2020 Vision, 19 April, 22:08
Updated: May 5, 2020
A generosity of time: this was the promise of lockdown. We would be confined, our diaries set free. News organisations urged us to develop new skills and burnish old hobbies. The Today programme hailed a literary flowering as authors, liberated from worldly demands, germinated Great Works in the rich compost of love, death and corona. And in the beginning, writers did write—social media posts about the writing they planned. Soon those shimmering horizons of empty time proved a mirage. Lockdown is a sadistic gameshow, its top prize a toilet roll. Errands that once required little forethought now demand exhaustive planning. Clumsy in our improvised layers, we hunter-gather basic supplies, then hurry home to decontaminate lest the monster creep with us through the front door. Virtual transactions are at least as protracted. Last week it took me the best part of three days to transfer the account for an essential utility from Andy’s name into mine. The company’s bereavement line had given up the ghost, the queue for its telephone helpdesk stretched to infinity. Calls disconnected after waits of an hour or more. I logged into the website. “How can I help you today, Andrew?” “I’m Andrew’s widow. Andrew is dead.” “Oh dear, Andrew, that doesn’t sound good.” After a few similar exchanges, I type a final sentence, something between a protest and a howl, and close the computer. Yesterday’s mail brings an apology from the company: “Following your recent complaint, we have been trying to get in touch to discuss and hopefully resolve your concerns.” The letter is addressed to Andy. I’m living a version of a Jewish joke: oy, what a bad time—and so little of it. Would I be enjoying a creative renaissance if time were not, like toilet rolls, in such scant supply? At the start of lockdown, my friend Jo messaged me: “Tell me you ARE writing a book about these weirdest of grief-blurred days...” It so happens that I am 13 months into a novel, 50,000 words written, more than a few of them in the intended order. Yet since Andy died, I haven’t re-read the manuscript much less attempting to pick up where I left off. This is—or was—speculative fiction. Early chapters play out in a post-pandemic future. Worse yet, though the book explores time travel, I always knew its real focus to be Andy. So many losses there have been, so many lovely dead, and I foresaw the biggest. Andy may not have known he was dying—his doctors assured him he was managing his sarcoidosis—but I sensed his mortality in my bones. Braced for the past few years against the worst, now that the worst has happened, I find myself still braced, a rod in my spine, upright, coping. More than coping. I’m doing OK, so please, please stop asking. Talk to me about Andy, talk about how you feel, how much you miss him, invite me to join you in quizzes and silliness and social zooms, but don’t prompt me to look inward. In lockdown, alone with loss, I am doing my level best to keep emotions on lockdown too. Of course, they sometimes break through. Last night I dreamt that I smuggled Andy into a hotel in a suitcase. The case felt too light, so I opened the catches and found him suffocating. Writing, for me, is to open that case, and like Bluebeard’s wife, I can’t always stop myself. One pre-dawn, two days after Andy died, I got up and wrote, without pause or revision, the eulogy I would deliver at his memorial. More recently, the first of these blogs, about his death, dictated itself to me. Ahead of Mother’s Day, I felt compelled to write about my mother, at 86 treated by policymakers as unproductive and therefore, in the age of triage, disposable. This toxic narrative is reaching its conclusion in care homes where spiralling fatalities from Covid 19 appeared, for a good while, too inconsequential to merit recording in official statistics. This week, I will make time to work on a contribution for Dear NHS, a book conceived to fundraise for the NHS and as a love letter to it. I am resolved to keep blogging too, not to gaze inwards but to observe and analyse. The weirdest of grief-blurred days hold lessons about what matters and what doesn’t, what has value and what has none. The records we keep, the stories we tell, the accounting we demand of authorities—these will be vital if we are to preserve and act on these lessons. The countervailing human impulse will be to rush for whatever feels like normalcy. After the virus, amid the debris, other contagions will flourish: the urge to forget, the impulse to believe comforting lies, to embrace easy solutions that are really nothing of the kind. We have no time. We also have no time to waste.