I don’t know about you, but I’ve started deleting – without reading – the endless stream of emails about you-know-what. Unpresidented times indeed (not a typo). New York. My most frequent holiday destination. I will miss you.
My nephew simply posted the following word to his instagram.
Kids who thought the next six months were full of revising, exams, prom, the obligatory Leavers hoodie then travelling, and possibly University, are suddenly homeschooling themselves. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials; stand aside and make room for the Quarenteens, folks. And don’t even get me started on how long it took to convince the oldies in my life that they had to stay in, and they could not just “pop out” for a haircut or a newspaper for the next three months!
We’re all pretending we knew what furlough meant before a fortnight ago. We’ve stopped ironing our clothes. We eat more biscuits and some have taken up jogging. The local police use drones to monitor dog walkers who are driving to the countryside where they shouldn’t be. Our beloved pharmacy and toiletries store, Boots, had a virtual queue of 200,000 people last Sunday just waiting to be allowed onto the website. The postie now knocks on my door and leaves the parcel on the ground. I have The Guardian Live update on constant refresh and BBC1 at 5pm has become the place to be for the latest news from 10 Downing Street. I can see a school playing field from my house. The children may be gone, but a family of foxes and an eagle have taken up residence, along with a tiding of magpies, who enjoy jumping and hopping around chasing each other. I hope that grey squirrel made it.
I’m lucky. I was already working from home so have continued to do so in my slowed-down bubble of first world problems. My worries and anxieties are trivial compared to most.
I’ve been keeping a daily journal for the Museum of Ordinary People (MOOP) of my thoughts, feelings, opinions, experiences and observations during the virus. Along with the other participants, these diaries may provide an insight into the personal, social and cultural impact of the Covid-19 outbreak. Who knows what will happen in the future? Life is very different now to what it was a month ago and will never be the same again.
You know when you’re on a long journey and although you’ve done nothing but sit and eat all day, you’re utterly spent? Those times when you reluctantly allow permission to let yourself wander into those dusty, little crevices of your mind that you usually ignore or forgot you ever knew? Or when you’re in a strange place and you see memories of features or expressions of people you used to know in the faces of strangers? I hugged someone I’ve never even met before, at Chrissie’s funeral because she looked so much like her. I thought this holiday would relax me but I’m still so tightly wound and raw. I cry whenever anyone touches me. I hope it doesn’t put off the new kitten from loving me. I need a new friend.
Four hours into an overnight, trans-atlantic flight from JFK to Heathrow, it hit me. I’d worked it all out. It was so simple that it couldn’t possibly be true. The realisation almost winded me. I felt like a nervous tourist who kept patting their pocket to check that their passport and foreign currency were still there.
“Are you awake?” I whispered.
“I am now,” he replied, opening one eye. “What’s up?”
“I think the chest of drawers in the spare room is haunted.” I blurted out.
He breathed out heavily, opened both eyes and wriggled in his seat. “Is there any of that pepsi left?”
“Yeah, it’ll be a bit flat though.” I said, reaching into the seat back pocket. He yawned, scratched his head, gulped some of the sweet black liquid then said,
“go on, then. You’ve woken me up now, so you have to tell me.”
“Ok, right, so the people who lived in Mum and Dad’s house before them were Russian. She was called Joan but her real name was Zia. Josef was actually called Yosef and their son Alex was actually Xander. They all died in that house. The chest of drawers in the spare room was already there when Mum and Dad moved in. Remember when my uncle Alan came to stay last year and he had a heart attack in that very room? Then our cat died. Babs napped on that window seat all the time in winter because of the sun, and Chrissie had slept in that bed loads of times but nothing bad happened until after Alan died. X, Y, Z, A, B, C. Don’t you see?”
He makes a snorting noise like he’s read something funny and shakes his head, smiling. “Aw babe. C’mere.”
I don’t need to say any more. He gets me. He puts his arm around me and I breathe him in as I sob on his chest.
“I think you’re just tired babe. Honestly, furniture can’t be evil. I know it looks like it makes sense right now but it’s just a coincidence. Cool story though. But really, babe, it sounds like you need to get some sleep.”
He was probably right. I was exhausted. I desperately needed answers but the Drs couldn’t give me any, so my mind was creating them out of nothing.
A few hours later, whilst I was in the queue at Passport Control, I switched my phone on for the first time since yesterday morning. I had a few notifications about roaming charges, a couple of texts from Mum and a picture of our neighbour’s newborns.
“Saw Danny and Georgie’s twins, Freddie and Ella. They’re absolutely gorgeous! I’m already knitting! Mum xx”
“Spare room finally finished! Dad took that chest of drawers round next door for the twins’ room. How come babies are so small but they need so much stuff? Mum xx”
Watching people lift (apparently identical) black suitcases off the conveyor belt, my phone pinged with a new text alert. Mum again.
“Blue light ambulance and police car next door. Don’t know what’s going on. Hope those kiddies are ok. Text me when you land Mum xx.”
The truth is that ordinary folk in the States don’t live in the perpetual autumnal town of ‘Stars Hollow’, nor is the opening shot of a fabulous Brownstone apartment in ‘You’ve Got Mail’ a realistic home for many. The closest us Brits get to wood panelled rooms and the servants quarters of ‘Downton Abbey’ is on a family day trip, visiting a National Trust property.
None of the characters on British soap operas could afford to buy the houses on the wages of the fictitious jobs they do. Even the ‘Friends’ characters wouldn’t have been able to rent their apartments back then, let alone now. Bridget Jones could only dream of her grubby, tiny Zone 1 flat as a single woman on an average salary. What would be the point? She’d never be able to socialise. No money.
When time was measured by pencil lines on the door frame, and the term ‘staycation’ hadn’t even been invented, DIY happened twice a year in our house. Spring cleaning meant that every Easter, the four days that the adults in the house had off work, were spent washing net curtains and sofa covers, dragging duvets to the launderette, pulling furniture out and hoovering with the nozzle on the brighter patch of compressed carpet behind the wardrobes or damp dusting of skirting boards with old vests cut up into cleaning rags. Every year my mother would comment on how many spiders must have lived behind her bedside table and if she’d known, she’d never have been able to sleep.
There was a wall-mounted telephone in the hall, which sadly lacked the extra-long cable you see in TV programmes. An old dining chair lived permanently underneath, which was more useful these days as a prop to rest alternate feet whilst tying shoelaces, than as a seat for long conversations. On it was a mint green floral cushion featuring a slightly cross-eyed appliquéd owl that I made in primary school. Another one of my creative endeavours survives in that hall to this day. I sprayed an ornate picture frame gold, then hot glue-gunned some circular slivers of wine corks from my brother’s wedding over the painting. I thought my notice boards were a winner and planned to sell them at a craft fair, but never got around to it. There’s probably a etsy shop now selling similar somewhere in rural America. For over twenty years, that corkboard has remained the hub of both equally vital and useless information for the house. A Snoopy pen with a neck ribbon hanging from a hook. Postcards from pre-Obama holidays in Miami and Florida, the Dr’s phone number and opening times, a yellowing newspaper clipping of one of the grandchildren in a local play, a dry-cleaning stub, a tiny pink scrap of paper congratulating you on winning £25 on the lottery, a torn-off piece of cardboard from a lightbulb box as a reminder to buy some more, a half-used book of first-class stamps, taxi business cards and a list of household jobs that need doing. Defrost the freezer. Clean the oven. Wash glass light fittings. Move bed. Sort bathroom cabinet. Sharpen knives. Declutter.
Declutter. It had to be done. Basically, for us kids, it involved spending a whole day pulling everything we owned out of our wardrobes and putting most of it back in again, but tidily. That or helping with some proper elbow-grease scrubbing downstairs. Windows open, music blasting, dusting. Dragging furniture round to change the feng shui of my bedroom. I never had Molly Ringwald’s room or any brat pack teen movie bedroom for that matter, and I always had this nagging feeling that there was someone out there who would judge my record collection and deem me unworthy. I got to use the fancy, scented drawer liners that mum got me for Christmas, and spent the evening looking through her catalogues, writing up a list of clothes I thought I needed for the summer. By Saturday afternoon, there were libary books to be returned, magazines to donate, black sacks for the tip, or the charity shop, and clothes to be mended. Everything back in its right place.
Easter Sunday obviously meant chocolate for breakfast. Hopefully, we would all get an egg in a mug which would become our new favourite. Other times, it was a smaller egg in a pretty eggcup, plus the promise of a day out at the zoo or theme park. My brother always hoped for a real ostrich egg but they cost £10 each, which seemed a bit steep. We were reminded that “an egg was a whole day’s work for a bird” and anyway, there weren’t enough of us to eat an ostrich egg, so it would go to waste.
Before lunch, I’d set the table with the fancy cutlery, that was usually kept in a shiny, heavily laquered wooden box, lined with red velvet, and, if we were having visitors, make name place settings using pinking shears, thick cardboard and felt tips. I liked to be quiet and still so I could see the motes hanging in the air in that cool dining room. Once we were all as small as those insignificant specks of human skin dust. I’d change the antimacassars from the armchairs to the Irish linen embroidered ones, polish the cut crystal glasses, and try to find the youngest mint leaves that had taken over the vegetable patch to mix with some malt vinegar. Roast leg of lamb for lunch. Being a teenage vegetarian meant I had the same meal as the rest of the family minus the meat, but I made myself some extra thick Bisto gravy, and possibly some bread sauce.
I hadn’t been a veggie very long, not even a year, so I was still experimenting with food. My mother said that if I got anaemic then I’d have to eat liver or beef once a week whether I wanted to or not, because I was still growing. When I became an adult, I could eat what I liked, so I decided very quickly that cavalo nero was going to be my favourite vegetable. I made my own humous, with chick peas from cans and tahini from the local health food shop. My worst purchase there was fennel toothpaste, but their falafal mix was quite good for my amateur palate. I invented something with red lentils, marmite and cheese, and begged my mother to fill the freezer with spinach and ricotta lasagnes.
It was a strange experience that made me turn vegetarian. The previous August bank holiday weekend, I was given the job of repainting my bedroom window frames. A butterfly got stuck on the paint and there was nothing I could do to help it. I watched it hopelessly struggle for ages after it tore a wing, before it finally gave up. I felt guilty for not helping, but relieved that it was a cabbage white with a tiny wing dot in the shape of a black heart, and not the rarer, more dazzling, common blue. Did insects have feelings? Was my overreaction empathy? A few days later, the butterfly had gone. It had been wiped away. Where its leg and wing had been trapped, there were two tiny marks. I’d sometimes gaze out of the window, thinking about what my future would be like, and run my finger over them. The smallest reminder of a brief life lived.