for George Freeman, by Ersi Zevgoli
Sitting at home watching the telly is not a state of being that comes naturally to George Freeman: “The television bores me stiff,” he tells me. No wonder, then, that when I ask him how lockdown’s been for him on our first call, he tells me that it’s been bad. He greatly misses his Keep Fit Zumba class. Apparently, they have converted the building into a COVID testing centre, so who knows when those will resume.
George has been experimenting with doing things remotely. He has been ordering things off of the internet, but admits that he doesn’t really like online shopping. “I like to go into the shops, and see the thing for myself before I buy it”, George tells me, and I cannot disagree with him there. Maybe he also misses the sight of people going about their business.
His brothers live in Oxford and most of his friends in London are quite far away from him, definitely farther away than taking a government-approved walk. He keeps a couple of chickens in his garage for more immediate company. “They come and peck on the door occasionally, let me know they’re there. The fox got the previous two.”
George manages to stay in touch with all of his further-away relatives over the phone, checking in with his ageing mother-in-law, chatting with Greg, his partner-in-crime in many an adventure, and having his weekly call with one of his brothers. “I do miss my brothers… to a certain extent. All they talk about is politics.” And George had much rather listen to a good record or CD than get entangled in a political debate.
That’s one of the things that’s been keeping him going during all these long months of lockdown: music. “I won’t stick to one sort of music,” he tells me, and assured me he’ll play the music he likes at full volume, and let the neighbours complain all they like. He perhaps has a soft spot for modern Irish music. George reminisces about the London band scene of the ‘70s. His late wife of thirty-four years worked with top bands, arranged their transport, hotels and hospitality, that sort of thing. Together, they got to meet a lot of the bands, touring the night clubs with them.
“Tell you what,” he says on one of our calls, “when this virus business is over, you take the train to London, I’ll come meet you at the station, and I’ll take you round these places I’m talking about.” That’s the sweetest thing I’ve heard all week, and a trip down the sights of the ‘70s with George sounds like a nice way to shake off all the doom and gloom of lockdown.
There is no containing this active, outgoing man, so as soon as lockdown was lifted in December, off he goes again. He tells me he went to the theatre, saw a show that was not brilliant, but just all right, and had a night out with friends, with drinks, a meal, and a quiz. There were a couple of people he didn’t know in the group, “but they were very nice people.”
George is an easygoing, friendly man, and it’s no stretch of my imagination seeing him getting on with just about everyone. I can hear this in the way he keeps asking about me when we’re supposed to be talking about him. He is very excited to hear that I’m heading back home to Greece for the holidays. He’s been going to Poros for the past fourteen or fifteen years there, and really enjoys his laid-back vacations there. He stays at the same hotel every year, wanders round everyday, “always on the lookout for things”, and has made friends with the family that own his favourite taverna. When I ask him if he likes the traditional Greek treats, like olives and tzatziki, George hesitates for a moment before replying, “No, I’m afraid not.” He likes plain food, he admits. Well, maybe next time he visits Greece, I can take him to my favourite tavernas, get him to try retsina (resinated white wine that is just perfect for hot summer evenings by the sea), and just maybe, change his mind on Greek cuisine.
“I’ll be home for Christmas for the first time in how many years”, George tells me. Money might’ve been scarce, but he and his wife always managed to go places and meet people, despite the very high interest rates on mortgages. “Tell you what, you stay here, and I’ll go to Greece to your people.” The new rules for London means that he will have to forego his usual Christmastime routine: church on Christmas Eve, a visit to his mother-in-law, and a meal with friends on Boxing Day. Having managed, only just, to spend Christmas with my family, I can only imagine how tough it must have been on him. “Boring” and “quiet” is what he called it, and I suspect those are the two worst adjectives he could use. At least he managed to go for a walk in the park on Boxing Day with his mate Greg.
Nevertheless, George is ready to be out and about once again. He did a computing course at his local college, and is ready for another one.
“I wanted to take it a little bit further, know a little bit more”, he tells me. He’s curious to see what he can do with a system, tinker and try things out, be able to fix his own computer if there’s a problem. But the course he wants to do is too expensive. And Keep Fit is not coming back anytime soon, either.
“This lady that I know from Keep Fit, really nice lady, she… passed on from this virus,” he tells me on our first call after the holidays, and for a moment, I am lost for words. “The funeral’s later in January, so there’s that.” Silence. I’m not sure how to respond or support him. It happens sometimes; he’ll mention someone as he narrates his travels and exploits, and he’ll add, almost like an afterthought, “Sadly, he’s passed on now.” It makes the pandemic and these never-ending lockdowns startlingly real; things come into dizzying focus, warm as you are in your home, perhaps as you complain about not going out, what is going on and why we are stuck inside, you realise we might be collectively going slightly mad.
Even so, getting these glimpses of George and his indomitable spirit through our calls, I know that once life starts going back to normal, he will be ready to embrace it at its fullest. He’ll be ready to have a stroll and do a bit of shopping, ready to meet up at the pub, ready to book a holiday as soon as he’s able to. He’d better be. After all, we have plans.