Isolation

The groom is wearing a green velvet blazer and a dried flower buttonhole and pink tie. He is beaming, and the pub behind him is stuffed with beautifully-dressed guests celebrating his marriage. He approaches us with a grin. “Congratulations!” we say, and I move to hug him, pause. “Oh, we’re doing this!” he says, and extends a green velvet elbow. We bump elbows. “Congratulations!” I say, again, hovering in the middle of the moment. My younger colleague surges forward, all well-wishes and wide smile and joy. “Oh, you can’t hug him!” I say. The groom shakes his head ruefully. She looks shocked, horrified. “But.. I have to! One hug!” she says, extending her arms. They bump elbows. 

At the Londis on the corner, everything looks normal. The shelves of toilet paper are fully stocked, and there is hand soap (if not sanitizer) on the shelves. I buy my usual ridiculous assortment of cheese and crackers. I also buy toilet paper because it’s there, and because my social media feeds are filled with the barren shelves of other, nearby supermarkets. I am not buying all I can carry, because I’ve read too much about the affluent stocking up while the hand-to-mouth go without, but I’m still buying it when I don’t strictly need it, because I can’t bring myself to look a toilet paper horse in its four-ply mouth. There are three people in the queue ahead of me, and they are all also buying toilet paper. 

I go to OddBins to buy wine and gin for the wedding. The store is empty. The man behind the till is chatty. “Everyone is crazy!” he says, wrapping the glasses that come free with my gin in tissue paper. “The supermarket was so crowded!” We talk briefly about the wedding. He shrugs. “Your life sounds normal.” 

But it’s not normal for me to sit at my laptop every morning and type the same two words, “Coronavirus UK”, just to see what’s come up overnight. And it’s not normal that my trip to New Zealand, planned for three weeks’ time, is now likely cancelled, as the prime minister I admire very much has imposed a 14 day self-isolation period on anyone entering the country. When I read the news, I try to apply it to myself. Could I fly to NZ, and stay inside for 14 days, and still have a good time? Part of me thinks I’m just slothful enough that it could work, as long as the weather held, and someone could bring me wine, and I could pet the cats. But I think I would still be doing the same regular Googling, the same dwelling on the future. And I would be in New Zealand, but functionally as proximate to the beaches and streets and hills that I love as when I am in London. 

A few weeks ago, a concert I was really looking forward to was cancelled, and I was gutted. Now, everything is cancelled. All major sports. A birthday dinner with my uncle. Every upcoming gig. It’s hard to imagine how any kind of isolation can be enforced in a city so studiedly un-isolated. I am cheek to jowl, elbow to elbow, with strangers every day of the week, on the tube, in elevators, standing in queues, walking down the street. Advice from professionals is to be more than two metres apart, which is risible. Alone in my flat, I can hear my neighbour through the wall. His name is Robin, he knows me only through an annoying number of mis-delivered Amazon packages, but I know the cadence of his walk, and his cough. 

It is humbling to live in a time where planning has become redundant. Plan to have food on hand, plan to be able to work from home, but don’t plan your upcoming birthday. Don’t plan your honeymoon. Planning is for people living in a world where order and certainty abide, and that’s not the world we live in, at least for the time being. 

A documentary yesterday reminded me that this is not the first pandemic I have lived through. SARS broke out in 2003, and I remember it only as a series of images of chickens on the television. SARS died out quicker than experts anticipated, but it was much more frightening than coronavirus, since it could be transmitted in the air. The documentary detailed the story of someone in Hong Kong in an apartment building vomiting into a toilet, and the virus moving through the plumbing into the bathroom of the apartment below, and then out through the windows, and into neighbouring apartment blocks. That’s the stuff of nightmares, the kind of virus you can’t restrict and you can’t trace to source, and still, I’m pretty sure I was only thinking about chickens. I was sixteen. Maybe that’s an excuse. 

Coronavirus, like SARS, is a zootopic virus (see how much I’ve learned!), meaning that it occurred when a virus occurring in an animal was transmitted to a human, which is reassuring in a stupid way: it means it could have happened at any time, for any reason, and isn’t something that we as a species have specifically agented through arrogance, or idiocy. Conversely, the technologies we have developed that support frequent and fast travel mean that while we perhaps can’t be held responsible for the existence of the virus, the spread is certainly down to us. And then, on yet another hand, the prevalence of social media and the degree to which we’re all connected, might save us again. Everyone is informed. Every choice is a deliberate one. There is official advice to follow, and plenty of ways to name and shame those who don’t. 

It’s interesting to relearn our fragility. For everything we know, we are as vulnerable as we were in the time of the Spanish flu. We are humid, lonely beings who only accidentally avoid annihilation. All of my instincts (flock to my loved ones) go against the best advice for survival. Last night I hugged the groom as I said goodbye. Not in any kind of deliberate flaunting of rules or advice, but because he was so unbelievably happy in his perfect green blazer and because I’d had plenty of gin and because our new working from home policy might mean it’s weeks before I see him again. Human contact is instinctive. 

Now, I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table. I can’t see anyone at all, but because it’s London, I can hear sirens, and I can hear Robin running his taps through the wall, perhaps washing his hands for the mandated 20 seconds. London isn’t in lockdown, but it’s hard to feel like going outside is the right choice. I’ve written before about how New Zealand can feel far away. It’s never felt further.

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