Anyone who’s seen Russell T Davies’ Years and Years can imagine how this might end. When the encroachment of horror is gradual there’s only a few creeping steps between “It’s OK, it’s very rarely fatal” and unflinching, authoritarian dystopia. Borders close and the army is deployed on to the streets. Roadblocks are erected as Londoners desperately try to do the one thing they swore they’d never do: leave London. And just when you think it’s all over, it turns out governments aren’t so keen to hand back their emergency powers, or to hold those postponed elections, or to allow citizens to assemble once more.
I don’t mind telling you that I spent most of the evening following Boris Johnson’s 16 March press conference in tears, as the enormity of the situation took hold. I cried with the futile frustration of a toddler separated from its toy for the freedom being wrested from me. For my grandmother, kept alive by her fervent will to help others, crumpled by loneliness and boredom. For the unworkable maths of 5,000 ventilators and as many as 60,000 patients in need. For the sheer claustrophobia of sleeping, eating and working in a tiny flat-share. The eventualities seized me and would not let go.
Fear often leads us to default to past behaviours. I made it through one and a half episodes of Netflix’s eerily timed Pandemic before fleeing to the cosiness of Gilmore Girls and the hammy dependability of Agatha Christie. (I have all the Geraldine McEwan and David Suchet box sets, stockpiled for such an emergency.)
I’ve been eating for comfort, too: tinned spaghetti on toast, minestrone soup, hot cross buns slathered in raspberry jam. It’s the food of Easter holidays spent listening to Narnia audiobooks in rural holiday rentals and being dragged around castles in the rain.
When I moved out of my mum’s house for the second time, aged 23, I spent the first night in my new flat doing something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager: playing The Sims. Standing, finally, on the brink of my “adult” life, I reached for the reassurance of the computer game I played incessantly as a child.
I was never one of those overlords who lured their creations into swimming pools, removed the stairs and watched them drown. I created beautiful families of beautiful people. I gave them wholesome traits: family-orientated, creative, kind. They had successful careers, happy marriages and excessive numbers of children. (Yes, my parents are divorced; read into that what you will.) They lived in houses with roll-top baths and landscaped gardens and more rooms than they could ever need. Once I tired of one perfect life, I’d simply start again, building another.
This week, as the long days and nights trapped inside merged into one alien mass, I extricated The Sims from a long-buried folder on my laptop, and latched on to it like a child sucking its thumb. (And I can’t be the only one: EA Games has dropped the price of The Sims 4 by 75 per cent on its gaming platform Origin.)
My new friends are Rosie and Jacob, a botanist and a novelist. They have a silvery British shorthair kitten called Rocco, and are expecting their first child. Viewed from the street, their house looks traditional, with wooden cladding and shuttered windows. But at the back a wall of glass, reaching up two storeys into the gable of the roof, brings a meadow of a garden into the Hay- and Eames-filled interiors.
In their world, there is no guerrilla warfare in aisle six, no long wait for a vaccine, no incessant WhatsApp messages about a friend’s boyfriend’s mum who works in the Ministry of Defence and… There isn’t even a government – and if there were it would be easily trumped by my money-creating cheats. Their existence is a fantasy, my fantasy. It is pristine and romantic: everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
There was once a quiet, sad guilt to playing The Sims: why simulate a life on screen when you can live a real one outside? But today, Rosie and Jacob’s “life” feels, in some ways, larger than mine. I try not to dwell too long on that thought; the walls are closing in again.
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor