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13 May 2020

We’d never meet Harry and Jack in the park. Unless, of course, we all just happen to be there…

I expect one of the other parents to intervene, to stop the game, to tell the kids to keep a distance. But none of us has the heart.

By Alice O'Keeffe

You’re glitching, Lucas!” Seven-year-old Moe is in his bedroom shouting at the iPad, at the very top of his voice. Although I have explained to him that the device has a microphone, he prefers to converse so loudly that Lucas can probably hear him from his house, three streets away. They are on an app called Houseparty, which is how seven-year-olds hang out these days. You can video call, play quizzes and send messages. When they are not yelling about “glitching” (when the internet connection drops, freezing the screen), they are sending each other poo emojis.

I am downstairs, tidying the kitchen, again. All I seem to do is tidy the kitchen. I finish tidying it, blink, and find it needs tidying again. Somehow I don’t mind. My world has shrunk to such a degree that I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing. Just as I am finishing this round of tidying and beginning to wonder how to fill the next five minutes, my phone pings with a text from Husband: “Harry and Jack are in the park x.”

Harry and Jack are Moe’s mates from school. Mindful of the government guidelines that we are not permitted to meet with anyone from outside our household, we would never make plans to meet Harry or Jack. However, if Harry or Jack happens to be in the park, and Moe just happens to be there, too, we haven’t broken any rules, now, have we? We have all just bumped into each other, by happy coincidence.

“Moe!” I shout up the  stairs, “Harry and Jack are in the park!”

There is a thud – presumably the iPad being thrown to the floor – followed by a thundering of feet down the stairs. By the time I’ve put down my tea towel, Moe is already by the front door, putting his shoes on. When lockdown started, chatting to his mates on Houseparty was a great novelty. But although he would never admit it, even Moe has started to tire of poo emojis. His thirst for physical play intensifies with every passing day. 

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Moe flies up the road and through the park gates. His older brother Larry is already kicking a ball (from a suitable two-metre distance) to his friend Archie. Harry, Jack and Moe gravitate towards the older boys. At first it’s just passing, but then somebody sets out jumpers as goalposts, and somebody else ventures to do a little tackle, and before long a game has taken shape. Meanwhile I sit under a tree with Husband, Harry’s Dad, and Jack’s Dad. It’s such a weird feeling, sitting there together; like, almost normal. I expect one of the other parents to intervene, to stop the game, to tell the kids not to tackle, to keep a distance. But it soon becomes clear that none of us has the heart.

“This is the first time Jack has played with other kids in six weeks,” says Jack’s Dad. “Just look at him. He doesn’t even like football.”

Jack is capering about, chasing the ball this way and that. Something close to ecstasy is written all over his small face. The boys’ friend Holly rushes over wanting to join in, even though she usually hates football too. The kids tumble about getting gradually braver, running, passing, taking shots, celebrating their goals. It dawns on me that we are all beginning to imagine what it will be like to come out the other side. It has begun to feel conceivable, even if only for half an hour, that these restrictions will lift, and we will begin our long, slow crawl back to normality.

There is so much about lockdown that has surprised me. Turns out that I don’t care in the slightest about shops, or cafés, or holidays. I don’t even really care about pubs or concerts or art galleries. I can be perfectly happy living very simply, within an area of about two square miles. 

The only thing I really miss, and my kids really miss, is other people. Life without others doesn’t feel like living; it feels like waiting.

This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion