It’s Saturday night in the strange new quasi-quarantined world we now live in, and everything is similar and yet, eerily, different.
I’ve propped my phone against the tin of cat biscuits in the kitchen to watch a Hilary Mantel documentary while making dinner, and Hilary speaks from a virus-free idyll (earlier this year) that feels as long ago as Tudor England. I scrub up as if I’m performing surgery, not brushing the muck off a carrot. The brushing of muck must be thorough but simultaneously gentle enough not to inadvertently spritz my eyes with invisible virus. I wash my hands before slicing the carrots. I take the wet fish out of its paper and bundle it into the oven and wash my hands again. I feel a sneeze coming and sneeze on my elbow, as per NHS instructions, then pivot immediately back to the sink for another bout of hand hygiene. I’ll have no skin left at this rate.
I listen to a bit of Hilary. I pour a sherry. After dark my partner and I put coats on and wander lonely as clouds in nearby woodland, where the only life we see is feathered or four-legged. (Our tally so far: 2 otters, 1 baby owl, 2 ducks, 5 muntjac.) We come home and wash our hands again and turn Netflix on.
The whole evening is such a peculiar intertwining of normal and mental I can’t make sense of it.
In the early hours I burst awake from an equally normal-slash-mental nightmare in which I’ve been wantonly bumping into people on a sunlit street. It takes me about an hour to slow my heart. Lying awake in a panic I impulse-download the Calm app. It instantly crashes. I cannot – no matter what – turn off Matthew McConaughey recounting a dreamy story about the mysteries of the universe. In desperation, I roll out of bed to make hot milk, skinning my hands again under the tap before touching the cup or the cupboard, full of new resolve not to visit my mum after all (not even to drop off her Mother’s Day card on her doorstep then run to the car for cover, as if we’re bombs or fireworks or radioactive waste) because she has all the bells and whistles (over 70, compromised immune system) and because each small act of ordinary existence now comes with a side-order of fear and self-loathing (have I just killed the postman by touching the gate with an unwashed thumb? Will a pensioner starve because I bought that tin of tomatoes?). It is very difficult to constantly be responsible for other people’s safety, particularly so when the germ-spreading mechanism is your own, unruly, body – and even more so when that body is often, recently, ill with a merry-go-round array of symptoms, some of which bear passing resemblance to the tripartite* parcel of Cough-Fever-Shortness of Breath that we all know by heart now.
I ought to be used to it, really. I’ve practised my whole life for this. About 95% of my daily actions are escorted by a clang of panic – will we all crash and die if I don’t pump my car tyres? What if that person I was rude to commits suicide? Will the building explode if I’ve left the heater on at work? – but, nine times out of ten, there’s a Normal Human on hand to point out that I’m just being paranoid. I’m catastrophising, as therapists say. Buildings rarely explode. There are multiple and complex reasons for suicide. You have perfectly buoyant tyres.
But, overnight, all the Normal Humans have joined me on Team Catastrophe. Maybe you have killed the postman, they say – and half the people on his route as well.
It’s now Wednesday, a warm afternoon in the city and, since starting this post, social distancing has been stepped up across England – things already feel different (by which I mean worse) than they did last weekend. Habitually, in the kitchen, I switch on the radio and the first words are ‘face masks’. I step on the television remote by mistake and see coffins in Italy, rows of them.
I think I had other paragraphs planned, but I’ve simply run out of words for now.
Stay safe, everyone.
* To the three main symptoms we should all be adding sudden loss of sense of smell, which I found out a few days ago is a (worryingly) common symptom (considering that so few of us know about it.).