‘Even the rainbows are social distancing’ by Alan McMonagle

With wry humour, Irish novelist Alan McMonagle writes of the challenges of living through COVID-19.


Somewhere in Bedfordshire, England a ninety-nine-year-old man is hobbling lengths of his garden to raise money for the UK’s National Health Service, and here I am, sitting on my backside, staring at my fingernails and wondering where I’ve left the bar of soap I bought. There must be other ways to stop myself going out of my mind. And I can’t help thinking that old codger in Bedfordshire, England has the better idea. So far he has raised eleven million. Eleven million. In nine days. All I’ve managed to raise in the last while is my voice.

It’s the lad living next door to me. More specifically, the clank, clank, clank of his hammer. It’s been going all day and a fair part of the night. Yesterday the same. And the day before that. No early morning birdsong for me. No rustling wind in tree leaves. Or nearby river’s conversation with the stones. The soft tinkle of piano music courtesy of a Zoom livestream? Forget it. I’ve got a whole other symphony going on next door. And it is driving me doolally.

Since lockdown I’ve been getting to know a few things about my neighbour. Like me, he lives by himself. And like me again, he is always up late into the night. Sometimes he’s out in his back garden. 2am. 4am. Doesn’t matter. The other night I could hear him chanting. In his back garden. I put it down to these super moons that seem to be popping up all the time. Mind you, it doesn’t always have to be a super moon. A crescent is enough to get him going. Another thing I now know about him is that if the weather is fine he likes to play music. And what he tends to do is pick one song and play it over and over again. Yesterday, he played the Fleetwood Mac song Go Your Own Way fifteen times in a row. That’s more times than I’ve washed my hands this week. I wouldn’t mind but I used to like Fleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks. Christine McVie. Over and over again he played the song. Even joined in with the chorus. As though it had become some sort of mantra. I think it’s connected to this thing he has for the moon. The hammering definitely has something to do with it too. The hobbling man in Bedfordshire has now raised thirteen million.

Occasionally the hammer is replaced with a saw. I find that I welcome its sporadic arrival. Its rhythmic back-and-forth, edgy and all as it sounds, doesn’t irritate me as much as the hammer’s constant clank, clank, clank. Who am I trying to kid? Put a hammer and saw in my hands right now and pity the first person I encounter. I’ve tried coming up with other ways to divert myself. Movie-watching. Wine. A two-kilometre walk. More or less in that order. Though I have noticed that the movie-watching and wine tend to go hand-in-hand. Last night I sat through four movies, with a bottle of wine for each one. Cabernet, I’ve discovered, goes well with romantic comedy. Merlot matches up perfectly with edge-of-the-seat horror. A full-bodied Shiraz I find eases the strain of reading subtitles. The Rioja I save for neurotic psycho-dramas. ‘Look!’ I heard an old woman cry out along my hangover walk. ‘Even the rainbows are social distancing.’ The hobbling man has now raised sixteen million.

Captain Tom Moore

Hear that? It’s getting late and he has decided it’s time to fire up the Black and Decker. He’s obviously making something. But what? An item of furniture? A container of some kind? A wooden box? And what does he want with a wooden box at this hour of the night? I have also tried diverting myself with games of Scrabble. I have even conjured an imaginary opponent who is keen and doesn’t try to bend the rules. Earlier, she made the word tequila and was so thrilled she let out a big whoop. Two turns later she pluralised it and landed a triple-word-score. Whoop, whoop! And a living-room jig to boot. She is good company for an hour or two and I have a tendency to let her win. Maybe I should invite her to watch a movie with me, share a bottle of red wine. Maybe I should invite her along when I go for my two kilometre walk. That drilling is doing laps inside my head. The hobbling man has now raised nineteen million.

Another thing I now know about my neighbour is that he likes Indian takeaways. I know this because an Indian takeaway meant for him has been accidentally delivered to my door. Like my neighbour, I so enjoy a spicy curry, especially if it has been done with lamb, which I see this one has. To my delight there is also a Tiger beer. It will make a pleasant change from the wine. Tonight there’s to be a special moon. One that doesn’t come around too often. A pink moon. That’s what they’re calling it on the news. It should be high in the sky some time after midnight. And wouldn’t you know it’s going to be a clear night. I think of him in his back garden, chanting at a sliver of 4am moon. What will he be like when this pink moon appears?

I’ve swept the dust-defying floor. Scrubbed my knuckles white. Now I’m looking up some things about people who follow the moon. It might provide a clue as to why my neighbour is digging his back garden in the middle of the night. Is he looking for long-lost treasure, I wonder? Does he need to hide something? Or bury something? Something that goes in the wooden box he has been making. Something that can only be buried under cover of dark…when he is certain that no one is looking.

Ah! Let him dig. Let him hammer and saw and drill. Play his music and yodel at the moon to his heart’s content. Let’s see how long he lasts on an empty stomach. Meantime, I am going to tuck into this delicious curry. I am even going to share it with my Scrabble partner. The Tiger beer too. Plenty to go around. And, oh my. I have just scored big by using all my letters to form the word ISOLATE. Oh, that’s very good, my Scrabble partner declares. I really ought to come up with a name for her. Tell me, Sharon, could I interest you in a glass of red? A sparkling white, perhaps? And would you look at that? My bar of soap has turned up in the fridge. The hobbling man in Bedfordshire, England has now raised thirty-two million.

Alan McMonagle has written for radio and published two collections of short stories (Psychotic Episodes, Arlen House, 2013 and Liar Liar, Wordsonthestreet, 2008). Ithaca, his first novel, was published by Picador in 2017 as part of a two-book deal. His second novel, Laura Cassidy’s Walk Of Fame, was published in March of this year. He lives in Galway, Ireland.


Photo credit: Captain Tom Moore – Emma Shol, Capture the Light Photography. Effects by Waterlogue.

6 Responses to ‘Even the rainbows are social distancing’ by Alan McMonagle

  1. Eileen Acheson says:

    Alan ,if you are not buried in that box by now, I laughed out loud at your piece.
    No wonder I read LAURA CASSIDY’S WALK OF FAME in under 4 hours
    Hope chilled soap tastes good

  2. PaulM says:

    Alan McMonagle: Outstanding essay to read this morning in New England. Thank you for the wit and wisdom. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  3. Anne Devine says:

    Brilliant stuff, Alan.
    I enjoyed every single word from beginning to end. Loved the matching of wines to movies. Plus your mouth-watering Indian takeaway.Giving the last word to the hobbling man tied it all beautifully together.
    Thanks, Alan.

  4. Jeannie Judge says:

    Such a wonderful laugh with morning coffee, Alan! I raise my cup to the adventures of Capt. Tom Moore!

  5. Chris O’C says:

    In these challenging times, it takes a gifted writer to make us laugh at the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. Thanks Alan for a such an enjoyable read.