Unprecedented

by Sandra Wilson – an autobiographical piece

I arrived at the tall glass building and entered via the side doors. It was a dark, chilly, wintery morning. I switched on the lights as I walked the corridor towards the office that led to the reception desk. I hung my thick navy puffer coat on the old wooden coat rack and settled at my desk. The air smelt old, dank, close and musty. I sat on the comfy leather chair, switched on the computer and signed the register.

The reception area was quite dull, the silence almost deafening. The old worn dark brown plastic-covered chairs were regularly urinated on and spilled on with the free tea and coffee provided by the centre. They were opaque despite being wiped daily by the chirpy cleaner. They were also beginning to show miniscule cracks, though you could not see it in the dim lighting. Having been covered by hundreds of bottoms of all shapes and sizes, they were now curved in a mix of all those. The sometimes incontinent, often frail elderly people that visited with their concerned, irritated, frustrated relatives, sons, daughters, grand-daughters and grandsons had left a mark.

The thin, once light blue carpet was now lumpy and torn where there was the most footfall. The facilities manager visited once every two months and inspected the building with senior staff, in the hope of getting funds to give the place a revamp. The first visit yielded a budget of ten pounds to buy thick black sticky tape. The workmen were called in for ten minutes to tape down the areas where the carpet was torn. The visitors to the centre didn’t seem to notice – grateful for a warm building, friendly faces and free drinks.

“Where’s the tea and coffee?” Said one of the group’s regulars.

“It’s coming,” replied the occupational therapist who organised it.

There was always a mix of visitors, some happy, lonely, smiling, chatty, others sad, anxious, and teary.

There would be those who walked in at a slow pace, confidently dressed in their best outfits, flouncy flowery dresses, and plastic sandals in the summer. In the winter, they would wear thick black Marks and Spencer’s slacks, quality thick hand-knitted jumpers, ribbed woolly hats, leather boots and cashmere gloves.

Others would come in the same outfit week in week out, bringing with them an odour which seemed to cling to the garments even when they had been cleaned, almost as if afraid to leave the comfort of the cloth it inhabited.

Then there were those that shuffled in, carefully assisted by a relative. They’d wait in complete silence as though lost in another world and jolted back like an electrical current, back to this dimension when touched gently on the elbow and aided on a slow concerted walk to the Doctor’s office down the narrow uninteresting corridor.

I sat at the old brown desk and fidgeted, trying to imagine how many other people had sat here to work. I opened and closed the drawers, flicking through paperwork, reorganising the white appointment cards, and looking at my silver watch – 8.15am and I was already bored. Swivelling in the tattered black leather chair, I looked out towards the entrance. The huge glass doors beckoned me to escape.

Suddenly the doors opened slowly, almost in slow motion, creaking; the bottom swept the black rubber mats underneath and then closed. The fine hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. The doors were usually triggered by movement, footsteps. Why did they open?

I stood up to peek over the high dark brown reception desk, but there was no one.

I liked the early shift because it meant I left early, but the eeriness of the morning was unnerving. I heard every clink and clank and the heartbeat of the building. I walked to the front and locked the main doors, then walked down the long carpeted narrow hallway. Every creak could be heard. I looked from left to right, hearing only my own footsteps as I made my way to the small kitchen. I poured hot water into my faded Santa mug and rushed back to the safety of my desk, trying to ignore the fleeting black shadows that seemed to pop out in my peripheral vision.

I sipped the creamy sweet caramel latte, revelling in the flavours, so comforting and warm, savouring every moment, as it travelled slowly down my oesophagus. I made a mental reminder to cut down on my sugar and to place an order for a bacon sandwich at the café round the corner.

I looked at the old grey phone and quickly checked for any voicemail. I wondered why it hadn’t rung yet.

“Don’t pick up the phone if it rings before 9am, that’s when our service starts,” my colleague had told me when I’d started the job. This had stuck in my head from my first day.

“What if it’s an emergency?” I had asked.

“The out of hours team will pick up, derr,” she said sarcastically raising her eyebrow then return to gossiping with the other staff.

“So, Alice!” said the senior nurse in a loud whisper.

“Who’s that? I asked.

“She’s been having it off with one of the married doctors,” she replied ignoring my question.

Everyone ummed and aahed.

I had completed a Master’s to do this, I thought. I daydreamed of leaving full time employment forever, spending my days travelling the world, reading novels and writing.

I proceeded to wipe the dusty desk, phone and keyboard with the thin cheap disinfectant wipes pulled from a red and white plastic tub. I threw the used sheets in the small bin under the desk.

I picked up a little blue sachet and tore the top off. Inside was a thick disposable wet sanitiser. I wiped my hands. We had been instructed to start using these especially when we returned from the toilets. We had also recently been given training on how to wash our hands more efficiently. I didn’t think anything of it as we were always being given new directives.

***

Staff started to trickle in, and the day hastened. A sudden air of urgency had taken hold. Senior staff rushed around; those with health issues were sent away with laptops to work from home. My colleagues remained tight lipped, not giving away any information after each meeting. Usually there were whispers and leaks, but not this time. I was not privy. Their elaborate version of local and world news usually unfolded through a story involving them, a member of their family or a distant friend or relative. I went to them for news; I rarely read the newspapers, I was too busy reading books and studying. I kept myself up to date with the discussions of the centre’s visitors.

“Did you ‘ear that there’s a pandemic in China. Well, my cousin’s friend’s sister, she works down the local chippy and she said that some virus is coming over ‘ere.”

“Really?” I said to the audience of a secretary and two nurses who had gathered.

“It’s only in China,” said one secretary. “It actually started there because they eat anything. I’ve seen videos of people collapsing in the streets.”

“Those are fake,” said one lady.

“I’m serious! Hang on, I’ll get my phone out,” she rummaged in her bag.

“You better stock up, ‘cos we may go into a lockdown,” said another lady.

“A what?” The phone rang.

“Morning, ladies,” said the manager, popping her head in.

The women quickly dispersed.

“I’m sorry, the meeting rooms are booked out for the week,” I said to the third person that day.

It was unusual to have so many in-house meetings. The secretaries and admin staff were called to attend the next lot of emergency meets. I was left to man the reception on my own. I had become accustomed to being excluded.

“Cancel all the groups,” the manager instructed.

Things were taking a strange turn, I thought. I popped to the local supermarket to buy lunch, and the shelves were void of toilet paper, wipes, sanitisers.

The freezers were totally empty. I just assumed they were waiting for deliveries. But the panic buying said differently. The empty supermarket shelves made it felt like there was an apocalypse heading our way. The fear emanated in the air like a cloud, following the eerie smell of pandemonium and panic. This kind of thing did not happen in England outside of the movies.

***

From having a building full of medical, support staff and patients visiting daily, we were down to zero patients and a skeleton staff of seven.

“From next Monday…” said our Manager, haughtily looking down at us temporary staff, as we sat at our desks. I swivelled slowly from side to side in my chair.

“…you will be expected to sit apart. You sit here,” she pointed to one end of the open plan office, “and you sit over here. The government have advised us to practise social distancing.”

I popped into her office after the meeting.

“How do we know this social distancing works?”

She looked at me blankly.

“I don’t know.”

“Can I have a laptop to work from home?”

“We don’t have any, but as soon as IT have some stock I will let you know.”

Suddenly, the directive was given for a total lockdown. Only key workers could go to their jobs. I was classed as a key worker, but I was now at a reception with no visitors and minimal phone calls.

I dealt with a monotonous backlog of paperwork all day. I put a sheet of paper into the little scanner, pressed a button and watched it slide through slowly.

One evening, I discovered that two friends had been in contact with someone who had the virus. I was advised to go into isolation. My whole family were now indoors together.

“What shall we do today?” We would say.

We spent our days working on projects, reading, writing, chatting, laughing. For us, it was a time of discovery and learning.

One day the phone rang.

“Morning, it’s me, Sarah”, my manager said.

It was unusual for her to call. I listened intently.

“Unfortunately, due to the decreasing workload…”

Here we go, I thought.

“We will no longer need your services.”

“I see,” I replied.

“Thank you so much for your dedication and hard work.”

A sense of relief came over me. I had dreamt of leaving, well not exactly in that way.

But then I thought, can she do that, during lockdown? I had worked for the temporary team for seven years; the audacity.

I didn’t return to work. Our centre had been closed for the foreseeable future. There had been an outbreak of the virus.

I enjoyed quality time with my family. We decorated, played games, read, developed a new business, and studied, learning new skills.

I was grateful for what we had. So many friends and family had been hit hard with job losses, redundancies, and bereavements. Those who had not been directly affected questioned whether there was a virus. Those who had been affected were led by their grief and fear.

***

Finally, lockdown restrictions were lifted and most returned to work. Life was different now, with everyone except children instructed to wear masks. Buses limited the number of passengers at any one time.

“How were the trains this morning?” I asked my husband daily.

“They were packed and still not everyone wears a mask.”

The daily news reported that numbers were creeping back up again. Rumours of a second lockdown spread.

“Did you hear? We can only meet in groups of six. Also, the pubs have to close by 10pm,” I chatted with my friends via Zoom.

