of finding his beloved mongrel. On his departure, his father followed him to the door, hissed “you’ll pay for this”, closed the door firmly and turned the key from the inside. He was aware that another member of his family would now have to endure his son’s company but this was a sacrifice that he was, on their behalf, more than willing to make.

Willam decided it was time to talk to his lieutenant, Ginger. Contact between the Outlaws was strictly prohibited. When William had discovered that everyone was permitted a single trip outdoors for daily exercise, he had tried to persuade his family that this might be used for the purpose of reuniting his trusty band of Outlaws. “We’ll stay socially distanced’ he had attempted to reassure them, “We’ll jus’ go to the Old Barn and stay socially distanced the whole time.”

But his family had been unconvinced. They had been taught by bitter experience that there was only the gentlest of relationships between William’s intentions and the consequences of his actions. So, with extreme reluctance and a sense of self-sacrifice that would have baffled anyone of lesser acquaintance, they concluded that William’s daily exercise must consist of a single return walk to the centre of the village, accompanied by one of his parents or siblings. Since that decision, accompanying William on his walk was regarded as something of a family booby prize, awarded to whomsoever had erred on the previous day. The unlucky recipient of this prize would walk as quickly and firmly as possible, and strictly refuse any detours in the direction of William’s friends. William had not seen his comrades in 10 days.

This did not mean, however, that communication was severed. While Zoom may have been unfamiliar to William, WhatsApp was not. Early in the days of social distancing, before parental injunctions became so rigorously enforced, the outlaws had held a crisis summit in the Old Barn. Ginger had recently been gifted his own mobile telephone. It had been provided by a wealthy and distant uncle, who had incurred the undying wrath of Ginger’s family by bequeathing upon Ginger a functional Samsung smartphone. As a result, the Outlaws had discovered WhatsApp.

It was, though, William who had hit upon the secret of coronavirus communications. “What we’ll do” he said “is take their phones whenever they’re not usin’ ‘em, and send messages to each other.”

“How’ll that work?”, Douglas had challenged, “As soon as our folks see us gettin’ messages from each other, they’ll stop it. They’re bound to see. And then they’re bound to stop it”

But William, the born leader that, had identified this threat, and mitigated it. Any message to any Outlaw, with the exception of messages to Ginger’s own smartphone, would begin with an enquiry mentioning the word “roses”. If an Outlaw was able to obtain the parental smartphone, they would reply with a message containing the word “trellis”. If the codeword was not received, the instigator of communications would delete the original missive. In this way, Wiliiam’s, Douglas’s and Henry’s mothers, each of whom knew the others only slightly, became, over the subsequent weeks, baffled by the others’ urgent and constant enquiries about their roses – and even more surprised that none of these messages were still visible on subsequent investigation. However, the surreptitious communications channel had now been employed for nearly two weeks, and had not yet been intercepted.

William stole into the hall. He spotted the corner table where Mrs Brown typically deposited her iphone. It wasn’t there. He wandered into the dining room. It wasn’t there either. He crossed the hall into the drawing room. Mrs Brown was sitting in the window, scrolling on her ipad. Her iphone was next to her. William, who generally believed that simple plans were the best, said calmly “Robert wants you.” 

“What does he want, dear?” asked Mrs Brown.

“Dunno. But he says he needs you frightful urgent. He’s in his room and says it’s frightful urgent. He told me to come here and tell you that he needs you frightful urgent.” William’s eloquence was only partially convincing but Mrs Brown, with a puzzled look on her face, rose from her chair and made her way to the stairs.  

William grabbed the coveted smartphone and ran to the garden, where he took up residence in the summer house. The iPhone screen presented William with a request for his mother’s security code. One of the reasons why none of the parents had suspected illegitimate use of their WhatsApp accounts is that they all innocently assumed that their sons could not possibly know their iPhone security codes. This was, of course, incorrect. Security codes, PIN numbers, signatures and bank logins were all known and used by all four outlaws whenever required. Typing the code, William opened WhatsApp and typed his initial message. “How are your roses today?”. William, aware of his propensity for misspelling, preferred to keep these introductory missives brief. A few minutes later he received the reply. “Growin up the trellis thanx”. Reassured that he was in communication with a fellow Outlaw, William started unburdening himself of his woes. 

