I read something today that contained a phrase I found pleasing. It’s in a blog post by Clare Fisher, author of How the Light Gets In. The post is part of a lockdown collaboration between Influx Press, Picador Books and Burley Fisher Books that brings together short story writers and highlights their work. It’s called Short Stories for Strange Times and is billed as a series of virtual events.
But what is the phrase I enjoyed so much? In talking about the weird nothingness of lockdown, Fisher says
Maybe I go for my government approved run/walk/real life pacman, in which you are never quite sure if you’re winning or losing or what.
It’s the Real Life Pac-Man part that struck me as the perfect description of forays out into the world these days. It gave me a new way of looking at the stressful event that shopping for weekly provisions has become. It’s serious, I know, but I have to find something to laugh about.
I’ve developed a pattern of starting my working day an hour late on Thursdays so that I can run errands, get the food in for the week, avoid queues and avoid Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde as I swallow the dots on my route around the supermarket, trying to avoid those who are apparently oblivious to the whole concept of social distancing and how far 2m actually is. Thursdays at the supermarket we frequent isn’t a key worker day, so anyone can shop from 8am onwards. I usually get there around 8.45am and there is no queue to get in and, to me, it seems quiet inside. Although the tannoy announcer likes to regularly share with shoppers that the store is currently busier than usual. Is that a psychological trick to discourage people from loitering?
I was talking through DMs with a friend who lives in California about how scared she is to go to the shops. Shopping makes my husband anxious, too. Since the supermarket restricted access to one person per household, and since my husband doesn’t drive, I do the weekly shop now. It works for me because I don’t have to worry about my husband feeling anxious about going round the supermarket trying to avoid Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde while I sit in the car park feeling guilty for leaving the house without real justification. The one time it happened, when we both went to the supermarket because we hadn’t read the daily email the supermarket’s CEO had started sending to everyone with a loyalty card, the email that told us he was only allowing one person per household into his empire of stores, I sat in the car park thinking, ‘I’m sitting in a car park. Are people looking at me, sitting in my car in the car park, wondering why I’ve left the house?’ Then I noticed someone in the driver’s seat of the car next to me, and I told my brain to shut up.
I oscillate between thinking I’m pragmatic and thinking I’m stupid, but my attitude is that we need to eat, getting an online delivery slot when you need it is next to impossible, and if you’re travelling at speed past a person at less than 2m distance, it’s going to be okay. I’d only be worried if someone sneezed on me, spat at me, coughed over me or licked my face. Whether they had the virus or not.
And indeed, how do we know if someone has the virus? I might have the virus. I don’t have symptoms, but that in itself could be a symptom. You could drive yourself mad and turn yourself agoraphobic. I choose not to think about it. I take all the recommended precautions, only going out when I need to, keeping a safe distance from other people, washing my hands as soon as I get home. I don’t wear a mask since my sister – a consultant obstetrics surgeon – told me they don’t do anything. She knows this because, as a consultant obstetrics surgeon and not an A&E doctor, her PPE consists of scrubs and a paper surgical mask. She caught the virus at work and was ill for three weeks. In her opinion, a mask might stop someone with the virus spreading it to someone else, but it won’t prevent someone without the virus from catching it. That’s not to say that, if wearing a mask outdoors makes you feel better, you shouldn’t bother wearing one. There’s psychology at play, as well.
The one time I actually thought about the not knowing who has the virus or not thing was a couple of weeks ago, when the trolley I’d used wouldn’t release my pound. A man who was waiting to take a trolley gave me some assistance, manipulating the pound lock until it released. In the cross over after the pound’s release of me moving my hand towards and him moving his hand away, there was glancing contact. I suddenly thought that I didn’t know whether I had the virus or not, and I had seen as he walked up to the trolleys that he was with an elderly relative. I’ve seen the diagram. I know that, if we have it and we come into contact with other people, we can infect 2.5 people who then infect 2.5 people, and on it goes until my hand briefly touching a stranger’s hand who is doing me a favour infects the equivalent of the street I live on.
So mostly, I don’t think about it.
