Updated: May 8
Maggie sighed as she put her phone back down on the table. She missed Sharon, her husband Craig, and her grandchildren so much. Seeing them all walk around, talk, cook, swim in their pool, play games or sit around watching TV, just doing normal everyday activities, was a bonus that she could not have imagined when Sharon first moved over to Australia. She wished she had done it before.
Their video chats were a twice weekly occasion now, sometimes more. Maggie was quite prepared to talk at all hours and was always sad when it was finished; she had nothing much else to do these days, particularly in the current circumstances. Yes, they had always spoken on the phone but seeing them too made all the difference. She hated to admit it but she had the 21st Century to thank for that.
Previously an active member of the LGBT community – Luddite Grannies Banning (or Binning – she was inclusive, all vowel variations accepted) Technology – she had resisted calls to get an iPhone or anything resembling it. Now she was hardly off it.
She had finally gone over to the dark side and become a convert, an Apple follower to her core, but it had taken some doing. A lengthy period of stubbornness, followed by a pandemic, in fact.
Going back. her great-grandson, Joshua, had tried to insist she use a tablet on her first mission after a lengthy and mundane period of retirement from the Secret Service. She had refused, having coped with everything she could possibly need either in person or over a good old-fashioned immobile telephone. As she used to say to anyone who cared to listen (which was most of her friends because few of them were not of an age when they could move out of ear-shot fast enough): ‘It’s all the hoops they want you to jump through online, even to do something as straightforward as renewing a bus ticket. If I was fit enough to jump through hoops, I wouldn’t need the bloody bus ticket in the first place.’
When Joshua had attempted to use his powers of persuasion to convince her how much easier every day activities would be with a computer, tablet or Smartphone, she had, there and then, written out a list – on a piece of paper, naturally – of things she did regularly and showed it to him. She vowed that if they could continue to be done without swiping anything, she would stay true to her principles. The list was as follows:
· Eating, sleeping and daily ablutions
· Going to the bookies to place the occasional bet
· Meeting my friends
· Going for a walk
· Booking appointments to see the GP/ chiropodist /optician / dentist / hairdresser / sex-therapist (or so I told the hairdresser) / anyone else who stops my body falling apart
Then Lockdown - something she had only experienced in hostage situations before as a special agent - happened and nearly the entire list was taken away from her. Suddenly, the first one on the list was not enough to keep her occupied and most of the people on the last one had all closed (except the GP... and the sex therapist who was doing a roaring trade with everyone at home now).
To start with, she had carried on working as normal; the world of espionage was hardly likely to take note of self-isolation guidelines. The bad guys were still there, although it had occurred to her that blending in with other people, a key skill for spies, might prove more difficult with no-one around. She had visions of agents scuttling across the main squares of European cities in grey coats and sunglasses, desperately looking for objects such as waste bins to hide behind in an attempt to remain incognito.
Lack of I.T. skills had never been a hindrance in her spy work previously, despite all communication within the Service now being digital. Joshua helped. He had concealed from his bosses that he printed everything out in size 16 Arial font for Maggie to read. In the lockdown, though, it was a struggle to justify hand delivering brown envelopes every week to computer illiterate great-grannies as being an ‘essential’ journey, particularly if there was a quicker way to do it. Joshua had tried combining the delivery with taking other essential items but when the cupboard started groaning under the weight of jelly babies and gin, it became more difficult and, consequently, it had to stop. She began to lose touch.
The other issue was the risk to her health. Maggie had spent most of her career as a spy either tactically avoiding dangerous situations or, if that was not possible, confronting them and dealing with them head on. She thought she could do the same here. But was it absolutely essential that she carry on and put people and services at risk? Probably not. So, it was with some reluctance that she had shut up shop, stayed in and only gone out for more gin and jelly babies when absolutely essential, i.e. when the cupboard got down to half full.
It had nearly driven her mad, so much so that she would have been prepared to go back to her old life, before she was called back into the Secret Service. Even the mundane things then, like sitting in a restaurant and listening to Paula Larkin explain, in detail, how she got her net curtains so clean, seemed attractive. Maggie had been coaxed back into the Service by Joshua to tackle, ironically, a criminal gang specialising in hacking cyber security. That mission and the ones that followed had given her a new lease of life, one she had hoped to continue living for a good while yet. To have that also taken away made it all so much more difficult to bear.
In the end, boredom – no, it was more than that – the need for quality human contact – had made her give in to technology. She had Wi-Fi installed – how, she had no idea. Joshua sorted it, ‘remotely,’ as he put it. And the next day, she came across what she thought was someone playing ‘Knock Down Ginger’ but was in fact a delivery man leaving her a parcel with a phone inside.
Her relief at finding there were no instructions, and therefore would not be able to use it, was tempered by the fact that there was a small note with a website address which told her she could set it up online. She had phoned Joshua on the landline.
‘The new phone’s arrived.’
‘Good. Do you want me to text you to see if it’s working?’
‘You can try. I assume it needs to be on?’
‘You joke. Have you charged it?’
‘I’m tempted – with incitement to cause criminal damage for making me want to throw the bloody thing through the window.’
‘I’ll tell you what’s wrong. It says there are instructions to set it up online.’
‘Yes, but there’s a hole in my bucket.’
‘You know the song – ‘There’s a hole in my bucket’. Look it up – online – if you don’t know it. I would send you a like...’
‘A link but I can’t because there’s a hole in my bucket.’
There was a short gap while Maggie assumed Joshua was doing what she had suggested. Then Joshua came back on. ‘Ah, I see your problem. You can’t go online to set it up because you need the phone to go online in the first place and that is not set up yet to use. Just as in the song, your action is dependent on something you haven’t got.’
‘I’ve got a bucket, Joshua which is useful for many more things than this sodding phone at the moment. It doesn’t need the intonet...’
‘... to work nor does it have a hole, so I could fill it with water, for one thing. I could also shout into it and hope Sharon hears me in Australia. I could even write a note, put it into the bucket and hurl it towards the chemist in town to order my prescription, labelled ‘email’, of course, because that’s their preferred method of communication. Having to use email, by the way, is just what we all need when ordering life-saving drugs – to tap out on a tiny screen using tiny buttons to write tiny words asking for drugs with complicated Latin words that change to other words when you write them.’
Joshua had asked her to be patient and said that he would again ‘sort it’. The following day two parcels arrived; one with a tablet in and one with a phone, both fully charged and set up ready to use. On both items, Joshua had left a post-it note with an arrow pointing to the home button saying, ‘Press me’. Maggie had and, rather than shrinking or growing like Alice, she had started a journey into her own Wonderland, full of mysterious characters and traps.
That was two weeks ago. Now Maggie had worked out how to FaceTime (or ‘FierceTime’ as she called it because she was initially so frustrated by the amount of time she took to get it to work) Sharon and some (not all) of her friends. It had helped to be able to see and chat to people – considerably helped. She was in contact with the outside world again and was starting to feel normal. Technology had been her saviour.
She still looked forward to the day she would be able to be physically with other humans. To walk down the street without people jumping into ditches to maintain social distance. To stand at the door to thank a delivery driver for a parcel without them backing away. To be opposite Paula Larkjin at Sukuel’s and choose what she wanted from the special’s board while she talked about her net curtains again. And, of course, to hold her son, Bill and his family, Joshua, her friends, the milkman, the dishy lad who worked in the dry cleaners...
There were still demands and difficult times but there were also positives. And there was one habit that she, and others, she imagined, had developed during the lockdown which she hoped would not change. That was the way in which a face to face call was ended.
From now on, she decided, virtually and in person, everyone should bid their farewells the same way: say goodbye, peer at the person in confusion for twenty seconds, before pressing their noses and disappearing.
It might just catch on.
Maggie Matheson is the star of my book, Maggie Matheson: Back in Service, currently doing the rounds with literary agents. If all of them fail to see how good the book is, I will definitely send Maggie in to sort them out.
See also Maggie’s Min-spy Special story on this site, if you can't wait for more.