At the weekend, during one of my regular walks, I was struck by how many cars were on the roads. Cemetery Junction seemed far busier than usual, and crossing the road and playing Frogger, avoiding cars and pedestrians in equal measure, was a considerably more difficult task. Among families and friends I was hearing more stories of people bending the rules just a little further without breaking them, increasing signs of frustration with lockdown. On Sunday a picture of the queues outside one of Reading’s branches of B&Q did the rounds on Twitter: the camera angle probably made the scene look more crowded than it really was, and it’s quite possible that everyone was maintaining social distancing but honestly, how essential can a trip to B&Q really be?
I’m particularly struck by this because my household is more locked down than some. Zoë’s asthma is so bad that she is often compared to Tiny Tim, and as a result both of us have been avoiding shopping during the lockdown, relying instead on occasional (very occasional) delivery slots online and the kindness of very supportive friends. I hate feeling dependent on others, and have often worried that I should be less protective, take my chances, get out there and play Covid roulette along with everybody else. But then I talked to a Twitter friend who had actually contracted the virus, and that reassured me. “Just before I was diagnosed I had four days when I was struggling for breath,” he told me. “Even the mild version I had would be serious for someone like your partner.”
Last week I received a text letting me know that my numerous prescriptions had arrived at the chemist in town and I was faced with the prospect of going in to collect them. The last time I went anywhere near a shop was over six weeks ago, when I made small talk with the lady behind the counter at Workhouse before grabbing my latte and scarpering for the tables outside. I had a pretty good idea even then that it would be the last time for a long time, but even saying that I wish I’d properly appreciated the latte; it’s one of the things I really miss now we’re all locked down. The thought of going and queuing at the pharmacy genuinely made me anxious, but I didn’t feel I could ask any of my friends. What to do?
It was on an impulse that I picked up the green and white card that had been dropped through the door with details of the volunteers’ service running in Reading. It said that they could help with shopping, prescriptions or even just a friendly phone call. I sent an email outlining my predicament, and a reply came within ten minutes asking for some details. I sent them back as requested, more than half expecting them to tell me to get my prescription myself, but within a few hours I received a friendly reply telling me it was in hand.
A couple of hours later my phone rang, and a volunteer told me that the prescriptions were on my doorstep. I opened it to find them in some bubble wrap that had the medicinal smell of disinfectant, a friendly red-haired volunteer at the end of the path. I thanked her from a distance, picked them up – still feeling slightly ridiculous – and closed the door behind me. It was all present and correct, but I couldn’t stop smelling the bubble wrap. There was something comforting about it, and something reassuring about knowing that someone had taken care of something for you, that in a way they had taken care of you. Taken care full stop, really; she had been wearing a mask and gloves, but that didn’t stop her giving a cheery wave before leaving.
A couple of days’ later I got a follow-up call checking everything had gone according to plan, and I gushed about how grateful I was. From getting in touch with them to getting my prescription had taken less than six hours, but the amount of stress and anxiety it had saved me from was incalculable.
All over Reading, and all over every town and city I imagine, there are people putting themselves at risk for others. The people in my neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group are always messaging to say that they’re going to the supermarket, or that they’ve managed to get a delivery slot, offering to buy their neighbours flour or yeast, or (as happened a couple of days ago) volunteering to jump start somebody’s car. We’re physically more distant than ever before, but there are still plenty of opportunities to experience closeness and community, and that strikes me as something beautiful.
If you also need help with something, the details of the volunteer scheme are here. If you want to volunteer to help, you can click on this link. And if you want to donate, as I did, to help this scheme to continue running you can do that here.
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I feel like a fraud starting this week’s diary with that sweet little story, because in truth it hasn’t been a vintage week. One of my favourite sayings, although I had to Google it to find out who said it first, is this: happiness writes white. I’ve always thought it was true, sort of a distillation of the famous Tolstoy quote about happy families. There’s definitely something in it: when you’re happy you have nothing to say, or at least it’s harder to commit it to the page.
Contentment feels that way, anyway: you can write about euphoria or ecstasy just fine, but bland, doing-just-fine happiness is a real challenge. That’s why the easiest restaurant reviews to write – remember when I used to do those? – are hatchet jobs (they’re more fun to read, too), and the next easiest are rave reviews.
The times we live in now have challenged my belief that happiness writes white, because now I find that the thing that writes white, really, is malaise. There are good days and bad days, but without the conventional milestones of weekends and days out, holidays and nights down the pub, the whole thing smudges into a morass where it can be hard to retain perspective and keep your chin up. Eventually, there are good days and meh days, and more of the latter than the former.
A Twitter friend once told me that the problem with having a lot of time on your hands is that you never do anything, because there’s no reason to do it today. So you put it off until tomorrow, and instead you spend your time doing nothing – waking up late, because you can, or looking at the news, even though you shouldn’t, or constantly hitting refresh on a website, or on social media, waiting for life to happen to you. As a mistake I find it’s very easily made, and even more so on dreich weeks like this when the garden is beaten down with rain and the patio and the box hedges are strewn with discarded magnolia petals. Some days this week, on balance, I’ve felt like getting out of bed was probably a mistake.
And if you do refresh social media, it really doesn’t help. Instagram, once full of people’s meals and holidays, envy-inducing but reminding you that you have similar experiences just around the corner, is now full of people desperately trying to make the best of it. I can never work out whether they should be cheered on or given a good – if metaphorical – shake (I tend to plump for neither). Twitter is even worse: it oscillates between manic overcompensation and despair, always with that strong underlying current that it shouldn’t have been this bad, that it didn’t need to be this frightening. Read enough of that, and you just get angry.
