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Locked Down In London

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***

In 2009 Penelope Featherington was seventeen.  By that time, it was already several years since she had developed a massive teenage crush on her best friend Eloise Bridgerton’s brother Colin.

The Bridgertons and the Featheringtons had known each other forever.  Both families had lived in the same quiet Kent village for years.  The Bridgertons lived at Aubrey Hall, the largest property in the area.  They were genuine aristocrats, although Ellie’s eldest brother Anthony, the current Viscount Bridgerton, did not use his title in his professional career as a stockbroker in the City of London.  He had inherited the house and title as a teenager, his father having died when all the Bridgerton children were quite young. 

Lady Bridgerton, the mother of Ellie, Anthony and their siblings, was a mainstay of village life, the president of the local Women’s Institute, the chairwoman of numerous charity committee meetings and one of the organisers of the annual Flower Show.  Penelope and her sisters had grown up referring to Lady Bridgerton as Aunt Violet.  

The Featheringtons lived five minutes’ walk down the road from Aubrey Hall, in the mellow Georgian riverside house known as The Willows.  The Bridgerton and Featherington children had been in and out of each other’s houses since they were very young, and Ellie and Penelope had been inseparable since their days at the pre-school playgroup in the Village Hall.  All the Bridgerton and Featherington girls had gone to the same prestigious girls’ school five miles away as day girls, while the Bridgerton boys had gone to Tonbridge as boarders.   

Penelope, as a teenager, had devoutly hoped that neither Ellie, Colin nor any other member of their two families would ever find out about the fervour of her teenage crush on Colin.  All the Bridgerton boys were tall, good-looking and had wavy dark chestnut hair.  Anthony, being older, had been a bit more remote when Penelope and Ellie were growing up, tending to look down on “the kids”.  Ben, the second brother, was always friendly and kind towards his siblings and their friends, but tended to be more private.  A talented artist, he liked to go off by himself to find privacy for his drawing and painting.  Colin was the extroverted, chatty brother – always restless, always raiding the fridge in the Aubrey Hall kitchen for snacks and always happy to tell his sisters and their friends about all the fabulous places around the world he planned to explore when he was grown up and free from education. 

As a small child, Penelope had always thought Colin was the nicest of Ellie’s brothers, but her crush on him did not really manifest itself until the day when she and Ellie, aged about thirteen, had been in the garden at Aubrey Hall playing with the new kittens owned by Ellie and her next sister Francesca.  Colin had come speeding around the corner of the house on his bike just as one of the kittens had scampered into his path.  Penelope and Ellie had both shrieked, convinced that the poor little kitten was about to meet a ghastly death under Colin’s bike wheels.  Colin had swerved to avoid the kitten, lost control of his bike on the gravel path and landed face-first in a wide flower bed which had been newly-mulched with manure.  (Violet Bridgerton was very proud of her garden and frequently won prizes at the Flower Show).  Ellie had rushed to gather up the lucky kitten while Penelope, appalled, had looked on as sixteen-year-old Colin prised himself out of the flower bed, his face, hands and clothes filthy and reeking with manure.  Penelope had expected him to start shouting and cursing, but instead…Colin had laughed.  He had laughed loudly as he climbed to his feet, wiped his hands down his stained shirt and said cheerfully, “Well, that wasn’t very clever of me, was it?  Is the kitten all right?”

And, just like that, Penelope had fallen in love.  From that day onwards any encounter with Colin made her heart beat faster, her teenage hormones go into overdrive and her face flush embarrassingly.  She knew perfectly well how unlikely it was that Colin would ever have any interest in any of Ellie’s friends, let alone the rather dumpy one with the puppy fat, the frizzy reddish hair and the glasses.      

Throughout her tricky teenage years, Penelope listened to Ellie’s contemptuous comments about the spotty local boys who asked her out.  “Please,” Ellie would snort, “like I’m interested in listening to Ian Taylor going on about his rusty old motorbike or who Spurs are playing this weekend.  I’d rather do homework.”  She was equally scathing about most of her elder sister Daff’s boyfriends – Daff being undeniably gorgeous, she had a lot of admirers.  Even Penelope herself went out on a few dates, but her teenage heart belonged irrevocably to Colin Bridgerton.

Until, that is, the awful day in 2009 when Penelope, at the age of seventeen, was so humiliated that she vowed to get over herself and banish her feelings for Colin Bridgerton forever.

Penelope and Ellie had been revising for exams in Ellie’s bedroom at Aubrey Hall, listening to music and discussing the latest sixth-form gossip.  Colin had come home from university the previous day to spend a weekend at home.  He was downstairs shoving his bag of dirty laundry into the washing machine and being interrogated by his mother about his love life – because, Violet Bridgerton said helpfully, if he hadn’t met anyone at university yet, there were lots of nice girls at home –

“Oh my God, Mum, just because I’m not going out with anyone at the moment doesn’t mean…!”  Penelope and Ellie, leaving Ellie’s room in search of snacks, could hear Colin’s voice raised in irritation before they even started downstairs.  “I’d actually like to wait to meet the right person, and I can find a girlfriend for myself – I don’t need my mother to help me!  Next you’ll be trying to set me up with any random girl – Cressie Cowper, maybe?  Nigel Berbrooke’s little sister?   Ellie’s friend Penelope?  It’s not happening, Mum!” 

At this point, the exasperated Colin had turned the corner at the foot of the stairs and barged straight into Penelope, who staggered back into Ellie’s chest, causing her friend to clutch the bannisters for support.  There was a moment of horrified silence.  Colin’s jaw dropped and Violet, following him, looked dismayed.  Penelope’s brown eyes were wide with hurt and her face was flushed with embarrassment but after a few seconds she managed to lift her chin and control her voice.

“Don’t worry, Colin, I wouldn’t go out with you if she did try to set us up.” 

She walked towards the kitchen door, proud of herself for not bursting into tears.  Ellie followed her, shooting her brother a very dirty look as she passed him.  Colin spluttered for a few seconds before diving after them and catching Penelope lightly by the arm.  She turned to face him.  “I’m sorry Pen, I didn’t mean that like it sounded, really, I was just annoyed with Mum –“

Penelope managed a smile and hoped it was convincing.  “It’s okay.  Really.  Don’t worry about it.”

But it wasn’t okay at all. 

It was just another blow to Penelope’s already fragile self-confidence, and a particularly crushing blow.  Colin Bridgerton, casting round for examples of girls he would never go out with, had come up with her name.  Of course he had.

“My brother’s a total tool,” Ellie said loyally, as she and Penelope started to make sandwiches in the kitchen.  “He’d be lucky if someone like you even looked at him, never mind shagged him.  Yuck.”

Penelope knew this wasn’t true, but she squeezed her friend’s hand gratefully.  And made a firm mental resolve to herself that from that day on she would grow up, conquer her crush on Colin Bridgerton and make sure that no one would ever, ever know about it. 

***

Chapter Text

***

Violet Bridgerton and Portia Featherington had made it clear that they thought their daughters were slumming it in Walthamstow, but Ellie and Penelope loved their flat.  It was a decent size – the ground floor in a large Victorian brick terraced house.  Penelope and Ellie could get far more for their money out here in E17, at the eastern end of the Victoria Line, than they could if they had tried to base themselves in a posher area of London.  Anthony, for example, lived with his artist wife Kate and their three small children in a leafy Chelsea square, but everyone knew that Anthony made enough money as a stockbroker to afford to live in SW3.  Ellie and Penelope were both doing well in their careers – Ellie as an English teacher, Penelope as a journalist – but the idea of paying double their Walthamstow rent just to live nearer to other Bridgertons made both of them laugh.  “Besides,” Ellie had once said, “it’s quite nice to be the other side of London from my dear brothers.  Gives us a chance to live our lives without Anthony sticking his nose in and complaining about me to Mum.”  Penelope had agreed fervently.  As far as she was concerned, just being miles away from her mother in Kent made her own life a lot happier. 

Penelope loved the period features in the Victorian house, like the coloured tiles on the path up to the front door, the ornate fireplace in the living room and the big bay window.  The high ceilings made the rooms feel bigger, although the kitchen was tiny and the living room doubled as sitting, dining and working space.  The bathroom was pretty small too, but they had a decent-sized bedroom each and a tiny extra room which they mostly used for storage, although it had just enough space to roll out a futon on the floor when friends stayed over. 

Another bonus of the flat was the back garden.  Neither Penelope nor Ellie were green-fingered, but they both enjoyed having an outside space.  There was a small, shaggy lawn, which they cut occasionally with a borrowed strimmer.  Around the lawn were some overgrown shrubs and a small apple tree, on one branch of which Penelope had hung a homemade bird feeder.  There was even a paved area by the back door just big enough for two plastic garden chairs.  At the front of the house there was only a thick laurel hedge, which made the front rooms dark but gave them privacy, and a little brick-paved space for the wheelie bins. 

The upstairs flat was occupied by an elderly lady called Mrs. Danbury who was an excellent neighbour.  She never complained when Ellie and Penelope played music or threw an occasional party.  In return, they never complained about her loud classical music (being hard of hearing, she liked to turn the volume up high).  They put out her bins for her on collection day, invited her to sit in the garden downstairs on hot days, and fed her three cats when she took her one annual holiday to Scotland to visit her relations.  Although physically frail, she was mentally as sharp as a tack, and enjoyed discussing books and films with her young neighbours, not to mention giving them more advice than they ever wanted about their love lives. 

All in all, Penelope and Ellie were perfectly happy sharing their flat.  They had plenty of friends, they both loved their jobs and, although neither of them had yet found Mr. Right (and Ellie insisted she wasn’t looking), life was pretty good, despite all the worldwide bad news stories which seemed to be all over the media at the moment. 

***

“This coronavirus thing is getting more worrying,” Ellie remarked, looking up from her plate of toast as Penelope came sleepily into the kitchen.  Ellie was browsing the news apps on her phone.  “Apparently from today Brits aren’t supposed to travel to the USA.  Or Spain.  Or…well, there’s quite a few places.  It sounds like it’s getting really bad in Italy.  I hope it doesn’t keep spreading here.  Did you know, nearly fifty people have died from it in the UK already?”

“My editor sent out an email last night,” Penelope said, switching the kettle on to make herself a mug of tea.  “She wants us to work from home as much as possible and not go into the office unless we have to.  So I guess I’ll be here most of the time.  At least I won’t have to crowd on to the Tube in the rush hour for a while and stand with my face in someone’s armpit.”

Ellie took another bite of toast.  “Anthony was panicking on the family Whatsapp this morning about Colin being abroad.  But I don’t think he needs to worry.  Colin’s always abroad.  And not every country has loads of coronavirus.  There might not be any wherever he is at the moment - I forget.” 

“I think he’s in Cyprus, isn’t he?” Penelope was proud of the way she had got over her teenage crush on Colin Bridgerton, but she was still a faithful follower of his travel blog and his Instagram.  “I think he had photos of Cyprus on his Instagram last week.” 

Ellie shrugged, disinterested.  “Maybe.  Anyway, it says here that the NHS is asking companies to help make ventilators.  They reckon they might need 30,000 ventilators!  Do you really think it’ll get that bad?”

“I hope not.”  Penelope stirred her tea and poured herself some granola.  “Do you think they’ll close the schools?”

“Not sure.  But everyone seems to think it’s coming.  We’ve had loads of kids off school for the last couple of weeks.  Parents are keeping them at home because they’re scared.  I bet there’ll be even fewer in today.  My head teacher’s already started asking us to put together some packs so we can give them work to do at home.  I’m worried about my Year 11s.  Some of them need to put in a lot more work if they’re going to get through their GCSEs.  They can’t afford to take time off.” 

“Well, I suppose it’ll be the same for all schools.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Look at this!  People are panic-buying toilet rolls, apparently.  Crazy.”

After breakfast, Ellie hurried to get dressed and leave for work on time.  Walthamstow had excellent transport links with bus stops, the Tube and the overground railway line to Liverpool Street all walkable from their front door, but Ellie generally drove to work at the big selective grammar school where she worked, about a mile and a half away.  The local traffic was heavy in the rush hour but driving was still quicker than the bus and it was easier to transport the heavy bags of books she brought home to mark.  Their street was residents-parking only, so Ellie had had to get a parking permit for her blue Mini. 

Since she was working from home that day, Penelope was able to have a more leisurely breakfast followed by a hot shower.  She was due to have an editorial meeting on Microsoft Teams at 11:30 a.m., so she was forced to style her hair tidily and put on a respectable top, although she decided that no one would see if she was wearing jeans and slippers on her lower half.  Her phone buzzed just as she finished checking her appearance in her bedroom mirror.  Penelope checked the phone, and frowned.  A text from her mother.  How are you darling?  Call me when you can.  She would wait until later to respond to that.

Penelope’s mirror, and her own eyes, told her that she was no longer the awkward teenage girl she had once been, but she knew that in her mother’s eyes she would always be that girl. 

Portia Featherington wasn’t an awful person.  Most people probably thought she was very kind.  She did a lot of good work around the village in Kent.  She drove senior citizens to their hospital appointments, volunteered for shifts at the local food bank, ran the tombola at the church fete every year, raised money for charity…  Portia would have been horrified if anyone had ever accused her of being an abusive parent, but her own self-confidence was so unshakeable that she simply could not have imagined that any words of hers could possibly have affected another person for life.  If someone had told her the devastating effect that her constant drip, drip, drip of criticism had had on Penelope’s self-esteem over the years, she would have been appalled and disbelieving.  Criticism, to her, was water off a duck’s back.  The idea that Penelope vividly recalled every word of comments Portia had made and forgotten years ago would have been incredible to her mother. 

Darling, was the typical beginning to most of the well-meant barbs which made Penelope reluctant to call her mother as often as Portia would have liked.

Darling, you came second in your whole year group in the English exam?  Who came first, I’m sure you could beat them next time if you worked a little harder?

Darling, your sisters are all going out tonight for Valentine’s evening, I was sure you wouldn’t have any plans so I’ve made us a lovely dinner to have together!

Darling, don’t you think a different style of top would be more…slimming?

Darling, don’t you think a different hairstyle would be more flattering?

Darling, are you sure about the colour of that dress?  Are you sure it’s the best choice…with your hair?  With your figure?

Darling, do you think you should maybe eat a little less at parties?  Every time I see you, you’re next to the food table.  Why don’t you make more of an effort to join in the party and talk to people?

Darling, you must be looking forward to being Prue’s bridesmaid.  Who knows, perhaps you’ll finally find someone of your own at the wedding?

Darling, I’m so glad you’re doing so well at the newspaper.  But I wish you had a social life too! 

Felicity says that Lucas broke up with you.  That didn’t last long, did it, darling? 

Happy birthday, darling!  Just think, only another two years until you’re thirty!  Well, (with a sigh) I read an article the other day about the growing number of women who are still single at thirty.  I suppose it’s a sign of the times.

I wonder if Felicity and Geoff will get engaged soon?  You’d better be careful, darling – you know what they say about three times a bridesmaid, never a bride!

Penelope pushed aside thoughts of her mother, fired up her laptop and spent the next few hours working steadily on her latest piece.  A year ago her hard work in lifestyle journalism had earned her a post on a national newspaper.  She wrote features for the Guardian’s G2 section and for the Weekend magazine, and she had recently been asked to try her hand at the relationship advice column, which she was finding most entertaining.  Ellie also enjoyed some of the readers’ dilemmas Penelope shared with her, and Mrs. Danbury upstairs was always happy to tell them what advice she thought Penelope should have given. 

The Microsoft Teams meeting online later that morning went well, and when Penelope left the call she stretched and decided to make some lunch and perhaps treat herself to a dessert.  She and Ellie had taken a Sunday walk through Epping Forest yesterday and called in at one of their favourite cafés on the way back.  They had returned with a box of delicious Portuguese pastéis de nata and now – Penelope checked – there were still three in the box.  She would make herself a lunchtime sandwich and then relax for a short while with a coffee and a pastry treat before getting back to writing her column.

Penelope had just put out the bread, butter, cheese, ham and salad on the kitchen counter when the doorbell rang.  She frowned.  She wasn’t expecting anyone.  It was probably the postman with a parcel which wouldn’t fit through the letter box, or possibly someone to read the gas and electric meters.  She went into the hall, saw a tall shadow through the frosted glass cut-outs in the heavy wooden door and turned the knob to open the Yale lock.

Her mouth fell open in astonishment. 

Standing on the tiled front path, a large rucksack by his side and a wide grin all over his handsome suntanned face, was Colin Bridgerton.

***

Chapter Text

***

Colin Bridgerton had been travelling for most of the ten years since he had graduated from university.  Not only did he love his lifestyle, he was lucky enough to get paid for it.  As a teenager he had talked his family half to death with his plans for all the places he wanted to go to in the future.  Once he had got started on his world travels, and with no family members close by to pour out his thoughts to, he had created a travel blog so that he could write down all the thoughts and observations he wanted to share.  Almost from the beginning his blog had attracted readers, and another travel blogger had pointed out to him that if he allowed advertising he could actually make money from his writing.  Ten years later, Colin not only had a legion of loyal followers on his travel blog and his Instagram, but had become a legitimate travel writer and photographer, with his articles appearing in some well-known magazines such as Wanderlust, Outside and Backpacker.  Sometimes he travelled to places where magazines had commissioned him to go, and sometimes he travelled to places just because he felt like it, but Colin still enjoyed the thrill of discovering somewhere new just as much as he had on his very first trip. 

Violet Bridgerton tried hard to not make Colin feel guilty about being away from his family so much, especially when he clearly loved what he did, but everyone knew that she fretted about how little she saw of her third son.  Even the fact that Anthony, Ben and Daff were all happily married and busy providing her with grandchildren had not stopped Violet making wistful remarks about how nice it would be if Colin came home and settled down some day soon.  To be fair, she also aimed similar remarks at Ellie who, despite being firmly based in the UK, was far more interested in her career than in finding a relationship.  The difference between her children’s reactions to Violet’s hints was that Ellie would scowl and argue with her mother while Colin would simply smile his charming smile and give some amiable excuse for ending the FaceTime call.  

Colin had been in Greece when the international media started obsessing about the new virus spreading in Wuhan, China.  He had followed the story with tepid interest, too busy collecting ideas for an article on Mediterranean working holidays to worry too much about what was going on halfway across the world.  As the weeks went by, however, the story got bigger, and by the time Colin arrived in Cyprus it was clear that Covid-19 had arrived in Europe and wasn’t going away any time soon.  The virus was already raging across Italy and overwhelming the hospitals there, and the Cypriots Colin spoke to were terribly worried about the potential impact on their tourist trade in the forthcoming summer.  Colin began to follow events back in the UK more closely.  At first a handful of cases were diagnosed there; then the virus began to spread more rapidly.  Events began to be cancelled and restrictions started to be put into place.  After Cyprus he had planned to travel to Italy and Spain, but he quickly realised that it would be impossible to go ahead with those trips.  When the Foreign and Commonwealth Office started to advise against non-essential travel to many countries, Colin suspected that it would only be a matter of days before international travel became pretty much forbidden.  He had no wish to get stranded in Cyprus or to be unable to return to the UK if, God forbid, his mother or one of his family became ill.  Colin made a decision.  It was time to head home – before going home became impossible.

Sitting on the plane to Heathrow, looking at the other mask-wearing passengers around him, Colin wondered what to do first on arriving back in the UK.  It was not yet compulsory to self-isolate on arrival back from countries like Cyprus, but Colin wanted to be cautious about mixing with too many people, just in case.  With a family the size of the Bridgertons he had plenty of choice when it came to scrounging a bed for the night.  If he headed straight down to Kent, his mother would be delighted to see him, but he was not sure if it would be safe to expose an older person like her to someone who had just been travelling internationally.  Anthony and Kate had a comfortable spare room in their Chelsea home – but Kate would kill him if he brought any germs to her precious children.  Colin felt completely healthy, but there was no point in taking risks. 

Running mentally through his options, Colin brightened.  Of course!  He could go and crash for a few days with Ellie – and her friend Penelope, of course.  Their futon-on-the-floor would not be as comfortable as Anthony’s guest bed, but their flat would be comparatively peaceful.  Both Ellie and Penelope would be at work most of the time, he supposed, so it shouldn’t affect them much if he holed up with them in Walthamstow for a short while.  He could finish writing his Mediterranean article and wait to see if he developed any symptoms of disease after his travels and then, if he was still feeling fine in a week or so, he could go down to Aubrey Hall and spend some time with his mother. 

Colin was pleased with his plan.  Obviously he had not let any of his family know about his impending return to the UK before he had jumped on a plane, but he could not see any reason why Ellie should object to letting him stay, just for a few days.  He hadn’t seen her for ages.  It would be great to catch up with her.  And Pen, unless she had changed radically since he had last seen her, was a kind, friendly person.  Colin was sure she wouldn’t mind putting up with him for a short while.  It would be Ellie who would complain about it, if anyone.  Colin, a natural optimist, looked forward to spending a few days with his sister and her friend. 

The Tube journey from Heathrow to Walthamstow Central was straightforward but boring.  It only involved changing trains once – a simple crossing from the northbound Piccadilly Line platform to the Victoria Line platform at Finsbury Park – but it took a dreary, jolting hour and a half.  Colin noticed that the Tube seemed less crowded than he remembered.  True, it was the middle of the day rather than the rush hour, but maybe many Londoners were already choosing to work from home and avoiding public transport as alarm grew about Covid-19.  Quite a few travellers were wearing masks, too.  Perhaps everyone would be wearing them soon. 

Emerging from Walthamstow Central Station, Colin took a minute to orientate himself.  The last time he had seen Ellie, months ago, had been at Aubrey Hall, and he had only visited her flat once since she had moved there.  He looked about him – at the passers-by, the busy traffic, the bus station across the road full of red double-deckers – and remembered that the flat was within walking distance of the station.  Having wandered across the world for years, Colin thought he could find his way through a few Walthamstow streets without getting lost or needing to resort to Google Maps, and he soon recognised a few landmarks from his previous visit. 

As he turned into the street where Ellie’s flat was, Colin felt his stomach grumble.  He had dived into a café at Heathrow for an all-day-breakfast baguette and a coffee, but that had been hours ago.  He checked his watch.  Lunchtime – and his spirits suddenly took a dive as he realised that it was an ordinary Monday here in London and it was highly likely that Ellie and Penelope would both be at work.  Ellie would be in the middle of her teaching day at school, and Pen would probably be at the Guardian’s offices near Kings Cross.  He was almost certainly going to arrive at their flat and find himself locked out for hours until one of them got home from work. 

Colin shrugged.  Oh well.  If he was locked out, he would just have to find a nearby café, get some lunch and browse on his phone until his sister or her friend returned to let him in.  He would ring the doorbell first though, just on the off-chance that someone was around. 

When he reached his destination, Colin recognised the thick laurel hedge and the tiled front path in front of the Victorian house.  He put down his rucksack thankfully and pressed the doorbell, not really expecting a response but pleasantly surprised when he heard footsteps in the hall and saw the outline of a person coming to answer the door. 

The green-painted door swung open and Penelope stood there, her mouth open in obvious astonishment.

“C-Colin?” she stuttered. 

“Surprise!”  Colin beamed, feeling a rush of pleasure to see a familiar face again.  “Hi, Pen.”  He opened his arms to greet her with a big hug.  Penelope didn’t exactly rush into his arms, but she let him enfold her, still wearing a stunned look on her face.

“Whatever are you doing here?” she asked, as she emerged from his embrace.  She looked down at his rucksack and gestured behind her towards the hallway.  “Um – come in.”

“Thanks.”  Colin picked up his bag and followed her into the flat, pushing the door shut behind him.  “I’ve just got back from Cyprus, and I was hoping you and Ellie wouldn’t mind putting me up for a few days.  Hope that’s OK.”  His eyes lit up as Penelope led him into the kitchen, where her sandwich-making materials were laid out on the counter.  “Oh, were you making lunch?  I’m starving!” 

Of course you are,” he heard Penelope murmur as she went to a cupboard and pulled out two plates.  “Have you messaged Ellie yet?” she asked.

“Not yet.  I thought I’d be a lovely surprise for her.  Anyway, it’s no good messaging her when she’s teaching, is it?  She can’t look at her phone until after school.”

Penelope did not look completely convinced that Ellie would welcome Colin’s arrival as a lovely surprise, but she said nothing. 

The tiny kitchen seemed crowded with two adults in it, especially when one of them was a broad-shouldered young man over six feet tall.  Colin went down the hallway and dumped his rucksack in the doorway of the storage/guest room before wandering back to lean against the kitchen counter and watch Penelope putting sandwiches together. 

“You look well, Pen,” he said.  It was true: she did.  He still tended to think of Penelope as the dumpy little girl who had hung around with Ellie in their shared childhood, her frizzy red curls making her easy to spot.  Colin had always liked her – she was a loyal friend to Ellie and a sweet girl with a kind nature, who had a lot to put up with from her annoying mother.  He had sympathised with anyone who had Portia Featherington as their parent.  Being a friend of his mother’s Portia was often at Aubrey Hall, and Colin and his brothers had made a point of avoiding being swept up in a torrent of her conversation and personal remarks.    

Colin still had an uncomfortable memory in the back of his mind of that time, years ago, when Penelope had overheard him using her name as an example of a girl he would never be interested in.  He had cringed when he had realised she had overheard his outburst, because the last thing he would have wanted to do was to hurt her feelings, and he was sure he had.  Penelope, however, had never given any sign that she brooded on his words, so he hoped his apology at the time had made up for his unintended cruelty. 

He was surprised how little the Penelope making sandwiches in front of him resembled the young Penelope of his memories.  He shouldn’t be surprised, really – after all, she and Ellie were what? twenty-eight, now?  It was a long time since they had all been teenagers together. 

She still had the curly red hair, but the wild frizz had obviously been tamed into more organised curls by styling products, and the coppery colour suited her skin tone.  Her skin was amazing, he thought appreciatively, having been surrounded for months by girls with golden suntans, olive Mediterranean complexions or thick layers of contouring makeup plastered on to their faces.  Some women would spend fortunes on skin products to get that smooth, flawless peaches-and-cream look.  She was wearing a flattering dark green top, old jeans and sheepskin bedroom slippers.   

Penelope glanced up at that moment, as if she could feel his eyes on her.  “What do you want in your sandwich?” she asked.  “Cheese and salad, ham and salad, ham and cheese…?”

“All of those, please,” he said, and grinned at her.  “And do you have any crisps? I had a terrible craving for Hula-Hoops in Cyprus, and I bet Ellie’s got some stashed away.”

***

“Colin?  What the fuck are you doing here?” was Ellie’s affectionate greeting when she walked through the door several hours later, arms weighed down with two bags of English homework to be marked, and found her third brother stretched out on the sofa watching Pointless and eating Jaffa cakes.  Penelope had retreated into her own room with her laptop to improve her chances of getting some work done. 

Colin swung his legs off the sofa and spread out his arms towards Ellie, offering her a hug.  “Lovely to see you too, favourite sister.”

“Liar.  Daff’s your favourite,” said Ellie, ducking away from his outstretched arms and setting her bags down on the carpet with a thud.  “Are those my Jaffa cakes?  Have you eaten the lot?  Bloody hell, Colin –“

“I will buy you a hundred packets of Jaffa cakes, Ellie my darling, in gratitude for your hospitality,” Colin assured her airily, plunking himself back down on to the sofa. 

Ellie scowled at him, pushed her glasses up her nose and stomped into the kitchen.  “Does Mum know you’re back yet?” she called, scowling even more at the pile of empty plates in the sink. 

“Not yet, but I will call her tonight and let her know the good news.”

Penelope came out of her bedroom, having heard Ellie’s raised voice.  “Hi.  You’ve seen Colin, then.”

“Hard to miss him when he’s spread out all over my sofa eating my Jaffa cakes,” Ellie muttered, switching the kettle on.  “I suppose you want a bed for the night, do you?” she yelled towards the living room over the rising noise of the kettle. 

“If you can put me up for a few nights, that would be lovely,” Colin yelled back. 

“I’ll make the tea,” Penelope said, pushing Ellie gently aside.  “You look knackered – go and have a sit down.  How was school today?”

Ellie made an exasperated noise.  “Waste of time.  What’s the point of teaching something new when half the class is missing?  I’m only going to have to repeat it when they’re all back.  SLT are running around like headless chickens trying to work out a plan for if schools get closed.  The office staff are going mad taking phone calls from parents every five minutes explaining why they’re keeping their kids at home.  And all the kids want to do is to ask me stupid questions about Covid-19 instead of concentrating on Shakespeare and First World War poetry.” 

Penelope put teabags into her own and Ellie’s mugs and walked the few paces into the living room.  “Do you want tea, Colin?” she asked. 

“Yes please, milk, one sugar,” Colin said, most of his attention on the TV screen where Alexander Armstrong was proclaiming, “Siobhan and Dermot, you are today’s winners, and you have won our coveted Pointless trophy!  But now let’s see if you can take home today’s jackpot of £3,250!”

Ellie threw herself sideways into her favourite armchair, her legs lying over one arm of the chair.  “Oh come on,” she complained to the TV as Siobhan and Dermot debated which prize category to go for.  “Don’t choose Rugby World Cup Winners, choose Jane Austen Characters, it’s obviously going to be easier!” 

“Not everyone has your encyclopaedic knowledge of Jane Austen characters,” Colin said mildly.  “And some people know about rugby.  Don’t you want to ask me how Greece and Cyprus were?”

“Knowing you, you’ve probably been boring Penelope for hours already with stories of your travels.  Oh, seriously?” This last comment was addressed to Siobhan and Dermot on-screen, who had just chosen Rugby World Cup Winners as their question category. 

“Penelope is a good listener,” Colin said, flashing Penelope one of his charming smiles as she handed him a mug of tea and perched next to him on the sofa. 

As Siobhan and Dermot floundered hopelessly for the names of obscure rugby players, Ellie shot her brother another dirty look and asked, “So how come we have the honour of your presence, anyway?  You could have gone to Mum’s – or Anthony’s – or – “

“I felt weird about going to Mum’s straight away,” Colin admitted more seriously.  “I’m sure I haven’t got this virus, but they’re telling everyone who’s coming back from abroad to keep away from older people or anyone who might be at risk.  I thought I’d better go somewhere else first to make sure I was Covid-free before going to see Mum.  And I thought I’d better stay away from anyone with kids, too.”

“That’s – not completely stupid,” Ellie admitted grudgingly.  “You’d better not have brought any foreign germs back with you, though – we don’t want any viruses, do we, Pen?” 

Penelope shook her head and sipped her tea, obviously trying to stay out of the heated sibling discussion.

“I’ll be an excellent house guest, you’ll see,” Colin promised his sister.  “I’ll cook, and clean, and I’ll do my writing – you’ll hardly know I’m here!”

“Believe me, I’ll know,” Ellie muttered, looking back towards the TV screen where Alexander Armstrong was consoling Siobhan and Dermot for their failure to win the jackpot.

“It might be good if he cooks,” Penelope put in, clearly trying to smooth down her best friend.  “You know he’s better than we are.”

Colin seized his advantage.  “I’ll do your favourite pasta tonight, shall I, El?  The one you like with king prawns and chilli flakes and cherry tomatoes?  And I could whip up some Nutella crêpes for pudding?”

Ellie sniffed, but softened visibly.  “You’d better go shopping, then.  And you can get some more Jaffa cakes while you’re at it.”

***

Penelope ended up walking Colin down to the big Tesco at the Bakers Arms on a grocery shopping expedition while Ellie took a shower and made a start on marking her pupils’ English homework.  They chatted easily all the way there, Colin pleased by the obviously genuine interest Penelope displayed in his travels.  She seemed rather surprised by his reciprocal interest in her life and career, as if not many people ever asked her to talk about herself. 

Tesco was surprisingly quiet, even for an early evening, and Colin wondered if people were already taking advice to avoid going out and mixing with each other unless they had to.  He and Penelope piled food into a trolley, Colin adding far more items than Penelope. 

“Anyone would think you were staying for a month rather than a few days,” Penelope mused, looking at the heaped trolley as they queued at the check-out.  “I hope we’ve got enough room in the fridge and the cupboards.”

“I get hungry,” Colin said defensively.  “I thought I’d better get enough to make sure that Ellie doesn’t accuse me of eating all her food.”       

Penelope laughed.  She had a nice laugh, Colin thought – a little throaty, like her speaking voice.  “I don’t think we can buy enough food to stop her accusing you of that!”

An elderly man two places in front of them in the checkout queue began to cough repeatedly, and everyone in the vicinity backed a few paces away from him nervously.  This is going to be weird, Colin thought to himself, now that everyone’s paranoid that any coughing fit is a symptom of Covid-19.  Next thing, we’ll all be wearing masks to go to the shops.

After Colin had paid for the shopping, he and Penelope staggered home laden with heavy bags.  Colin cooked up enough of Ellie’s favourite pasta dish to reconcile her to his presence, although she refused wine on the grounds that it was a school night.  Later, pleasantly full of chocolate crêpes, Ellie and Penelope had the pleasure of relaxing in front of the TV and listening in to Colin’s apologetic phone conversation with his mother.  Violet was thrilled at the news that her third son was back in the country, but less pleased that he had not immediately rushed down to Kent to see her. 

“Next week, I promise, Mum,” Colin said pacifyingly – little knowing how much life for everyone would change within the next few days, and how forthcoming events would prevent him from keeping his promise. 

***

Chapter Text

***

“…The number of UK deaths from coronavirus has now reached 104.  Following the closure of many theatres on Monday, several major cinema chains have announced that they are closing their UK premises for the foreseeable future after the Government’s advice on avoiding social venues.  The Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled for this year and Princess Beatrice has cancelled her wedding reception at Buckingham Palace, planned for 29th May.  Meanwhile, the Education Secretary is expected to make a statement about schools this evening, with many parents already keeping their children at home…”

Penelope reached for the remote control and switched off the television as the Wednesday lunchtime news bulletin came to an end.  Thinking that she had better end her lunch break and get back to her laptop and her work, she stood up from her armchair and picked up her plate and mug.  Ellie was at work and Colin had gone out a couple of hours earlier to explore the neighbourhood, saying that he wanted to take a look at the famous Walthamstow street market and would get himself some lunch while he was there.  This had given Penelope the peace and quiet to get quite a bit of work done that morning.  She was really enjoying her new venture into writing the Saturday relationship advice column.  Each week a new batch of “reader problem” emails were forwarded to her and she had to pick which ones would make the most entertaining material while avoiding repeating topics.  This week’s emails had been particularly promising.  Penelope wasn’t sure how qualified she was to give anyone else advice on their relationships, since her own longest relationship had only lasted five months.   She just hoped that her well-meant words would not spur any of the Guardian Weekend’s readers into doing anything too life-destroying.  

She took her plate and mug into the kitchen, left them by the sink and looked out of the glass-and-PVC door which led into the tiny rear garden.  The unexpectedly-warm March sunshine was bright on the shaggy grass of the so-called lawn and several clumps of yellow daffodils, planted by Penelope two years ago, were nodding cheerfully in the breeze at the edge of the small paved patio. 

I might as well just get a breath of fresh air and fill up the bird feeder before getting back to work, Penelope thought, reaching for the plastic tub on top of the kitchen cupboards where they kept the bird seed.  She opened the back door and stepped outside, heading for the homemade bird feeder which hung from the apple tree.  After topping up the feeder with bird seed, she ran her finger along the nearest slim branch of the tree, feeling the bumpy texture of the bark.  It was too early for the apple tree to blossom yet, but there were fat buds swelling on each twig; it was a promising sign that within a few weeks the little tree would be covered in pink and white petals. 

Thinking about Spring, Penelope was startled by a sharp rapping noise above her head.  She looked up and saw their upstairs neighbour Mrs. Danbury pushing open the sash window of her kitchen, having tapped on the glass to get Penelope’s attention.  “Lovely daffodils!” she called out, in her usual stentorian tones.  Mrs. Danbury had “no patience with people who mumble”, she had once informed Penelope and Ellie.  Penelope suspected that the elderly lady was slightly deaf and that this might be the reason for her tendency to accuse people of mumbling unless they were virtually yelling at her. 

“Yes, they’re beautiful!”  Penelope called back, raising her own voice.  “And it’s gorgeous weather today.  I must do something about cutting the grass soon.”

“Get your friend’s brother to do it,” Mrs. Danbury advised loudly. “He is her brother, isn’t he?  That young man I’ve seen going in and out?  Looks a lot like her.  It’s the hair.” 

“Yes, that’s Colin,” Penelope called upwards.  “Ellie has four brothers, you know.  He’s the one who’s a travel writer.  He’s just come back from Cyprus.”

“Sensible of him!” Mrs. Danbury declared.  “Wouldn’t think anyone in their right mind would want to be abroad these days, with all these germs flying about.  Seems like they’re closing everything down.  Next they’ll be telling us not to go anywhere at all.  I’m not sure that man knows what he’s doing.” 

Thanks to long acquaintance with Mrs. Danbury, Penelope was able to work out that that man probably referred to the Prime Minister.  Back in the previous December, at the time of the General Election, Mrs. Danbury had been equally scathing about both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, having little faith in either of them as potential leaders of the country.  

Penelope was about to reply again when she head a crash as someone shut the front door of the flat a bit too forcefully, followed by the sound of Colin’s voice calling, “Pen?  I’m back!”

“I’m out here!”

Colin came through the kitchen and out into the little garden, looking cheerful.  “Hi!  How’d you get on with your work this morning?  I had the most amazing jerk chicken for lunch from this Caribbean place I found down the St. James Street end of the market.  It was really –“

“Good afternoon, young man!”  Mrs. Danbury shouted from above Colin’s head, cutting him off in mid-sentence and making him jump slightly and peer upwards.  He waved to the old lady, with one of his trademark charming smiles.

