Corona diaries: Week 16

Sometimes, on my almost-daily walk through the streets of east Reading, I still have to stop and remind myself of where we are now and how we got there. I make myself remember that the people on the opposite side of the road to me, or the couples who dutifully change formation into single file as I approach, have also been going home to houses that they generally don’t otherwise leave. Their social circles have been limited the way mine has, and they too have made do with Zoom calls and, more recently, chats in gardens, constantly mentally calibrating and re-calibrating whether they are two metres, or the fuzzier, less useful “one metre plus” apart from loved ones.

It’s the stuff of science fiction, even now. And not even good, ray guns and rocket ships science fiction, more the chilling, low budget John Wyndham stuff. Imagine if a virus had come along that forced you to keep your distance from everybody you know and everybody you meet. If someone had said that to me a year ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now it’s how we’ve lived for some time and, increasingly, it gets foggier when you try to remember how it all used to be.

Six months ago, when we all thought our biggest problems would be cutting down on our drinking and surviving the hundred days until the January pay cheque, the world was completely unlike this one and we lived so very differently. It was a world of, in no particular order: seeing friends and family; “pub tonight?” “yeah, why not”; being inside a building that wasn’t your home; getting on trains and buses and going elsewhere; hugging people; not scrubbing your hands like Lady Macbeth when you take delivery of a parcel; saying no to a social engagement because the sofa was just too alluring; going out for dinner whenever you couldn’t be arsed to cook. The latter, for me at least, happened frequently.

It was a world of holidays and flights and hotels and conspicuous consumption, a world where we could more easily kid ourselves that our decisions didn’t really have consequences. It was a world of blasé complacency too, where we could take our safety and security, relatively speaking, for granted. And we could be equally confident about the security of our loved ones, our families and friends and our favourite institutions.

Remember how older people used to talk about the past as some halcyon bygone era, even though deep down we all suspected it was every inch as grim and dodgy in its way as the present day? We may be the first generations to be able to talk about the good old days with any degree of authority. Of course, it’s still too soon to say.

But, at the same time, there’s a prevailing view that we can’t go back to exactly how things were before all this began, a lifetime ago in 2019. And that’s also true: the challenge for everybody, in the years ahead, will be to knit together a new life that contains all of the advantages of pre-Covid life and all the valuable lessons we’ve learned in the intervening months. It sounds laudable. I’d love to do that, I imagine we all would. But the thing is, self-improvement is exhausting. I should know: I saw a counsellor for years (if you can’t see much evidence of that, thank your lucky stars you didn’t know me before).

There are many things I will want to keep from this strange, upside-down time. I will want to have a more structured life, of weekly shops and meal plans. I’ll probably want to drink better booze at home rather than go to the pub for the sake of it. I’ll want to spend money with the right businesses, instead of frittering it away on things I don’t care for or meals I largely won’t remember.

I’ll continue to make coffee at home – a huge, unforeseen boon of lockdown, breaking a latte habit that was probably more born of boredom than addiction. And, having spent four months finding out who my friends are in a way eerily reminiscent of going through a divorce, I want to spend more of my time and energy on them and less on all the distraction and noise.

More mundane, but every bit as important, I will want to keep going to the Harris Garden. It might be my favourite discovery of lockdown. I think I had only visited it once, a couple of years ago, before lockdown began, but since everything changed I tend to go there most weeks. It’s tucked away in a distant corner of Whiteknights Campus, and to reach the only entrance you have to walk past a bleak, forbidding Brutalist building, a sort of Trellick Tower mini-me. But once you get there, it’s the most fantastic oasis of peace and calm.

I’m no horticulturalist – the overgrown foliage of my back garden is ample evidence of that – and I couldn’t tell you almost anything about the plants, flowers and trees in the Harris Garden. I was going to research it to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but when I Googled and found out that one of the first trees you come across is called the “Caucasian Wingnut” I found that so entertaining that I abandoned my efforts. “The dogwoods and willows are coppiced regularly” the website goes on: who knew that “coppice” could be a verb?

Even a cursory read, though, reveals just how much thought has been put into making the Harris Garden beautiful all year round. And it truly is beautiful, whether you wander among the trees, gaze at the flowers or just grab a bench overlooking the meadows that have only recently burst into life. On the hot days which feel like they happened months ago, I would slope off there with a paperback. After an amble, I’d find somewhere to sit while doing exactly what I would have done in a previous life when I sat at a table outside Workhouse Coffee, namely leaving my book unread while I wasted time (and my battery) trying to read the whole of the internet on my phone.

I blame my reading material: at the moment I’m reading a book by the author of my favourite novel but it’s nowhere near as good as that. It’s such a slog, with so much unnecessary detail, that every time I pick it up I have to go back about ten pages to remind myself of what happened before I lost interest. At this rate, by the end of August I’ll be on page minus ten (the irony of me saying all this in today’s diary is not lost on me: I’m sure you’d all rather I was telling you whether the new souvlaki joint on Market Place is any cop).

