by Roland Renyi

Winner of the 2022 Pamela Miller Prize

Coffee in hand, Richard climbed up to his and Ruth’s bedroom in time for the weekly web team meeting that he chaired. He could feel the stillness of the house now that Ruth and the kids had gone for the day.

Across from the open bedroom window a skylark was trilling and coming from overhead was the almost continuous sound of the planes on their approach to the airport. They made him think of Danylo and whatever might be in the skies above him.

He looked at his monitor, strategically placed so that their bed was out of view, and sipped his coffee. He and Ruth had bought a Krups coffee maker right after the kitchen units had been put in, a funky one that actually hissed as the steam escaped. Now they had temporarily run out of money to finish off the kitchen floor. But if he was going to work from home, he was going to drink good coffee.

Brita called in just ahead of time. Sometimes he could hear church bells from the square outside her apartment in Verona.  ‘Richard,’ she said in a scolding voice, her Italian accent emphasising the second half of his name, ‘I told you not to cut your hair like that. I can’t believe that Ruth would find that sexy.’

‘Lockdown’ said Richard protectively. ‘I got used to cutting it myself. And we’re budgeting. The kitchen floor, remember.’

George’s round face popped up from his shared house in Kelowna, British Columbia. He had once told Richard that his window looked across a lake towards sloping vines. Consequently, Richard had put him under orders to place his laptop opposite a blank wall.

‘Danylo?’ asked Brita.

They had all been following the news, but Danylo’s one condition for remaining on the project team was that it was not to be discussed.

‘We’ll give him another minute’ said Richard. ‘So. Cucumber or strawberries? Aside from lemon. Which goes better with gin and tonic?’

The consensus so far was that cucumber was better with Kendricks while strawberry worked with Gordons.

Richard exhaled when he heard the ping of Danylo’s login. He looked just the same, with his pointed beard, square glasses and shaved head, a typical web designer. He was calling from what looked like a high-tech designer office, recessed lights, potted plants and abstract paintings on the wall. A bottle of Kendricks was on the shelf behind him, next to a bowl filled with limes, cucumber and strawberries.

Then with a jolt Richard realised the obvious, that the background was completely fake; a digital dream constructed by their Ukranian colleague Danylo, who had never missed a call.

‘Sorry to be late’ he said. ‘There was something…’ then Richard heard the tremor in his voice ‘…There was something overhead. But we have internet. And it’s cucumber, guys. Always cucumber.’

‘Well, that’s great – really, Danylo’ said Richard. ‘Now, there’s a problem with the functionality of table 17. Shall we start with that?’