Colours of COVID: Quarantine Season
By Dr Alicia J Rouverol
COVID-19 – pre-isolation:
I am in the parking lot of Tesco. I text my 70-year-old neighbour: ‘Need anything from the store? I am out and about’ (I do not know if this is a good or a bad thing). The tone is casual, as if it is not problematic. At the moment I think it is problematic. I cannot ‘see’ a problem: the sun is above me, the cars stacked close to the front door. The sign above it is missing a ‘T’, reading ‘ESCO’. Something is lopped off. My neighbour responds: ‘We’re fine darlin’, we’ve everything we need’. Nature just throws up things like this every now and again. I look around at the few trees bordering the lot with buds that have not yet broken open. But is this nature? I think. Whatever is coming at us is something I can’t see.
Day 1: Isolation
We wake to go nowhere. I open the blinds and outside my window the crocuses have begun to sprout. The day is stunningly bright. My eldest has begun an audio diary in which she reports what her day has entailed: Skype with friends to examine Chemistry problems (as if they matter?), and exercise to stay fit (Tom Daley’s routine). It is a day to her, it is ordinary and plain and doesn’t bite back. I cruise the back garden which takes precisely three minutes; the walls offer peeling paint and a vine that barely covers it. I think about summertime projects: stripping and painting the brick as my neighbour has advised. Summer is decades from now, another season—another planet. I stare up at the sky. There is not a plane in the sky. There is nothing in the sky but blue; a blue that goes on and on and on.
Day 2: Isolatio
We have forgotten, already, our previous life. That was a life that someone else lived. She bussed to uni or drove, if the weather was wretched or if she simply felt like it. Those days were filled with driving and driving, one child here, the other there. Hours at a keyboard on campus, staring at the flat rooftop that gathered rain. Was it really ‘better’? I think now it was just a different measure of my days. My days are measured now by my daughters’ footsteps on the stairs. We are always up and down the stairs, as if it might take us somewhere.
Day 3: Isolati
So we have now begun to order our lives: mealtimes are more or less regular. The cat is still fed, I envy her certainty in this. I would be grateful if someone else were providing the meal plan; in the absence of this, I assess the contents of our fridge and pantry. These are items now in the ‘play’ of our lives; certain items will perish (a word we prefer not to reflect on). I treat these with a new understanding. Food and staples and paper goods are now the meat of our world. I mentally count the days. I count portions. I stare at the lone banana. It is collecting small spots, daily. I stare at it, as it lies curled in the bowl, and think, it will be the last one for many days. My youngest, from the staircase, asks when I will next go shopping.
Day 4: Isolat
The thunder on the stairs becomes louder; my eldest pronounces she ‘hates’ this. The early wake-up’s and Tom Daley work-outs have vanished. Instead, the curl of her brown locks is pressed to her cheek: she stays in bed later, phone pinned in front of her face like a gate that opens and shuts for me. She was to go to uni in six months’ time, she was to have a life. Now there is breakfast that ‘I’ll just fix it myself!’, or ‘I can’t stand this.’ I tell her it is okay to be losing her mind. What else should I say? I mean: who isn’t?
Day 5: Isola
It is Friday. Is it Friday? I change the calendar on my dresser, the bronze one my brother set aside for me after my grandmother died. It marks our days. One day, two days; one year, two years. Twenty now? Or was it 30? She spoke into a recording device and told me of the Spanish flu. I think of her words now, It was terrible. She shook her head, thin lips gone thinner. My brother-in-law texts me, tells me of his mother’s stories of her mother: the bodies were thrown out into the street. I wonder if it is helpful to think of this. Outside the sunshine breaks into sunlight, it breaks into our garden, but nothing opens. Except my crocuses. We walk in the park, my eldest and I—she has agreed to the day. This day.
Day 6: Isol
I work each day, hour after hour, at my desk, the thin frame of wood beneath a laptop powered by things I cannot see but are there. The words fly out of my outbox to someone’s inbox as if they matter. There are words and words and words. As if they matter. What matters is that there are no cars moving. When we take ‘the daily walk allowed’ (will we be punished for a second, a third?), we watch the people moving. Twos and threes? Only a few threes. These are not allowed. The young girls and the boy in the park, tripping over the dog leash, laughing. I want to be them. It isn’t their youth or the tripping, though. Do they know? What do they know? I speak to my eldest as if she will leave in September. I speak to her about things I believe matter.
Day 7: Iso
Not clear on the day, really. There is brick held together by mortar, I realise, in the building across the road. The sun shines on this brick as if it will shine the next day, the day after. The fresh milk is gone; I say to her, ‘we will have to use either the long-life or I can go out and get fresh’. I say this as if there is an obvious answer. I turn on the lamp downstairs, though it is just afternoon. It will give some kind of light. The light will give me the obvious answer. Was it the virus she had? We speculate, whilst we eat our lunch, which we have all worked on, the small army in my home. We are fighting something. Mostly we try not to fight each other. I tell them about Lord of the Flies. Then I realise I have never read it. It is in my mind on the shelf of books across my room, housing the books I may never read.
Day 8: Is
The NHS calls offering a phone appointment in lieu of my youngest’s dermatology visit. I explain this is not needed, we do not want to cause a problem. She has waited for a specialist appointment for two years. We had stop counting the days. (They were only days, right?) We don’t have to take the appointment, I say – I mean, you have more serious needs? Her voice is dead on the other end of the phone, dead-pan, it is mostly solid like the wood of my table: ‘Well, we have it in the books now’. These are her books, she fills them with appointments, daily. But does it matter? It’s just my daughter’s skin. Perfect as it is: it is alive.
