The bars are closed. The libraries are closed. Topshop is closed. The swimming pools are closed. There are no laps up and down in the wet blue, no public showers, no public. Life now is private. We are locked in lockdown in our houses, flats, castles, hovels and hotels while outside the world is emptier, creeping along its pavements like a sick yellow mist a disease with long arms and high fever, coughing, emitting droplets. I am faced with ludicrous questions of the new danger: can I hug my mother if I ever see her again in the flesh? Is it safe for my teenage daughter to go to the newsagent to buy Pritt Stick?
The Co-op at the end of the road smells of weed. Dark daytime souls waft along the aisles gazing into the empty fridges, at a single block of the least popular cheese, or a lone tray of subpar chicken breasts. There are no eggs. There is no pasta or washing powder or tuna. There are lots of crisps, though, and parsnips. It’s an interesting opportunity to survey the foodstuffs and groceries deemed essential and dispensable in a time of emergency: we will survive on penne and passata and never ever run out of toilet roll; if we do not perish from the yellow mist we will perish instead by overdosing on crunchy peanut butter and white carbs.
The schools are closed. The offices are closed. We are one with the daytime souls with loosened schedules and loose-waisted house clothes. No one wears make-up anymore – why bother? You are only going as far as Tesco, and in Tesco your face will take on that anguished, searching, haunted look that spoils make-up anyway, you will avoid other humans by two metres, you will be concentrating on evading droplets, and may also be wearing a face mask fashioned out of one half of the top of a bikini. One day at the supermarket I find eggs. It is like finding gold. I gather them in my hands, thinking of scrambling, frying, boiling, all the different ways of eggs, and when I get home my partner falls at my feet and hugs my ankles. It is decided that we will fry, to make them go further, we can each, the four of us, have a whole egg sandwich (albeit without ketchup, another thing which is hard to find, along with honey). We have a magnificent feast, savouring the yolks.
The school and the office and the leisure centre are in the house, all of it, everything, the computers, the lunchbreaks, the dinner lady, the register, geography, maths, badminton and football practice. In a lunge for an enduring kind of sanity that can withstand maybe months of lockdown, we stick almost exactly to the education timetable. Structure is paramount. There cannot be a little boy on the stairs languishing over a Nintendo Switch on a Tuesday morning while one is trying to make literature, or a slumped and doleful teenager staring into space. There must be bed-time and GCSE Shakespeare and PE, the only difference being that we adults are the teachers and the dinner ladies, suddenly I am aware of my deep mathematical deficiency, reminded of my life-long preference for the humanities and complete disinterest in science. Aside from that, though, I am unexpectedly enjoying giving amateur lessons in art, literacy and Spanish. They are welcome breaks from making literature, which feels both all too important, necessary in this global anxiety, yet simultaneously useless.
The one thing I miss the most is solitude. Ironic, as solitude for those who are helplessly sick has become the accompaniment to death. It sits by the bedsides, barring love and goodbyes. An entire NHS volunteer army has been gathered to combat solitude, or more precisely, loneliness brought about by isolation. The solitude I am thinking of is a slightly different creature. It glints at the edges of these strange and freezing sun-struck days where public and private have merged. Up skyward there is solitude. The planes are down. The birds shout; they have all the blue to themselves. The trees are full of light and becoming those startling colours of spring – apricot, crystal mauve, hot pink. And the children on the lawns are also shouting, hurling themselves at the cold wind. Where a writer’s solitude could once last whole days until school was out, now it is an hour or two in one room, or a long walk, or a collusion with midnight, or just a colour. A different way of working is emerging, another kind of loosening, where solitude is an intermittent luxury. The family shines out from the silence, their healthy hearts, their regular breathing and their steady warmth.
Every evening at six I put on the news and watch the multiplying numbers of the dead. The white tents in Central Park. The new mass morgues of London and the people lying coughing in the corridors of overcrowded hospitals. The continuous daily tragedies of Italy, Spain, America, here. The great terror is watching the monster growing before us, around us, waiting for the peaks but the steeps still rising, further and further up. We don’t know what life looks like yet on the other side. The normality we return to will be tenuous and slowed and, for many of us, poorer. There is much to learn from this, we who watch and wait on the side-lines, shielding the young: to cherish and respect our heroes not just on Thursdays, and from the fortuity of our safety to accept less than what we think we need, solitude or otherwise.