for Claire Chatelet, by Nic Peard
When Claire and I have our first call, she is in a hotel in Folkestone, two hundred and seventy-two miles away from me in York. I can hear the gulls keening nearby as she tells me she’s just getting settled after walking like mad to keep our appointment. I take a quick glance out of my grey, northern window as Claire says she is trying to find a sunny spot to sit in her hotel room. I immediately picture a cat stretching out in a sunbeam, which illuminates dancing dust mites in a picturesque sort of way.
My first question when she’s ready is: how have you been?
Claire does not hesitate in her answer, and over the next few weeks she will not hesitate to answer many more that I have for her. “Up and down,” she tells me frankly. She’d been feeling unwell, and had to get out of London. She’d over-committed and was worn out. According to Claire, this is a mistake she has repeated several times throughout her life. “Every time I think I’ve learned a lesson,” she says. We both laugh.
What did you over-commit on? I ask.
“Oh, it’s a long story,”says Claire. I will learn over these next few weeks that these words promise a story of an incredible, profound experience that she is about to share, and I will be honoured to relive those experiences with her. “Did you get a chance to read my previous story?”
I did! That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you – how is it having seen two pandemics in your lifetime? That must be mad.
She responds instantly. “It was very strange – I don’t know which one to start on.” She pauses briefly. “Shall I start on the first pandemic?”
I affirm – go for it. Whatever you want.
She launches right in. “I burnt out in ‘97.”
When Claire began to recount the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in the UK, it was hard not to recall the old fable of the boy who cried wolf. The key difference was that in Claire’s case, the wolf was not only there, slinking up the hill, but he had been there before, and she’d always been telling the truth. That is not to say she knew what was coming before anyone else – in the beginning, she was tempted to dismiss the whole thing out of hand, even admitting frankly that there were moments that she laughed about it all. It was only when news from Italy began to reach the UK and Claire saw the images of all the coffins, stacked up on top of one another, that she stopped laughing and began preparing.
Friends who weren’t too worried at the time observing her efforts speculated that she must be frightened.
“But I wasn’t,” she said to me. “I wasn’t scared. I’m not afraid to die – what will be will be. If I catch it, I catch it.”
I was not the first person that Claire had told this to. She had already told herself the same from 1987 to 1997 in the ten years that she was a nurse through the HIV/AIDs pandemic.
With no small amount of irony, Claire tells me that she applied for a placement on the Genital Urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at Newham General Hospital in 1986 because people weren’t dying there. Claire’s training as a nurse had concluded in 1983 at Royal London, and she was frustrated by what she saw. It was a time where managerial bureaucracy was beginning to stifle the effort of nurses who were already jumping through mandatory hoops to prove their professional competency – requirements that still live on in the NHS today in various forms. AIDS/HIV was slowly on the rise – doctors were returning from the United States and reporting that gay men were beginning to die of an unknown disease. At first, Claire’s work at the clinic offered a welcome relief from the mounting frustration she had endured during her training, which was coupled with systematic sexism that prevented nurses from speaking up to the male doctors and from even having boyfriends. “The sisters were very strict!” Claire would tell me as she sketched out the restrictive atmosphere she worked and trained in.
When her training concluded, Claire worked part-time, and took up a programme at the University of East London. There was a balance between her work and her personal life. But there came that first wolf up the hill, low to the ground. In 1986, cases of HIV/AIDs began to appear in the UK and in London, government-run awareness campaigns began and testing became available. The atmosphere changed overnight, and the fear, says Claire, was comparable to the early days of COVID-19 in the UK. It was at this point Claire declined the invitation to return to Royal London, who were becoming quickly overwhelmed and applied to the Newham GUM clinic. Cases that came under the remit of Claire and her colleagues there weren’t too significant, and – crucially – there was nothing that wasn’t treatable.
But as the HIV/AIDs pandemic truly got underway, and patients began to arrive at the GUM clinic, this was to fade quickly. Claire and her colleagues were faced with a never-ending catastrophe. For the next ten years, Claire would watch many people die slowly. It drained her beyond belief. And as the bureaucracy tightened its grip on the hospital’s operations, Claire – whose native language is French – was called upon constantly to translate for patients dying of HIV who were often refugees from Central Africa, having found a home in the Labour borough of Newham. Day in and day out, Claire had to work twice as hard, communicating in French and English and trying to keep up with her own duties. She was the voice for those who were dying alone, far from home.
Her feelings on the enormity of what she faced are here in her own hand, written in 1996 as she rapidly approached the limits of her capacity:
Too much grief, not enough time to recover from the last death, too many problems accessing services, not enough energy to be heard adequately……so the not enough have their share of the too much, the type that the care workers eventually find difficult to contend with, to address adequately, that leads to burn-outs or bring out to the fore the competition of do-gooders…
God I need a rest.
Claire, in 2020, puts it to me plainly in our first conversation:
“Who cares for the carers?”
This sentiment resonates with us both as our interviews continue. In York, autumn arrives with more grey skies, and Claire returns to her flat in London. The sounds of gulls are replaced with sirens that go roaring by on the other end of the phone.
Claire tells me about how she had initially responded to the call for retired health practitioners to return to work as the NHS began to struggle, with the hope that she might help out with a tracing system that was similar to the work she did during her first pandemic. Explaining how she detailed all of her telephoning experience and previous work on the response form, Claire explains to me the complex feelings she had toward a potential return to nursing, so soon after her retirement:
“But then I thought: why do I want to do it? But when you are a nurse there is always this thing… you want to respond to crisis.”
It was the bureaucracy that punctuated Claire’s nursing career that held her back from returning, and was at the core of the burnout that was still with her nearly twenty years on. She backed out of the recall.
The mismanagement of the HIV/AIDs pandemic had forced Claire to think about her own limits, then and now. At the end of her time nursing during those difficult years, she had a postcard on her desk. It said: do your best and leave the rest. It was to contextualise her exhaustive efforts in trying to do all she could for people who didn’t stand a chance against both disease and systematic prejudice – whichever killed them first.
Claire had done her best, and in deciding not to come out of retirement during a second pandemic, had decided to leave the rest.
Do your best and leave the rest…I think you’ve given me the title for this piece just there.
“Oh, have I? Good!”
That is not to say that Claire has been idle during the pandemic and varying stages of lockdown. If anything, do your best and leave the rest came to serve her actively once again in the months that were to follow.
Long before masks were mandated and even before lockdown itself, she was already hard at work with a sewing machine, making masks at home in her flat in Tower Hamlets that she shares with her daughter. (“I got very intimate very quickly with that sewing machine,” she would tell me. “I even read the instruction booklet!”) Hand-made hand gel followed swiftly after. As masks became more and more popular and demand rose, she was even able to sell a few. But before the demand came a lot of scepticism from friends, colleagues and other community members who simply didn’t want to hear what she was trying to tell them – that something awful was coming, and that they should take measures now to help themselves and their loved ones.
Like a lot of the population in lockdown, Claire was fixated on the news. For the first six weeks, she drank in headlines and took on hours of research outside of the reporting from the typical news sources, forming her own opinions on a huge range of material. And those parts of her that still wanted to respond to the crisis did what they could – she tried to spread the word. As someone who was involved in a lot of different volunteering and community efforts, Claire was in a couple of Facebook community groups where various organisations discussed and planned group activities.
The thing about Claire is that she is the kind of person who, upon seeing a problem, addresses it. When everyone else is ignoring the elephant in the room, you can trust that Claire will be there, looking it in the eye. According to her, this has typically resulted in two scenarios: becoming the one who should fix the problem, or the one who is silenced.
“So many times in my life I have told myself, ‘Claire…shut up…’”
In this case, it was the latter. In her groups, her posts on how masks reduced the spread of disease would either be deleted or would spark heated debates in the comments that declared she was talking rubbish. There came that wolf up the hill, and the village didn’t want to listen to the woman who had seen the total human catastrophe the other wolf had caused before.
One thing that struck Claire in this was how very glad she is that there was no internet during the time of HIV/AIDs. The stigma that enabled the UK government to brand the crisis the “Gay Plague,” given free reign on the internet? Unthinkable. But she also had some hopes for how the internet could bring thinkers, scientists and leaders together in this pandemic, and she talked a little about this during our numerous conversations on the topic.
“I also naively believed that the knowledge – because of the internet, when we didn’t have it in the eighties – I really believed that scientists would get together and exchange their knowledge peacefully and rationally. But what I’ve witnessed is conflict of interest and money still speaking louder. When we talk about health, you would think doctors would really want to heal people…but the powers of money speak louder — it’s always a bit disappointing when you come into nursing by wanting to help.”
Well, no one goes into nursing for the money, I say without thinking.
There is a pause, and the pair of us burst into laughter.
Claire would eventually leave those Facebook groups that didn’t want to listen to her, and she stopped watching the news. She had done her best, and she would have to leave the rest – even if the rest was in some ways an ongoing frustration and a disappointment.
During this time and during early lockdown generally, Claire went out very little – every three to four days to start. In the midst of all the panic buying, Claire went about with a calm and clear head. She would tell me that she had used up all of her panic in the first pandemic and had simply run out of it for this one.
There was also plenty that Claire missed while in lockdown. She was enjoying lots of things in her retirement, going here, there and everywhere on various volunteering efforts or just to socialise with friends. Pottery classes, meditation – Claire had a lot going on, and missed it when lockdown put a stop to a lot of it. But one thing that she still managed to retain were her visits to the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve.
“Thank God,” as Claire says herself. “I had the trees. I feel so bad for everyone who were stuck in tower flats or had no garden.”
A little way from Claire’s second floor flat across the junction is the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Once home to the gardens of the London elite and then a church that was bombed to ruins, it has been transformed into a private oasis of greenery and wildlife. Claire’s descriptions of the reserve sketch a total oasis tucked away in an urban sprawl with the remnants of the church stood there still poking through the grass. She is one of the lucky few to have access to the Reserve through volunteering work.
Knowing the combination to the lock, in the first weeks of lockdown Claire was able to visit the Reserve on her trips home from the shops. Masked up and her hair in her turban, she would sit under the trees and find a moment of solitary peace before pushing on home.
Many ongoing projects at the Reserve were halted when lockdown hit; among them, growing trees for members of the public to adopt and take home with them in the summer months. It fell to Claire, who had volunteered with the Reserve previously, to water these trees in their pots. At first, it was only a couple of visits every two or three days, but as the months went on and the heatwave came, she was going every day. She still visits the reserve now, meeting a friend to go through some Tai Chi in that space.
Claire feels a little uneasy about being one of the few who have access to what amounts to a little patch of Eden in Bethnal Green and that others are kept out, but, in her own words, the Reserve was everything to her in lockdown – a space that held great importance for her and was safe from COVID, with access only granted to a few.
“It’s a very strong place for me with this connection of impermanence, where it was a place of worship…and nature reclaimed it, and so on. It has a lot of significance for me, in that. I never would have gone so much if weren’t for the pandemic. It was a chance to for me to be outside. You can sit outside, you can sit on the benches, knowing no one who has sat there has had COVID.”
So it was a welcome reprieve? I ask.
“Oh, god, yes. A total present.”
Our chat about the Reserve was in our last session, and by that point, the connection Claire had felt with that green space during lockdown made total sense to me.
Over the course of my sessions with Claire, I had the privilege of getting to see some of the writing she had done over the most formative years of her life. The writing that she did during the HIV/AIDs pandemic painted a picture of a young woman who was struggling to keep giving when she had nothing else left to give, and it made total sense that to do your best and leave the rest was a thought that Claire had connected with so readily.
The other piece of writing that Claire shared with me, also written in 1996, was from a writing group. The group had been tasked to think about who they would want with them when they died, and the instructor couldn’t understand why Claire would want to die alone. Claire was not be dissuaded; furious at the thought that someone else could dictate how her own ideal death should go, she wrote it anyway:
Sunset – It is time to go….gazing towards the blue hills of the West, the sky is a crescendo of reds and golds. I am at Peace, appeased. I dismiss the last traces of sorrow for leaving this planet and with gladness turn within, deep within this old, soon to be useless shell. I have learnt to rise above the pain and those old bones will sure make a joyous flame. I will not miss them where I am going.
GOODBYE NOT ADIEU.
With the subject of our talks being the pandemic we were both experiencing, it was understandable that, as well as talking about Claire’s experiences of two pandemics, we also talked about death. Claire has met death many times before in her work as a nurse, but is unafraid of it. Her spiritualist beliefs, which also deeply impacted her time as a nurse in the HIV/AIDs pandemic, say that death is a natural part of the cycle of reincarnation. It is only through reincarnation that one’s soul can finally break the bonds of the material plane and fully ascend. But Claire does tell me that she would not like to die in pain, unable to breathe – and this is why, above all, she hopes she will not catch COVID. With winter coming, she is preparing herself for the difficult months ahead, stockpiling medicine she knows from experience might mitigate the worst of the symptoms.
When she says that, my pen stops on the page of my notebook. For me, in York, the experiences that Claire has walked me through click into place, and – even though we are two hundred miles apart – I feel like I can see Claire in the midst of all our words. I feel so blessed that we were paired.
Distantly, I hear seagulls.
God I need a rest. I am at Peace, appeased.
Do your best and leave the rest.
Don’t you think it’s strange that you pictured your perfect death as being under an open sky, and you’re telling me now that you’re most afraid of not being able to breathe? I ask.
For the first time, Claire pauses before she responds. She gasps.