Day 9: I
I spend the afternoon marking essays, one student uses a verb excellently and I find I am thrilled. This is crucial: it is a feeling, it is not dead-pan or dead. Outside the crocuses have broken into purple. The sun is so bright we squint into it. My eldest has made gnocchi, pronounces herself a chef; my youngest, in tears, frets about biology revision that must be done by 4pm, for an exam she will no longer be taking! I wonder who is pronouncing these edicts. Her school emails us, insisting we pay tuition, if reduced; they tell us of the gardeners they are not paying. I speak to a colleague whose partner is a gardener. I learn that the people he gardens for practice ‘social distancing’. They do not come out to speak to him. Is he lonely? I wonder. Or does he just snip snip, snip snip the day away? I have found one word in my student’s essay that is brilliant, I decide. I want to reward them for this. But rewards in marking are not allowed: these are chiselled. We must give them out sparingly, as if there are none left. We are complimented by our module head, who informs us too that we have been ‘more severe’ than she might have been. I had fallen in ranks with my fellow marker, who marks as if each mark is like my banana—the last.
The sky features more clouds today. There is much speculation about this, about how there have been so few clouds. Have you noticed how the air is cleaner? we say over lunch. Look, there’s a plane? Where are they going? Can they even be flying? It is a small plane, and this causes much discussion. It leaves a trail in the sky that is thin and I am reminded of jet-streams in the US, the power of the engines. Boeing. Seattle. Where my nephew lives, in an area my aunt suggests is being ‘hard hit’. (What are things being ‘hit’ by? Why is the virus described as ‘hitting’ a community or like a wave. Must we dive beneath it to ensure it does not topple us?) We clear the table and decide whose turn it is to do the dishes. My eldest speaks in a low tone, so my youngest won’t hear. I did them after the last meal!! I run the water, watch it run. I wash dishes out of a small bowl of soapy water. Just in case.
Every day is like the other day. My cat lifts her head. She has eaten today, again. I marvel at how well I stocked her supplies on the last big shop (my two stops at two Tesco’s). I faced an hour queue. A nice man—I remember him so fondly now—steered me toward the self-serve as if it were Shangri-La where I was headed. And in a sense it was. A kind of shopping reprieve. In the world of shopping, now, we are grateful when something is on the shelf. Pasta plagued us for days. It was nowhere to be found. The girls’ dad brought some on his last visit, we joke about the impossibility of pasta. Its Italian-ness. Its Milan-ness.
It is like the same day. It feels like Groundhog Day. The sun comes back out. The mortar is still holding the bricks together on the house across the street. The agency has sent out a note that says, more or less, emergencies only – please? The paint has been peeling from the bathroom wall for months. I stare at it daily and dream of trips to B&Q or B&M, aisles full of shelves. Sand paper. The paint the painter was to leave by the agency. A household project that, like my daughters’ education, feels like ages away. I long to garden, I stare with envy at the bag of compost the neighbour picked up four days ago, with her two sons—or was it seven days ago? It was after isolation. And I thought, ‘Wow, lady, communitas’! Take those two boys of yours out. For gardening, yeah. Now I can almost see it. Bring it on! I say.
The meals are increasingly creative; after gnocchi, what next? Homemade ciabatta (do we have the flour? Is the baking soda still good?). My youngest, towering above me, does her ballet in the kitchen, pointed shoes squeaking. They squeak and squeak. My ‘collaborate’ collapses mid-session during my online seminar. My students are forgiving, patient, remain in the solitary ‘room’ awaiting my return. I see only the squares representing who they are. They can no longer see me. I am, increasingly, invisible.
I think of my father, who is six feet under now but was six-feet tall, and wore a heavy black wool coat that he bought in the years he taught at Oxford. I think about the strike at the university, how he’d have been proud I didn’t cross the lines, that I struck, that I took the pay cut, that we are surviving now in England, that we didn’t stay in the US, under Trump, whom he’d have hated (let’s face it, sorry). But there you have it: he was my dad and even though I never knew it, really, he believed in me. Da, I can do this, I got this. Do I? The little people look at me as if I do. Outside, I worry the crocuses are wilting beneath the sun. We have waited a winter for it and it comes out now in the time in which outdoors are forbidden. Oh cruel sun.
I read Annie Dillard’s ‘The Writing Life’ daily, nightly. I read just a page, as if it’s my banana, long gone, by someone who ate it when I wasn’t looking. (When really, thank God, someone did! – or I’d have had to recycle it into banana bread. Everything, foil, plastic, bag, food – it’s all recycled now. We are Greta!). I read Dillard’s words as if certain there is something in them that will break this, break me, break our battle with words. I get them almost daily now: reports on media of every kind, texts with updates about where we should not go. Letters remain unsent, though postal workers, at least, are still working. We clap for NHS workers one night, only we didn’t clap, we didn’t know. We didn’t pay attention. Instead, I watch my crocuses in fear they will die, or the small cactus that got me through the PhD. I fear anything that wilts.
The days are unmarked now, completely. Clouds drift into the sky now, almost grey today. I find sunshine in the smallest of things—an exchange with a friend, say. I try not to think of people who have hurt me as it seems petty and small when the clouds are this big, and when the thunder starts on the stairs again. She brightened, though, end of day. ‘It was book group, it was really nice!’, my youngest says. Her teacher is gorgeous to keep going. They are all gorgeous for keeping going. And we are: we are keeping going. But the days – they’re not. I do not know what to make of this, where they have gone? I am fearful to look out my window, walk in the park. What if the daffodils we saw, or the dahlias – my eldest swore they were not daffodils – have wilted, gone past? This is the sum of our days now: food and flowers and the rain, we hope, that will never come.
Originally published in Cicatrice: Iso-Poetics Issue, April 2020.