This extends to the news. At the start of lockdown, I read the news every day, watching the numbers tick up until they reached a point where they were hard to picture. That figure was too large for my brain to think about. And then I understood that the figure was probably under-reported and could be twice the number reported in the news. I pretty much gave up watching the news on tv during the last General Election. Now, we occasionally have it on the screen, but my thoughts lie with the reassurance that, without access to a hairstylist, most newsreaders have hair like the rest of us, too. I like the valiant efforts to tame thick, unruly hair. I like seeing male hairstyles turn into buzzcuts. I’ve yet to see a female hairstyle go the same way, though. The female hairstyles talk of freedom of expression, safe from the tyranny of straighteners, heated rollers and hairspray. Is this perhaps one of the fabled ways we will all be different when we emerge from this pandemic? Free to have hair from the 1970s again.
Emotionally, I’ve had a strange couple of weeks. Two weeks ago, I developed anxiety around the lack of separation between home and work. Every morning, I resented the act of walking over to the dining table and plugging into work. There is no buffer between Home Jan and Work Jan any more. I sit at my dining table, at the workstation I’ve built there from cookery books, my work laptop, the keyboard work bought and shipped to me to stop me popping into work to pick up the one I already have, the 11 degree wedge cushion that is meant to ease the aches and pains I get from sitting in the wrong sort of chair for 37.25 hours per week, and people I know only because I work with them invade my home through Microsoft Teams. We’re all supposed to say it’s great that we can still be connected despite working in separate spaces, but there’s nothing natural about it. It’s hard to make eye contact through a webcam. It’s hard to say anything meaningful. The day fills with platitudes and exhortations to stay safe, stay well.
Last week, my brain was in a fog. I lost most of my sense of time if there wasn’t a Teams meeting in my calendar to tell me what day it was. On one particularly bad day, I spent the whole day going through my various drives and deleting files that have been saved to my profile since I started at the museum 16.5 years ago. It was mindless and therapeutic. During my Thursday shopping trip, I was sitting vacantly on red at a set of temporary traffic lights alongside a building site that I can’t quite believe is still open and definitely don’t believe is safe for its workers in terms of this virus. A car zoomed past me. I vaguely thought the driver was a bit of a chancer, a bit of a dick. A trade van came the other way. I was aware of a horn being pipped. I realised it was being pipped at me. The man in the van wanted me to wind my window down. “There’s no point waiting,” he said. “They’re on red both sides.” I thanked him and set off. I wanted to cry. When you haven’t had a random exchange with a complete stranger for 43 days, when you’ve only spoken to the person you share living space with or colleagues over a video connection, when someone does something nice for you when they didn’t need to, it can trigger an emotional reaction, I discovered. I completed my round of Real Life Pac-Man in the supermarket that day feeling distinctly wobbly.
On Friday evening, we had a four hour virtual pub session with two of our dearest friends over Skype. It was weird at first, doing the leaning and shouting thing that seems to come with the territory of video calls, but we soon settled into normal behaviour and it was like we were on an actual night out. I enjoyed it more than I can put into words. Silliness. You can’t beat it.
This week, I’ve taken the week off work to recalibrate. No, I can’t go anywhere. But more importantly, I don’t need to go over to the dining table workstation. I am enjoying not knowing whether it’s Sunday or one of the other Sundays in the week. I am reading (Johnny Marr’s autobiography – it’s really good, about a time and a place that’s not that long ago but feels like a different lifetime). I am baking (another of our dearest friends is a baker and is running a bakeoff on Instagram where she supplies a base recipe and we pimp it with whatever we need to use up from our store cupboards). I am playing with the cat, who is in focus-of-attention heaven. I am finally watching the final series of Mad Men with my husband. On one of the Sundays this week, we’re going to pretend to go to the cinema and watch an arty film on Mubi. I’ve bought a ticket to one of the Homemakers events run by our local arts venue Home. I’ve got the draft of a children’s book written by a friend’s husband to read.
Today, I decided to put perfume on. I haven’t bothered with perfume for 49 days. It smells so lovely. I feel like a different me.