Today marks one year since I went into self-isolation on my return from my last work trip to the universities of Southampton and Stavanger, ten days before the UK went into its first official lockdown. In the last year I have not travelled by train, bus, plane or taxi; had a drink in a pub or bar or a meal in a café or restaurant; entered any house other than my own or my father’s. I go to the supermarket once a week most weeks, and have been to seven other shops in the course of the year. Mostly I have been at home, because even when we were allowed to go to pubs and restaurants and visit other homes last summer, I didn’t think it was safe. Not least because by then I knew I had three of the four risk factors for long-haul COVID (I’m female, over 50, and suffer from asthma; the risk factor I don’t have is being overweight).
I have seen one friend, who lives nearby, every few weeks for a distanced walk. Two families visited me in my garden last summer, one of them twice, again at a distance, and I attended a small distanced gathering in another friend’s garden. Last weekend I saw that friend again for a distanced walk. Once in a while I get to chat to my neighbour over the fence.
On 2 April 2020 my mother died from the virus. We didn’t have a funeral. It was June before I could visit and hug my Dad. Then there was my more recent assessment and diagnosis, which was hanging over me for most of the year. And it was a tough year for other reasons apart from lockdown, too; reasons connected with the stories of people close to me which are not mine to tell.
There are many ways in which I have been, and am, lucky. Being able to stay at home is a privilege. I can work in my own office, and I have work that I enjoy, which provides an income and a wonderful distraction and solace. I live in a spacious house with a garden, a park ten minutes’ walk away, and lovely countryside within a few minutes’ drive. I can afford some luxuries as well as necessities. I am not alone; my partner has been an invaluable support. The people in my town are mostly good at wearing masks and distancing, and smiling, and being kind. I can see trees, grass, and flowers from my desk. I have had my first vaccination. Throughout this year I have been able to keep myself, my family, and others safe from the virus, by staying at home.
It is hard to say when we will come out of this situation. People are saying in the summer – but then people said that last year. When it does happen, I think it will be weird. I know there is a chunk of grieving for my mother that I have been unable to do because my life is so restricted. I know this because I had a dentist’s appointment earlier this year, and found myself in tears in the waiting room, and then realised it was the first time I’d been to the dentist since before my mother died, and that had triggered a grief response. In the normal course of events we would get through all those ‘firsts’ in a few weeks or months. I have a whole lot of them still to come.
Being among people again will also be weird. Recently I saw a short video on a WhatsApp group, from my family in Australia, in a bar, showing off some fancy cocktails. In the background I could hear people talking and laughing, and music – the normal sounds of people in a bar in the early evening; sounds I haven’t heard for a year. I had forgotten. There is so much I have forgotten. My Dad lives a couple of hours’ drive away and I have been visiting him every other weekend since last June. A couple of months ago, coming home, the motorway was jammed, I had to detour, and the car needed fuel. So I stopped at a petrol station where I couldn’t pay at the pump as I usually do. I went into the shop and walked up and down the aisles in bewilderment, dazzled by the colours and the products. I had forgotten about ready-made sandwiches, and ‘sharing packs’ of crisps and chocolates, and branded self-service coffee machines.
I think this forgetting is a kind of self-protection. It is hard to think about the way I used to live. I can’t bear to look at the ‘before’ pictures on my phone. So I get up each morning, exercise in my house, go to work in my office in the garden, take a short walk, go home at the end of the day, put a few pieces into the current jigsaw, eat, rest, go to bed. The next day is the same, and the next.
One effect of this is that I rarely have anything to talk about with other people. Nothing happens. There are no plans to make. I rang a friend the other day.
“I bet you don’t have any news,” he said gloomily.
“I do, as it happens.”
He perked up immediately. “You have actual news? Don’t tell me yet, let me savour this moment.”
After I told him about my diagnosis, he wanted to talk about it for a long time, examining it from all angles, like a shiny new toy.
Staying at home is the sensible thing to do, for those who can, when there is a global pandemic. But living with constant uncertainty takes a toll. I don’t think we will know the full extent of that toll until after the event. And we don’t know when ‘after the event’ will be. There is likely to be an element of Russian roulette when restrictions start to lift, for two reasons: first, the virus is still around, and not everyone has been vaccinated or otherwise developed immunity; second, the vaccine won’t work for everyone, and we can’t know who it doesn’t work for until it doesn’t work for them.
So, am I going to be writing another of these posts, a year from now? I hope not, but it is possible.