by Zoe Mitchell – an autobiographical piece
On the first day of lockdown, I played four games of Mario Kart back to back. And then I cried for an hour.
It’s weird, trying to understand yourself. When you decouple your actions from the context, step back into an objective side seat, you can rationalise all kinds of crap. You can reverse-engineer a whole narrative to explain so many things. I find myself doing it whenever I try to explain my lockdown Mario Kart addiction. It was a response to stress, a reversion to childhood patterns, a comfort blanket. But back then, on day 1, I had no idea what a chunk of our collective history lockdown would eat up. I had no idea what Mario Kart would become to me.
And really: what else was I supposed to do at my parents’ house but revert to childhood patterns?
I remember the first time I went home from university, in 2019, back in that pre-lockdown era. It was an eight-hour train journey – Norwich-Peterborough-Edinburgh-Leuchars – and I made the whole thing alone, with an enormous unwieldy rucksack that held all my laundry. The straps were tighter on the left side, so all the weight gnawed at one shoulder, worrying the muscle till it throbbed. But it didn’t matter, because it was Christmas and I was going to see my family. I’d made it.
The next morning, I woke at least three hours too early, while the dark was still going strong. But this was December in Scotland, so that’s not saying much. I’d been woken, I realised, by the cold. But, again, this was December in Scotland. I probably ought to have expected it.
So I got up. I stared through the window, at the dark and the cold, at the palpable sheets of whitish wind. No one in their right mind would go outside in weather like this, not at 5am. Not without a reason. But, you see, I hadn’t been to this village for months – for the first time in years, I’d spent a whole season away from Balmullo. I’d missed its autumn shades, its oranging and cooling, the way its hedges aged into russet. I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss its winter too. So – grabbing my house key for the first time in months – I unlocked the front door and headed outside.
I felt the cold as I walked, I really did. But somehow it didn’t really touch me. It was as though there was a layer between me and the wind, something thicker than clothes. Somehow, I was removed from the physicality of it. The frost bit around my fingers, but it didn’t land. When goosebumps rose against my arms, they didn’t feel like mine. I walked through the quiet – the dead quiet – and watched as the sun didn’t rise. And then I kept walking, down those paths I’d once trod daily. I was, I suppose, recapturing these old streets, relearning them. Was my affection for them fresh? Or was it a new, melancholy kind of affection – the sort of nostalgia you get from visiting somewhere you no longer belong? I couldn’t tell for the life of me. And, frankly, I was too tired to work it out.
The sun rose, the day went on, and I recaptured it with all my might. I stopped by my favourite sandwich shop. I took a trip on my old daily bus route. But all the while I was floored by the unfamiliarity of this unfamiliarity, the newness of the novelty. Here I was, trying to get my bearings in this new old world, using nothing but a sandwich shop and a bus ride. These things were the staples that had once held my days together. They stacked into my life, so innately a part of me that I never questioned their transience. They were innocuous, yes. That deli sandwich that I’d always loved never defined me. But I tried to ground myself in the trivialities. That way, I didn’t need to wonder whether the substance of me – the real me – still had root there. That was a whole other question.
It was that spirit – that grounding in trivialities – that led me to switch on the Wii, that first day of the Christmas break. I didn’t know who to be, here, in my parents’ house. I wasn’t a child anymore. Could I, the grown person who did her own shopping, fit in here? Could I slot myself back into the gap I’d left, even after I’d grown so much? I didn’t know, so I called my brother over for a game of Mario Kart. In that, at least, I could be myself. In the way that has always happened, my competitive spirit was roused along with the game music. Out of nowhere, some fire – some hard, all-consuming drive – captured me. For as long as we were racing, nothing else mattered. No longer did I worry about who I was, where I belonged. Right then, in that moment, I was nothing more, nothing less, than a girl with a Wii wheel. And all I had to do was win the race.
So when, three months later in March 2020, I found myself locked down in my parents’ home, it was easy to fall back into those old ways. Then, more than ever, Mario Kart was my lifeline. Shut away in the house for days on end, I was set apart from the things that defined me. My routine of lectures, coffee dates and church, hangouts in the kitchen, walks along the Avenues from campus to friends’ homes – all of it was gone. And I had no clue when, or if, I would get it back. So I stopped being Zoe-the-lit-student. I stopped being Zoe-the-babysitter. I stopped being Zoe-from-Flat-8, Zoe-from-Christian-Union, Zoe-the-overachiever. For then, I was just Zoe: a less secure and grounded version of myself than I’d been in a long while. When I sit here, writing at the beginning of 2021, and look back, there’s so little that still relates to me. Back then, I naively believed that lockdown would be over in a few months. I would, I remember thinking, be back at uni by May 2020 – “back home”, as I found myself saying. When lockdown began, my biggest concern was the boy I’d kissed a few days before, right at the moment before we all retreated to our hometowns. He was 300 miles away – and my lofty dreams for a happy-ever-after relationship were, quite against my will, paused. For the time being I’d have to make do with Snapchat flirtation. I’ve got a good imagination, see, I’m good at lending weight to things that don’t really deserve it. I was quite capable of positioning us as star-crossed lovers in my head. I could kid myself that we were at the beginning of a great romance, that our texting amounted to love poetry. As I sat and wrote my own (utterly abysmal) love poetry about him, it never crossed my mind how ridiculous I was being. I barely knew this boy. What we’d had was the potential for something – not a real relationship. But, back then, everything was relegated to potential. With my life on hold, all I had were dreams and plans, things to look forward to. This quasi-romance was just as real to me as anything else.
Like that – stuck, unsure of who I was in this new old settling – I began a daily routine of Mario Kart. I played with every member of my family hundreds of times, I reckon. And I got pretty good, too. I was stashing wins under my belt, racing better than I ever had in my life. If I positioned this as the keystone of my life, I could make myself seem pretty damn successful. In this one area, I knew exactly how to win. Zoe-the-overachiever was dead no more.
It reminded me of starting at university, how out of place I’d felt. For weeks, I’d haunted my flat, hiding out there until the campus outside became a little more friendly. I went from lectures to my bedroom, meetings to my bedroom, the kitchen to my bedroom. If you mapped out my journeys, every one of them would converge on that one spot. I didn’t feel free anywhere else. But it was Mario Kart that saved me then. When my flatmates suggested a tournament, I was all over it. At last, I could be me in front of them. They could see this side of my character – the successful, energetic, competitive side – and it felt as though they were getting to know me for the first time. This was how I found my place in university life. And this was how I found my way back into the home I’d grown up in.
I played Mario Kart while prepping Sunday lunch – our new family tradition, now we had the time for it. I’d set timers for potatoes and cauliflower cheese, and rejig each in and out of the oven between races. I played it on quiet, nothingy afternoons. I played it with my brother at 4am, delighting in this new tradition. In that early morning darkness, the world really did seem on hold – and, those times, it was our decision. We could race and talk, holding onto these hours that were ours alone. Nothing mattered, then. No one was replying to my messages, no one was ignoring them. They were all sound asleep, leaving me alone and worry-free. I played into the night, safe in the knowledge that I was happy – for those moments at least, all was well. The longer we stayed awake, the longer we could sleep in the next day. I could postpone the achy terror of waking up, faced with another day of nothing. The longer I stayed in the world of Mario Kart, the longer I could stay away from my own.
And so lockdown went on. The days melted into one another and – slowly – I began to carve out a new routine for myself. My days were punctuated with Zoom calls and Facetimes and the weekly drive to walk round St Andrews. I listened to hours of podcasts every day, as I trekked every possible route across the fields surrounding my village. I blogged and wrote stories, ate too much and walked too far. I hiked up and down the same farm track over and over, baked cakes, made my daily pilgrimage to the local shop. And every day I played Mario Kart.
After a while, these things became my touchstones. They became my rituals, the markers that split one hour from another. No longer was I defined by trips to lectures or coffee shops, by the number 26 bus ride to Norwich city centre. These new activities made up who I was. I didn’t need the walk up three flights of stairs to my flat, the smell of the library at 2am, restaurants in town or my waffle iron. My new routines replaced the old, till I forgot what life looked like before March 2020. Mario Kart was the one factor that tied it all together. It was my connection to my old self – not only to the Zoe of 2019, but to who I was before. Mario Kart has been a part of who I am for so long now. When I play, I’m a thousand Zoes in one: I’m squished with six others on a single bed at uni; I’m 14 years old at a sleepover party; I’m 10, on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I remember that afternoon well. It was one of those rare occasions that my brother and I could persuade my mum into a game. We’d played three races straight when the phone rang – and I was top on the leader board. Mum went to pick up the landline and we paused the game, listening to the music loop against the menu screen. My brother and I sat there, silent but not deliberately so. I remember now the way my eyes glazed over at the screen, the way my toes tensed in my socks, the feel of my Wii remote clamming slowly in my hands. When my mum stepped back into the room, I knew before she spoke that it was bad news.
“It’s Grandpa,” she said. “I’m so sorry. Your Dad’s on the phone, he says Grandpa died this morning. It was peaceful – he was fast asleep.”
I didn’t say a word, but I nodded. And when I unpaused the Wii, Mum didn’t even question it. She just sat right down, picked up her wheel and rejoined the game. For a few rounds, we played without speaking. I focused on the track and the leader board, turning and overtaking and nipping through shortcuts till I could think of nothing else. I wasn’t imagining Grandpa dead, the shrunken, half-empty look of him the last time I’d seen him. I wasn’t thinking of his loose skin and wrinkles, his blank eyes that didn’t know me, the droop of his face post-stroke. I wasn’t wondering what they’d do with his body. All I could think about was the race.
A few rounds in, I found myself laughing. I can’t remember what it was I laughed about now – something innocuous, I’m sure. But I remember the moment right after it happened. I remember sitting there, remote loose in my hands, wondering how on earth my lips knew how to make that sound. Surely, I thought, such a noise should be impossible. No one can laugh when they’re grieving. But then my little brother laughed too, and so did my mum, and soon all three of us were there, cackling on the sofa and steering all wrong.
Mario Kart got me through that day. It got me through another hundred awful days in lockdown – the day I finished binging on Torchwood and ran out of things to do with my time; the day that boy I’d kissed ended things. After a few months, I really should have known it was over. We’d stopped talking about the future, about life and God and all the important things. Our Snapchat streak had broken five times over, his silences had grown longer, and it had been weeks since he’d wanted to video call. But it had taken me an ill-advised eight-hour train journey to realise that we were finished. I cried the whole way back, sobbing into my face mask and longing for home. The vending machines and water fountains were all broken, so this crying was a pretty inefficient bodily function. I really couldn’t afford to lose so much water right then. There was no way to replenish it, and nothing to eat save two enormous slabs of Morrison’s own chocolate. So I ate and I cried, and I drank water lukewarm, straight from the bathroom tap.
And when I got home, I turned on the Wii.
I’d signed a lease on my second-year uni house – starting August 2020 – months before the first lockdown was announced. When the start-date for our tenancy arrived, there was nothing technically stopping me from moving. Students were allowed to return to uni; travel from Scotland to England was unrestricted. And I knew I wanted the change. Of course, I would still be locked down, still stuck indoors and shut out of my uni campus. But at least I could be stuck in a new house. This place would be a blank slate, a building empty of memories or associations. So I made that journey down south again, bringing all my things with me this time. When I moved into my new house, with my new housemates, I was as hopeful as I’d been in months.
So now here I am. During this latest academic year, the lockdown, of course, hasn’t ended. Here in Norwich, I’m not exactly free. None of us are – as I write this, in February 2021, we’re just starting to see hope for a way out, but it’s still a long way off. Yet, somehow, I don’t feel as trapped anymore. My days are still spent inside and online, that much is true. But the world doesn’t feel quite so far away. Sometimes, I get to go outside, to help run tech on my church livestreams – it means I get to see people (from a distance) in real life. It’s an opportunity that’s been so rare this past year, and it’s an incredible blessing. I get to see my old friends – at least, the top, unmasked, half of their faces – and even make new ones. In fact, the first week I volunteered at church, I met a guy who would become integral to my life. Getting to know him was hands-down the best part of my 2020. And it meant that, when the November lockdown was announced, I had a brand-new place – and person – to stay indoors with. After a solid month of “forming a household” with him (read: sleeping on his sofa), I was more smitten than ever. But that’s another story…
Nowadays, the life I led in that first block of lockdown seems so distant to me. Those day to day mundanities, those fears, those desires: all of them seem like relics of a far-off time. They might as well exist behind glass, in some underwhelming museum– the crappy webcam I used for my video conferencing; the chair where I watched all of Gossip Girl on Netflix; the bath where I lay for hours on end, replenishing the water when it got too cold, praying for a Snapchat alert. I can’t imagine ever being there – being that girl – again.
During this period of lockdown, my life has moved incredibly fast and also incredibly slowly. I’ve spent so much of it vegetating – stuck in a handful of rooms, bathing in hand sanitiser. But for something that’s looked so like stagnation, this phase has brought crazy growth. Of course, I’ve got a new house and a new boyfriend, but I don’t mean that – not just that. The lockdown forced me to confront my shaky sense of self. It brought me face-to-face with my coping mechanisms, my rather dodgy foundations. For months, I tried to find my value in a boy who didn’t love me and a video game. Neither of those things could sustain me. That boy didn’t owe or promise me anything, but I poured all my dreams into him anyway. Poor guy didn’t know what he was in for. Of course, Mario Kart didn’t let me down, exactly – but that couldn’t sustain me either. Moving away from my parents’ house was the step I needed to re-evaluate and restructure myself. I learned to find my comfort in my faith, my sense of worth in who I believe God has made me to be. No longer do I rely on external distractions to keep me centred. I don’t so often feel that tug towards Mario Kart anymore. I don’t, perhaps, need it in that way I used to – I don’t need a safety net, I don’t need something tangible to define me. Now and again, though, I’ll switch on the Wii in my new house. I don’t need Mario Kart anymore, not in that same visceral way. But it’s still a pretty damn fun game. When I race with my housemates or my boyfriend, the game feels new – and just the way it always has, all at once. In many ways, that’s how I look at my development during lockdown. It’s been a removal from my old, insecure self, becoming a “new me” – but it’s also been a reconnection, with the love and faith that have always defined who I am. I have a stronger handle now than ever on what makes me me. And if Mario Kart is a part of that, then so be it.