Four weeks into lockdown, I feel surprisingly at peace

There are some pleasant side-effects to lockdown: my seven-year-old has finally learned to ride his bike.

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One of the more pleasant side-effects of lockdown has been that seven-year-old Moe has finally learned to ride his bike. He can manage hills and brakes and steering now, and he and I have started to go out for rides almost every day. We go up to the top of the hill by our house, where we have discovered routes with magnificent views over the rolling Downs to the bright blue sea. Or we go down to the seafront, where we can tootle along the bike path feeling the sun on our faces and hearing – in these quiet, traffic-free days – the soft rush of the waves on the pebbly shore.

Today we are riding through the centre of town towards Hove. Usually this part of the bike path is clogged with tourists and buskers and rollerbladers and other bikes, but at the moment it’s quiet enough for us to sail through without stopping. We pedal and pedal, past all the closed fish and chip shops, past the deserted viewing tower, through Hove lawns, where people are lying in the sun and pretending to do exercise every time a police officer approaches. There is something so liberating about riding a bike, especially when you’ve been shut inside all day. The air tingles against our cheeks as we pick up speed.

All the ice cream places are shut. We sit on the beach for a few minutes to drink water and eat an apple.

“Shall we start heading back?” I ask him, as we’ve already come a long way.

But he is determined. “No, let’s keep going.”

Past Hove Lagoon, I remember a shop that sells fish straight off the boat. I wonder whether it will still be open – and sure enough it is, with only the shortest of socially-distanced queues outside. Men in big white wellies are unloading sacks of shellfish. I buy some of those and a giant bass, fit for a banquet. With these treasures swinging from my handlebars we turn and head for home. And that’s when I feel it: pure happiness. I wouldn’t change a thing about this moment: the sunshine, the shimmering sea, the whizz of our bikes through the clean, unpolluted air, the anticipation of a delicious dinner. We may not have all the things we have been used to, but right now, this is everything I need.

This new feeling has been unfolding slowly; I hardly noticed it at first. The initial couple of weeks of lockdown were, for me, charged with a low hum of fear, a constant, nagging fizz of adrenaline, punctuated by overwhelming sadness. And I still have bad moments, when I read the stories about doctors and nurses dying, about hospitals overflowing, about the appalling failure to test and to protect front-line workers. But in terms of my own personal circumstances, I feel surprisingly at peace. I’m not going stir crazy, as I was sure I would. I’m happy to stay at home, living simply, thinking no further ahead than the next meal. I still miss my friends and family, very much at times, but mostly I’m relieved not to have any plans.

Our family has settled into a new, slower rhythm. We get up later than we used to, have a leisurely breakfast. We do an online fitness class, or Husband does some studying with the boys while I work. We go to the allotment, do a bit of weeding and watering. We do puzzles and quizzes. I help the kids with their music practice, or we spend hours on something we never would have thought to do before. We spent an entire afternoon just whittling sticks. We talk to friends online. Sometimes we argue; sometimes we get bored. But mostly we’re getting on fine. Turns out that all the other stuff – the meals out, the social whirl, the frantic schedule of activities, the holidays – didn’t add as much to life as it seemed to. In fact, perhaps it prevented us from appreciating some of the good things that were under our noses all along.

I wonder, of course, how long it will go on. I wonder when I’ll see my Mum again, my sister and her kids. I wonder when the boys will be able to play with their friends. Who knows? It could be months.   

But as Moe and I pedal back towards home I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m not really thinking at all. My mind is wide and clear as the empty beach.

Alice O'Keeffe's novel On The Up is published by Coronet. She is a literary critic and former arts editor of the New Statesman. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe, or on Instagram as @aliceokeeffebooks.

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