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“It’s been seven months and 15 days … since Covid took human contact away … ahh-ahh ahhh-ahhhh.” I do my best Sinéad O’Connor impersonation in the bathroom mirror, debating whether a full skinhead would be a solution to my inability to visit the hairdresser.
Honestly, I’ve no idea exactly how long I’ve been in this house. Has it been a year? One particularly long week?
I’ve been shielding at my parents’ bungalow since some time in the spring. That means none of us going out, ever, and not letting anyone in. For the owner of low-grade lungs in a respiratory pandemic, this was an easy decision to make, but it is surreal and unfamiliar, too. Both in their early 60s, my parents are retired and are making the sacrifice with me. They have had the pleasure of my company before the pandemic, when I’ve been too unwell to live alone, but being locked in together 24/7 is new; a kind of familial house arrest.
The early days of lockdown are filled with mundane practicalities. Everyone in the country is trying to get a food delivery, but this is something we need more than many. Faced with a fortnight’s wait for a priority supermarket slot, we scavenge fish fingers from the back of the freezer and suck vitamins from tins of peas. Once the food does come, the basics are missing: no bread, little milk. The delivery driver disappears and returns with a loaf he has bought himself from the local shop. We almost cry.
My mum starts behaving as if she is auditioning for the next series of Chernobyl, setting up a decontamination zone in the porch. All mail and papers must stay there for 48 to 72 hours and be wiped down with disinfectant. It’s amazing how quickly an abnormal situation can become normalised. There is a certain charm to reading the Observer on a Wednesday; in a pandemic, time really does blur.
In spite of it all, we find ways to stay semi-sane. My dad takes to running laps around the bungalow each day, like a caged hamster. As the months go on, my internet shopping gets increasingly erratic: a selection box of macarons, 24 cookies, an oversized bathroom clock quickly relegated to the kitchen after being deemed “too overwhelming” for the toilet. Care packages arrive from kind friends and family: hot chocolate, a fashion mag, flowers, a candle. It is the Generation Game, if the cuddly toy was doused in antiseptic.
Unlike many high-risk people, I’m lucky I have a job I can do from home. I resolve to use my spare time to do something useful. I pledge to cut off my lengthening ponytail and give it to a children’s cancer charity to make a wig. One day, uncomfortable with the idea of going into the GP surgery for a routine blood test, I proactively order a home self-prick kit from the pharmacist and declare myself a pandemic genius. The result is a bloodbath, spurting anywhere but the vial. I decide not to retrain as a phlebotomist after all.
Deprived of opportunities for conversation, we make our own entertainment. (“Do you know the French for owl?” my dad asks one Friday night.) We take out trial memberships of every streaming service: the unethical (Amazon Prime), nostalgic (Disney+) and niche (BritBox). I congratulate myself on remaining emotionally stable while crying at every episode of The Making of Frozen 2.
This goes on long after the rest of the country gets back to some normality in the summer. The most exciting point of the week becomes the day the food is delivered, as if we are living in a series of Big Brother, circa 2002. We get into a routine (very different from a rut, thank you): Sainsbury’s on a Friday, Tesco on a Tuesday. If we’re feeling wild, we throw in an Ocado. “Have the pancakes come?” I sporadically shout, like a five-year-old.
At some point, it hits me that I have not seen a friend since 2019. I have not seen my sister or my one-year-old niece since February. She is a germ factory at the best of times and ideologically opposed to social distancing. I miss her. In the time I’ve been in this house, multiple friends’ babies have been born and become toddlers I haven’t met. Through the window, summer heat turns to autumn’s falling leaves. I would kill for a McNugget.
In some ways, my life has been a rehearsal for this moment. Disability means I have had long stretches of being stuck at home before, particularly in the past couple of years. It gives you a kind of resilience, as well as perspective. But it would be too neat to say it makes it easier. Having been shut away before doesn’t mean you miss those you love any less. It means you have missed them for longer.
Shielding is an individual and a collective experience: you are by definition the most alone a person can be, but are going through something along with millions of other high-risk people (many without family or enough money). One of the strangest things I’ve found is how this sense of shared experience has softened my response to isolation; splurges I previously deemed self-indulgent are now self-care; the glow of WhatsApp is a precious connection. It is as if seeing the rest of the world go through it gives me permission to mind that I am.
And yet I find myself overwhelmingly grateful. I have felt loved even when alone, safe in a time of fear. My motto is that if you’re alive or employed during a pandemic, you’re winning (double points for both). I don’t think anyone with a long-term health condition expects that life always goes smoothly; there will be bumps along the way, sometimes large ones. There is no inalienable right to go the pub. But human beings have a remarkable ability to cope. We adapt. We make the best of it. I look to the small things. The orange and pinks of £5 supermarket gerberas. Recordings of my niece tentatively taking her first steps.
As I write this, the arrival of a vaccine gives hope. If this last year has been house arrest, perhaps the next will bring probation. I tell myself that the trees lining my local park are merely waiting. The cool of fresh air and the warmth of a friend’s hug are sensations on pause. In the meantime, there is always home.
Source: The Guardian
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