It was at the end of a relaxing week in Spain when the word Coronavirus began to creep into conversations. We’d been listening to the news and following this unknown virus’s march through China, Italy and Spain. Like many people, I hadn’t taken it very seriously. It was something that was going on in the world that didn’t affect me, would soon be over, and I didn’t really need to think about it.
The day before we flew home it was announced that the virus had hit the region we were staying in. It still seemed like something that had nothing to do with me. The following day we queued at the airport behind crowds of Spanish fans flying to the UK for the Madrid/Liverpool football match that evening. I knew Madrid had been badly affected by the virus and felt a slight, niggling worry at the back of my mind. On the plane we were behind a row of Spanish men and next to two others. I vaguely remember thinking it probably wasn’t a very good thing to be in such close proximity to them but my husband, in his usual cavalier way, dismissed any idea of worry with a ‘pfft!’ and a wave of his hand, and was more interested in trying to catch any football related talk, regardless of language.
It seems strange now, three and a half months on, that we didn’t realise the huge impact this virus was about to create. There was a definite timeline to it all, although it was never a straight line, always a roller coaster. My understanding, my reactions, my feelings set off on the Big One. Like the real thing, it started slowly, almost imperceptibly, and built gradually until I was right at the top, hardly daring to look down on the inevitable fall.
Our friends messaged from Spain to say we were lucky we’d got out when we did. Other friends of theirs were struggling to find flights. Some had set off in the middle of the night to drive to a port, having abandoned holiday homes and hotels. There was an air of wartime about these frantic journeys. Still we maintained that everybody was overreacting.
There was the toilet roll fiasco that reminded me of the 70s and 80s shortages of sugar and petrol. We were resilient then, we managed. I thought people had gone mad and consoled myself with the thought that I could rip up my husband’s old t-shirts if necessary, and I certainly wasn’t going to be wrestling toilet rolls off other customers and getting into fights over hand sanitiser. Despite the fact that I had no faith in, nor time for, our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, I was reassured by the fact that he was still shaking hands with Covid patients. Not only that, he was announcing it proudly. Looking back, how wrong could I have been?
A National Emergency
My niece, a hospital doctor in London had been sent home from work with suspected symptoms. She wasn’t ill, she just couldn’t smell or taste anything. Measures were being brought in. She’d volunteered to work at the Florence Nightingale hospital which was rapidly being constructed. I realised this thing was a lot bigger than I’d suspected.
Suddenly the UK had an emergency on its hands. There were urgent announcements and press conferences. Science and health experts appeared either side of Johnson, who looked bewildered and dizzy, rapidly turning from one to the other as he deflected question after question from the press and public. PPE, ventilators, vaccinations, beds….it sounded as though we were inside a war zone.
Lockdown was now the word on everybody’s lips.
My family is close, we’re all huggers. It was so hard not to reach out and hug when the children brought us shopping and left it on the doorstep. I would open the door to see them scuttling back down the path. Hardest of all was having no physical contact with the grandchildren. They were good, they knew the rules. When they were eventually allowed in our garden they made circles with their arms and pronounced ‘virtual hugs.’ They blew kisses from two metres away. To grandparents who were used to picking them up and squeezing them tight, it was heartbreaking. But in the midst of all this I knew there were things that were much, much worse happening to loving families up and down the country.
As the days turned into weeks, what surprised me more than anything was the way my reactions and beliefs changed on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I’d started off sceptical. Surely such strict measures weren’t necessary? Over seventies had to self isolate. I was nearly that age but I didn’t feel vulnerable. Even if I got the virus I was convinced I would shake it off.
Then I began to see stories and videos of families whose relatives had died, with no underlying problems. Younger patients struggling to recover, left with ongoing, potentially long term symptoms. From being blasé I became panic stricken. The next day, another expert opinion – it was only affecting a small percentage of the population. Phew, I relaxed again and secretly shook my head at those people getting gloved and masked up to put their bins outside their houses.
I heard about two friends’ mums who had died – indirectly – of Covid. Another friend lost her dad through a heart attack. The repercussions were unthinkable. No getting together and hugging family and friends, no proper funeral, no wake. It was heart breaking. One friend told me she was in limbo with her grief as she hadn’t been able to go through the usual stages of sitting together with siblings, laughing and crying and celebrating a dear dad’s life. Another friend said she was full of guilt at not being able to spend her mum’s last days and weeks with her. It was unbearable to contemplate.
I began to think about my own 91 year old mum, living 200 miles away and being in the vulnerable, shielding category. Luckily, she’d had relatives living with her for a few months whilst they were between houses, so they stayed. They became our lifeline. I was relieved that my mum wasn’t alone but it didn’t stop me worrying about her. She had lived through WW2 but in nearly every phone call she told me how she’d never known a time like this – a time where most of the world was affected. Since my dad had died 18 months previously I’d visited every month. Now, time was ticking away. What if she caught the virus? I wouldn’t be able to see her, reassure her, hug her. I couldn’t bear the thought and was desperate to go down and see her. One day my emotions were so raw and I was so tearful that I contemplated just jumping in the car and driving there and back in a day, seeing her in the garden – from a distance. I eventually decided this would probably be worse for both of us and would certainly leave me feeling sad and unsettled.
Back in Westminster
Boris Johnson and several members of the government fell ill. The PM was admitted to hospital but discharged after a few days to recuperate in his country home. The hand shaking had obviously not been such a great idea, after all.
Meanwhile, the powers that be were altering the guidelines, at times it seemed quite randomly. Everywhere I looked there were anomalies and questions that could not be answered by the embarrassed members of the government and so called experts.
