As my family enters lockdown, I make lists and retreat to the scheming 16th century

I embark on the new Hilary Mantel novel, The Mirror and the Light, and immediately find myself lost in it, grateful to be swirled back through the centuries, to 1536.

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What to write, I keep asking myself. What tone to strike. I really have no idea, and am typing this in a sort of mental fog, so forgive me if it’s not much of a column. Hopefully I’ll adapt to the new circumstances over time, as we’ll all have to.

My last piece now reads like a diary from a hundred years ago, with its casual nights out in Soho, its train journey to Whitstable, its self-indulgent talk of loneliness and isolation. We have gone through a door now, into that space where everything is a matter of life and death, where all our focus is on sickness and health.

Ben and I have been through this door once before in our lives, when we were both 29 years old and he suddenly fell catastrophically ill, spending weeks in hospital, much of it in intensive care, hovering between survival and its opposite.

This last week has reminded me of that time – the sickly feeling in my stomach, the waking to a sense of nameless dread, the sitting up relieved that it was only a dream, and then the moment of realisation.

I wrote about it in my first book, Bedsit Disco Queen, saying that “It would be a long time before I could get over that state of appalled expectation, and break the habit of holding myself braced for bad news at any minute. In the end, it simply became too exhausting to sustain that level of anxiety. It faded, or hardened, or settled somewhere inside me and I got used to living with the possibility of disaster without being overwhelmed by it.”

I guess this will be similar. Back then, I passed the time with jigsaw puzzles and PG Wodehouse novels. This time, after a few days of struggling to read, I embark on the new Hilary Mantel novel, The Mirror and the Light, which might seem ridiculously ambitious as it is 912 pages long. But in fact I  immediately find myself lost in it, grateful to be swirled back through the centuries, to 1536, to a world of intrigue and scheming and duplicity. It’s strangely comforting.

Perhaps because it is telling of events that are over. There is a finality, a certainty, to things that are done, and what many of us hate most is uncertainty, the sense of being at the start of something which we know will be bad, but not how bad. 

I read a great posting on Facebook from a woman who has worked in disaster zones, who says that this is the worst bit, this being at the top of the rollercoaster, looking ahead at the drop.

Anxiety sufferers feel like this much of the time, and there is a sort of relief when everyone is feeling the same. You feel less alone, less mad. I’m more aware of my triggers now, and so I know it doesn’t work for me to obsess over facts or details, to read endless news stories. I have a tendency to exaggerate risk, to feel “uniquely vulnerable”, as a therapist once told me, and so I have to separate out what I can control from what I can’t.

And if anyone in our house is uniquely vulnerable it is Ben of course, as a direct consequence of his illness all those years ago. He gets the dreaded NHS text telling him he has to now self-isolate for 12 weeks, and so the kids and I increase even the cautionary measures we have been following. 

I move into the spare room, and remind myself that we’re lucky to have a spare room, but still, that’s 12 weeks without a hug, while the world is gripped by a pandemic.

Ben goes quite zen in a crisis, and I can hear him quietly pottering, at a distance, and listening to John Coltrane, more or less on a loop it seems. We have brief conversations, at a distance, and send each other silly texts, and I keep myself busy and consoled by making lists – of what I’d buy if the shops were full, of what we have in the fridge, of the meals I can make with what we have in the fridge.

I text Ben in his bedroom to say I’ve finished my breakfast and the kitchen is now free for him and he replies, “Can you leave me alone please, I am busy SELF-ISOLATING up here.” And I thank him for making me laugh. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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