Lockdown in Newham, West Ham and William the Cat

for Eileen Wade, by Catriona West

Eileen’s initial response to the coronavirus was that it was something happening in a far-away place, on the other side of the world, that would never be a problem here. In general, Eileen is not a worrier, and indeed she refused to worry about the virus either, even when it did reach Newham, where she lives, given that she is in reasonably good health. Her family jokingly call her “Dr Eileen” and say that whenever someone is feeling under the weather, she gives them a prescription of an early night. In fact, her youngest son was more worried about her than she was, warning her against even going out to her local shop. Eileen thought he’d be reassured knowing that she was still managing to get outside instead of sitting inside on her own all day, but he would nag her about the risks, and she had to remind him that she was the mum, not him, and that he couldn’t tell her what to do. Eileen confirmed that they had found a compromise: she stopped telling him where she’d been so that he couldn’t worry. Her son lives with his wife and children, but for Eileen, who lives on her own, it’s more of a necessity to get out of the house. Eileen knew two people who caught Covid in the first wave, who fortunately both recovered quickly.

During the lockdown, Eileen was determined to keep busy. She continued with her hobbies of knitting and sewing, creating handbags in her living room. When her friend gifted her some lavender, she made fifty lavender bags and donated them to the local community centre. Eileen enjoyed keeping busy and was glad to have finished some projects, as she is often one to start something and then begin something new before finishing it. She is fortunate to have a small garden and, when the weather was good, would spend time outside painting and decorating. Eileen was not completely isolated from the outside world, either, as she has a laptop that her son bought for her a couple of years ago. Despite immediately putting it in the cupboard and not using it when she first got it, Eileen learnt how to use her email account and, when the lockdown began, carried on with her guitar lessons on Zoom. She jokes that she doesn’t know which she is worse at, Zoom or the guitar.

When it was allowed, Eileen would meet two local friends twice a week to go for a walk around the park. One of her friends had a smart watch, and they would try to reach 10,000 steps on their walks and see how many calories they’d burned so that they could then go home and have a slice of cake. Occasionally, the three ladies would venture into Central London, where it was completely empty and deserted, as there were no tourists or people going to work. She said you could almost imagine the tumbleweed blowing down the empty streets. As much as she enjoys going out and seeing her friends, Eileen also doesn’t mind her own company, and will read in bed when she wakes up and before she goes to sleep. She’s a “bit of a history geek”, and enjoys books set in the time of the Vikings or the Roman Empire.

It’s important for the elderly and those living alone to get out of the house, Eileen says, and she thinks it’s sad that the lockdown caused a lot of elderly people to lose their nerve a little bit, as being alone inside for long periods of time is when depression and anxiety can set in. The new rules surrounding the use of masks and hand sanitiser in public places creates anxiety for elderly people, she thinks, and has caused drastic change to their everyday routines. A lot of people in her local community were also dependent on the clubs and organisations that they were a member of in order to get outside and socialise, leaving them feeling cut off and alienated when these had to be put on hold.

However, Eileen also remembers a real sense of community spirit during the lockdown. She says a few of her friends received phone calls from the local council asking how they were and if they needed anything (such as food, or for someone to pick up a prescription for them). She also remembers that people would stop elderly people in the street or in the shops to ask if they were okay or if they needed anything. Fortunately, Eileen lives very close to her local amenities and everything she needed was a short walk away, so she didn’t even have to use public transport during the early stages of the lockdown. She would go to her local Iceland for her food shopping, and her youngest son, who also lives in London, would come by and drop off the items that she couldn’t get nearby. Eileen even wrote a thank-you card to express her gratitude for the staff at Iceland who kept working through the pandemic. A couple of weeks later, when talking to a member of staff at the till, she was chuffed to find out that they’d posted her card up on the wall in the staff room. One of Eileen’s granddaughters also made her a rainbow to put in the window to support the NHS staff and keyworkers.

Eileen is an avid West Ham supporter, and she and her son are both season ticket holders. Due to reduced crowds, all of the season ticketholders were put into a ballot to see if they could be one of the 2000 people allowed back into the stadium after lockdown, and although Eileen hasn’t been picked yet, she would love to go if she has the chance. Eileen has been a member of Any Old Irons, a community group for West Ham’s over 60s supporters, ever since it started up in 2015. She misses being able to meet at the pub with this group, as she’s made very good friends with her fellow members. One member used to be a choir master and started a choir group for Any Old Irons, which Eileen joined, and they would sing old Cup Final anthems. They were going to sing at London Stadium, too, but then the pandemic hit. Over lockdown, the organisation still sent out its newsletters, and everyone living on their own received phone calls to check they were okay. Eileen herself delivered groceries to a friend from Any Old Irons who was living on his own and having to self-isolate, and she notes that men living on their own who have recently lost their wives might struggle the most because they’re not used to being so independent. Every member received a letter from West Ham player Declan Rice, as well as the captain Mark Noble, during the lockdown, to check in on them and wish them well. West Ham manager David Moyes also phoned one of Eileen’s friends in Any Old Irons, as she had caught Covid and recovered, to offer her free tickets to the next game that would allow spectators, and this encounter was made into an article for the Daily Mail.

Eileen’s “lockdown hero” has been her ginger cat, William, whom she got from a rescue centre two years ago. Eileen is petrified of mice – she says she’s exactly like the women in films who stand on a chair and scream whenever they see one – and she was having trouble getting rid of the mice in her house. The final straw was one night when she was sitting in bed reading and a mouse came and ran across the headboard behind her head. That’s it, she thought, I’m getting a cat. Although Eileen has always had cats, her last one before William died ten years ago, so it had been a little while since she’d had one in the house. Eileen got William from the Celia Hammond Animal Trust, founded by model Celia Hammond, who campaigns against using fur and for the neutering of feral cats. William seemed very sad when she went to the shelter to pick out a cat, which is why she decided she would have to bring him home, even though he is a ginger tom and she has always had tabbies. He’s very timid around her grandchildren, and hides under the bed whenever they come round, not liking to be picked up. Her grandchildren also call him fat, but Eileen insists he’s just fluffy. William has a bit of a rough past, as part of his left ear is missing, and when he was taken to the shelter the vets found that he had an air rifle pellet in him where someone had shot him. Eileen jokes that he’s a real East End cat, because “he’s got an ear missing and he’s been shot”.

During lockdown, William was such a blessing to Eileen, as he was there every day to keep her company. She says that every time she opens the door into the house, he comes down the stairs to see her, and the sight of his little face looking up at her always makes her smile. When she was decorating in the garden during lockdown, he would come out and sit with her, or sunbathe on the roof of the shed. Eileen talks to him so much that her sons joke that one day he’ll make his way back to the shelter just for some peace and quiet. In fact, Eileen wrote a letter to the shelter and gave a donation to the Celia Hammond trust during the lockdown, telling them how much of a difference William has made in her life. She also jokes that “William is an ideal man because if he’s getting on my nerves, I only have to open the door and put him outside”. A couple of years ago, whilst on holiday, Eileen bought a sign to put in her front window at home that says: “Stop here for the best ginger cat in the world”. And, of course, he catches all the mice for her.

In reflection on the lockdown and the pandemic, Eileen feels as though she can’t really afford to lose a year, as she doesn’t know how many she has left. Although she’s since been able to see her grandchildren who live close to her in the park, where they feed the squirrels (“They come right up now and take the nuts out of their hands”), Eileen misses not being able to spend as much time with her other grandchildren, who live further away. Her eldest granddaughter, Hannah, enjoys singing and dancing, and when she and her brother would visit Eileen before Covid, Eileen would get the disco ball and karaoke machine out for them to have a sing and a dance. Eileen teaches Hannah traditional dances such as line dancing, and Hannah tries to teach Eileen trendy dancing like the floss, but Eileen isn’t as good at that particular move (“You’re rubbish, nan”).

In terms of the government’s response to the virus, Eileen agrees that they perhaps haven’t done as well as they should have, but makes the point that it’s difficult for anyone in charge to make decisions in such a time, given that it’s a completely new situation and it would be hard for anyone not to make mistakes. She also feels as though the gratitude that people had for key workers and for the NHS during the first lockdown has already slipped, which she says is human nature, as people are always quick to forget how lucky they are and find something to complain about again.

The most positive things that arose out of the lockdown for Eileen were that she saved money as a result of not being able to go anywhere to spend it and, more important, she realised how much pleasure she took out of the little things in life, like sitting in the park for a coffee with friends. When it’s safer to do so, Eileen looks forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and taking a trip to the seaside.

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