“Does that mean they have figured out what time Corona comes out and who she visits?” We giggled at the unbelievability of the situation.

There was daily news coverage. I changed from channel to channel only to be met with an update of deaths caused by Covid or the number of test centres that had been built or the number of cases or which countries you could visit and which, if you did visit, you had to stay in isolation for fourteen days. I stopped switching the TV on altogether.

Lockdown number two came swiftly; it had been expected, like a visit from an aunt which you dreaded but you knew was going to come sweeping in, stay long enough to create a whirlwind in your home and then go suddenly, leaving you with chaos. The number of cases continued to increase rapidly.

“We will have a tier system,” announced Boris Johnson.

There was a new set of rules; Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, rule of six. Limitations, closure of pubs, no mixing households. Confusion.

“Schools and Universities will remain open and only essential shops. Gyms, pubs and restaurants will shut down,” announced the government. “Work from home and go to work only if imperative. We will do our best to save Christmas; we will be coming out of lockdown on 2nd December,” said Boris proudly.

Stuff Christmas, I thought, it’s more important to save lives. So we will come out of lockdown on the 2nd, we will have an influx of last minute Christmas shopping, and then what?

I had become a recluse. I didn’t care to leave my house. It was a concerted effort just to make plans to go for a walk around the block, visit the local park, or go shopping. Seeing discarded disposable blue masks on the ground or people not wearing masks in shops gave me anxiety.

Standing in line, being herded like sheep, marching in one at a time. Spraying the handle of the trolley. Squeezing liquidy sticky alcoholic bacterial gel onto your hands and rubbing it in quickly. Picking up groceries and putting them in your trolley. Trying to avoid contact with other shoppers or glaring at those that came too close. No entry if you were not wearing a mask. Trying to avoid the shop staff who did not wear masks. Feeling stifled and suffocated, wanting to remove your mask but you daren’t. Stares of disapproval if you so much as coughed, sniffed or sneezed in a shop. Queueing at checkout, standing on little coloured circles stamped out on the floor. Putting your groceries on the belt as the masked, blue gloved cashier scans your goods and you put them in your trolley.

I was concerned about the approaching wintry, flu season. How could you tell whether it was flu or Covid?

News feeds popped up regularly on my phone. Mental health issues and loneliness was rising together with suicide cases as people were forced to remain indoors. The new normal was to stay at home, watch Netflix, read, have Zoom calls, hold lockdown birthday celebrations. Follow the rules, follow the rules; but not everyone followed the rules.

***

A week before Christmas, according to the media numbers continued to rise and the expected lockdown three came. Boris reluctantly cancelled Christmas. It was a quiet time for us; no relatives talking over each other, cooking big dinners, eating too much, laughing, or kids noisily running up and down the stairs.

A few days after Christmas, the headache came first, then the cough. I stayed in bed for a couple of days. I knew I had Covid and sent off for the test kit. I was restless, felt horrid and wanted to work; I couldn’t remain in bed. I didn’t feel hungry, couldn’t taste my food and the cough was getting worse. I coughed like it was coming from the very depths of my soul. I would walk slowly up the stairs, like I imagined a ninety-year-old would and it would take about ten minutes to recover. I would sit on the edge of the bed, breathing hard and heavy, like I had been for a jog around the block. I hacked and coughed, afraid it would not stop. I was relegated back to bed. My family nursed me daily. I spent days in and out of sleep, too unwell to watch TV. The kit came, the uncomfortable test was taken and posted. Two of us were unwell now and the rest of my family were in isolation. Shopping was dropped off on our doorstep. I was afraid to tell friends and family how ill I really was, answering text messages in a light-hearted way, praying that I would not be admitted to hospital.

Superstition and panic set in when I saw my grandfather in a dream, we had a conversation. He had been gone for over thirty years, but it was as though I had seen him yesterday, so clear and vivid.

I did my breathing exercises in earnest, inhaled steam with Olbas oil, drank herbal teas which normally I would not touch. The test results came back positive. I was able to eat, but still coughing violently and unable to breathe properly.

Three weeks in, and I thought I had recovered. I stood up from my bed, and my head felt like it was a fishbowl with the fishes swimming backwards. I was engulfed with a cold sweat as my stomach lurched and I fought the nausea. “I feel sick,” I said to my husband as he encouraged me to lay back down on the bed.

More days in bed. I forced myself to work, make a few calls each day. Week four, and I was making trips downstairs. Going up and down the stairs was still a challenge. Recovery was slow but I was grateful that I came through it, as I was one of the lucky ones. Each day friends and relatives informed me of the deaths of loved ones. Like the whole population, I was now waiting.

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