As a parent there is nothing I fear more than being stuck indoors, walls closing around me

There’s only one thing I want to do, and that is to be outside.

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Week one, Monday. (Although as one of the kids points out: “it doesn’t really matter any more, they’re all just days”.) The internet is overflowing with activities. I have spent the weekend scrolling through online art classes, sing-a-longs, free gigs from international pop stars, famous actors reading stories. 

I don’t want to do any of them. It is all so well-meaning but feels unseemly, somehow, like going for someone’s job before their funeral. I’m not ready to start pretending I know what to do next. Other parents keep posting colour-coded timetables. I swear to myself that whatever we do for the coming months is not going to involve colour coding; I don’t want our home to become an institution. 

There’s only one thing I want to do, and that is to be outside. Perhaps it’s the looming threat of actual, house-bound lockdown (which is, in fact, announced later that evening), but I need to feel free. As a parent there is nothing I fear more than being stuck indoors, walls closing in around me. That’s how I felt when Moe was tiny and Larry was a toddler and we still lived in London, when the clouds gathered in my brain, blocking out every chink of light.  The thought of going back to that dark, shut-in place scares me more than anything, so right now I need air and space and green.

There is a spot just a short drive up the road where I  know nobody will be. My sons and I pile into the van, and pile out in a wide empty field bordered by woodland. This is a special place we come to at weekends sometimes, to make fires and dens. We always feel good here, and it’s particularly glorious today. The woods are carpeted with delicate white anemones, and the trees are still bare but with that tantalising hint of green, leaf-buds about to burst. It’s clear and sunny, with a biting chill in the shade.

The boys set up the stumps for their everlasting cricket match, and I lie on my back and look up at the sky. I’m nursing a hollow feeling, the aftermath of wave after wave of loss hitting me last night. There seemed to be no end to the no-mores: no cuppas with friends; no time to work; no holidays, no day trips; no hugs with Mum, or visits to my sister, my nephew and niece. It’s unimaginable, but  I don’t have to imagine: it’s here. This is it, now. We are on our own. I think about Mum, who is self-isolating in her flat just a few miles away. I have been trying to be supportive, but it’s not easy. She has been taking her stress out on me, and I currently can’t bear that extra weight. My kids’ worlds have fallen apart overnight, and they need all my energy.

But the blue spring sky is big enough to absorb all this, and more. I can feel it holding me, holding all of us. We are so incredibly lucky. We are healthy, at least for now. We have a place to live. Husband and I both still have some income. We are all four together, and all we have to do now is take care of each other, one day, one minute, one second at a time.

The boys and I collect wood. We make a special, solemn fire, carefully sawing the sticks and stacking them in layers. I give them both pieces of paper and suggest that they write down a few of the things they are going to miss, some people they want to send love to, and any ideas they have for how they’d like to spend this special, different time. We light the fire and watch the flames spread.

Larry reads out his papers: “I’m going to miss Belgian chips. And my friends. And Granny. I’m looking forward to maxing and relaxing.”

Moe is going to miss Granny, too. He’s going to miss his school friends, and he wants to spend more time playing games on the internet (that is one wish I’m pretty certain will come true).

We put our papers into the fire, and watch them shrivel to ash and fly up in smoke. That’s how solid our precious plans were anyway, even if we told ourselves otherwise. The flames take it all, and by the time they die down, I’m ready for tomorrow. l

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.

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

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