For 25 days, now, we have been living in lockdown. Today at the third session of the journal workshop a participant made a comment that took us all the way back to March and the feeling of that month, the hugeness of it, as we learned of the approaching lockdown. Once the government made the decision it happened very fast. Suddenly we were scrambling to prepare for an indeterminate period of time confined to our homes. We were stocking up on supplies. Even though the authorities assured us there would be plenty of food, the future was unclear. Could we trust them? Nobody knew exactly the shape of what lay ahead and when we might shop, or move about freely again. So much was unknown. In a sense we still don’t know how long this might drag on for.
I remember the build-up. On reflection I think we had two days to prepare. The announcement that we were going into lockdown at midnight on Wednesday 25 March threw everyone into a panic. We were calling children home, pulling people into bubbles, flying hither and thither, frightened, in shock, preparing for something big. I remember my own mounting despair as day after day I tried to bring my son home and the grief when he said ‘No, Mum, my work is here,’ even though he lost it a few days later, ‘my friends are here’ — some left Sydney and went home that very day — and ‘I can’t get out of my lease,’ that part was true. Thankfully he’s doing okay. He lost a second job and a week later got it back. But at the time I felt absolutely desperate to bring my boy home. Because it felt as though the world was ending. In a way the world we knew, before coronavirus, was ending.
I also remember, during that mad scramble, a last quick trip over the harbour bridge to my storage locker. I’m glad I went. Though I couldn’t access many books, they’re buried deep inside the dark cave, I managed to retrieve Fiona Kidman’s collection of poems 'This Change in the Light: A collection of Poems' a small, precious artefact with a gold cover. Also on that trip I rescued the German bread knife purchased on the island of Lindau last June, and a cream and white woven cloth bought in Estonia on that same trip along with a wooden eggcup of a girl in a white dress with a pattern of black triangles on the skirt by Lucie Kass. I bought that in the Danish design shop at Copenhagen airport on my return to London. All three items have assumed significance over the days and weeks of lockdown, separated as I am from my belongings here in my small refuge on the side of the volcanic cone. They give me pleasure. Daily. And pleasure is needed at this time because still life is a challenge.
As I was saying goodnight to my godmother in Christchurch this evening, I asked her about the shape of the week ahead. She talked of her garden — she prunes and dead heads the roses most days. There is file sorting in her study, papers from a long career as a biophysicist at University College London. She mentioned books on the go, on the arts in New Zealand, biographies, a good crime novel and then she said, ‘I am getting a little sick of it.’ That’s the first time in four weeks I’ve heard her express frustration and it made me stop and consider her situation and that of her peers. It seems to me that people over seventy are getting a raw deal. Nobody has asked them whether this is really what they want. In effect they are under house arrest. Are we all under house arrest?
It is hardest on elders in a bubble of one. Couples for the most part are better off. They have companionship when they need it and can find nooks in the home where they can pursue their different enthusiasms when in want of distance. My friend is cooking up a storm in her kitchen while her husband is knitting up a vast collection of woolly hats — I have two of his snug creations, a mustard hat with a plum coloured brim, and another one that is brown with a fairisle pattern. But for people living alone, in this bracket, it is hard. They can’t shop for food. They’re forbidden to drive anywhere. All the normal sources of light and serious relief are denied — trips to the library, museum, art gallery, cinema, to U3A, to exercise classes, discussion and study groups, book clubs, concerts, choir rehearsals …all gone or out of bounds. In short it is like a solitary confinement.
When we drop to alert level 3 there’s a strange detail, that hints at an awareness of the challenge of social isolation for people over seventy. It suggests there can be some expansion to the bubbles if you are a single person and you want ‘the company of 'a sibling for example.’ My godmother is the only surviving member of her family. I just hope, for her sake, this won’t stretch on too long.