At first, I stupidly thought I was prepared for all this. I knew from day one the world had changed. Forever. When the government announcement came on 23 March, my family unit had already locked down.
We are self-contained, I thought. We don’t need other people at all. We have enough. We are enough.
I said these things at the beginning and I meant them, then. But now my shoulders are up around my ears, I sleep too much or not at all, and the low-level whirrings of my mind distract me from doing anything much. It’s got worse. Oh hello cortisol, my old friend. You make me ever-ready for flight or fight, you stop me being able to read a novel, you jumpstart time. Is it VE Day or Good Friday? No idea. This level of stress is a full-time job, and all I know is that Thursdays are terrible. Thursdays are the bad days. And that’s before you even get to the fucking clapping.
Did you know physical jerks help? Exercise all the time? And loving-kindness meditations? There are apps! There is sourdough! And gardening, and painting, and gratitude diaries, and looking at trees!
Thanks all – but I have decided precisely what will help me. Quaaludes, circa 1979. So unless you can give me that, go away.
Mortality on the mind
Writing a diary reminds me of detention. Sadistic teachers used to give me lines; kinder ones would say, “Write ten pages about the inside of a ping-pong ball.” Ah, the infinite white space, the empty little world… I could fill ten pages with nothing soon enough – a skill that has seen me through much.
Back then, thinking about nothing was imaginative. Now it means thinking about death – and hoping that it might be nothing. The answer to this, say concerned friends and every single sodding newspaper supplement, is to be hobbytastic. It’s knitting or death.
One day I wake up quite springy and find some sort of purpose. I talk to my daughters, two of whom are in lockdown with their respective in-laws. Both daughters live in small flats with small children, which is no fun at all – but the in-laws have gardens.
We are all well. My youngest is still with me. She’s remarkable, really. It’s her gap year, the time when one can usually work and travel. Now she is reading a lot of political theory and watching a lot of films and occasionally asking me things like, “What exactly is surplus value?” or, “Why have you never told me about the Jonestown massacre?” or, “Mum, what is a garden centre?”
It matters less to me that my life is on hold than that hers is. We fight, as I think she should leave the house more (vitamin D and all that). Then when she does, and I wonder if she has had a nice walk, she tells me she has “nothing but utter contempt for humanity”. I shall leave her to her TikToks.
A lovely quarantine
Dave, my partner in crime, drinks a bottle-or-so of wine and emails me late at night saying that we should get flights to South Korea. “I don’t care about the virus,” Dave says. Okey dokey. I ask Dave if we once had a layover in Seoul. We think we did. I duly check flights. It seems we will be quarantined when we get there – so I tell Dave that maybe we could go for a couple of weeks’ quarantine. It’s about 3am; Dave thinks this is a good idea and I agree.
Not travelling really gets to me. It reminds me of the time I did a fear of flying course and took off from Stansted on a flight headed to Stansted. We just flew around while all the phobics sobbed and cried on the plane. Some had already bolted at security. Cognitive behavioural therapy has its limits.
At the time, flying from Stansted to Stansted simply amused me. Now I realise that going nowhere is much more exhausting than going somewhere.
Faces in the crowd
Music consoles me. Especially Neil Young’s “On the Beach”: “I need a crowd of people/ But I can’t face them day to day.” What I miss right now is being alone with others, in a cinema or at a gig. I miss the presence of possibility, the anonymous pleasure of strangers together. That’s what “going outside” really means.
What connected us, even momentarily, is now a vector for virus, and my psyche will not accept this quite yet. It pines, it agitates, it won’t stop. Even in dreams I am continually trying to make contact or impart information to those I can’t reach.
Far from normal
My eldest tells us about the in-laws getting tested in Willesden. Her boyfriend’s dad is a doctor, so understandably “did not want to be swabbed by a soldier” and did it himself.
“A soldier?” asks my youngest – and the sheer weirdness of the dystopian drive-through is shown to us in pictures.
The test results were unclear, so they then had to go to Lee Valley, where it was all done more effectively at Boots. “So it’s the army or Boots?” my youngest says, in utter disbelief. Yes, I say, as though this is all normal.
“I’m shook,” she says. “So shook.”
Pause for applause
My ambivalence about the clapping as a compulsory performance increases when a friend tells me that when she was out for a walk with her husband at 8pm, a man hooted at them and shouted, “Don’t you care about the NHS?” But then the highlight of my week comes when, after another bout of awful screaming in the flats opposite, I see the police cuff a man and take him away. Finally. This violent turd who terrorises women is arrested. He is up in the faces of the police officers. They are brave in more ways than one.
Maybe I shall find myself clapping for the police in this mixed up, crazy, broken-down old world? How totally unprepared we all are when it comes down to it.
This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion