It struck me, during week four, as I made yet another freezer inventory and mail-ordered herbs to avoid my once-weekly shop, that I have become a little too good at obeying the government’s orders. Much is made of the rule-flouters – the Frisbee-chuckers and the park pond-paddlers; we hear lots, too, about the ramblers and picnickers. My favourite “Covidiot’” pictures, which I search out daily for light relief, are the Stasi-style pap shots of shoppers coming out of The Range. Among all the death and dystopian headlines, I grimly enjoy these people, sheepishly trundling trolleys to their Volvos filled with ceramic garden Buddhas, 15 litres of Daffodil White paint and signs that say, “It’s Prosecco O’ Clock”.
Obviously, I tut and cluck at this wilful dissent, but part of me is just jealous. These people are still rushing out the moment a “reason” allows them to. Meanwhile, I stand in my kitchen, wiping and re-wiping surfaces with pine forest disinfectant and batch-freezing mirepoix (that’s the fancy name for diced carrot, onion and celery) so as not to waste some sad-looking veg. It’s not sunbathers the government should fret over; it’s the millions of us it’ll need to convince, once this is over, to come out, blinking into the light.
Within four weeks of the new normal, I’m already teetering on the brink of agoraphobia; let’s call it agoraphobia-lite. I’m not strictly qualified to self-diagnose anxiety disorders, or allot them cute names, but I’m guessing the NHS is a bit snowed under right now. They do not need a middle-aged woman with a mallen streak and rough hands like Skeksis from The Dark Crystal screaming: “I am scared to go to Morrisons” via video-link.
Lockdown is disastrous for the economy, it has riven families apart and imprisoned others with their tormentors. So why do I fear it ending? Perhaps it’s because, by week four, I, like millions of others, may be treading water in a difficult place, but at least it’s the known unknown. I fear more brand new, fresh, frightening unknowns to come to terms with all over again. I should probably pop a recipe idea or something in here, because this is ostensibly a food column. How about, when the existential angst comes, open your cupboards, smear peanut butter and mashed ripe banana on white bread, and fry it in butter? Elvis lived on these, apparently, during his last difficult years at Graceland. He found them a positive boon, until he, well, didn’t.
My mother, classed as highly vulnerable by Matt Hancock, is talking much less now about a normal life after Covid-19 on our daily phone calls. Cream teas in crowded tea-rooms, fish and chips on the Northumbrian coast and Sunday pub lunches at The Drunken Duck in Ambleside feel impossible. “I can’t imagine me going out after this,” she says, before carrying on reading out the deaths from the local paper.
“Do you remember Cyril with the foot?” she says. “He had to have it drained.”
“Is he dead, Mam?” I ask.
“Yes, he’s deed,” she replies, almost jubilantly.
My mother, like many of her advanced age, appears not to be remotely scared of dying. What’s more, the lack of fuss around any funeral, which the current crisis forces, suits her down to the ground.
“Don’t even bother coming,” she says, casually.
“No, I won’t,” I say, drily.
“And no flowers – they’re just a waste of money,” she says.
“How about a coffin?” I ask. “Or shall we just have them wrap you in tea towels?”
“Suits me,” she says. “I won’t know.”
How will the world look when I can finally visit her again? Will I travel on the West Coast train in a mask and gloves surrounded by 100 other faceless travellers, all clutching paperwork? Will I be met with suspicion and anger when I arrive; not as a local, but as an outsider bringing germs? Will I walk into her lounge and hug her and smell her Estée Lauder White Linen and sit close enough that, within milliseconds, she’ll remark: “You’ve got a spot on your head. Have you been picking it?”
Or will I stand 12 feet away in a hazmat suit, shouting muffled platitudes, before ambling off sadly? Will life re-begin, cafes and restaurants re-open, gigs re-schedule, airports re-busy, as we learn to accept the new normal? Maybe five or six hundred fatalities a day is the price we pay for freedom and prosperity? And if all this happens soon, forgive me if I stay a shut-in for a bit longer. The future is uncharted country. At least I know what the weird right now is.