And all these things chime with me – some days I have a grump on pretty much from the get-go, and my Tweets are irascible or unkind. Some days I try to count my blessings, but doing so often feels trite. I can understand, sometimes, why people just sack the whole lot off. “I keep getting invited to do Zoom quizzes”, my mum told me earlier this week during a Facetime conversation, “but they just sound so bloody zany.” I know where she’s coming from.
The news isn’t any better. I’ve long ago stopped looking at the Guardian’s live coronavirus newsfeed – that way madness lies – but I still regularly see stories that bring home how uncertain things will be, and for how long. The Caterer published an article this week saying that only 60% of restaurants are likely to survive this crisis (to my shame, when I read the headline, my first reaction was “that many?”). The Observer ran a piece explaining that the end of lockdown is only the start of the problems for the industry: without further support, continued social distancing will mean it isn’t even viable for many restaurants to reopen.
One journalist said this on Twitter this week about restaurants, bars and breweries that had shifted to delivery: It’s not a clever pivot. They won’t be “fine”. In all likelihood they’re clinging on. Everyone is clinging on, in one way or another. Everyone, as the saying goes, is fighting a hard battle.
A bit of me thinks that the future is so uncertain, and so alarming, that we can’t focus on that or admit that we are anxious or depressed. So instead we put one foot in front of another, as I have at various difficult points in my life, and just muddle through one day at a time.
The way it affects me, I’ve discovered, is that I get disproportionately anxious or unhappy about tiny things: I’ve lost something of almost no consequence, or my computer won’t do exactly what I want it to at the exact moment I want it to, or the salad in the fridge has gone off. And then it’s all ruined, even though the bigger picture is far more serious. But after all, you can’t justify being sad about everything happening at the moment, because we’re all in the same boat. Or rather we’re all in the same fleet, and some people’s boats are shittier than others.
When it’s like that all the positive events of the week somehow hide on the horizon, difficult to grasp, even though they happened and they definitely brought joy, however fleeting. I should try harder to remember them. Last Friday there was a ring on my doorbell and Phil, from Anonymous Coffee, was standing at the end of the path. I hadn’t ordered from him that week, so I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, but he had placed three little bags of coffee on my doorstep.
“It’s the same coffee, ground three different ways. Have a play around with it and see if you can notice the difference.” He smiled, and then he was off. I’d been given some coffee and set some homework, a really lovely random piece of thoughtfulness.
Also last week, I got a delivery from a company called Cherry Tree Preserves which makes simply the best jam, chutney, marmalade and curd I’ve ever tasted. I do most of the cooking in my house, although that used to be a lot less cooking than it is now, but one effect of the pandemic is that Zoë has taken up baking. So now we can have banana bread, topped with a sugary demerera crust, spread thickly with lime curd and demolished with a fork, followed by the only thing better, another slice.
Last Sunday she made cheese straws with plenty of garlic and industrial quantities of Parmesan, bought from the market in Bologna a lifetime ago, and we inhaled half a batch greedily before our afternoon walk. There was so much cheese in them that in places they were part pastry, part chewy, crystalline nuggets of 40-month-old wonder.
“Shall I wrap the rest in foil and put them in the fridge?” she asked me, and there was a brief moment where we made eye contact and both knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that they wouldn’t last long enough for that to be worth doing.
At the weekend I saw that Two Hoots, makers of the legendary Barkham Blue, had started doing delivery, so I hopped online and ordered a whole wheel to be sent to my friend Wendy. Wendy is a woman who worships Barkham Blue like no other, and every time I visit her in the frozen North I’m under strict instructions to pick some up from the Grumpy Goat before getting on the train. “I HAD A DELIVERY OF CHEESEEEEEEEEE” said the breathless message I received shortly after the surprise package arrived. “I actually screamed when I opened it. Lockdown cheese delivery, what a time to be alive! I’m gonna sit in my pants and eat Barkham Blue.”
On balance I thought that last sentence was probably unnecessary detail, but I also knew for a fact that it would probably happen. If I lived on my own, was in possession of a wheel of Barkham Blue and had no need to leave the house, I would probably do the same.
One of my favourite bloggers, from over ten years ago, wrote a blog called Three Beautiful Things where every day she would record three things that brought her pleasure. They’re like little word Polaroids, beautiful clean concise snapshots lifted out of a life, shining on the page. She stopped writing a long time ago – life got in the way, the cause of death you most often see on blogs’ death certificates – but then I was idly browsing down memory lane one day and I saw that the coronavirus had prompted her to begin again. Reading it was a reminder, a badly needed one, that there’s always something good to be said, even if you have to look a little harder than you used to.
I think that’s all we can do: to focus on the here and now, to get through one day at a time and to count our blessings. To make the most of all those moments where, even if from a distance, we can touch each other and make some difference. I don’t know, by this stage, whether I’m writing this for you or for my own benefit, but I can’t rule out reading back over it in the weeks ahead and having words with myself. I also fully expect to have it quoted back to me by somebody when (and I know it’s a when, not an if) I fall short. Or perhaps I’ll just picture my friend Wendy, in her pants, giant wedge of Barkham Blue in hand, as happy as Larry. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing will.