You know how it is with neighbours – you say hello to people for years without really knowing who they are or where precisely they live. So it is with Sheila, whom I had been amicably greeting for say, twenty years, and who kindly stopped and introduced herself one day after I had retired. Now, when I see her, I say ‘Hello, Sheila’.
But one day recently, I was leaving my house to get my paper, mask and hand sanitiser at the ready for the 100 yard walk to the shop, and there was Sheila at my gate, slowly wending her own way up Morton Street.
She is a very cheerful person, someone blessed with one of these faces that is constantly smiling – well, a blessing for us, if not always for her.
‘How are you?’ she said.
‘Well…I’m all right….I suppose…’ I replied.
‘I think it’s time we stopped pretending,’ she continued, smiling, ‘this is just crap now.’
And that just about sums it up. I shouldn’t really complain: I have money; I don’t have to help run a school or teach online; I have no dependents, neither elderly and vulnerable, nor younger and squalling at my feet; Mr F cooks excellent food; there is plenty of booze; streaming has endless possibilities, even if ‘It’s A Sin’ makes me yearn for my decadent youth; my friends come for socially distanced walks or patiently wait on FaceTime for my open mouth to unfreeze. Of course I miss eating out, the cinema, art galleries and travelling (imagine going abroad – it seems almost impossible now) but really and truly I shouldn’t complain.
But hey, Sheila is right. Lockdown, this time, is just crap. The first time was a novelty, and there was sun and garden and a sense of social duty. We were all clapping for the NHS as the bells of St Phillips rang away. But now it’s dreary winter, the garden is dead and I’m not so sure that ‘social duty’ is much in favour; it’s a funny world where the best thing you have to look forward to is a sharp scratch….
So I apologise straight away for what follows, because I’m basically quite a happy chap but I feel the need for a bit of a moan. For example, I would like The Guardian, just once, to have an article about people who have died from something other than Covid. I know, of course, that it’s part of a strategy to keep up aware of the dangers of the pandemic, but it would be nice, really, just once to spare a thought for people who have lost relatives to other diseases, or in accidents, or just anything really.
Among the people I talk to, who vary in age from about 16 to about 85 (you know who you are) there seems to be a consensus emerging that this stage of lockdown is having three effects. The first is that more or less everybody is incrementally becoming a wee bit flatter…sadder…a teeny weeny bit depressed. Me myself I feel like something that has been washed without the benefit of fabric conditioner. The days meld into one another, January having had what…58 days so far and the distance to Easter seemingly increasing rather than reducing every day. I watch the ladies every day going to swim in the sea at Portobello and admire their cheerful resilience as they shriek in the grey waves, but I do not want to do that, or take part in a Zoom disco, or attend an online lecture. I want to go to the cinema with Dr Scott or fly to Japan.
Secondly, inevitably, there is tetchiness, a chronic awareness of little things and their capacity to irritate. I have been lucky because this has not resulted in my wanting to kill my partner, not even for a moment. For him, I cannot speak. But I annoy myself (‘well’ say others, ‘that’s been a long time coming’.) I feel OLD. I feel I am living the life I expected to live when I was 85, should I live that long, an existence where a walk to get a loaf is an excitement. In Twelve Triangles the other day, bravely getting my baguette and rejecting the charms of the Rhubarb Cheesecake Cruffin, I found myself talking to the posh masked girl there in the way ancient people do. I sensed her feeling sorry for me, though I should say she was not sufficiently sorry to press said Cruffin upon me gratis. I lose things then take some pleasure in looking for them, even if they don’t actually matter. And it is an odd time when the greatest pleasure of a day comes from bleeding a radiator.
Many of us are, I fear, becoming lazy. The low threshold of what is something to do continues to fall yet lower. I save up cleaning tasks; I do not allow myself to think about doing anything at all in the garden because that unconfined pleasure must be stored up for Spring. I want to have people to dinner again but my goodness, what a task that seems to be now. Imagine actually packing to go away: what an effort! I worry that we will not shake this apathy when, all sharp scratched, we emerge blinking into the sunshine of a relatively normal life. The papers are full of articles which on the one hand describe the horrible effects of this on our young people and on the other wonder, innocently, whether there are lessons to be learned about life from lockdown, this dreary period of reflection – maybe we will value family more; maybe we will welcome a simpler existence. Speaking for me, I just want my old life back; I want to get on the bus and go for lunch and hug the person I’m lunching with as we talk about where we’re going next – and I don’t mean for a walk along the prom…..