“Hello!  You must be Mrs. Danbury.  Pen and Ellie told me all about you.” 

“Did they, indeed?”  Mrs. Danbury’s sharp eyes narrowed as she sized up Colin.  “And what did they say, may I ask?”

If she was trying to intimidate Colin, she failed.  “They just told me they felt lucky to have such a nice neighbour,” he said, still grinning upwards. 

“Hmm!  You’re a smooth talker, I can tell that much.  You can come up here some time and tell me about all those places you’ve been to.  I shall need someone to entertain me if that man is going to try and make me stay at home all the time.”

“That man?” Colin mouthed at Penelope, his eyebrows raised in a question.

“Boris Johnson,” she mouthed back.

“Ah.”

Mrs. Danbury looked ready to continue hanging out of her window interrogating Colin for a while, but at that moment she was distracted by the appearance of a floofy grey head next to hers at the window.  “Oh no you don’t!” she exclaimed, catching hold of the cat before he could attempt to leap out of the upstairs window.  “Come here, Hardie.  Naughty boy.”  Clutching the grey cat in one arm, she began to close the window with her other hand while shouting down at Colin and Penelope, “Come to tea tomorrow.  I’ll make a cake.”  There was a resounding slam as the window closed.

“Hardy?” Colin asked, watching Penelope close the lid of the bird seed container.  “As in Laurel and Hardy?”

“No, as in Keir Hardie,” Penelope answered, leading the way back indoors.  “All her cats have been named after famous socialists.  She and her late husband were mixed up in all sorts of left-wing campaigns in the Sixties, even though her father was a Tory MP and she grew up in a castle or something.  You should hear some of her stories." 

"I’ll look forward to that tomorrow, then!  What are her cakes like?” 

Penelope failed to suppress a smile as she put the bird seed back on top of the cupboard.  “Trust you to want to know about the food.  You won’t be disappointed.  Her cakes are amazing.  As long as you don’t mind the cats jumping all over you.  She has three.”

“Don’t tell me, the other two are called Lenin and Trotsky.”

“No, I think she’s already used those names on previous cats.  When we first moved in here, she had one called Marx.  The ones she has now are Hardie, Engels and Mao.” 

“I definitely want to get to know your neighbour better.  I’ve got a feeling she’s a lot of fun.” 

***

“Told you.  Knew it was coming,” said Ellie gloomily as the BBC News At Ten presenter repeated the headline story for the umpteenth time that evening.

“Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has confirmed that from this Friday all UK schools will be closed, except to the children of keyworkers and vulnerable children.  No exams will take place this academic year.”

“So you’ve got two more days in school and then you’ll be at home?” Penelope asked.  They were all seated in front of the television eating ice-cream, having enjoyed large bowls of Colin’s chili and rice earlier in the evening.  The standard of cuisine in the flat had certainly taken an upward turn in the two days since his arrival. 

Ellie swallowed another mouthful of dessert and shrugged.  “Maybe.  No one really knows what’s going to happen yet.  We’re waiting for SLT to come up with a rota for people to go in and teach the keyworker children.  And the IT people are trying to get some online stuff sorted.  We’ll still have to plan learning slides to put on the school website.  But how many teenagers are going to get on with doing pages of stuff from the website?  Most of them will probably be on their X-boxes.  So they’re talking about trying to organise some kind of online teaching.  But we’ll all have to learn how to use it first.” 

“At least there’s lots of technology around these days,” Penelope said thoughtfully.  “I mean, if this sort of thing had happened twenty years ago it would have been totally different.  People like me wouldn’t have been able to work from home so easily.  And it sounds like there are going to be thousands of people working from home.  It’ll be really weird not having all those people rushing into central London every day to work.”

“I feel sorry for the kids,” Colin said, grinning at Ellie.  “Imagine, they think they’re going to have a nice peaceful time chilling out, no school, loads of time for gaming, and then suddenly, BAM!  Scary Miss Bridgerton pops up on their computer and makes them actually learn stuff in their own home.”

Penelope laughed and almost choked on her food.  Ellie threw a cushion at Colin, who had to clutch his bowl of ice-cream to his chest to avoid dropping it as he dodged the cushion.  “Knob,” Ellie said, glaring at her brother through her black-rimmed glasses.  Somewhere out of sight, her phone began buzzing. 

“What about your English students and their GCSEs and A-levels?” Penelope asked, trying to defuse the situation between brother and sister before more than cushions started getting thrown.  “Who decides what grades they get if there aren’t any exams?”

Ellie shrugged.  “Sounds like they’re going to use teacher assessments and then work it out.  They’re bound to fix it somehow so the results don’t come out too high.  At least at this time of year we’ve basically taught everything to the exam years – it’s mostly revision from now on.”  She yawned suddenly and hugely.  “Think I’ll try and get an early night tonight.  It was mad at school today and it’s going to be even worse tomorrow.  Not many kids but loads of stuff to sort out.”  Her phone started buzzing incessantly and she fished down the side of her armchair to find it.  “Mum.  And Kate.  And Daff.  All asking if I’ve heard about schools shutting. And a few people from school freaking out.  I’m not going to start answering messages now.  I’m knackered.”  She scraped the last drops of ice-cream from her bowl and climbed out of her armchair.  “Don’t have the telly up too loud, I need my sleep.” 

“Night, Ellie.  Hope you sleep well.”  Penelope lifted her empty bowl from the coffee table and stood up.  “I’ll wash up.”

“I’ll help,” Colin offered. 

“Oh, but you cooked,” Penelope objected. 

“I don’t mind.”  They adjourned to the kitchen and Colin collected up dishes to stack in the sink while Penelope squirted washing-up liquid into the stream of hot water from the tap.

“Not much washing-up liquid left,” she said.  “I’ll get some more tomorrow.”

“From what they showed on the telly tonight, you’ll probably get trampled in Tesco by people panic-buying hand sanitiser and toilet rolls.  Maybe I’d better come with you and act as a human shield.” 

Penelope laughed.  She couldn’t help it.  In the two days that Colin had been staying with them, she had found him to be amusing company and surprisingly easy to chat to about anything and everything.  She wasn’t sure why she was surprised at this.  Everyone in her family circle had always considered Colin to be good company.  Perhaps it was because, as a teenager, she had always been too self-conscious to relax and chat to him in the way she did with his siblings.  Crippled by her adolescent hormones, she had been too busy blushing and staring at him with adoration to see him as anything but the handsome object of her crush.  Thank goodness I got over that, Penelope thought, smiling wryly as she thought of the awkward young girl she had once been.  She felt sorry for that girl, but proud when she considered how far she had come since those days.  She was comfortable in her own skin, she had a job and a home she loved and she was in control of her own destiny.  Her main weakness these days was her continuing tendency to let her mother make her feel inadequate whenever they spoke, but at least she could avoid speaking to her too often.

She began to rinse cups and dishes, lifting them out of the water and passing them to Colin, who had armed himself with a tea-towel.  They stood next to each other at the kitchen sink and occasionally their arms bumped together as she washed the dishes and Colin dried them.  I’m glad he came, and we can just hang out for a while, Penelope reflected.  He’s fun to be around, even though he drives Ellie mad.  He tells great stories about the places he’s been to.  And he won’t be here for long, anyway. 

Colin leaned over to stack a dry plate on the counter and Penelope found herself looking at the back of his neck.  He did smell nice.  She wondered if it was his shower gel or some kind of hair product. 

“Are you knackered like Ellie, or do you want to watch a film?”  Colin asked, as they went back into the living room after putting away the clean dishes and sat next to each other on the sofa. 

“I’m not tired.  I’d like to watch something.  Is there anything on?”  She took the remote and flipped through the terrestrial channels, but there was nothing that interested either of them, so she switched to Netflix and they debated the selection of movies.  They finally agreed on The Post, which neither of them had seen yet, and Penelope turned the volume down a little on the TV to avoid disturbing Ellie’s slumbers. 

“Don’t forget we’re going up to tea with Mrs. Danbury tomorrow,” Penelope said, about ten minutes into the film. 

“I’m not likely to forget anything that involves free cake.” 

Despite the presence of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and the theme of journalism – her own profession – The Post failed to grab Penelope’s interest.  She watched it with half her attention while thinking about the forthcoming closure of schools, cinemas, theatres and so many other places.  What would happen next?  Was it going to be inevitable that they would all, as Mrs. Danbury suspected, be banned from going anywhere?  How many more people would catch this dangerous virus?  How long would this scare last? 

Although she had told Colin that she was not tired, Penelope’s eyelids were drooping by the halfway point of the film.  The living room was warm, the sofa was comfortable and the film was not loud or exciting enough to keep her awake.

She woke suddenly, some time later, and realised groggily that the TV was now playing something completely different and that she had slipped sideways on the sofa in her sleep.  Her nose was now about six inches from Colin’s shoulder and he was also fast asleep, snoring softly.

Penelope felt a small twinge of something warm in her chest as she pulled herself upwards and looked down at Colin’s sleeping face.  His eyelashes were as dark as Ellie’s, but thicker, and the quiet snoring was rather endearing. 

She switched on a lamp, turned off the television and the overhead light and made her way to bed, leaving Colin asleep on the sofa.  She had got over her crush on Colin Bridgerton years ago, so there was absolutely no chance he would be featuring in her dreams, no matter how cute he looked when he was asleep.

***

It was the evening of the following Monday – 23rd March 2020 – and like most people in Britain that evening, Penelope, Ellie and Colin were in front of the television waiting to find out exactly what the Prime Minister was going to tell them.  Ellie had spent the weekend working furiously to prepare learning resources to be uploaded on her school’s website.  Colin had spent the weekend dithering about whether he should go down to Kent immediately to join his mother or stay in London for a few more days to make sure that he was still Covid-free.  Penelope had spent the weekend reading messages from journalist colleagues, some of whom were convinced that a full national lockdown was about to be implemented while others thought the Government’s next step would be less drastic. 

Ellie leaned forward in her armchair intently as the BBC One announcer said, “There now follows a Ministerial broadcast from the Prime Minister.”

The TV picture changed to show the scene in Downing Street.  Boris Johnson was sitting at a shiny wooden table with a serious expression on his face, his hands clasped in front of him.  “Good evening.  The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades...”

“I’m so glad I don’t have to do his job,” Colin said.

“Ssh,” Ellie said.

“…if too many people become seriously unwell at the same time, the NHS will be unable to handle it...”

 “That’s a horrible tie he’s wearing –“

“Colin, shut up!”

The Prime Minister was continuing with his speech while Colin and Ellie bickered.  “From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction.  You must stay at home…people will only be allowed to leave their homes for the following very limited reasons…you should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home…gatherings will be dispersed…I urge you, at this moment of national emergency, to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.  Thank you.”

The slogan Stay Home – Protect The NHS – Save Lives appeared on the screen.  It was a slogan with which they were going to become very familiar.

“Bloody hell,” Colin said, as the broadcast switched back to the newsroom where the presenters were clearly preparing to spend several hours dissecting the Prime Minister’s speech.  “That’s it, then.  We’re in lockdown.”

“Yes.  I wonder how long it’s going to last?  I suppose it depends on what happens with the number of people getting the virus.”  Penelope stood up.  “Anyone want tea?” 

“Please.  And then I’d better ring my mum.  This means I won’t be allowed to go down and see her for a while, doesn’t it?  She’s not going to like that.”  Colin looked rueful.  “She’ll blame me for not going down there sooner.”

“Oh my God.”  Ellie’s voice cut loudly across Colin’s words.  “You realise what this means, Pen?”

Penelope, on her way to the door, stopped, confused by Ellie’s tone.  “Yes.  We have to stay home – except you can still go to school if you have to teach keyworker children, I suppose – “

Ellie waved her hand impatiently.  “Not that.  I mean him.”  She pointed at Colin.  “He can’t go anywhere.  We’re stuck with him.  Probably for weeks.  Fuck.” 

“And I love you too, Ellie,” Colin said. 

***

Chapter Text

***

The futon in Ellie and Penelope’s guest room - which was really not much more than a tiny storage room - was not the most comfortable place to sleep, particularly if one was over six feet tall.  Colin, however, had slept in far worse places – including hard benches in noisy South American airports, sagging hammocks in tropical locations rife with mosquitos, and swaying bunks below decks on clanking Eastern European ferries which stank of diesel – and he had long ago developed the skill of falling asleep pretty much anywhere.  That said, while the futon-on-the-floor was fine for a few nights, he wondered how much he was going to enjoy it if he was likely to be a lockdown resident of the flat* for weeks or even months to come.  Ending up with back problems was not something he wanted. 

He had been woken by the sound of his phone buzzing with a text alert.  Groggy with sleep, Colin had remained lying down with his eyes shut and his hand over his face for at least ten minutes before rousing himself enough to check his phone.  The text was probably from his mother again.  After Boris Johnson’s address to the nation announcing lockdown the previous night, all their phones had gone into meltdown with friends and family comparing their feelings about the new situation.  Violet Bridgerton had not been happy with the idea that she would not be able to enjoy visits from her beloved children or grandchildren any time soon.  There had been a long exchange of messages on the Bridgerton WhatsApp group chat during which Violet had failed to grasp this notion completely.  She seemed to think that exceptions could be made.  After most of her children had tried to explain the lockdown rules to her several times, Ellie had flung down her phone and huffed off to watch a film, muttering that her family were hopeless.  Colin had continued to follow the chat, enjoying the text arguments as they escalated to the point when Anthony had started sending increasingly exasperated and lengthy explanations to their mother laying out exactly what he wanted her to do and not to do. 

Order your shopping online and get it delivered, Anthony had told Violet, we DON’T want you going to the supermarket and exposing yourself to germs. 

Those websites are very confusing.  And I don’t like it when those delivery people choose my shopping for me, I like choosing my own fruit and vegetables, Violet had responded.  Surely if I just pop down to Waitrose once or twice a week no one will mind.

It’s not a question of MINDING, Anthony had responded, it’s about keeping you SAFE.  People of your age are VULNERABLE, as I’ve just explained. 

There’s no need to KEEP going on about my age, Anthony, I hardly have one foot in the grave.  And don’t shout at me. 

Anthony had not responded to this message.  Instead, a soothing message from Kate had appeared.  Sorry, Violet, Anthony didn’t mean to upset you.  He’s just concerned about keeping you safe.  The new rules are going to take a lot of getting used to, for all of us. 

Colin suspected that Kate had wrestled Anthony’s phone out of his hand before he could get even more exasperated with his mother and send something he would later regret. 

Now, Colin prised his eyelids open and groaned at the bright sunlight filling the storage room.  The door could not be closed when the futon was unrolled and, although there were curtains at the small window, the boxes and suitcases piled up between the futon and the window made it impossible to get close enough to draw the curtains and block out the light.  Colin made a resolution to shift some of the boxes and create an access path to the window, now that he was here for the long-haul. 

He fumbled for his phone and looked for the recently-arrived text.  It was not from any family member, but was an official UK Government text which had been sent that morning to every user of every mobile phone network in the country. 

GOV.UK CORONAVIRUS ALERT.  New rules in force now: you must stay at home.  More info and exemptions at gov.uk/coronavirus.  Stay at home.  Protect the NHS.  Save lives.

Colin blinked.  Wow.  The powers-that-be were doing their best to make sure that everyone in the UK got the message.  Even his mother.

***

“I think I’ll order myself a new laptop,” Colin said, through a mouthful of toast.  “I’ve decided that if I can’t travel anywhere for a while, I might as well get some writing done.  Simon reckons that I should try my hand at a book instead of just articles, and I’m going to have plenty of time to work on it.”  Simon Basset, Daff’s husband, worked for Hastings Wexford, the well-known London publishing house which had been co-founded by his grandfather.

“Just goes to show that anyone can get a book published these days,” Ellie muttered, her gaze fixed on her phone.  Despite not having to travel to work at school this week, Ellie was still not at her best first thing in the morning.  “Reality TV stars.  Idiots.  Anyone.”

Colin opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again without speaking.  It was too early in the day to let Ellie pick a fight with him.  Much as he enjoyed winding her up, they had to try to get along with each other if they were going to be housemates for an extended period.  It probably wasn’t the best time to complain to her about the lack of comfort her futon guest bed offered, either. 

“What have you got to do today, Ellie?”  Penelope interrupted quickly.  Colin had noticed and appreciated Penelope’s frequent efforts to keep the peace between the Bridgerton siblings.

“I’ve got an English department meeting on Teams at ten o’clock,” Ellie said.  “Then I’ll be carrying on with going through the curriculum and prepping online learning activities for the different year groups.  Then there’s some training this afternoon on how to use Google Classroom.  I’ve never used it before but you’re supposed to be able to use it to teach online and set work and the kids can submit their work back to you on it.”

“Isn’t it lucky this pandemic didn’t happen twenty years ago?” Penelope mused.  “We’ve got the technology now to do so much stuff online.  A few years ago you would have been having to send home pages and pages of work on paper instead, if schools were closed.”

“True.”  Ellie stood up and went to put her plate and mug in the sink.  “But there are still quite a few families at our school who don’t have access to laptops and tablets for their kids to learn at home.  Or they don’t have enough tech for different-aged siblings to work at the same time.  The DFE* are supposed to be looking at paying for some more Chromebooks or such that we can give kids to use at home.” 

“I thought I’d go and ask Mrs. Danbury if she wants us to get her any shopping,” Penelope said, finishing her own mug of tea.  “You know she doesn’t really do computers so she’s probably not set up for online food shopping.  We might be able to help her out.” 

“That’s kind of you,” Colin said.  “I thought she was terrifying when we went to tea with her last Thursday.”

Penelope laughed.  “She does take a bit of getting used to.  But she liked you.  I could tell.” 

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t count ourselves as one household with Mrs. D,” Ellie said thoughtfully, pausing on her way out of the room.  “I know that technically we’re two separate flats, but this used to be one house.  And if we are one household we can still invite her downstairs to sit in the garden, if the weather gets nice.  Imagine being stuck in a flat during lockdown and having no outside space at all.  Lots of people round here will be stuck like that.”

“That’s a good idea.  Shall I ask her what she thinks when I go and find out about the shopping?”  Penelope offered.

***

Colin coughed on the dust which rose in clouds around him, disturbed by his movements.  Somehow he had ended up offering to climb into the loft at the top of the house, which was accessed by a wooden ladder from the hallway of Mrs. Danbury’s flat. 

“It’s over to the left!  No, your right – my left!”  Looking down through the hatch to the hallway below, Colin saw the elderly lady waving her walking stick imperiously as she directed him.  Beside her, Penelope’s face wore a faintly worried expression as she gazed upwards at him – probably concerned that he and half the contents of the loft were about to come crashing down at her feet.    

Colin looked across the cluttered space under the roof tiles which was filled with boxes and piles of assorted who-knew-what, along with a few larger objects which were shrouded under dustsheets and plastic covers.  Over to his right was a large rectangular object under a sheet which might possibly be the item he sought.  Gingerly – because although the floor of the loft had been boarded over, he was unsure how solid the surface was – he began to pick his way towards it.  When he reached it, he lifted one edge of the dustsheet, stirring up another cloud of dust which made him sneeze.  “I’ve found it!”  he called in the direction of the hatch. 

