After three weeks of lockdown, life has taken on a different rhythm. I am getting used to a slower pace, hands like leather, the smell of bleach, an empty diary.
On March 13th, hugs and kisses – the customary way to greet friends or acquaintances in Spain – gave way to ‘social distancing’. It happened literally overnight. Now we instinctively turn away, step back or cross the street on sighting another person, gripped by fear. How quickly long-ingrained habits can change. And how I yearn for human touch, hugs with family and friends. How long will it be before we can safely enjoy physical closeness again?
On the other hand, phone calls have come back into fashion. I am in more regular contact with my children than I have been for a long time, though geographically as distant as ever. Game after game of online Scrabble with my son provides a welcome distraction. Friends from way back suddenly call or write, having heard the worrying news from Spain (though Britain is only a week or two behind). Humorous memes – dozens of them each day – are being shared, doing the rounds in our WhatsApp groups and on Facebook. Much of it is a kind of gallows humour but it still makes us laugh. In between the laughs, we exchange angst-ridden tips on how to disinfect fruit, keys, phones, shoes, door knobs, and on how long the virus can remain on surfaces. We can bemoan the shortage of alcohol in the shops without having to explain that it’s not the drinking kind we’re after but the 96% proof variety for disinfection.
Who would have guessed that taking the rubbish to the bins in the street (in Spain we don’t have home collections) would become a treat – one of the few justifications for leaving the house? Shopping – the only other permitted outing – is grim. With entry to shops severely restricted, queues form outside but so spaced out that conversation is difficult. In any case, everyone looks tense and afraid: other people are a danger. Arriving home with the supplies provokes a similar degree of alarm. I leave my shoes outside, wash my hands, take out the food, wash my hands again, ponder where to put it, in what order to disinfect. I consider the toxicity of bleach, whether it’s safe to eat salad, the conflicting environmental and safety factors involved in keeping my plastic bags for re-use as opposed to discarding them. I wash my hands again.
There is only one topic of conversation. Brexit has been ousted as foremost cause for concern; it scarcely seems relevant now. Very little other than the virus does. Even the weather is of minimal interest when you can’t go out. In fact rain and cold make confinement less frustrating. Unable to talk of future plans or interesting activities we’ve been up to, we exchange recipes instead. What we’re cooking and eating is pretty much all there is to differentiate the days. It’s difficult to remember what day it is anyway. Past and future seem equally remote. Making plans has gone out of the window: living day to day is the only sensible strategy. This may be no bad thing if it teaches us to fret less, be more spontaneous and not take anything for granted.
Having time to spare is a novelty for me. Yet without the motivation to tackle all those long-postponed tasks, it’s proving less of a bonus than I would have expected. Now I have no excuse for not cleaning the house more thoroughly, sorting out drawers, wardrobe or paperwork, starting a new writing project. But the prospect of weeks or months of house arrest takes away any urgency, induces a dull lethargy. I’ve removed the batteries from my alarm clock, talk and hum to myself even more than usual, wear the same sloppy old clothes day after day. My hair is growing ever bushier (the lockdown began a day before it was due to be cut) and my botched attempts to trim my own fringe don’t encourage me to tackle the rest. Can I be bothered to colour it when nobody sees me? And what if the washing machine breaks down or my computer crashes? More worrying still is the possibility of needing a dentist. In these days of isolation and social distancing, such intimate contact takes on a terrifying aspect. With my fragile teeth ever at risk of breaking, eating requires extra care. Any kind of non life-threatening emergency presents an alarming scenario.
The realisation that I may not see my children and grandchildren for a very long time is hard. Even when restrictions are lifted, will I dare get on a bus or train or plane again? From where we stand now, the risks seem huge. I’ve happily managed without a car since moving to Spain, have driven only once or twice during that time, but will I come to regret my dependence on public transport? Speculation is useless. For all the predictions and projections circulating in the media, the truth is nobody knows any of the answers. All we can do is find ways to make the most of our isolation, support others in whatever way we can and try to avoid catching this wretched virus.