Things that help

  1. Reading books outside my comfort zone, that distract and relocate me. 
  2. Putting on makeup. I have eight different highlighters. If I’m not feeling bright on the inside, I’ll be bright on the outside. 
  3. Keeping things tidy. I get distracted and angry when everything is messy. 
  4. Moderating my obsession with tidiness. Otherwise I come to blows with the only other person in my bubble, and we can’t afford division in the ranks right now. 
  5. Writing a diary like some shit combination of Bridget Jones and Samuel Pepys, the only diarists I can think of right now. “Today I did some gardening.” The fact of keeping a diary is having faith in the fact that one day I will want to read it and marvel, because my present reality will be so frothy with social engagements and physical interaction that whatever happened in 2020 will feel a cold and remote and impossible past. 
  6. Cooking things slowly. I never usually cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes or has more than seven ingredients. This week I made french onion soup from scratch. It tooks 90 minutes to get everything looking brown enough. It was delicious, and it was worth it, even if the kitchen still smells like onions. 
  7. Talking to the cat. She hates me by this stage, this is understood. She sits with her butt towards me just so I know exactly how little a threat she knows me to be. 
  8. Weeding the garden. I am focusing on getting the roots out, not snapping the leaves off at the neck. There’s something nice about using the hook tool, getting into the dirt, navigating the worms. 
  9. Going to bed later. The opposite of accepted advice, but I was going to bed at 8pm, and waking periodically throughout the night. I think it was because my eyes were knackered from the screen, so I thought I was more tired than I was. Now I’m shooting for 10pm, more often hitting 9pm. 
  10. Running. Nothing is helping more than running. Dredging myself from bed at 7:10, hitting the pavement by 7:19, not coming back until I’m sweaty and hungry. There is space, and sky and quiet. Nothing helps more.
  11. Spending too much money on wine. Every bottle is a treat. 
  12. Setting times for calls, and keeping to them. Sometimes I dread Zoom, but I’m always glad I did it. The voices and the faces are my anchors. 

None of the above prevents long periods staring at the ceiling, wondering what happened, contemplating the cosmic ridiculousness of it all. Nothing stops me thinking about alternate realities, about my early thirties disappearing like water into soil. Still, there is always something that distracts me. Today it is a glass of rose and the cheese my sister sent me, and the thought of playing cards online later. There is always something to look forward to.

It’s hard not to feel temporary

It’s hard not to feel temporary. It’s hard to know what real roots feel like: are you deep-rooted, are you embedded, or are you just making it work? We lead transitory, light-touch lives. You are an email, not a letter. You are fast-fashion, fast-food, bullet points, biodegradable, calorie-free, lighter-than-air. You are not made up of much more than binary. You are mostly cloud. You are deletable. 

There are so many words about belonging, and the search for it. I don’t need to add to them; they’ve already been done better, and more permanently. They exist in leather books and on tombstones. The quest for a perfect fit is eternal, and exhausting, because nobody seems ever to know where they fit, except, perhaps, for the people who have never questioned that where they started was the only and best location for them. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket telling me to come home. She looks into the lens with the gaze of a mother. There is no guilt-trip in what she is saying, there is only certainty: come home. Come home before you can’t. 

And thousands are. The digital might be transient but it is also prolific, and omni-present. I am trying to do my job the best I can, better than before, but I am also watching images eddying around my social feeds. This man is eating a pie. This woman is clutching a halved feijoa. This man is wearing a dressing gown under a blue sky and they have all come home. 

It is the most obvious answer that is also the truest: your home is where you go when you are threatened. Your home is where you are safe. So many of my contemporaries, with confident knowledge of the Underground and rental contracts and impressive jobs, are gone, all of it ditched, all of it confidently nothing but collateral when faced with the choice of keeping all of it, and staying, or losing all of it, and going. Those roots, it turns out – the jobs, the new friends, the plans – might have been steadying, but they were never anything other than auxiliary. 

There is a woman with kind eyes and a nice jacket and she is closing the borders. We are millenials, so here is the metaphor: you work in the engine rooms on the Titanic, and the ship is going down, and they are closing the gates. We are lovers of dystopia so here is another: you are the maze runner, and the maze is closing.

The problem with both of these (obviously) is that they signal there is no hope to be had, should you choose to remain where you are. You drown. You get ripped apart by a biologically unfeasible robot spider. But there’s something comforting in testing your roots, and finding them sound. Disastrous endings make for good blockbusters, but rarely leave room for exploration of other options.

Borders that close reopen. Home can be two places for one person. Permanence is more than postcodes. Writing it down – digitally, in the cloud, in the air – makes it real. 

12 Weeks

I just keep buying tins of sweetcorn. I don’t know how to be a practical human being,

My plants are laughing at my attempts to keep us both alive, and this is spring. This is supposed to be the easy part. 

I have a new husband to take care of; he is mostly able to take care of himself, but who will we both blame for the bits that fall apart? I’d blame me,

I’d blame the soft human nature of it all, the dry suffering of lungs reliant on plastic snaked down wet pink tubes to do the act of breathing, as if that isn’t exactly what they’re there for. 

We are the same battery hens we’ve kept on plucking, and eating, and sucking the eggs from. 

 

If Mother Nature has any sense she is drunk right now. Her laughter is all the daffodils  and every piece of cherry blossom that won’t drift down into your cup, as you sit in the park on your jacket and eat olives out of greasy plastic. Think of Te Fiti from Moana if you don’t know who to picture, all thick rock thighs and flower crowns and wrath. 

 

There have always been some of us who are resistant to blackouts, but there is nothing brave about the way you’re pressing on. The Blitz spirit is something that only applies to sugar restrictions, and isn’t something you can say when you go outside and dig your elbow briefly into a stranger. You have always hated the warm press of strangers; the way they sway with the motion of the train carriage is frankly sexual and unnecessary. Just hold the bar tighter, for fuck’s sake. Stop reading your newspaper. Don’t even look at me. 

 

You are a goldfish on a hamster wheel, the hamster drowning in the goldfish bowl. Your lungs don’t work anymore. Or maybe they do, prove it, say it with me: I regret forever the time I laughed over your meal, I regret shaking hands with the stranger, with the devil, with my own mother. I remember every instance of skin. 

 

I have killed the plants that were on the windowsill, forgive me, they were so brown, and so over-watered. We’re cutting up lemons and freezing them, for our 6pm sense-of-normalcy drinks that have started to creep earlier, stronger, whoops, but there are no rules. Boris Johnson’s white knuckles straining against his pink skin are the only things keeping the crowds at bay – they want to break through your new glass windows, like zombies feverish with scent, to touch you. Oh my god, you feel so good. 

 

I have been going to the shop every day to stand in line with people who fear me. I am loaded down with sweetcorn, and toilet paper, and Lindt bars, don’t breathe on me, there is literally nothing I can do about it. Being a human is reduced to faces pixelated on laptop screens, freezing and echoing with the effort of forcing themselves down the wires. 

 

I have killed myself with corn, my roots have come undone, I have forgotten who I am, I have wiped away all recognisable vestiges of myself. I am outside your door hammering at the wood, and you are looking through the peephole at a mad woman. Unfortunately, I only recognise myself when you tell me who I am.

Staying In

I have ordered grass seed and topsoil and fertiliser. I have cleared out the dead: the leaves, the twigs, the plants that didn’t survive the winter. The lawn is snarled with cold wedges of moss and weeds. I pull up the large green-leaved weeds that survive so much better than everything else, they fill a whole organic waste bag on their own. Left to their own devices they would flourish, fill the garden, grow into a delighted bush around Shakespeare’s greening head. There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as weeds, only plants growing in the wrong places, but I still delight in pulling them out. The thing to do is to get them by the throat to pull them free at the root. If you break off the leaves, they’ll be lush again in weeks. It is cold but the skies are blue; they are single-digit mornings, but maybe in a few weeks we will breach late teens. It is the time of year where you start to stop with scarves and hats, and make a few mistakes, and end up late and frozen in a too-thin coat; it is the time of year when I decide I can manage an outdoor swim, and feel that sensation of deadening lungs and a rising chill. It is that time of year. 

Adam has ordered a shed, dumb-bells, mats. It isn’t easy. The whole of Britain, apparently, is retiring inside to become fucking ripped, spending the minutes not on trains and not in pubs lifting and squatting in seclusion. In the meantime, Soho is boarded up against looters and the gyms are empty. 

This is the first weekend of isolation. I’m still going to the local store too much. I’ve forgotten how to plan a meal. I’ve almost forgotten how to cook without a recipe card, and every item organised for me in a brown paper bag. In an ordinary week, we will sometimes struggle to cook all three meals before the box comes again on Sunday. Adam plays football, we both see friends, we eat one dinner in a restaurant on Stroud Green road. Staying for the three nights necessary to cook three dinners is hard on weeks when there are birthdays and bad days and cards with friends. This morning I watched the delivery man put the Hello Fresh in our shed, with his mask on, then ring the doorbell and hurriedly depart. Hello Fresh, no doubt, is probably having the best few weeks since they first came up with the idea that overworked and overly-social millennials might not have the time or imagination to come up with their own meals. Good for them, I’m glad for them. 

I unpacked the bag, recycled the box. There is a lot more in our cupboards than usual. I don’t think it counts as prepping, because it’s still not that much food. We have gone from a household that never eats breakfast or lunch at home, and struggles to manage three home-cooked meals, to the opposite. I am going to save so much money, I think, as I buy another bottle of gin and order 5 more Kindle books. I’m going to be rich, I think, cancelling my airfare to NZ, three Air B’n’B’s, the internal flights. Silver linings everywhere, I repeat, on my hands and knees in the moss, pulling out the roots. 

I’m a good person because I am paying my cleaner, who cannot come because she is sick. I am a good person because I am buying groceries for an elderly neighbour and his wife. I am not a good person because I am writing about the things that make me good, massaging these small details into someone well-equipped for emergencies, who thinks of others before she thinks of herself. I think of myself all the time: how much I miss my far-flung family (in a time where South London feels as distant as the Southern Hemisphere), how my once book-loving brain seems unable to read anything longer than a 180-character panicked tweet, how important running is to me and how likely it is that I might have to stop doing even that soon. House prices, cancelled holidays, postponed weddings, the amount of laundry I’m generating even though I’ve worn the same pair of leggings for six straight days. 

I have never sent so many messages. I have never worn so little make-up. I have never been so obsessed with tins of corn and the expiration date on almond milk. My office closed on Tuesday; the pubs closed on Friday; they shut the Hampstead ponds yesterday; the cherry blossom tree in my yard is nearly fully in bloom. I think of us all as tiny blue dots on a giant map. The journey of my dot on a typical week, back and forth from the office, venturing south to see friends, a well-work route to the wine bar, the Londis, the gym. Now I move back and forth from the lounge to the bedroom, I follow the route of the sun and my long-suffering cat, a trapped insect buzzing up against the windows.

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.