He was in the summer house for a long time. He waxed lyrical, adopting spelling that started out with only the most tangential relationship to that in which he had been painfully educated by the village schoolmasters and rapidly deteriorated. His mother had been on the phone to a talkative aunt most of the morning, and this had been his first opportunity to communicate with a fellow sufferer. William was vaguely aware that the Covid-19 crisis had impacted others elsewhere on the globe. But he was certain that none was suffering as he was suffering. His torment was daily and constant. The only positive was that he now had more or less free run of the garden, after the gardener had, two days earlier, refused to continue his visits to the Brown residence. The Browns, aware of their own ineptitude with regard to horticulture, had pleaded with him to continue his activities, but he had been counting the occasions on which their youngest son had passed closer to him than the Government’s permitted two metres. On the first day of this week, it had been 7, on the second 9, on the third 14, on the fourth 43 and on the final day on which he tended the Browns’ garden, 76. At which point, the gardener had pointed out that he was only paid a tenner an hour, and he wasn’t going to risk his health for that young varmint and promptly furloughed himself. William considered this state of affairs an improvement.

As he crouched in the summer house over the glowing screen, an idea began to form in his fertile mind. He was now an expert in the Government’s regulations for lockdown. He could not go within two metres of anyone outside his family. He adhered to this regulation. As he had pointed out to his family, it wasn’t hisfault that the gardener kept movin’. If he’d just stayed in one place, William would have been at least2 metres from him the whole time. But he kept movin’ from one place to another and if hewas the one movin’, then it was his job to stay two metres from William. By rights, William pointed out, it should have been William that refused to go near the silly ole gardener. In William’s mind, he adhered faithfully to the regulation. 

He was also aware that he must not go out and that the family garden did not count as being ‘out’. Despite being an outlaw, William was, at heart, a law-abiding boy. At least, he was when the laws were sensible.  And, reluctantly, he saw the sense in the rules, given that they were about stopping a deadly disease. William had watched films about epidemics; he knew they were not to be trifled with. 

William typed furiously into WhatsApp. “I’ll dig a tunel and yull dig a tunl and theyll meet and were still home coz noone sez a tunl is out coz it isnt”

Ginger, with the immediacy that William had come to expect, both grasped and endorsed the plan, and they got to work. Digging a tunnel to Ginger’s house would be made much easier by the gardener’s departure. 

William left the summer house, skirted round the edge of the house (momentarily adopting the guise of Red Indian Chief scouting out territory) and reached the drawing room window. Peering in, he observed the room unoccupied. His mother was in the kitchen, searching every surface for her missing iPhone. He climbed through the window, returned the phone to the table from which he had taken it, and retreated back through the window, oblivious to the possibility that its absence had ever been noticed.

He then set his mind to the question of from where the tunnel should depart. He was aware of the direction of Ginger’s house, and concluded that he would minimise effort by commencing the tunnel in the corner of the garden closest to his destination. He broke into the gardener’s shed (the gardener had left it locked in the vain hope that it would prevent William from adopting his possessions during his period of absence), selected the biggest and strongest looking spade in the place, and set to work. 

It was blissful. For the first time since the lockdown began, he was in the outdoors and undisturbed. The space he’d selected was conveniently hidden behind a holly bush and could not be observed from the house. For around 30 minutes, he dug in utter contentment. At which point his parents, realising that for the first time in 10 days they were peacefully engaged in their own activities, began to fear that William may have escaped. For 10 minutes they argued about which of them should be given the unenviable task of finding him. In the end, Ethel lost and stepped into the garden calling William’s name. 

William emerged. He was coated in mud. His face lived up to his surname. His clothes were filthy. He looked radiantly happy. 

Ethel gasped in horror. “William!” she said “What on earth have you been doing?”

William, aware that revealing the truth of his intentions would immediately result in a parental prohibition, said “Nothin’” and then added, with partial truth, “I’ve spent the mornin’ jus’ sittin’ in the summer house. Nothin’ wrong with me jus’ sittin’ in the summer house, is there. No-one else was 2 metres from me in the summer house. Not even Jumble was 2 metres from me in the summer house. An’ even if he was, you can’t catch it from dogs, can you, there’s no reason why Jumble shouldn’t sit nex’ to me in the summer house. Can you think of a reason why Jumble shouldn’t sit next to me in the summer house?”