The public began objecting. The Dominic Cummings debacle was the final straw for many. People were furious, myself included. Why had we been following the rules when the person who had made them wasn’t? I wrote to my MP – and am still awaiting a reply. The floodgates were opened. People felt they could travel anywhere and not bother to socially distance any more.
My moods were strange and unpredictable. I had several bouts of tearful despair, followed by hope and optimism. Strangely, my relationship with my husband seemed to thrive on our close proximity. I say ‘strangely’ because we spend very little time together normally. We both have our own interests and only meet up for meals and the odd tv programme! We bicker constantly over the most ridiculous things – and usually end up laughing – but in this we were united. It was us against the world.
We got into a bit of a routine, mundane but comforting. We reassured each other that it would all be fine (although I don’t think Dave ever had any doubts). His worries were based around the gym, swimming pool and golf courses being closed, the lack of sport on TV, and Emmerdale and Corrie running out of episodes. Mine, on the other hand, revolved around my mum’s safety, missing family and friends, my son’s lack of income and having to cancel photographic assignments.
Apart from the worries, I realised I was enjoying the break from the frantic activity that had become my life in retirement. There was no pressure to actually do anything. We were in a very fortunate position of being ok financially due to our pensions. We have a comfortable house and a garden that’s pleasant to sit in. We have the sea thirty seconds from our doorstep. We know how lucky we are, and I felt for the likes of single parents in high rise flats with young children and no outside space. I couldn’t resolve that issue but I could give something back to the community in my own small way.
Small acts of kindness
I created ‘Spread a Little Joy,’ and sent out prints of Blackpool to people who requested them for the friends or family they were missing. They sent me the messages they wanted included. Maybe it was my emotional state but most of them made me cry. They were received with much happiness – pictures of the recipients were sent to my messages and I made an album. It felt good to have spread some joy, however little.
I noticed little kindnesses spreading on social media. NHS staff working double shifts in terrible conditions, free meals for those in need, beds for the homeless, visits through a window for those alone. I began to have hope that things might change. Maybe this virus was the big wake up call that we hadn’t realised we needed.
I made scrubs and knitted hearts in pairs to be shared by patients in hospitals with their loved ones. It was all about comfort and connection. I baked, which I hadn’t done for a long time, and sent the cakes and scones to the family we still couldn’t see. We did a couple of Zooms until we decided that none of us was that keen and we preferred the phone or messages.
My daughter, daughters in law and I began sending little gifts to each other to keep up morale. It was like going back to an earlier time when the post brought cards and letters and mysterious parcels. We compared notes via a WhatsApp group. How was work/homeschooling/family relationships/mood? Every feeling seemed heightened and more significant somehow.
It gradually dawned on me that my views didn’t always coincide with those of family or friends. Our boundaries were different and hard to predict. It wasn’t like politics where I felt I was pretty good at working out who was left and who was right. These statuses were a mystery to me. We all began to live secret lives: lives where we didn’t admit to being too close to somebody else, accidentally cuddling a grandchild who threw his arms around your legs, not wiping down shopping. Or, conversely, frantically waving back approaching adults, fanatically donning gloves and mask and applying sanitiser to go outside.
On the road again
I got on my bike again for my one hour daily exercise, and realised I’d forgotten how much I loved it. It became a daily routine – alternate directions along the prom, five miles there, five back. I was hoping to lose a bit of weight but the down side of lockdown soon put paid to that as I snacked my way through the cupboards each evening, like a one woman swarm of locusts.
At the beginning of lockdown I videoed myself reading the twelve chapters of a children’s book I’d published. It wasn’t nice to watch them back but it was a small price to pay if the children enjoyed them. I wrote a script for a play around lockdown for a BBC competition (it didn’t get shortlisted). I continued to write my second book, I listened to music that I’d never heard before, I made myself a dress – something else I hadn’t done for years. I had a photographic project about lockdown published by Shutterhub and I picked up my camera (or my phone) to record my bike rides and to document lockdown in Blackpool. In essence, I kept busy doing the things I wanted to do, rather than the things I felt I should do.
Gradually, as lockdown began to ease a little, I went on bike rides or walks with one other person, carefully staying our two metres apart as instructed. Not everybody was doing that but I figured so long as I stuck to the rules I stood a good chance of being safe. Life was becoming quite odd and often unstable. The kindnesses seemed to be dissipating, and replaced with disagreements and insults. People with different boundaries were at each others’ throats or whispering behind each others’ backs. Neighbours fell out and reported each other for having gatherings of more people than ‘officially’ allowed. Even the weekly clapping for the NHS that had started with such enthusiasm began to feel a little false when I thought about the rewards that should have accompanied these accolades. The atmosphere on social media stopped being pleasant and started to become aggressive and confrontational.
Time to think
Above all, during these months, I’ve had time to reflect. On communities, on people, on love and life. I’m still an optimist, my glass is always half full. I believe most people have kind hearts and good intentions. And I sincerely hope, when all this is ‘over’ – whenever that might be – we’ve learnt a few lessons along the way. These months will go down in history as ‘the Great Lockdown.’ Our grandchildren will describe to their grandchildren how the world had a reboot, how they didn’t go to school for months, and their parents tried to teach them at home. How they missed their friends and their old routines. How the beaches were empty and roads were deserted. The trams stopped running and people walked about in masks. How everything became strange, silent and unpredictable to us all.
And how, in the end, we had to make our own decisions, take our own risks and trust that sometime, somehow we would emerge from all of this wiser, kinder, and ready to embrace that reboot.
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