More recently, I’ve been going to the Harris Garden for socially distanced meetings with friends. Last week I wandered round it with Reggie (last seen reviewing the Lyndhurst with me). In lockdown Reggie and I would chat over the phone once every couple of weeks, and then we progressed to Facetime, both banished to the other room while our other halves were working and being important in the living room while we took part in a twenty-first century reboot of The Likely Lads. During lockdown our hair got more and more unkempt, we compared notes on good days and bad days, we chatted about all sorts and, I suppose, we became more like friends and less like pub buddies.

Seeing him in the flesh for the first time, one of the first friends I’d seen in four long months, was surprisingly emotional. It’s not as if there was anything that different about it, really, but there we were on opposite ends of a long bench shooting the breeze as if everything was as it was. No pints of cider in front of us, no bag of snacks opened out on a table, but it turns out it didn’t matter.

Reggie has had a mixed lockdown, like most of us, but he moved in with his girlfriend at the start of the year and it sounds like, by and large, they’ve had a very harmonious time. “Even though it hasn’t been that long, because we’ve spent so much time together it feels like we’re at the two year mark” he told me, and as someone not far from the two year mark myself I knew exactly how that felt. When you’re happy with somebody, getting to spend this long with them in lockdown – despite the occasional niggle – feels like stealing time from the universe. Stolen time, I’ve always thought, is the best time of all, like when you wake up an hour before the alarm goes off feeling completely refreshed.

“If you could pick any PM to lead us through this crisis, who would it be?” Reggie asked me during a conversation about one of our favourite topics, the state of the country.

“Definitely Gordon Brown.” I said. “If you hear him on the news now he still sounds completely on top of the detail of everything going on.”

“Nah mate, it has to be Tony Blair.” I’d almost forgotten what a torch Reggie carries for Blair. It’s right up there with my friend James, who bought Habit Rouge by Guerlain solely because it was the former prime minister’s signature fragrance, and still refers to it as ‘Eau de Blair’.

“But look at how he handled the financial crisis!”

“Yeah, but if you go for Blair you get Brown thrown in. Two for one. Picking Brown is a schoolboy error.”

I enjoyed the conversation so much that I couldn’t bring myself to challenge him. Besides, and he took great pleasure from me telling him this, I knew in my heart that he was probably right. Sitting there with Reggie, one of the first people I’ve seen face to face in what feels like an eternity, proved something I’d probably always known deep down but not fully understood, that the company is what matters and the venue is secondary. I told him that and he suggested, ever so nicely, that of course we’d have had an even better time if we were in the Nag’s Head. I didn’t challenge him on that either, but I’m not sure he was right twice in a row.

This week my Harris Garden stroll was with Jerry, the man who popped his sushi cherry when I took him to Oishi. Technically Jerry and I met when he had the thankless task of teaching me GCSE English, but really our friendship began thirty years later when we both found ourselves having a pre-theatre drink in the bar ahead of Reading Rep’s fantastic production of A Little History Of The World, five years ago. We caught up over drinks in the interval, then we ended up having a post-theatre pint or two in the Retreat and we’ve been beetling off for regular trips to the pub trip ever since.

Now thoroughly enjoying his retirement, Jerry has an impeccably tasteful flat in the town centre and before lockdown, I would often head over with a bottle of red only to find that the conversation flowed as fast as the wine. Usually, around midnight, we were cracking open bottle number three with no danger of running out of things to say: I always tried to make sure I was working from home the day after a chinwag with Jerry.

Jerry knows that I write this blog but doesn’t read it – smart man – and despite that he is a regular guest at my readers’ lunches, where he effortlessly charms whoever has the good fortune to sit opposite him. I am very lucky with all my friends, but Jerry is the one my other friends would all love to adopt: most of them don’t even make any secret of it.

It’s funny how friends have fallen into different categories in lockdown. I have friends who want to talk on the phone but not do FaceTime or Zoom, and friends who only think that the only purpose of WhatsApp or Messenger is to arrange face to face calls. I have friends who check in with occasional messages and, just as I think the conversation is getting started, will say “well, it was great speaking to you”. One of my oldest friends, after four months of sporadic WhatsApp, grudgingly agreed to a Zoom call for the first time a few weeks ago. “I know what you’re up to anyway” he says. “I follow you on Twitter.”

Jerry is properly old school – no pun intended – in that sense, and so I knew that we would eventually graduate from WhatsApp to meeting up properly with nothing in between. And yet when he bounds up to me it’s as if no time has passed, and I can’t tell you how lovely that is. It quite makes up for not being able to give him a hug. We compare haircuts (his) and lack thereof (mine), new sunglasses (both of us) and then we are on our way, chatting and gossiping as if it’s mid-March and not mid-July. I recommend meeting your friends in this way, because feeling as if it’s mid-March is quite the wonderful experience.

