by Ersi Zevgoli – an autobiographical piece
“See you in two weeks!” I remember my flatmate telling me as she gave me a big hug and a bright smile, certain that this was only a passing thing.
My smile was a little more tense.
“You won’t”, I wanted to reply, but nobody likes a pessimist. Or a realist, you might say as the two weeks stretched to two months, and I only saw her briefly and from a distance when she came back to our empty flat to pack up and move out.
Up until mid-March, just before lockdown, I remember all ten of us in our flat joking about coronavirus.
“Been to Wuhan recently?” We’d tease whenever somebody got the sniffles. Hubris? Perhaps. It all seemed so far removed from us, first year students in the East of England. Then we started reading about Italy. Then friends and family started calling me, asking me how things where over there. Greece entered lockdown twenty days before the UK did. I remember a joint call from my parents, a terrifying thing as their divorce was coming through at that time, imploring me to come home.
Come home where? My mum moved into the little one bedroom flat I used to live in while I was still working in Greece, and rents out her own place to help me with tuition fees. My dad is a carer for his 92-year-old aunt. And my grandfather had only just celebrated his eightieth birthday, so my grandparents’ place was also out of the question. Norwich is home now. So I stayed.
I remember the silence of the empty flat, of the empty building, pulsate around me that first weekend I spent on my own in student halls. I remember playing music a little too loudly and drinking a little too much red wine to brace myself for what I knew was an indeterminate amount of time. I remember those first few days always leaving a light on in the kitchen; a childish, pointless safety blanket that kept me sane. The corridor lights unnerved me; they activated when someone moved. It had a horror film quality, walking down the corridor and watching the lights turn on one by one as you passed beneath each of them. Sometimes you moved a little too fast for it, and it would come on a few seconds too late, and you would already be beneath the next one. That would be a little late too, and by the time the one outside your room would come on, the door would already be shut behind you.
I had three months to learn how the corridor lights worked. Three months alone in an empty flat. You get jumpy at first. There’s no one there to justify the noises you hear, and even the smallest creaking of settling pipes or wood is enough to wake you up with a start. Vast expanses of empty space, walls, bedrooms, bathrooms meant for ten left to reverberate the muffled footsteps of one. At least cleaning the industrial-scale kitchen and three bathrooms kept me busy (another word for sane, I came to realise) on Sundays.
I struggled to sleep. I made sure I exercised a lot; yoga, dance lessons, ridiculously long walks even in the spring showers that left me blissfully tired and sunk me into deep, uninterrupted sleep. I struggled not to stress eat. I struggled to fill my days. I struggled to keep in mind that this isolation was NOT me, it wasn’t my brain slowly but surely sinking back into depression. I struggled remembering that this was something outside of me. I struggled.
But the days were getting longer, the temperature was rising, and in those spring evenings, with my window open to let the cool dusk breeze in, I found pieces of myself that where long lost.
I listened to music I hadn’t in a long while, a little shy of my taste and apprehensive of the opinions of my younger flatmates. I descended deep into indie country music about the human condition that somehow made my own more bearable. The philosophical, endoscopic lyrics of Brown Bird seemed oddly apt and fitting with my isolation and desolation. Verdi’s Otello provided the more personal drama that I needed; nothing was happening to me while everything was happening to the world at large, and listening to a man unable to discern fact from fiction in hauntingly beautiful music made me feel when I feared I was going completely, irrevocably numb.
I read books I had long wanted to, but never had the time. “Hell is other people”, Sartre wrote in his play No Exit, and while I might have agreed just a month before reading it, I was coming to the conclusion that they might just be paradise after all. I turned to more light-hearted reads after that.
I finally managed to get my grandparents to Skype me and see their smiling, if pale, faces after six months. I reconnected with people who’d faded from my life, the expanse of Europe between us diminishing, as we all had nowhere to go further than our laptops. I remember an unexpected message from a friend with whom I’d exchange birthday wishes via text only. He asked if we could have a chat, it’d been awhile. We Skyped for two hours, trying to figure out how this whole thing, so big it was nameless in our conversation, was affecting us. A gentle sigh over a cup of coffee as we took turns admitting that no, we were not doing great. Our brains were going places they didn’t usually; dark places, places where self-doubt and existential crises lurk, ready to jump on you with no apparent reason. We were struggling. Anyway, we Skype once or twice a week now. Each one makes sure the other isn’t spiralling into this madness again.
This strange outpour of honesty from all of us soothed the darkest corners of my mind. Slowly, the faint electrical sounds emanating from the corridor lights became comforting and reassuring rather than terrifying and ominous. I was finally at peace with the corridor lights. Morpheus came to embrace me more willingly, the stress and anxiety subsiding. Cases were dropping in the UK and in Greece, and who can be grumpy in the summer anyway?
We struggled, I struggled, but we pushed through. June came, and with it three cancelled flights and the end of my student halls contract. Thankfully, having firmly made Norwich my home meant I have people who were willing to help me out, family and friends. I had a place to stay till I could get a flight back to Greece. Those summer days were long, warm, and gin and laughs flowed freely as – at last – I was back to living with people.
Just as things were starting to look up, an urgent phone call. We’d all been so caught up in the coronavirus, we forgot that other things existed to torment us too. There are a lot of euphemisms for this particular disease that my friend was diagnosed with. We’re so scared of it, we daren’t call it by its name, and yet that’s what awaited me as I answered the phone with a smile, only to have it frozen in place, and then melted away slowly, painfully, like an ice cube left in the intense summer heat. Cancer. Going back to Greece became more of a necessity and less of a choice now.
July came, and with it, finally! A flight to Athens. I remember booking the ticket less than a day before the flight, urgently packing up a small suitcase. I remember hugging my uncle and aunt at the train station goodbye, too grateful for their support to even attempt to put it to words, still disbelieving of the news. The train ride to London was surreal; empty seats, empty carriages, and this disconcerting feeling of familiarity, but not quite. The flight itself, even more so.
But what did it matter? What did it matter that it took me a full day of travelling with a mask on, too scared to take it off apart from hurriedly gulping down some water? I was almost there, my friend’s diagnosis was the best it could possibly be, the operation was scheduled and she was expected to make a full recovery. I found my patience to be boundless in that nine-hour stopover in Frankfurt. And I was rewarded, as I exited the airport, tiredly dragging my suitcase behind me, to see my parents, bemasked and there.
The heat of the Athenian July night hit me almost as much as the surreal feeling of my dad’s urgent hug, social distancing be damned. I knew it wasn’t over, I knew we had a long way to go, but for a brief moment, I could be carefree and happy and there. Home, after all, are the people you love, as much as any house or city.