When Penelope had dropped off Mrs. Danbury’s grocery shopping to her that morning, the old lady had kept her trapped in a long conversation about the likely impact of life under lockdown, that man Boris Johnson and how everyone they both knew would cope with the situation.  This had led on to the subject of Colin being forced to stay with Ellie and Penelope for the time being, and to Mrs. Danbury offering him the use of a folding camp bed which was in the loft.  “Might be more comfortable than that futon-whatsit,” she had proclaimed.  Deciding that wrestling something the size and weight of a camp bed down the loft ladder was not a job she fancied tackling single-handed, Penelope had fetched Colin, which was how he had come to be stumbling around the dusty loft. 

“It’s fairly heavy,” Colin said, pulling the folded camp bed over towards the loft hatch.  “Pen, I think it might be better if you came up here to pass it down and I got below to catch it.”

He liked the way she didn’t start arguing with him.  His brother Anthony and sister-in-law Kate would have spent the next twenty minutes bickering over Kate’s ability to catch a heavy object before getting on with the task.  Penelope merely said, “OK, shall I come up now?” and climbed the ladder quite agilely.  As she reached the top, Colin stretched out a hand and provided a steadying grip on her arm while she clambered through the hatch and got her footing on the loft boards.  At one point, the cluster of coppery curls at the nape of her pale neck was right under his nose, and he found himself inhaling a light floral scent – Was it her shampoo?  Whatever it was, he liked it – Colin blinked, shook his head at himself and climbed down the ladder. 

After ten minutes of wrangling the heavy, awkward old-fashioned camp bed through the loft hatch opening, he and Penelope managed to wrestle it down the ladder to floor level, watched with interest by Mrs. Danbury and two of her cats.  Fluffy grey Hardie and tabby cat Engels both seemed to think that the humans were carrying out some strange performance for their entertainment.  Engels had to be forcefully dissuaded from trying to go up the ladder and explore the dusty loft.

“Needs a bit of a clean,” Mrs. Danbury observed, looking at the camp bed.  “I’d take it out in the garden and knock the dust out of it, if I were you.  It’s a bit old, but it served me well in the old days.”  

The door to the book-lined spare bedroom Mrs. Danbury used as a study was open, and Colin’s attention was caught by some framed photographs and newspaper articles visible on the wall just inside the room.  He stepped closer to have a look at them while Penelope was climbing down from the loft and fending off cats.  “You were at Greenham Common*?” he asked, fascinated.

“Spent half of 1981 and 1982 there,” Mrs. Danbury confirmed, following his gaze.  “Those were good times.  A real sense of community in the peace camp.  Made some great friends there.  Of course, we all got arrested a few times, but it was well worth it.” 

Colin’s eyebrows rose sky-high.  “You have got to tell me more of your stories, Mrs. Danbury.  Have you ever thought of writing a book?”

“Thought of it.  Might do it one day.  Of course, that was really Gareth’s department – my husband, you know.  He wrote half a dozen.  So I left that sort of thing to him.  But it might give me something to do, if this lockdown goes on and on.”

“Colin’s writing a book,” Penelope told her, suddenly appearing next to Colin’s elbow.  She had picked up Hardie, who was now kneading her shirt and purring in her arms.  “About his travels.” 

“Ah!  Is that right?”  Mrs. Danbury peered more closely at Colin.  “Interesting!  You’ll have to let me read your manuscript some time.”

Colin smiled weakly, slightly terrified by the idea of exposing his writing to Mrs. Danbury’s criticism.  “Well, thanks very much for the bed,” he said, lugging the heavy item towards the staircase and almost tripping over Engels.  “I’ll let you know how I get on with it.” 

***

“I can’t get the Zoom app to work properly on my tablet,” Colin complained, several days later.  “It looks like it’s installed, but then nothing happens when I open it.  Ellie!  Can I try and get Zoom working on your laptop for tonight’s meet-up?  My new one hasn’t come yet.”

“No, you can’t.  I need my laptop for other stuff.” 

“You’re just being awkward.  You’ve got to join in anyway, Kate said so.  Mum will want to see everyone.”

“I’m busy.  Anyway, I bet Mum won’t be able to work out how to do the Zoom thing.”

“Hyacinth will sort her out – remember, she’s back home now.”  Eighteen year old Hyacinth, the youngest Bridgerton sibling, was halfway through her first year at the University of Manchester.  The university had given students the choice between being put in lockdown in their student halls of residence or going home to continue their studies online.  Hyacinth had sensibly decided that keeping her mother company at Aubrey Hall, where she would have some freedom to roam around the grounds and countryside, was preferable to being pent up in a small flat in the middle of Manchester.  Her older brothers and sisters had been quite relieved to know that someone would be at home to keep their mother company and handle things Violet found tricky, such as online shopping and communications, not to mention restraining Violet from popping down to Waitrose whenever she felt like it.  However challenging Hyacinth’s siblings sometimes found her, no one could deny that she was both confident and capable. 

Ellie only grunted in response to this, and walked out of the living room, her eyes fixed on her phone.  Colin stood up and pursued her into the hallway.  “Oh, go on, Ellie, it won’t kill you to let me have the laptop for half an hour, you can’t have that much lesson planning to do, you’ve been on there all day –“

“Stop doing my head in, Colin!  God, I’m going to be glad when you’re abroad again instead of us being stuck with you –“

“You can use mine,” Penelope put in quickly, seeing another argument about to break out between brother and sister and trying to keep the peace.  “Use my laptop, if you want, Colin.  I don’t mind.”

“Are you sure?  Thanks, Pen, that’d be great!  At least someone’s being helpful!”  This last comment was aimed at his sister’s back.  Ellie half-turned and flicked up her middle finger at him before disappearing into her bedroom. 

After the first week of national lockdown, most people were starting to adjust to a new way of life.  One of Ellie and Penelope’s neighbours had already started a Locals Help group to recruit volunteers to do helpful things like getting shopping and collecting prescriptions for the elderly and infirm.  The news had announced that nearly 10,000 people in the UK were already hospitalised with Covid-19.  Prince Charles, Boris Johnson and the Health Secretary were some of the most famous names to have caught the virus so far.  The previous Thursday had seen people across the UK coming out on their doorsteps for the first national “Clap for Carers” event, clapping and banging pots and pans to show support for the NHS and keyworkers.  It was planned that this would become a weekly event every Thursday night. 

Ellie was on a rota which meant that she was going to go into school for one week in three to teach keyworkers’ children, spending the other two weeks planning work or teaching online.  She also had to try to keep in touch with the students in her tutor group, as the school policy required the staff to try to make weekly contact with every student or family either by email or phone, to make sure they were safe and well.  Luckily, some of the school support staff were also involved in making these contacts, which took some of the burden off the teaching staff. 

Penelope was continuing to work from home, but she had admitted that she was quite enjoying her new routine.  She still had to take part in a few online editorial meetings each week, but otherwise she had the freedom to arrange her working day to suit herself, so long as she submitted her assignments on time.  She had told Colin and Ellie that she certainly did not miss getting up early each day to jam herself into a crowded Tube or train compartment and fight through the rush hour to the Guardian offices in Kings Cross.  The weather had been sunny, and she had been able to spend some time relaxing in the garden and watching the birds on the feeder.  Under lockdown rules they were allowed a daily outing for exercise, and if Ellie was not in the mood for joining Penelope on her walks around the neighbourhood, or slightly further afield into the nearby areas of Epping Forest, Colin was always very happy to accompany her.  He had been putting his cooking skills to good use catering for the household, too, and he and Penelope had started experimenting with baking different types of bread.  Despite the Covid-related anxiety hanging over everyone, Colin was not finding lockdown life too onerous and, despite the occasional tensions between himself and Ellie, he was enjoying having the company of two of his favourite people.  He had always excelled at being able to feel comfortable in unfamiliar territories, and yet there was something about being stuck in this little flat during this weird lockdown which made him feel that he had come home. 

***

“Hi!”  Colin sat on one of the stools at the kitchen counter with Penelope’s laptop in front of him, pleased that he seemed to have got into the Zoom session successfully.  Suddenly, or so it seemed from the British media, everyone seemed to be having Zoom get-togethers but Colin, although he was familiar with FaceTime and Skype, hadn’t tried using Zoom before now.  He couldn’t help thinking that his sister-in-law Kate was rather ambitious in expecting to get all the Bridgertons organised into one session, but after entering the chat he could see that several of his relations had got there already.  There were five boxes visible on the screen – one showed Colin himself, but he could also see his oldest brother Anthony sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Kate in their study and his mother Violet peering curiously at the screen from her dining room.  In another box Daff was looking effortlessly elegant as usual, despite wearing an old sweatshirt and having her hair in a ponytail.  Francesca looked delighted to see her family, although her picture was a little fuzzier than the others.  The Wi-Fi signal was rather patchy in the remote area of the Scottish Highlands where she lived.   

“Hi Colin!”  Daff was waving at him.  “It’s so great to see you!  Where’s Ellie?”

“She’s in a mood, but I’ll get her later,” Colin replied. 

Their mother smiled happily into her webcam and started speaking, although no one could hear what she was saying.

“Violet, you’re on mute,” Kate said, and then, when Violet didn’t seem to take any action, “Hyacinth, are you there?  Can you unmute Violet?”

After a few seconds, Hyacinth’s exasperated face appeared over Violet’s shoulder, and she solved the problem.  “Sorry, I thought I’d got her set up already – Mum, don’t touch anything.  NO, not the microphone symbol.  Don’t click on ANYTHING.” 