“My Fitbit told me recently that I’ve walked the equivalent of the length of Italy in lockdown.” Jerry tells me as we approach the entrance to Harris Garden. “I wish it had been the actual Italy instead.” I know exactly what he means, even if I haven’t quite managed Jerry’s regulation ten thousand steps a day. He is a man, after all, who walks from the centre of town to the Waitrose at the end of the Oxford Road to do his shopping.

Jerry has had a good lockdown, although like me he happily owns up to having had the occasional blue day. When it all started a neighbour offered to do his shopping for him – he has diabetes and blood pressure – and it amuses me how horrified he was at the suggestion, given that I am twenty years younger and have had no such qualms. Instead he shops for a friend of his who lives with her elderly parents, and uncomplainingly buys her six packs of Emmental or two dozen bottles of wine from Lidl (“because they’re on offer”, he tells me). Jerry is that kind of man: if you need two dozen bottles of vino in a hurry, he is the chap for you.

When they announced that you could form a bubble with another household, Jerry was the subject of a keen bidding war. He accepted an offer from a couple he is friends with, and ten minutes later the phone rang with another friend keen to make the arrangement. This makes him the social equivalent of the kid who is always picked first in games and I, as a man in a more self-contained bubble, can’t help but feel a bit envious.

“So who did you choose to be in a bubble with?” I ask him.

“Oh, it’s an ex-pupil of mine! He stayed in touch after he left, and now I go and see him and his wife once a week. They live in those flats by the big Tesco, the ones with the blue roofs.”

“Oh really? Didn’t he fancy going through the conventional route of waiting twenty years and bumping into you at the theatre?”

“No, not at all. He’s directed me in the theatre, actually.” Jerry laughs. Jerry does a lot of amateur dramatics: he’s such a lovely man that when he played Gloucester in King Lear last year my friends were visibly upset when Cornwall gouged his eyes out.

“Do you stay over there?”

“Heavens no!” That makes sense. Jerry has far too attractive a flat to spend the night at somebody else’s, a short walk out of town.

I have such a marvellous time sitting at the other end of a bench from Jerry, chattering away, that I quite lose track of time and I’m genuinely sad when I have to draw things to a close and rush home before my online supermarket shop arrives. As we head for the exit, we can see people sitting on the grass talking and gesturing, enjoying the sunshine. It’s funny: a few weeks ago I would have been judging them, silently auditing their living arrangements and social distancing, but on an afternoon like this I can only say good for them.

“Do you know, I nearly brought a bottle of wine?” said Jerry. “But then I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to spring it on you.”

“That would have been terrific.” I say. “Let’s do that next time.”

We make our way back into town, keeping our regulation distance apart, and as we say goodbye outside my house I realise how much I have needed my afternoon with him, and my afternoon with Reggie. A couple of days later I go for a stroll in Christchurch Meadows with my mother, and again I am reminded how, after a couple of difficult weeks, seeing people feels ever so slightly like coming out of hibernation. It isn’t quite normal but rather than depressing me with that fact, it encourages me that it’s still miles better than what strict lockdown felt like.

When I knit together my pre and post-Covid lives, when I try to construct the best of both worlds, I hope that this is something I can keep: I hope I’m always as pleased to see the people in my life as I have been over the past week.

My mother and I end our walk by strolling round View Island, passing the fantastic wooden sculpture carved with a chainsaw. We thread our way across Caversham Lock and out onto Kings Meadow, cutting past the blue-roofed flats where Jerry’s bubble-mates (is that what they’re called?) live. I tell her the story about the twenty-four bottles of wine and my mother, who probably drinks a handful of bottles of wine a year, is suitably shocked. From there we head through the tunnel under the railway bridge and I walk her back to her apartment, near Bel and the Dragon.

It really is strange, after this hiatus, that things are nearly as they always were. I didn’t see her for months, and this is my fourth walk with her in just over a fortnight. Truth be told, I worried about her getting Covid – far more than she did, as she carried on going to Waitrose, going to Marks, frustrated that so little was open. “If I get it I get it” she said, clearly more relaxed about that eventuality than I was. I realise that, more than anything, she reminds me of Jerry – it’s no surprise that she kept bumping into him on her travels in lockdown, while I was cooped up at home. I wonder whether she has walked the length of Italy, too.

“Shall we do next week?” I ask her.

“Yes, please. Wednesday works for me – I see your Aunty Mary on Thursdays.”

There’s a pause, and then she says “It will be nice when we can hug again”. I wish she wouldn’t say things like that, because they always set me off. But instead I wave goodbye – a wave always feels so inadequate – and make my way home, thinking that an awful lot of hugs and hellos, a lot of conversations on benches and drinks on picnic blankets are very long overdue. I really, really can’t wait for them to happen.

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