Day 27 of life in lockdown and a difficult, dull, sober kind of day with a sky that was overcast and weather so damp, I could feel the weight of water in the atmosphere. For most of the day I stayed inside bent over my computer using work as a distraction from dark thoughts. It wasn’t melancholia. It was more a listless, hopeless feeling, like the feeling that emanates from the gorgeous young woman standing, alone at the counter, in the crowded bar ‘Un Bar aux Folies Bergère’ (1882) by Edouard Manet. She’s pensive. Distracted. I see a faraway look in her eye. The locket, that stands out on her pale chest, tells us there is, or was someone special in her life. You want to ask, ‘a penny for your thoughts?’ And can’t. That’s how I felt today.
I’d started the day reading a Guardian article, with accompanying photo essay by Jonny Weeks that described in distressing detail the struggle taking place inside the wards of University Hospital, Coventry, England as medical staff deal with the destructive effects of the Covid-19 virus. Consultant Tom Billyard is quoted as saying ‘We’re used to death – death is part of life in intensive care – but not in the kind of numbers we’re seeing and that’s really quite hard to take.’
Often when I view the maps and the graphs of the spread of the virus with their dots and numbers, I wonder what they represent in human terms, the depth of suffering, the personal hell for those who die in isolation from this particularly nasty virus. For every death, there is a web of family and friends who are left bereft and grief-stricken, their grieving much heavier because they were unable to offer support through the process of the illness or in the final hours. Their loved one died in isolation.
Towards the end of the article there were images from inside the intensive care unit. They came with a warning. “Some viewers may find these images distressing.” Coventry Hospital only agreed to let the photographer into unit because they hoped that in documenting the care provided it might reinforce the need for people to stay at home and protect the NHS. I looked and saw medical staff dressed in layer upon layer of protective gear, much of it plastic and horribly hot, faces covered in visors that cut deep red grooves in the skin and irritate the nose. And then I saw patients wound up in so many layers of wadding, their heads obscured by large breathing apparatus, it was hard to comprehend that a human being was inside. Just two photos showed evidence of the body, one a cut off view of a person’s leg, that looked feminine, and the other was a hand with the electronic device, the pulse oximeter measuring the oxygen saturation levels in the red blood cells, on one finger. The skin on this person’s hand was dark. It was cracked and lined at the joints. Those fingers made my heart ache. They were slender, tapering at the tips, and the nails, pink underneath, were a perfect shape.
The day drained away. To cope with the pain, I buried myself in a rush of work and virtual catchups with family and friends. It was such a relief to see my three year old grandson and to follow his progress pulling down all the blinds in the room, where his mother sat, holding the phone for the Facetime interaction. And then to watch him shutting the door and locking it with his own set of keys, labelled ‘Remy’s office’, to ‘be safe’ he said. ‘We have to keep the lion outside.’ And then extemporizing further. ‘We have to keep the lion out of the aquarium.’ When asked what was inside this aquarium, he said, ‘Um,’ head on one side, ‘an elephant.’
It was early evening when I finally reached the park and began to walk, my arrival coinciding with the exact moment when the cloud that had filled up my head all day long, lifted suddenly and let the sun through. In a puff all the drabness was gone and there was a clear, cream sky. And floating in its pale field was a metallic orange ball that sent lemon light flooding over the landscape turning the colours in the tree canopies smoky blue and tinting the clouds coral pink. Beautiful.