Ethel, exhausted and confused by William’s eloquence, grabbed the cleanest portion of his arm that she could find and escorted him into the house.

Lunch was a sombre affair. Mr Brown grumbled that his Board meeting had been utterly wrecked by his younger son and that his company would almost certainly fail as a result and it was all William’s fault. 

“We were already in desperate trouble” he moaned. “If we stick to the contract, we’ll be pilloried in the media but if we tear it up, we’ll go bust”. William’s father was a minor league financier who had funded a laboratory. The laboratory in question could, potentially, now be set to work testing for coronavirus but only if relieved of a series of debt obligations to William’s father. Mr Brown’s family listened with patience. His business activities had never interested the rest of them and, while they were aware that they were lucrative, they also regretted the way that Mr Brown, since he started working from home, now had a greater tendency to talk about them.

William was deeply resentful that he had been forced to both wash and change his clothes when he’d simply been sitting in the summer house (William’s pliably flexible memory had omitted those elements of his morning’s activities that were not convenient for this narrative). Robert had barely spoken since the lockdown began. Ten days earlier he had made the acquaintance of a new arrival in the neighbourhood, a young lady by the name of Alexandra, and he was desperate at the thought that he would not see her until the crisis was over. He was painfully aware that she lived next door to his ‘friend’ Jameson Jameson, and Robert now spent every mealtime visualising Alexandra and Jameson engaged in long, soulful, socially distanced conversations over the garden fence. 

Ethel and Mrs Brown had both spent the morning on their respective iPads and now swapped stories about the desperate situation in the local hospital, as evidenced by the complete lack of personal protective equipment. Though neither knew much about personal protective equipment, they were unanimous that more (much more!) must be provided. Empathetic distress at the thought of the hospital was a relief from the nervous tension both experienced as a consequence of William’s reactions to his own self-isolation. 

After lunch, William returned to his excavations. By the end of the afternoon he had a substantial hole. It was deep enough that he began to feel confident that, if he worked at it, he’d have reached Ginger’s house by the next lunchtime. Visions rose up in his mind of spending the rest of the lockdown in their tunnel, midway between their abodes, acting the role of gold-miners. You never know, they might actually find some gold. After all, gold comes from somewhere, and it might be here. They’d stick to 2 metres social distancing in their tunnel, of course. But there was no reason why the two metres couldn’t be underground.

Suddenly William’s reverie was disturbed by his spade hitting something solid. He tapped harder. It was a box. Excitedly he scraped around it. It was a large metal box, rather like a small filing cabinet. He scraped and scratched and, eventually, uncovered the entire box. 

It was extremely heavy. He dragged it out of the ground. It looked like it was intended to be weather proof. Visions of pirate treasure arose in his mind. He resolved to WhatsApp all three fellow Outlaws (group WhatsApps were strictly rationed by the Outlaws due to the implausibility of all three being able to obtain a parental smartphone simultaneously) and tell them that they were now rich. They’d buy a house in the village. The Laurels was available. They’d buy it straightaway. They’d move in together. They’d socially distance with each other as opposed to with their ole parents. That would be just fine.

This vision was marred, somewhat, on opening the box and discovering it was densely packed with cellophane packets and no treasure. William pulled out two of the cellophane packets. One contained some kind of thin, rubbery gloves. The other contained pieces of clothy material with string tied to the edge. Nothing of value. Nothing that could remotely fund the purchase of a house. William abandoned both the box and his dreams, and went inside for tea.

That night, William reflected on the day just gone. Overall, it had been good. His family had reacted with considerably more excitement to the box than he felt it deserved. Apparently it was something called ‘personal protective equipment’. After an initial period of puzzlement, his family concluded that it must have been buried by the previous tenant of the next door property who had gone a bit crazy during an earlier swine flu epidemic. Mr Brown had hatched a plan to donate the entire collection to the local hospital, something that he described as a “PR coup”. As a result, William’s behaviour earlier in the day had been forgotten and the planned punishments abandoned.

Yes, Robert had discovered his tunnel and it had been filled in. But it had been great fun digging it, and he’d WhatsApp the other outlaws again the next day. All in all, lockdown were looking up.

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