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3 June 2020

An email from Brighton and Hove City Council. Here, schools may not reopen before September

Three more months. Three months! If it were a printed letter, I would crumple it up and lob it into the nearest bin.

By Alice O'Keeffe

An email arrives from Brighton and Hove City Council. “We understand this is a worrying time and that many of you are facing pressures at home and work since the government introduced restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” it begins. I allow myself a hollow laugh. No shit, Sherlock! The email goes on to explain that despite government advice to open schools to some year groups in June, the council’s own plans “may not fit with the expectations or timescales outlined by the government”.

In other words: don’t hold your breath for a return to school before September. Three more months. Three months! If it were a printed letter, I would crumple it up and lob it into the nearest bin. Unfortunately, the digital format doesn’t allow for even this small satisfaction. I click on “delete”, and spend a while staring at the computer desktop, an image of wide green fields. I imagine myself there, in that empty landscape. Just me, alone, in the middle of an expanse of nothing. No shouting, no fighting, no other people, no responsibility. I want to lie down in a green field and stare at the sky.

I could do it, now. The car is parked outside. I could get in, turn the key in the ignition, and go. Where would I drive? It doesn’t matter. Scotland? Skegness?

From downstairs comes the clack-clack of Nerf gun fire. Husband and I cracked under sustained pressure and allowed the boys to buy these toy guns with their pocket money, and our house is now a permanent Nerf war zone. Once, I thought I’d never let my kids play with guns. But that was in the Before Times, when I still had parenting standards. None of that matters any more. I wander listlessly through the raging battle and into the kitchen, where Husband is staring at a saucepan. He’s not cooking, just staring.

I take a moment to admire him standing there. Husband has a truly admirable stoic nature. He takes life as it comes. He very rarely gets angry, or upset, and doesn’t waste time wanting things to be other than they are. Every morning for the past ten weeks, while I have been working, he has sat down  with the boys and calmly, patiently helped them with their maths and English. He has taught them to make pancakes and scones and lasagne. He has taken them out to the park and the beach. In no small way, he has kept our little show on the road throughout this incredibly weird and confusing time. We’ve even managed to have some fun, now and again.

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But next week his furlough period ends and he will be going back to work, full time. The school he works in is opening, as it’s outside the city. I’m going to be on my own at home. All the schoolwork and childcare will be up to me. I won’t have any time to work, which is no small problem, because we rely on my income. When I think about the next three months, my chest feels tight, and I don’t think it’s corona, just stress. I’m not calm, or patient. And I treasure my working life. I have spent years building up a career that works for me, that fulfils me and supports my family. No part of me has ever wanted to be a full-time home-school mum. Heaven knows people out there are facing bigger problems, but it matters to me. I don’t want Husband to go back to work. I’m going to miss him so much.

Husband snaps out of his saucepan-admiring reverie. “What are you looking at?”

“You,” I say. I put my arms around him and lean my chin on his shoulder. He feels solid and unshakeable, like an old tree. We don’t hug each other often enough, I realise. Why don’t we do it all the time? As Nerf bullets ping off the kitchen walls, as the pandemic rages across all corners of the Earth, as councils agonise and politicians bluster, this is the one still point, one thing that makes total sense. 

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This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe