Saturday night and Sunday morning: fear and self-loathing in the time of Coronavirus

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.

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The Majestic Mantel: ahead of the social-distancing curve

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.).

Forty-one and fighting.

I wrote this exercise for my Write Club group a couple of weeks ago. I call it I am born and it’s simpler than a two times table or the sky in a child’s painting or… other random things that are also quite simple. (My brain doesn’t seem to be working today: I blame the election.)

It has to be written in present tense (or else I’ll come round personally and tell you off) and each ‘chunk’ of your life is addressed in a single sentence: you’re aiming to capture a snapshot from that part of your life.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.

I am born and my hair is black. 

I am four and I look fat in photographs.

I am twelve and I still believe in God. 

I am fourteen and nothing has really gone wrong yet.

I am sixteen and miserable now, heaven knows.

I am eighteen and aching to leave.

I am twenty four and I don’t know yet that I’m pregnant.

I am twenty five and feeding fifteen times a night.

I am twenty nine and serious about writing.

I am thirty-one and sad about my skin.

I am thirty-five and can see the hill in the distance.

When I read this to the group in class I opted to maintain an air of mystery, amidst the crows’ feet, by stopping at thirty-five. But life didn’t stop at thirty-five, I’m glad to say (although, back then, I did feel it might be winding down, like that hideous bit when the lights come on at the end of a party and everyone blinks).

In another life I’m fairly sure I was a tortoise (slow and thoughtful; fond of lettuce), and hence, you see, I’ve decided I was just in hibernation. Under the straw in somebody’s shed. Tucked away in my shell.

But it’s Spring now. On my street, as I write this, lawns are being mowed. There are wildflowers in the grass strip between lanes on the way to the Sweet Briar Roundabout and, in between watching idiot drivers weave from one lane to another, without so much of a blink of their lights, I can turn my face a fraction of an inch and see those flowers. They make me smile. Am I silly for smiling at flowers? You might think so. I don’t.

There is always more life to be led. Well, not always, of course. I haven’t yet become immortal. We lost both our tortoises one awful Spring when my mum left them too long in the shed and if sheds are a metaphor for death (which, apparently, they now are) there’s a shed waiting for all of us, eventually. Which is why it’s important to do things now while you’re alive. Not tortoise-y things, bless them, because four hours with your face in a water trough isn’t something I’d particularly sanction (and neither is humping your good lady companion whilst she’s chomping lettuce; there’s a time and place for these things, as I used to think, in my childhood years, glancing out of the bedroom window to see poor Flash in the process of being molested by Speedy) but you can certainly come out of your shell (see what I did there) and get involved with your community, your country, your world a wee bit more.

And so I’m campaigning. Not like a tortoise; more like a yappy dog (that a fair few people would probably kick in the face, if they could). I’m campaigning because it’s wrong not to, if things are happening that you’re not very happy about, and you have a voice (I think I do).

Since I started campaigning I’ve been lucky enough to sit on a panel for the People’s Question Time with Natalie Bennett and Rufus Hound, where I shared my experience of depression (among other things) and finally got to say a public thank you to the nurses who played such a big part in keeping me alive last year.

Photos courtesy of John Ranson and Ann Nicholls.

But the fight continues. We have a Tory government, and our Tory government is hell bent on privatising every last inch of our country. They’re hell bent on privatising my daughter’s school, and if that’s something you, too, feel strongly against, then join our campaign here on Facebook.

And so, as this post ends, we come to the end of my timeline (so far):

I am forty-one and fighting.

Long may it continue.