“Yes, all right, dear – Darlings!  How lovely to see you all.  Daff, you look so well.  Colin, you’re so suntanned.  Is Ellie looking after you?”

There were snorts from several of her children at this.  “Do you really think Ellie’s looking after me?” Colin asked, amused.  “She’s given me a roof over my head, but if I had to rely on her cooking, I’d be starving.”

“Yes, God forbid YOU should ever go short of food,” Anthony put in sardonically. 

“Where are the others?” Violet asked.  “Where is Ben – or Greg?”

“I’ll message Greg and tell him to get his arse into gear, the dopey git,” Hyacinth said, disappearing from the screen.   Her mother looked pained at Hyacinth’s language. 

“Sorry, just a moment, I can see Ben’s in the waiting room, I’ll let him in now,” Kate said, and a few seconds later a sixth box appeared on the screen.  Ben had a streak of blue paint on his face and looked harassed.  In the background they could hear the sound of several small children screaming.

“Sorry, I got held up,” he apologised.  “Charlie found out that Alex had hidden his Lego sharks, and then William freaked out about not wanting a bath.  Sophie’s dealing with it but I might have to take over from her in a bit.” 

Anthony, Kate and Daff all looked visibly grateful that it was someone else’s offspring causing chaos and not their own.  Violet beamed again, misty-eyed with pride.  “Oh, bless them.  I shall miss the children so much now that we’re not allowed to visit.”

Ben’s smile was strained.  “I’ll get them to draw you some pictures,” he said.  “We’ve been painting rainbow posters today for the NHS, to put up in the front windows.  I thought it would give Sophie a break from the home schooling.” 

“Oh, what a lovely idea.”  Violet was touched.  “And how are the rest of my grandchildren?  Daff?”

“They’re fine,” Daff smiled.  “Simon’s having a bit of a lie down, though.  He’s finding the home schooling tougher than he thought.  I think the novelty’s already started to wear off.” 

“Kate’s doing an AMAZING job,” Anthony put in.  “She’s turned the spare bedroom into a classroom and worked out a timetable and everything.  She’s even got a sticker chart going for rewards.”  He gazed proudly at his wife. 

“Dear Kate.  Always so capable,” Violet smiled.  Colin thought he could hear the sound of Ben grinding his teeth, although surely no laptop microphone could be powerful enough to pick that up.

“I’ll go and get Ellie,” he said hurriedly, standing up and leaving the kitchen.  As he walked down the hallway he could hear his mother asking Francesca how she was getting on in Scotland.  When she was at university his sister Francesca had met a Scottish student called John Kilmartin, whose family owned a whisky distillery in the Highlands.  Francesca had followed him back to Scotland, where only a year later John had been killed in a motorbike crash on the A82, Scotland’s most notorious road for accidents.  Francesca had been devastated, but she had already fallen in love with the Highlands and with her job in the distillery’s visitor centre so she had stayed in Scotland.  Now, several years on, she ran the visitor centre and was the distillery’s publicity manager.  Although they tended to see Francesca more on FaceTime than in person because of her remote location, Colin and his family had suspected for some time that she had grown quite close to John’s cousin Michael Stirling, who was now in charge of the family business.  Unlike his mother or Daff, Colin thought that Francesca and Michael could probably sort their own lives out without any meddling from the Bridgertons.   

“Just come and say hello to Mum,” Colin nagged his sister, and Ellie rolled off her bed with a resigned huff.  Colin knew that, although Ellie was still feigning reluctance, once she joined in the conversation she would have plenty to say.

Back in the kitchen, Colin and Ellie squeezed on to adjoining stools and jostled shoulders for a moment until they could fit both their faces in the webcam shot.  “Hi, mum,” Ellie said.

“Oh, Ellie darling, how are you?  I know you’re working so hard, it’s marvellous what all the teachers are doing, having to try to teach all the children by computer, I wouldn’t know where to start –“

“Hey, Ellie,” Daff broke in, “Simon wants to know if you’ve got any tips for home schooling.  He’s trying to get Mia and Bel to learn their times tables, and he thought you might know some good games or some websites to try?”

“Like I keep telling everyone,” Ellie said resignedly, “I’m not a primary teacher!  I’ve got no idea what to do with tiny tots.  Ask me about teaching GCSE or A level English and I’ll be right on it.” 

“Hey.”  A seventh box had finally appeared on the Zoom screen.   Twenty year old Greg was visible, slouched in his gaming chair in a dimly-lit room full of posters and indescribable mess.  In his third year reading Computer Science and Electronics at the University of Bristol, he had chosen not to retreat home during lockdown but to stay in the house he shared with four student mates, where they were probably planning to spend more time gaming than studying online.  Colin just hoped they wouldn’t starve now that McDonalds and KFC had both closed during lockdown.    Greg wore a black T shirt which said in white lettering I Paused My Game To Be Here and his chestnut hair was now chin-length. 

“Greg, darling, how are you?”  That was Violet, of course.

“He’s fine, he just couldn’t get his act together to be here on time.”  That was Hyacinth being acidic as she peered over Violet’s shoulder again.

“Shame all the hairdressers have shut down,” Ellie said sardonically.  “By the time they reopen again Greg’s hair will be down to his waist.”

Her youngest brother stuck his tongue out at her.  “Fuck off, Ellie.” 

“Watch your mouth, Greg.  Mum’s listening,” Anthony said in a sharp tone. 

Francesca jumped in to change the subject.  “Are you all doing the Clap for Carers on Thursdays?  We are, even though there doesn’t seem much point when our nearest neighbours are half a mile away and can’t hear us joining in.”

“Oh, and who’s “we”, Fran?” Ellie asked slyly.  “You and Michael, perhaps?”

Francesca opened her mouth to reply, but Kate jumped into the conversation, probably to avoid awkwardness.  “The children loved doing the first Clap for Carers, didn’t they, Anthony?  Everyone along the road joined in.  Ed and Miles got some saucepans to bang, and even Charlotte was clapping along.  I was thinking of maybe taking my flute out next time to make some more noise.  And Anthony could play his trumpet.” 

Colin – and most of his relatives – flinched at this.  Anthony and Kate were notoriously more enthusiastic than talented on their musical instruments.  He felt sorry for their nearest neighbours if the Thursday night doorstep clapping and noise making was going to be rendered hideous by the flute and trumpet. 

“So anyway,” Daff interrupted hastily, “Simon and I are really going to miss our pub quiz nights, and we were thinking that maybe we could do a weekly quiz on Zoom?  As a family?  Maybe every Friday during lockdown?”

“Oh yes, that would be fun!” Kate agreed eagerly, and Colin and Ellie both groaned.  They knew how competitive Kate and Anthony were likely to get if there was any sort of prize at stake.  Even a “fun family croquet match” on the lawns of Aubrey Hall had turned into a bloodbath in the past.  “Who will set the questions?”

“Simon and I will do the first one.  And then maybe we could take turns to be quiz masters?” Daff suggested.  Violet thought it was a lovely idea and another chance for family togetherness.  Hyacinth was just as competitive as her oldest brother so she was another one who agreed at once to take part.  Ben said that he would ask Sophie – he gave another harassed glance off-camera towards the still-screaming infant as he said this – and Francesca smiled widely as she said she would definitely be up for some weekly quizzing.

“Do invite Michael to join us, won’t you, Fran?”  Daff said sweetly.  “And how about you, Greg?”

Greg muttered that he would make it if he could – presumably, if he did not happen to be in the middle of any important gaming on Friday evening.

“We’ll be there, Daff,” Colin said.  “It’ll do Ellie good to get away from her school work for an evening.  She’s just too dedicated – ow!”  He finished with a yelp as Ellie elbowed him sharply in the ribs. 

“And Pen can be on our team too,” Ellie said. 

“Oh good, and how is Penelope?” Violet asked.  “Is she there?  Can I say hello to her?  I was on the phone to her mother this morning, and we were just talking about her.”

“Pen!” Ellie shouted.  “Come here a minute, Mum wants to say hi!”  She stood up as Penelope entered the kitchen.  There was not much room to manoeuvre with three adults in the small room, so Ellie moved back and waved Penelope towards the empty stool next to Colin.  The stool wobbled as she sat down.  Colin put out an arm and pulled her into his side, steadying her next to him.  He got another whiff of the light flowery scent of her hair – or her skin, or whatever it was.  She jumped slightly in surprise when he put his arm round her, but she smiled warmly into the webcam.

“Hi, Violet, hi everyone, how are you?”

There was a general chorus of “Hi Pen!” or “Hi Penelope!” from the assembled Bridgertons, who were all fond of her. 

“In case you didn’t overhear already, Daff’s organising a Great Bridgerton Quiz Night on Zoom every Friday,” Colin explained.  “You’re on mine and Ellie’s team, all right?”

“That’s not fair,” Hyacinth complained.  “You’ll have three of you, and Ellie and Pen are both really clever –“

“Hey!” Colin said, indignant.  “What about me?”

“You and I can be a team together, Hyacinth dear,” Violet said.  Hyacinth did not look thrilled about this. 

“Never mind how many people are on your teams, Kate and I are going to thrash you all,” Anthony said with a grin, and there were howls of protest from his siblings.  Colin could feel Penelope laughing at them, still pressed warmly against his side as she did so.    

As Violet started to tell Penelope about the face-masks she and Portia Featherington had decided to start sewing – to be sold at the village shop for NHS charities - Colin smiled to himself.  Despite keeping in touch by phone, FaceTime or emails, he had really missed being in the middle of his boisterous family during his travels abroad.  He had a feeling that these weekly Zoom get-togethers were going to be a lot of fun.

***