It’s april, and beyond our back wall a line of ambulances is queuing up to deliver sick passengers to the hospital. We are self-isolated, safe in our fortress, as we wait on our order from the local bakery. This will be delivered too. An innocent contrast perhaps, though hardly benign. We are a month into coronavirus time. I began it by rereading Camus and then The Betrothed by Manzoni, which I had never read. I wanted to know about plagues that were worse than ours, so I could sigh with relief. At least we were not going to die with huge purple boils and buboes on our groins and under our arms, dead rats and fleas beneath our feet. Just a stifling breathlessness, worse than pneumonia, so we might not be able to sigh.
There’s an unusual silence outside and in. I break it by listening to music. Bach at his grandest does the trick. Then there’s the news. We hear talk of invisible droplets, wreaking their silent, furious damage. We’re shown the hospital wards where we might survive or die, where thousands of gowned and masked and aproned people struggle to stay human. We’re told what we must do by politicians as ignorant as we are, youngsters who believe they understand what they call ‘the science’. I wonder if they’re like me, without even an O-level in Chemistry. There have been moments in the past, and in other parts of the world, when plague and quarantine and untidy heaps of dead bodies have been expected, suffered, remembered. The word ‘plague’ was uttered – more or less as hyperbole – when polio stalked us after the war. Now we are relying on screens and phones to protect us. Plans to track and trace people with the virus have worked elsewhere in the world. It is hard to believe that our boy leaders are up to organising something so effective.
Perhaps we’ve been stretching it, expecting to live into our eighties, our nineties, even to leap beyond a century. I’ve been waking up from nightmares, their substance forgotten, which leave me with dregs of sadness and fear. Mostly it’s fear. Fear of uncertainty, of danger, of the loss of everything we know or could predict. Fear that we’ll never get back what we’ve taken for granted. And then shame, that most familiar of feelings. Shame that at my age I should so tremendously want to stay alive, shame that I belong to the most clamorously demanding element in the population, both the most demanding and the most at risk; and shame that I am doing nothing to help anyone except staying behind my front door. I had, long before all this, written an ‘advance decision’ to refuse resuscitation should I lose my wits. What was I thinking? Wouldn’t I still want to be rescued by the last ventilator left on the ward? It’s not just fear. It’s also something better than that. It’s wanting to live, wanting to come out of all this alive and changed, even ready for an altered world.
London is especially lovely on this April day. The sky is empty of aeroplanes. There are almost no cars. The shops are shut. The trees are newly green, the air fresh. I am impressed by the sheer persistence of nature. I’ve just returned from a walk through a nearby square. I imagined that a policeman might accost me. What am I doing away from home? ‘How old are you?’ he’d ask. ‘I’m 87,’ I’d reply. ‘How old are you?’ Not long before coronavirus struck, a Paulownia tree in the square disappeared. Felled, I found out later, for no reason. A careful patch of lawn has been laid down to cover the crater made by the roots’ removal. For many years I’ve counted the first day of spring from my first sighting of a pale purple candelabra on that tree. Paulownias are not the most beautiful of trees. They have leaves like elephants’ ears, too big and flapping to be useful or elegant. But there was no need to kill it.
A month later, and two identical letters, one from the government, the other from my GP, advise me to stay inside my house for a further 12 weeks. I do as I’m told and embark happily on a daily regime of five thousand steps round the kitchen, watched closely, and sometimes followed, by my cat. As I march, I often listen to Berlioz and Beethoven and later discover I have the whole of Paradise Lost on CD, read by Anton Lesser. A whole week of Milton. Pestilence in its proper place; and poor Eve simply can’t get used to remembering that Adam is cleverer than she is and that all she has to do is not eat apples. And of course she gives in to Satan when he turns into a towering, golden snake and speaks to her in perfect English. Who wouldn’t? I move on to Paradise Regained. Think of it, Jesus at his wits’ end, starving and filthy after forty days in the wilderness, is offered gorgeous women and other delights. Satan bears a pleasing resemblance to Donald Trump. He simply cannot believe that Jesus won’t be tempted.
I’m locked down with one of my sons. He does serious work upstairs and goes out running. Yesterday we tested ourselves for antibodies. We were both a little under the weather in early March. Perhaps we’ve had Covid-19. If the tests say that we have and that we’re therefore (at least temporarily) immune to the virus, my son will be off to foreign parts. What will I do? This life is beginning to suit me. Perhaps I’ll pretend I’m still at risk, vulnerable, in need of protection. ‘Milking’ the blood out of our little fingers was easily the most difficult task I’d performed in weeks.
Friends and family visit. They sit almost in the street, and we talk to them from our front door. Some of us wear pretty, homemade masks. None of us has any news. Apart from these visits the days have become almost indistinguishable. We quite often ask each other whether it’s Wednesday or Thursday, NHS clapping day. There’s Sunday when we order our food, and Tuesday when it’s delivered. And there are the evenings when we watch an emaciated Coronation Street, and recently the extraordinary Normal People. But time itself has changed. There is a great deal of it, and it doesn’t hurry us along as it once did. From within this strange, secluded life I try to digest impossible graphs and quantities of currency as well as deaths. We are constantly reminded, as if we needed to be, that those hundreds and thousands of desperate, unemployed, sick and dying people are real and particular individuals who have ‘loved ones’. I resist all talk of ‘loved ones’. It calls needless attention to the likelihood that we all have friends and relations we don’t much like. I think my life, and perhaps everybody’s lives, will never be the same again. And if that’s a difficult thought, it might also be a promising one.