by Catriona West – an autobiographical piece
…room to the living room to the kitchen to her room to the garden to her room. Every day is the same. Every day is the same. Every day is the same.
Wash your hands. Social distance. Stay 2 metres apart. Use hand sanitiser. Wear a mask.
The weather outside is taunting everyone: clear blue skies, the smell of hot grass coming in through the windows, and it’s warm – why is it so warm? Has it always been this warm in March? – yet everyone is stuck inside with nowhere to go. But the house backs on to fields and there are lots of open spaces where she lives, and the neighbour’s dog to borrow to take on a walk, and it’s peaceful and green and there’s blossom showering the branches of the trees. She goes out on her bike, along the long windy country roads, to the nearby villages surrounded by fields, where everything is old and quaint and pretty: churches and cottages with thatched roofs. And everything is quiet, so quiet, just the birds and the rustle of the trees and the warmth of the sun on her face. She sits in the garden and reads, all of her old favourite stories, Tolkien and Tolstoy and Austen, revisiting the past; there’s something comforting in reading a book you’ve read countless times before, like coming home to a warm house after a long day and taking off your shoes.
Wash your hands. Don’t go to work. Stay inside. Essential travel only.
Everyone is sitting inside like they’re tiny figures in a child’s dolls house, one in each room, everyone doing their own little activity, attempting to stay busy. In her house everyone is in a separate room on their laptops, working from home or doing online school (except her brother, who’s on his Playstation 24/7). And her mother is telling everyone to be quiet because she’s on a work call, and can everyone come off the internet for an hour because her connection is slow and she’s convinced it’s because everyone in this house is online (except where else can they be; being anywhere but online isn’t allowed right now).
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Except all children can now go back to school. But stay inside. And wash your hands.
She thinks she’s still a student, but with no lectures or seminars at university she doesn’t feel like she is. She hasn’t got a job, and she’s stuck, frozen in time, in a strange limbo where she doesn’t have any purpose but also isn’t supposed to have any purpose right now. And before when people did nothing and stayed at home all day they were called lazy and were encouraged to get out and do something with their lives, yet now everyone is required by law to stay in and do nothing with their lives. And people are furloughed or working from home yet the world is still turning, so perhaps we’re not supposed to work until we die after all, because look at us, we all just exist, no one is spending all day at the office and everyone can work on their own time and take their own breaks and it’s fine.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Don’t go outside but you can go back to work if you want and we haven’t closed the borders either but remember to help our key workers and don’t forget to wash your hands.
It’s alienating and isolating, how people have to stay away from each other, recoiling at the sight of another person, crossing the street to get away. It’s unnatural to see someone outside and your first thought be to create more space, more distance, between yourself and them, to widen the gap; even though they’re right in front of you, you must stay apart, you must not come into contact. Humans are hardwired to be communicable, social, dependent on other people, forming our lives out of connections, interactions, conversations. And even though she and her friends live so close to each other, they can only see each other’s faces on the screen, on Zoom, not in person, as though they were a million miles away, on the other side of the world, or maybe another planet. They do quizzes, because everyone is doing quizzes, except theirs are the best because they are tailored to their group and have rounds on memes and High School Musical and “who wrote this caption to their private Instagram post five years ago”.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Help your local economy. Don’t go outside but also Eat Out to Help Out because restaurants and cafes are open again otherwise all businesses will go bankrupt but also stay inside because cases are rising again and have you washed your hands?
She’s spending too much time on TikTok, endlessly watching, and everyone is talking about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin and everyone’s doing Chloe Ting ab workouts and everyone is baking banana bread. Why is everyone baking banana bread? And everyone on Instagram is waking up at five in the morning and going for runs and doing ten-hour work days and meditating and journaling and using this time as a “spiritual reset”, whatever that means (do they even know?), and she feels like there’s a lot of competition right now to be productive and get things done and not waste your time. But she also knows that a lot of the things you see on social media are performative; it’s only for show and only makes it seem as though they’re leading a perfect life, but even their life isn’t like that, not really. And it’s okay not to be doing all of those things, it’s okay if the only thing you did today was get up and go outside for a bit. You’re not wasting your time, you’re not competing against anyone else, it’s okay to go at your own pace. You’re doing just fine.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Let’s clap for our key workers. No, you can’t have sufficient PPE, or a pay rise, don’t be stupid now.
She makes a scrapbook of her travelling pictures and tickets and mementos from her gap year and misses it and reminisces about the freedom we all took for granted: look how we used to be able to travel across the world with nothing stopping us, look how we got on and off planes without a second thought and visited new places and each day was a new picture, a new setting, and I-am-so-sick-of-staring-at-these-same-four-walls. Look at how lucky we were to experience all of that, none of us thought for even a second that we wouldn’t be able to travel anywhere in a year’s time. And just like we didn’t know then, we don’t know now. We don’t know when this will be over, if our ‘normal’ is now a thing of the past, something to remember fondly but never return to, something to reminisce over with your friends about how you used to be able to do so much, so many things, with such carelessness and indifference, and she can’t believe all those times she said no to a night out, what an idiot.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Let’s help the NHS but also let’s just open up all the shops again even though we haven’t made wearing a mask inside mandatory yet but here’s some hand sanitiser and also good luck everyone.
And she should be grateful, because she has good health and so do her family and they have a roof over their heads and are financially stable and that is definitely something to be grateful for, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just sit inside and be grateful, she wants to be out, she wants to be moving on with her life. People aren’t supposed to lie stagnant, people are supposed to be On the Move and Having Big Plans and Always Thinking About the Next Step and life is a continuous train track that’s supposed to keep going forward, not round and round in circles. Except the whole world has come to a big fat standstill, like the universe has picked up the remote and pressed pause, like we are just little pieces on an Earth-sized playing board.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. You can now meet in groups of six but you can’t go to your relative’s funeral. Herd immunity will protect us all, but don’t tell that to everyone who’s already died.
And when everything started to open up again, after the first wave, after the initial swell and rise, there came the pause. The breath of fresh air, let your shoulders down, meet up in groups of six, sit inside restaurants, visit each other’s houses. Soon followed by the peak, white tipped, foaming at the mouth. The roar, the crash. Lockdown number three, stay inside, shut the schools, work from home, essential travel only. Three months; indefinitely; for the rest of your lives. Spray and grit and the harsh slap of water on rock.
Wash your hands. Stay inside. Social distance. Wear a mask. Use hand sanitiser.
And when we all said we needed some-time-off-work and some-Me-Time and when-did-my-life-get-so-busy, I’d-do-anything-for-a-break, This. Is. Not. What. We. Meant.