For reasons I won’t bore you with, I have been feeling a bit low lately, and spending quite a lot of time on my own. And my period of self-imposed solitude coincides with such a particular moment in time that I have of course been wondering how soon my behaviour will no longer be a matter of choice, but one of compulsion. How long will it be before we are all at home alone?
The phrase “self-isolating”, which none of us had ever used before last Tuesday, has now become a conversational cliché, and we have used up all our jokes about hand washing and hand shaking, air kissing, the singing of “Happy Birthday”, toilet rolls and Corona beer.
Anyway, while it’s still a matter of choice, I decide to focus on the concept of home as sanctuary, rather than prison, and I put self-care at the top of my To Do list. I buy myself a bunch of tulips, and then four small pots of fritillaries, which I arrange just outside the kitchen window where I can see them catching the light, and nodding their dappled heads in the breeze.
I buy a bar of dark chocolate with sea salt and settle down on the sofa to spend International Women’s Day reading Grown Ups by Marian Keyes, and hours and hours drift by in which I am lost in her brilliantly plotted family saga. I listen, over and over again, to “Lilacs” by Waxahatchee and “Never Come Back” by Caribou and “4 American Dollars” by US Girls. I watch the recent video of Harry Styles singing “Sledgehammer”, and then I watch it again. And then once more for luck. I think to myself, actually, this is more or less heaven.
In the background, the news becomes more ominous by the day. I’ve been slow to panic about Covid-19, which means I missed the moment when everyone bought all the hand sanitiser, and I accept there is now none to be had. I vaguely think about doing a stockpiling order from Ocado, then log on only to discover there are no delivery slots to be had for a week.
After a few days without really seeing anyone I find I am talking to myself as I make the coffee, and I wonder whether I am starting to feel a bit, well, isolated. I email the three friends I go walking with every Friday to ask whether by any chance – probably not as it’s such short notice – they’re free tomorrow night, which is a Monday. I phrase it lightly, of course. No pressure.
I’m braced for the replies saying they’re all busy, but to my surprise they each return quite speedily with the news that they will meet me in Soho at 7:30pm.
Halfway through our dinner, I mention how unusual it was to find that they could all make it on the same evening. “What luck!” I say. And then I see them all discreetly catch each other’s eyes across the table.
In that moment I realise what has actually happened. None of them had been totally free or had really wanted to trek into town on a wet Monday night to sit over drinks listening to a friend who would, in all likelihood, be complaining. But what they’d instinctively appreciated, perhaps even before I did myself, was that I had sent up the bat signal. Subtly, yes. Subtly enough that they could have got out of it, tactfully and gracefully. But all of them had caught some note in that email I had sent, reading between the casual lines about a casual drink and hearing a faint whisper of urgency.
I’m moved by this realisation, and reminded once again how great friends can be. One of us is a devout Barbara Pym fan, and so we jokingly call ourselves the Excellent Women, after one of her books, and tonight it feels truer than ever.
The next day I am planning to get on a train to Whitstable, heading for the health-giving, purifying sanctity of the sea air. Before I set off I rummage through a box in the airing cupboard in search of mini shampoo, and there, lurking at the bottom, is a small bottle of hand sanitiser, neglected and ignored for who knows how long, now worth its weight in gold.
I will pack it in my handbag, or perhaps wear it round my neck like an amulet, and hope for good luck.
Next week: Pippa Bailey
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning