Tiles, Towers, Toilets

by Christopher Worrall – an autobiographical piece

I had a dream last night.

I was in a tower so tall that the ground below was invisible. Inside the tower was an equivalent of everything and everyone I knew in the world outside.

There were crowds, and sometimes I walked through them, joyous at finding old flames and unrequited loves. Walls, floors and sweeping wide staircases pulsed with movement and excitement.

I hugged someone who might have been my favourite ever teacher, the one who really changed my life. I had no idea, but the hug was long and firmly returned and as crowds cheered around me I wept a tear for the joy of being held so fiercely.

But did I know them? I never had a teacher with that face. Who were they? Nobody could hear my questions.

Mum was in the tower, and she was herself, except that in her dementia she thought that I wasn’t the real version of me, and she was tweeting everyone to tell them. I couldn’t find her to tell her to stop tweeting, because finally I was on my side lying on a thin ledge at the top of the tower, clouds all around me, knees hanging off the edge, too scared to look down into the abyss.

It was so astonishingly blue…

Reflections bounced off the windows, and falling away below me were garlanded terraces thronged with crowds. If I craned my neck there were people who’d reached safety, off the ledge, but I was too scared to call for help.

~

Today

Last time I saw mum was over a year ago. In the old world. She was gaunt, teeth sticking out of her dry, pinched face. Clinging to me as I left the ward. Sobbing. I’m used to my mother’s tears, used to the demands, the pressure to save her. It got serious when dad left. I was sixteen. I’m older now than she was then.

Mum went into a care home just after the pandemic started, and I haven’t seen her since. The social worker told me that mum said I’m always so busy with my job. She tried not to sound judgemental. I wanted to explain the sleepless nights, the crushing fearfulness, the overpowering need to punch the little git version of me who sits in the tile on the screen, looking like me, sounding like me, mocking me, all day, every day. The words wouldn’t come. Instead, I mumbled something about feeling guilty. Actually, I’m relieved mum’s locked up in the care home… and not just because she was becoming a danger to herself. How can I begin to tell this stranger anything meaningful about who mum and I are?

The case conference takes place on zoom. Me and my husband, my uncle, the head of the discharge team, mum’s social worker, and the deputy manager of the care home. Little tiles of expertise on the screen. All the professionals are weary: grey and exhausted. The decision making ‘tool’, a document they emailed us in advance, is long and burdensome, covering twelve ‘care domains’ to assess whether mum has full control over her bowel movements, or can understand what people are saying to her. It’s hard to take the process seriously when we all know that the most important issue is whether the NHS can or will pay for the cost of her social care, the ‘timely and skilled intervention’ she might need if she can’t shit for herself anymore.  

The head of the discharge team is stern. She’s clearly the one with the power here. I enjoy her broad Lancashire accent, booming out over the speaker and from under an impressive thatch of hair and eyebrows. My uncle is clueless as usual, keeps offering little anecdotes about mum, like this is some kind of quaint family gathering. Should I have brought battenburg? Mum hated him, although she often pretended otherwise, and desperately wanted his approval. She was the oldest child, he the youngest. The favoured son, spoiled and whiney. Now grown up, late middle-aged white-van-man-racist-bigot, with the princess daughters and the tax-free backhanders.

I am, true to the aspirations of my uneducated parents, now middle class enough to know what awkward questions to ask. But it doesn’t stop me seeing it from their point of view, worrying about how tired and stressed they all are, worrying about taking up unnecessary time. The woman from the care home is genuinely lovely. We bond immediately; she’s charmed by my mum’s vanity and I laugh along with her. Mum was beautiful. I remember us clothes shopping together, fun times as I egged her on from outside the changing room.

Uncle is talking again, oblivious to the logic of the decision making ‘tool’. I stare at him in his little tile on the screen, grateful he’s at the other end of the country, that I can mute him, turn my video off and scream at the tile to fuck off and die. What are those god-awful figurines on the shelf behind him? When will I ever see him again? At mum’s funeral? That’ll be it.

Mum is smearing shit round her room at the care home. Telling the staff to fuck off when they intrude on the new reality she’s made for herself. Before, in the tiring world of adulthood, mum had been on her own for a long time. Our weekly calls used to consist of long lists of the chores she’d done, “on my own”. Now though, she’s found herself a pretend husband. Her second one, apparently. The first wasn’t quite as amenable and hit her in the face a couple of times. Husband number two and mum both like to get naked in her room with the door closed. The staff clearly expect me to be horrified. I’m charmed by her childish rebelliousness. Thank fuck she’s having some fun. In this alternate reality, mum has a son, like me, only he’s a young boy and he’s adorable. If this is losing your mind, maybe Alzheimer’s isn’t the cruellest cut, but the kindest, transporting us back to an idealised moment of happiness? And of course, the care home has been locked down, on and off, for over a year now. My very adult, very unavailable self hasn’t troubled the demented fantasy of the adorable boy I’m supposed to be. I’m pleased for her. And relieved.

~

1987

Mrs Williams, my A-level Sociology teacher takes me aside after class today to ask me how I am. The teachers are worried about me. Mrs Williams let me join her class six months into the year, something she’d never done before, and I feel vindicated in dropping A-level music when she gives me a B+, her highest mark, for my first essay. I walk home from school feeling happier than I have for ages. But that familiar burning settles in my tummy as I walk towards our front door.

Mum is sat in the lounge, crying again. I sit next to her and ask her how she’s doing. Suddenly there’s glass shattering against the wall, and mum’s screaming about how she can’t cope, how she hates him and will never be happy again. Then she sobs about how sorry she is; tells me again how special I am, that nobody else understands her like I do. My hands are shaking. There are shards of glass on the floor, next to the puddle of water from where she threw the glass. It’s six months since dad left. And another year before I’ll be leaving to go to university, to the far end of the country. I give her a hug. Everything will be okay. She won’t feel like this for ever. She just has to feel like this till she doesn’t feel like this anymore. I put the kettle on and get the dustpan and brush.

~

Today

One vaccination, two self-administered tests and five cancelled visits due to changing guidelines, and now I’m booked to see mum on Friday. I feel like I’m back on the ledge, knees hanging into the abyss. The tower throngs with crowds. Are they the reason I’m visiting her? Are they watching? The social workers, and care home staff, the solicitors and the doctors and the family friends, my uncle, and my colleagues, my neighbour who cries when he speaks about his mum, my dad, still guilty, and maybe the teenage boy who still feels it is his job to save his mum. Good boys visit their mums in care homes. Good boys weep for a locked-down year’s worth of missed hugs.

Arriving at the home for my Covid test does nothing to settle my unease. The volunteer who administers the test, a brisk, chatty woman with huge glasses, regales me with tales of the hardships the home has suffered: the staff who’ve burned out, the deaths, the wider neglect of the elderly and vulnerable. I flush with shame, and look for signs of judgement in her face. All I see is jolly helpfulness. She’s here to help the home and its residents, why should she care about my story? I relax into the onslaught of her chatter. The room is a repurposed resident’s bedroom, with a door out onto the car park and a grassy area bathed in sunshine. It’s a beautiful day.

After the result confirms I don’t currently have any antigens, she leads me back into the building and I tense for what’s to come. Will mum remember me? Will my presence unsettle the scraps of self still grasped by her demented brain? We emerge from the lift and are met by one of the unit’s nurses and slowly follow a couple of old women down the corridor. One is short, the other tall and leaning against the handrail. Both are grey, stooped, slow. The nurse calls to the taller woman, reminding her that she’s been so excited about her visitor. The woman turns, and it’s mum. She looks ten years older, but her features are softer, less troubled and more well fed than a year ago.

Her face crumples as she recognises me, and she staggers into my arms with a huge sob, ‘oh it’s you… I didn’t know if I’d see you again’. I yield into the hug with a quiet sigh, waves of relief and compassion rising through my body as it relaxes.

Almost immediately she recovers and steps back, smiling. I take her hand and we walk towards her room. She’s chattering constantly about how lovely it is to see me, until we get to the open doorway and a small old man in a nylon cardigan emerges from what is apparently her room. Mum scolds the man sharply, telling him he shouldn’t have been in her house. With a smiling wink, the nurse closes the door on us and we’re alone. The room is bathed in late afternoon sunshine, and outside her window the hillside is a deep lush green that you don’t see down south in the dusty, chalky downs. I sit on the bed next to her chair. She holds my hand, beaming at me.

‘Are you happy, mum? Do you feel safe here?’

‘Oh yes. You know Marks and Spencers,’ she extends her arms to encompass her room, and the home beyond, ‘they look after you.’

~

1982

We find a field up the hill, just below the railway line. It snowed again last night, but today it’s bright and clear and the world looks reborn. The gate is broad and too stiff; mum laughs, giving up, and I feel very grown up when she moves aside to let me tug it open.

I’m twelve, and the Christmas holiday is a welcome break from the terror of my new school. Since we moved here six months ago I’ve been going to the toilet six or more times a day. But today is good: it will be Christmas day soon, and the holiday stretches before me with the promise of videos to watch and fried egg butties to eat.

The dog bounds off into the unbroken snow, yelping as he disappears below the surface with each leap. Mum smiles at me and her eyes are shining in the sunlight. We turn together, giggling and huffing across the snow-covered field. A crisp, sparkly crust has frozen over the deep soft drifts below, and it cracks with a joyous snap with each wellie booted step.

We stagger towards each other, half laughing, half gasping, and she takes my hand, pulling me towards her. Her breath is warm against my cold cheek and smells of Polo mints. We turn and look down the hill over the fields. Below us the town is pristine and still, nestled in its downy blanket.

Cricket, Lovely Cricket

for Max (Ferdinand) Maxwell, by Zoe Mitchell

One

The bat is heavy in his hands. Max thumbs his way around it, searching for grip on that well-worn wood. It’s older than his skin, this bat – it’s been softened by other hands, other games played long before he was born. But, for Max, this all feels fresh. He’s played cricket every day for a whole summer now. And yet the novelty is still there. He wakes every morning with the bat already ghost-like in his hands, fresher than the night’s dreams. It’s almost a ritual: when he gets up, he dresses fast, wrangling the clothes over his head as he makes for the door. He can squeeze a few hours of cricket in before school – and after, if he’s quick about it. With every lapse in the day, every moment of quiet, he makes for the cricket pitch. The set-up is makeshift, scrambled together from old equipment, but it’s enough. For Max – for all the children – this is the stuff of life.

He steadies the bat in his hands, lowers himself into his batsman’s stance. He’s braced here, poised for action, rocking with fresh screams of adrenaline. This never gets old.

Two

Max steps onto the field, swinging his bat so it just noses the ground. The bat feels lighter to him now. It doesn’t drag so much, doesn’t strain on his arms. Now he’s older – ten years older, and hardly a kid anymore – he’s plenty big enough to wield this bat proficiently. And he’s got a whole childhood of experience. He steps into place in front of the wicket, just as he’s done a thousand times before. Only this time it’s different. Max eyes his teammates through the grating of his helmet. Teammates. The word clings heavily to his ear. He’s used to a team, of course he is – but usually, his teams are as makeshift as the pitch. He plays with schoolfriends and the kids hanging out on the street, scrambles together a hotchpotch of them till there are enough to fill all the roles. This is different. Max turns from player to player, meeting the gazes of every member of his team. They’ve practiced together, grown together. And now they’re about to win together. Max steps up to the line and crouches, bat outstretched like a fifth limb. This is so much a part of him. It’s gouged into his muscle memory, wired into every tendon and fibre. These hands are steady. These legs are ready. And Max has never been so excited to play.

The crowd quietens and leans in to watch, but Max squints them all out of sight. Right now, all that matters is the ball, and the bowler’s windmilling arm that holds it. As the bowler lets it fly, Max forgets all about the pressure. He forgets about the tournament, about the kit he’s wearing and the crowd staring. Right now, all that drives him is that same old instinct. He squeezes the bat and it seems to squeeze right back, familiar like the hug of a friend. And when the ball hits, Max is ready.

Three

This time, Max isn’t playing.

He wriggles forward right to the edge of his seat, balancing with about a third of his tailbone. Not that he minds. It’s one of those days so giddy that you can’t feel pain. You don’t notice the discomfort of a hard chair, don’t notice the way your eyes strain from staring too hard at the TV. Some things are worth the suffering. And right now, Max hardly notices a jot of it.

He’s not here – in the family room, watching the telly – not really. When he squints hard enough, it’s not a stretch to believe that he’s there. He looks on, in through the pixels and the hard glass of the screen, seeing past the feedback till the picture is as clear as the room before him. Clearer, in fact. As he clenches his fists, he can almost feel the bat set within them. He can feel the weight of that sun searing down, lashing its warmth out in fierce sweaty bursts. And he can feel the tension.

This moment – this day – means everything. For the first time, the West Indies are in the World Cup Final. And it looks like they’re damn well going to win.

These guys on the screen are just like Max. They were grown in the same places, fertilised with that same pure cricketing spirit. They found their feet on the same streets, made their first runs in parks just like the one down the road. They, like him, learnt cricketspeak even as they gummed out their first words. And now here they are, in the Cricket World Cup Final – the real one. Max understands these men, feels the adrenaline in their steps like it’s his own. Everyone around him feels it too. That heady stadium atmosphere extends well beyond the field. Max senses that same atmosphere in the living room, in the way his family gripped their hands to their knees. The atmosphere stretches through the ground, ripples like heat on the roads, holds tight to everyone in Barbados. Every eye is captured, every throat closed tight around the same breath.

For all of Barbados, this moment is significant. These men – men just like Max – are, for this day, the centre of the universe. The world sees them now.

Four

Today’s the day – the final.

Max wipes his brow, feels the hair heavy at his skin. It’s been a long, hard match already, and he’s only just begun. 30 runs in, and he has no intention of going out just yet. Max eyes the bowler, pulls back the bat and readies himself to move again. He’s taking it one ball at a time, but he can’t help noticing the score racking up. They’re winning. If it goes on like this – if he goes on like this – they could actually take home the Aidan Cup.

He looks around at the faces of his teammates, all poised and posed around him. These men have played with him, served with him, on the cricket field and in the army. He’s travelled the world with them, laughed with them, trusted them with his life. And now here they are, ready to win the Cup together.

The ball whizzes towards him and Max raises his bat, knocking it back in the perfect swoop. He visualises the moment of impact before it happens, narrowing his eyes till all he sees is that ball, hurtling ever closer. The bowler put a real spin on it, but Max knows how to handle that. Angling the bat, he lets his muscle memory take over, lunging forward in the beat of one breath, just as he has a thousand times before – ten thousand times? A million, maybe? Whatever way it is, it doesn’t matter now. Hitting this ball is a part of who Max is. It’s a direct result of every action he’s taken up to this point: every moment of training, every innings he’s played since he was six. And yet, when he hits the ball – when it soars obediently off the flat of his bat – something in him is surprised. There’s no time for thinking about it now, though. No – right now, all Max has time to do is run. And so, he does.

A few innings later and he’s out. 54 runs – he’s rarely played so well. His teammates surround him, reaching out with their wicket-keeper’s gloves to hug him. They congratulate and clap him on the back, grinning so wide that their faces are transformed. Max has done them justice. When the match is over – when they’re lifting the Aidan Cup, celebrating their victory – he knows he’s done his part to secure it. His fingers brush the hard skin of the cup, dashing against that tantalising shine. He’s earned this.

Five

Max pulls the bag across his shoulders and steps from the bus onto the pavement. He likes a London bus – having worked as a bus mechanic here for years, they hold a comfort and familiarity for him. But now he’s stepping off, and the air is colder than he likes. Even now, when London shows its chilly side, it takes Max by surprise. But then, he’s used to a whole range of weather. He’s broiled in the heat of Yemen, where the sun would bear down all morning and the warmth never seemed to lose its edge. He and his fellow soldiers struggled to get anything done before noon the whole time they were there – yes, Max knows heat. He doesn’t need that kind of weather to be happy. London’s conditions are perfectly acceptable, most of the time. And they’re plenty good enough for cricket.

He continues his journey, bat pressing against the bag on his back. It digs at him with every step, niggling about his spine. It’s as though the bat’s eager to play, to be released to the field. Max knows how it feels.

There are several parks they play at, Max and his friends, all across London. He loves the regularity of these games – the structure of them, the precision of them. But cricket is now, as it’s always been for him, about fun. Max plays for the love of it. When he’s here, in these manicured London parks, he’s stepping into those halcyon Barbadian days. Something of Barbados is carried in his bowling arm. It’s alive on these grey British pavements, these quaint trees that line the streets, sitting complacently on the roadside. The trees are evenly spaced, like teeth at measured intervals. But the bat in Max’s bag doesn’t know that. It doesn’t know where he is. It doesn’t recognise the passage of time, or the way the world has moved on. As far as this bat is concerned, cricket is all there is.  And now, for an afternoon at least, Max is about to step into that bubble. For the duration of this match, only one thing matters.

Max met his new teammates when he moved to London after retiring from the army. He met them all through cricket – they bonded over their shared love, took the sport as a common denominator. Cricket was the thread that tied them together. With it as the focal point, they became more than friends – they became a team, comrades. There’s no cup to win now, no big final to train for. But cricket has always been about more than the glamour and the accolades. Max will play just as readily with no audience as he did in the Aidan Cup final. In the enormity of London, more than just physical space is needed to form community. And cricket does the trick nicely. It pulls the cricket lovers together, drags them out by their roots. Traipsing across the city weekly, they stake out new territory in parks, pushing their wickets into fresh ground. This week is no different. Turning into the park, Max feels the give of soft grass underfoot, feels the bat press anew against his back. It’s time to play. He pulls the bag away from his shoulders and draws back the zip, fingers tingling and alive. All these years later, cricket holds that same thrill it bound him with at age six.

Six

Max folds himself back into his armchair and turns to the TV. It’s a big screen – much bigger than the screen he had in 1975, on that wondrous afternoon when he watched the World Cup final. But, somehow, sitting here takes him back. Just as it was then, cricket is a uniting force. The thrill and buzz of a stadium continents away is pressed into every 4k pixel on his screen. Max feels the presence of that crowd, dispersed the world over, all drawn in by that one same camera shot. He sees the game through their eyes, and they see it through his. They all share a lens and a passion. And, now that he can watch on this big screen, it feels more real than ever.

It’s been so long since he’s played the game himself. That’s the way of things, of course, the natural order – a strong grip weakens, fast feet grow tired. It’s been so many years since these hands have held a bat of their own. But when he picks up the TV remote, Max feels something of that old weight, that heft. And when he watches these cricketers play – young, vigorous, full of that same giddy energy that fuelled him, once – he knows he doesn’t need to set foot on a real cricket field. The spirit lives on, the game continues. Cricket never gets tired, never grows weak or old. It is reborn every day, made new in the little hands of some other six-year-old child. For as long as cricket is played, it will be alive and well. Max will always be a part of it – always able to watch it, right here from his armchair.

At least, that’s how it seems to him. Right up until the day that lockdown is announced.

Seven

It’s 2020, and the year is bulging into one months-long quarantine. Max is keeping busy – he helps out at the Pepper Pot Centre, supporting vulnerable elderly locals. Like always, he stays active and sociable as much as he can. Only it’s harder to socialise in the middle of a pandemic. As always, he keeps tuned into the sport on TV. Only that’s harder in a pandemic, too. Lately, there’s hardly been any sport on to speak of. No cricket at least. Still – Max can make do.

The thing about Max is that he’s adaptable. You have to be, to grow from a boy to a man, keeping your eye on a cricket ball all the way. You have to be adaptable to make that transition from amateur to skilled player, from skilled player to viewer. Max can deal with one more change.

For these few months when there’s no regular cricket on his screen, Max will improvise just fine. He enjoys the games that are played, savouring each test match like it’s the last. And in the interim, there’s plenty other sport on TV. He watches football, mostly, or Formula 1. Of course, there’s a world of difference between a steering wheel and a cricket bat, a racing driver’s helmet and a batsman’s. But the same spirit thrives in both. These people Max sees on his screen love their sport, live for their sport. The racing drivers might not have cricket drumming through their veins – but they, like Max, are there for the fun of it. In that way, the heart of cricket beats much like any other. The stadium energy Max once felt through his TV is the same now:  even when the stands are empty; even when the sport is different.

Max sits back, listening to the racing cars harrumph and screech like mechanical banshees. In some ways, everything has changed since those summer days when he was six, batting down wickets for the first time. In other ways, nothing has changed at all.

Cricket lives in Max’s core, lockdown or no lockdown. Until all this is over, he’ll enjoy these other sports, fill the void with footballs and race cars. But cricket won’t die. And as soon as it’s back – back to normal – Max will be ready for it. He’ll sit here and watch, TV remote steady in his hands.

Fascination and Horror

for Sarah Bancroft, by Suzanne Wilson

“I shouted at Dominic Cummings. He was in a cafe and I noticed him, so I shouted, ‘Ohh you horrible man, you!’ And he sort of…” Sarah mimics some grumbling-man noises, “…and off he went.”

Imagining Sarah’s expressive voice shouting over the hissing of barista machines and general cafe chatter at a beady-eyed, bespectacled git automatically makes the corners of my mouth tug upwards.

“I want Angela Merkel, but we’re not going to get Angela Merkel, are we?”

Even only knowing her speaking voice, and with no clue as to what she looks like, Sarah oozes charm, good humour, and a clear disdain of our current government. She is able to make me smile and laugh more than I thought I could over a conversation about Covid-19 and the experience of lockdown.

“I’ve had a really decent time of it,” Sarah tells me. She explains that, back in February, Covid seemed very far away, but when it started to hit Italy and they said that it was on its way over here, it became a sort of inevitability at that point.

“Especially when people were drawing parallels with the Spanish Flu of 1918, we all started to think ‘Gosh! People are just going to drop like flies.’”

There seemed to be a nonchalance about it at first, a sort of gung-ho attitude, and this was coming from nurses that she was seeing everyday while visiting her dear friend in hospital. It was a cancer ward, and Sarah was seeing people in dreadful situations while there, so she was already dealing with something quite profound. Sarah was already in an environment where everyone had to be very careful, for if anyone was to bring any infection into the ward, even a cold, those people already had very weak immune systems.

“… so I became very conscious that I had to keep my germs to myself. This, in turn, made me a bit more in touch with my mortality.”

Sarah describes herself as “being on pause”, as she is retired and has moved into temporary accommodation while she waits to move back into her own house. Being on pause is something that Sarah didn’t find easy, and her solution was to walk around London, covering between twelve and fifteen kilometers a day. Something completely free to fill her time with. A part of this was Sarah’s friend who, after leaving hospital, was then immediately told to shield in her studio flat. Once or twice a week, Sarah would walk from her home in Hackney to see this friend in Lisson Grove and take her groceries and supplies.

“She would open her door and I would sit outside in the car park of her tenement flat, we would have a cup of tea, and then I would walk back.”

Sarah compares the atmosphere she found walking alone in London to that in one of the opening scenes in 28 Days Later. “I highly recommend walking down Oxford Street during a lockdown, as there were only two people to be seen. Or Covent Garden and Neil’s Yard, which were completely deserted.

Also, Tottenham Court Road. I was able to walk all the way up and down without seeing a single car. I could wander to and fro across the Marylebone Road without even having to look. It was quite surreal and quite intoxicating, actually. Almost magical. And if you needed a wee, most train stations kept their toilets open even though there was no one there. I’ve got a picture of myself in Liverpool Street Station where I am the only one there. At the minute, when I go for a walk around the city, well, London isn’t quite as dead, but let’s just say that it’s not very well. The beauty of what I was experiencing mixed with the feeling of ‘Are we all going to die?’… I think encapsulated the bizarreness of the situation.”

To Sarah, London is so much better than the countryside. Villages and similar areas only have one road into them and one road out; aside from that, all of the fields and land is private property, so there aren’t that many places one can actually explore. In London, Sarah can walk out her front door and pick any direction; there will always be something new to see, no matter how familiar the area is.

“It has been a beautiful and artistic experience, which sounds really elitist and poncey, but that’s how it is. I’ve been very fortunate.” However, the idea of a second lockdown is a bit more daunting to her. “What if they tell everyone over fifty to stay inside and shield? I’m worried I’ll be told to go and live in a cupboard until next year or something. I couldn’t do that at all. Even if the only thing I do is walk around London in a circle.”

A major change that Sarah has noticed as she walks, is the sudden increase in traffic after lockdown restrictions began to be lifted in the summer. The City of London has closed off many roads to make way for new cycle-lanes. Sarah is a woman who does her research. She tells me that private car usage has gone up by one hundred and twenty percent since the year before. A lot of this increase has to do with reduced bus services, which are only running at thirty percent capacity. “So, if you shut all the roads that connect all the little bits, everybody is going to head to the main roads, which are completely rammed up.”

The situation in London is comparable to living in a castle. Certain drawbridges go up at certain times, making it a very difficult place to navigate and leave. She points out that the government hasn’t started fining people yet, but it will only be a matter of time before fines will be dished out, opening another revenue source for making money. Sarah’s turn of phrase is striking: “All the major arteries in and out of London have been clogged up.” It really drives home the image of London as the supposed ‘beating heart’ of the UK. Sarah is aware that our current government intends to keep the financial and political focus on the capital city, starving other areas of funding and aid. It appears, however, from her description, that the capital has had too many servings of bumbling, blond, saturated fats and is now developing a serious case of coronary heart disease.

“I’m walking back from the river, and it’s just one long line of traffic, all trying to get onto the highway and then out of the city,” she begins to tell me as she walks during our phone call, showing an environmental consciousness that we both share. “At least there’s more than one person sharing a car in this huge line of traffic,” she comments, but then she stops herself. “Oh no, here we go.” she begins to list the occupants under her breath: “single white man, single white man, single white man…”

With the more recent restrictions that have been put in place, Sarah’s local swimming pool will soon be closed again. She goes swimming three times a week, covering over a kilometer each time. It really comes to light just how active Sarah is, a powerhouse of energy zooming around London and her local leisure centre. “They reopened in July again, but just the pool itself. All of the changing rooms and showers are closed off, so you literally walk in, have a swim, and walk back out again.” Recently, she has been working on perfecting a flawless front crawl. Her inspiration is a video of a Japanese professional athlete called Shinji Takeuchi. He glides through the water in a manner that is more fish than human, barely making a splash with his head totally submerged. “His arms come up like the fin of a shark cutting through the water,” Sarah describes, “It’s the beauty of those movements that I aim to teach myself.”

Teaching herself seems to be something that she does a lot; maybe in a situation such as this one, it helps. I related to her on this; knitting was a hobby I decided to try and master over lockdown, as it was something I always had difficulty with, much to my grandmother’s despair. It resulted in a very lumpy, mismatched scarf that my partner will be forced to wear in the winter.

“It’s been slightly easier for us introverts, hasn’t it?” Sarah elaborates on how she can see people who are more extroverted struggling with the anti-social aspect of lockdown. “I could see young people out on Halloween evening, dressed up and trying to have fun, but there was only so much they could do. I feel for them because if I was in my twenties or thirties right now, I would be doing as much partying as I could.” At the moment, in contrast, Sarah becomes personally offended if someone decides to knock on her front door. This is very relatable. I’m asked as ‘a member of the under forties’ if I have been out partying. I tell Sarah that we are happy enough getting merry in our flat, considering how uncertain everything is.

“It’s alright if you can have a few drinks at home, but there is something about being out and around people. If you get a bit drunk and fancy a chat, there’s no one to really talk to. It’s the company of strangers one can miss more than the company of your familiars in certain situations.” Apparently, people working construction on the roads are really good to have a chat with. Firstly, they are classed as essential workers, so they are always there, and secondly, “They’re doing a job, digging that big hole or whatever, so if you start chatting to them they have to stay, they can’t really escape, can they?” Sarah gives one of her warm chuckles as I decide to myself that next time I want to speak to someone new, I can go and have a chinwag at the roadworks.

Not all her quests yield results, though. “One of the biggest things I did this week actually turned out to be a huge disappointment. My Tai Chi instructor told me that a big stone circle had been discovered underneath Victoria Park. And I thought, ‘This is fantastic’, so I looked the article up in the East London Advertiser and got really excited. I went out to Vicky Park and I’m imagining this circle. But then I thought that this circle, it’s a bit close to the river, I’m sure this would have been a floodplain about five thousand years ago, but never mind. I couldn’t find anything, so I checked back on the article and it was from 1st April. I was so disappointed. I felt as though I was off on a mythical quest and I imagined all of these great festivities going on around the stone circle.” I see Sarah as some sort of Frodo Baggins-esque figure, with a bag of supplies on her back, trying to decode a magic map that leads her to the stone circle where the druids and pixie folk gather. “But alas, ‘twas just a folly. I’ve lost faith completely in that instructor.”

As our weekly conversation moves towards its end, it inevitably turns to the US Presidential elections, which are happening very soon. “I think over thirty percent have already voted anyway.” Sarah tells me, “I do hope that Trumpy doesn’t win. It would be very nice. Maybe we could turn a corner with populism, and maybe go back to things that actually make sense. But that might be too optimistic.”

I wonder if she watched the results with the equal parts of horror and fascination as I did; these two feelings seem to go together so often this year. As I say goodbye to her and hang up the phone, I hope for Sarah and the rest of us that the next major world event doesn’t turn out to be another unreachable magical stone circle.

The Wanderer

for Steve Brooks, by Sophie Brown

As you get older you notice the minor changes. Things around you are so familiar, the streets are like the back of your hand, so when a new freckle appears you notice. Steve was sat watching TV when he spotted the change: media outlets playing down the onslaught that was about to come. People put it to the back of their minds; instead, he educated himself by reading up on epidemics, preparing for that new freckle. Slowly, but surely, life ground to a halt. No more Zumba at community centres or pub quizzes at the Pipe Major. People locked themselves in, threw away the key, drew the curtains and pretended nobody was home. Except him.

He began to roam and explore, walking wherever his feet would take him, head full of thoughts and a pocket full of change. You would not believe how gloriously green Dagenham could be. He hopped from park to park where great oaks cast shadows over glimmering lakes. How perfect the weather was, it was one of those springs you could never forget, where all you could do was watch the flowers bloom; a spring where life and death took on new meanings.

Standing at the water’s edge, the wind rippling on its surface and ruffling feathers on the waterfowl, he noticed a swan. A mother hiding in the bushes guarding the nest whilst the father glided across the water, basking in the freedom of no pleasure boaters to dodge. For weeks, he watched the family to be until cygnets appeared, following their parents in an obedient curtain call. “You must see these cygnets,” He told his friend, and soon they were off on a wild swan chase he goes with friends in tow. Overcome by stage fright, the cygnets of this particular swan lake took refuge upon different water, until finally they were coaxed out to twirl effortlessly by the shore. Soon they lost their dark down and plumes of white were primped and preened. From there, the ‘walk and talk’ began.

He called up friends from Zumba and all over. “Why don’t we get out? It would be good to catch up, it’s good for you,” He told them. Only he would find a club in a pandemic. It started with walking and talking, socially distanced of course, until he was imploring the lady at the community centre to let him run yoga classes. “Only you, Steve,” as she begrudgingly said yes to what could be the cheeky smile of a lady’s man. But that is the smile he flashes to those he cares about, connected in his ever-growing circle. A single man who wishes to never be alone, knowing what those dark times feel like a well with oil-slicked walls that only you can provide the rope to escape. You must climb out yourself, no one else can do it. Only you stand in your own way.

He remembered the wandering souls who used to come to him for help when he worked on the mental health wards, doing what was right and all he could for them, from behind the front desk, the face they needed to see. And now he is getting people like himself out of the house, cherishing human conversation, and Lord knows he can talk. A familiar voice of an old friend, someone you can trust, who welcomes you. No wonder he had an overflowing social schedule. Despite being disconnected from the world wide web, he was more linked to others than one imagined.

“It’s not about what you know, but who you know,” He proved through his rendezvous with the black market of horticulture, paying premium for flowers sold by neighbours, friends of friends, friends, and sketchy farm shops. He took deliveries in the dead of night to transform his garden into an explosion of colour, a personal paradise for his eyes only. Planting the pansies and magnolias, knowing he is one of the lucky ones really, gave him joy. The trees sang to him as he worked, the leaves encouraging the beautiful hanging objects to shimmer in approval, objects saved from the streets, combed them from the sidewalks as if he were back at the beach again. The chalk gnomes too would applaud the days he spent with dirt under his nails, not knowing it was their turn next as he produced tins of paint. They would scuttle under the bushes and behind the bins in terror of his brush, but one by one they would receive a new lease of life in a lick of paint.

Life goes on. We must accept and adapt, he thinks as autumn turns into winter, learning to text and use apps as the weather gets colder and the nights longer. Now the wind batters him and the trees on his solitary walk and talks, but it doesn’t make them any less interesting. The skies are just as blue as they were before, and even if things aren’t as green, they’re still full of life. They just sing a new song now; no longer the leaves, battering branches instead, a more minor key percussion section.

He notices the ducks follow him around, instead of scattering at his shadow. ‘They must be hungry,’ he thinks, ‘of course they are, no one’s about.’ The parks are now barren and bare, people are hiding away once more, this time from the weather. He feels guilty he’s forgotten to bring some bread, feeling bad for not looking after the waifs and strays. But he doesn’t forget them, taking leftovers to the donkeys and ponies in the nearby fields, dropping fruit and veg to the floor, cracking the frozen mud the animals roam in. They may try and nip, out of love and a certain desperation; not everyone treats them as well as he does.

And as Christmas rolls around, he plans to celebrate, bring light and warmth into his friends’ lives’ once more. He has three (yes, three), Christmas meals planned. A true socialite; a real man about town. Only one goes ahead before plans are scuppered. But it’s a beautiful day, overlooking the park, large windows letting that light and warmth in, in more ways than one. They laugh and eat and drink and everyone feels full again, not just from Christmas pudding and turkey, but with life. It’s the days like this they must be thankful for. Even though the other meals can’t happen, his mood is not entirely dampened.

Then comes the alert that says he must self-isolate. But how? Why? He’s been so careful. But he hides away now, with others helping to do his shopping and just a phone call away. He becomes acquainted with Netflix and watches The Last Kingdom. He’s read all the books and could quite literally recite all the rulers of England until kingdom come. Bernard Cornwell writes of Agincourt and Vikings slaughtering Saxons, but he doesn’t write of this battle we face now. Still, for a while he can lose himself in another man’s life, Uhtred fighting for his life, kingdom, family, and friends. But around and about is a silent killer, no one can see coming; at least with a Viking you know where you stand.

His world, the real world, isn’t without loss; it seems no one is safe. He loses loved ones to the virus. It’s heart breaking to hear; how fragile life is always shocks. And we can talk of walks and meals and pub quizzes, but we cannot appreciate the light without the dark. He mourns, grieves but he is strong. Steve Brooks is strong. That fact is undeniable.

Now turning three-score-and-ten, he jokes he’s living on borrowed time. I don’t believe it. Steve Brooks is still so full of life. If a pandemic cannot crush his spirits, God only knows what can.

From Russia to Toynbee, with Love

for Miry Mayer, by Sam Dodd

“So many times, assumptions are made. ‘We know better because we design the rules.’ But no, that is not how it works. People are not voiceless, faceless numbers. Listen to their voices, ask them what they need.”

~

Just before lockdown in March 2020, I started seeing someone, so I had company during that time. I had a sense of happiness amongst all the sadness, loneliness and loss around us. But there was also a sense of guilt: “why am I so happy in my personal life, when it’s lockdown? What about those who are lonely right now?” Lockdown was a lonely place for me at times too, but it was also empowering, because I had the opportunity to sort through my priorities. I realised that I no longer need to chase people that don’t get back to me, or go to social events I don’t want to be at; it helped me to figure out who I wanted to make an effort for, and let go of all the things I fill my life with just to have a sense of belonging, or being part of something. Basically, I discovered I really like my own company. And I don’t think I knew that before lockdown. We do still need company, people to ask us how we are, how we’re coping. I might be saying something different if I hadn’t had the new relationship starting at that point in my life.

I also discovered it’s OK to go walking in the park for an hour. I used to do that all the time, but it had dropped off over the years. Suddenly, that sort of activity was almost mandated with our daily exercise allowance… and it slowed me down, helped me to enjoy not rushing. It’s not generally seen as ‘cool’ to go and look at flowers and insects for half an hour in the park. But in lockdown, it was; it was almost like we’d been given permission we didn’t know we needed. I’ve always felt like if I want to stop and smell a flower, I must check no one is watching first. I won’t do that any longer; I’ll just stop and smell them.

But at the same time, there was a painful awareness that as I’m stopping to smell a rose, people suffering; dying; desperately lonely; not speaking to another human being for days at a time; barely coping as a single parent; queuing at a food bank… it snapped me into action and reflection mode. I realised that I was wasting a lot of time and energy on activities and people that I didn’t get any sustenance from; I changed things around, became more focused.

I remembered what it is like to be so lonely you can’t even articulate it, because it’s almost physical. Sometimes, you can be in a room full of people, and still feel lonely. We have so little time on this earth, and there is so much work to be done.

~

I started working at Toynbee in December last year, 2019. This is my dream job, I wanted it so much. My last job made me unhappy – I wanted more responsibilities and projects, but they just weren’t there. I was bored. So, I started doing a lot of volunteering. Crisis at Christmas – 3 years at the catering warehouse, very physical work that I really enjoyed. Last year was my first year in a centre working directly with the guests rather than out the back, and I loved it. Then another great opportunity came along for me to merge my skills with what I love – I am also a runner, and part of a running group charity called the Outrunners. They use the skills of the runners to give back to the community – so runners that live in Hackney take part in career days for the local community where they talk to young people about how to get into the careers they’re in. They’re not the standard mainstream careers either. Yoga teachers, chefs, fashion designers, actors – well, we’re runners! So of course, we’re from all walks of life. We do still have the mainstream jobs there, but from people that are more relatable to Hackney youth – a lawyer from a mixed-race background is one example. We want the kids to feel like they could see themselves, that it is possible for them to do that sort of job too, if they want to. We’ve done three now, every six months, and each one attracts about 100 young people. Running those career days gave me confidence back that had been knocked out of me at my last job.

So from all that, I realised I wanted so badly to be more involved in the community. It fired me up. So, I started applying for jobs. I had an interview somewhere else and was offered the job – but then I also got the job at Toynbee! The loveliest thing about Toynbee was that I’d had the interview on the Wednesday, and they said they’d call me by the Monday to let me know. But then they called the very next day – and that boosted me so much, because I felt wanted, and like I’d be valued. It was exactly what I needed and I love it.

We support the community in a host of different ways here. There are debt advice clinics, legal advice clinics, a research team, a community centre, a heritage team, a food bank, and we even have a few community celebration days – we do a lot of things! We also hold feedback days, where we ask people what they need in the community – things like disabled access to buses, just as one example. After those days, a policy suggestion is designed by our research team, and then taken to the London Assembly or Tower Hamlets Town Hall. We want to know what people think about what their councils are doing well, and what they can improve – we push for user led, community led, tailored services based on what real people need – based on listening to their voices, not just nodding when they talk but then going in a totally different direction. The research team here really cares about this. The fundraising team go to the research team meetings so that they can really understand what money is needed for – and explain that in real terms, with real voices, to potential funders.

We also do a lot of research on schools and poverty. How can you understand a situation or a problem unless you go into that group of people that is affected, and ask them, talk to them – and listen properly? This is their lived experience. You cannot design policy without it, and when we do, it doesn’t serve the intended individuals. So many times, assumptions are made. “We know better because we design the rules.” But no, that is not how it works. People are not voiceless, faceless numbers. Listen to their voices, ask them what they need.

Then lockdown happened!! On Tuesday 17th, we’d decided to close. I talked to some of the clients that day, who said they’d still come in even if there were no events being run. That really concerned us, here we were going into a full-scale societal lockdown and people still wanted to visit! We couldn’t have that weight on our minds if anything happened to them. So, the team decided to close fully, and set up shop from our respective homes. I picked up everything on the Thursday, and it all went into a huge bag. It was so last minute. That bag was so heavy! And while I was there on that last day, I found medicines for one of our clients in the fridge, so dropped that off at their home too! I’ll tell you something, I was never bored in lockdown. Work kept me busy, and I was grateful for that. There was always something happening.

My main concern was how we’d keep in touch with our clients. Quite a few of them say quite often that if they didn’t have Toynbee to visit, they’d be depressed. Either that, or they were depressed, until they found Toynbee. They also love all the activities we do here. And so many of them don’t even have mobile phones. So, as I didn’t know whether we’d be able to access the database from home, I had to download our clients, more than four hundred, so that we had a way to be in touch with them. The first week was just mad. We just called everyone to let them know that we were closed, and because I was still fairly new, I didn’t know all their names properly yet. At one point, I thought maybe we can use Outrunners as guinea pigs for volunteer telephone befriending, or maybe even for medication or shopping runs – they are runners, after all! The coach runner and CEO backed me, and I got in touch with the runners. They all mucked in, it was just absolutely amazing and so very moving.

So many people didn’t have food or prescriptions – they didn’t know how to go and get it, or were too frightened to leave the house. Prescription runs had to be done in pairs, to hold each other accountable for the medication staying safe between the pharmacy and the community members’ home. I got in touch with the Tower Hamlets Volunteer Centre and they published my advert, and within a week I had over 50 volunteer sign ups! There was so much goodwill, so many people, in this community who wanted to help other people in their community. It was easy to recruit – but the admin and coordination side was a bit trickier. We also made sure to evaluate and reevaluate as we went along – what was working, what was not. Initially, the telephone befriending scheme was meant to run for 12 weeks, but it has gone so well that we are continuing it indefinitely, and recruiting for a new role of Befriending Coordinator.

I do this work because I believe in community. The way the world is headed feels so insulated – always stuck to our phones, our front doors locked, very individualist. Almost as if we fear each other, but there is so much beauty in people, in community, what are we afraid of? We cannot survive without each other. We need each other. But there is so much division, and in the East End where there are so many different communities who live side by side who don’t mix because they’ve been taught to keep themselves to themselves, because there’s a fear that people will try and change them if they allow them in, you can feel it strongly. We need to better understand who wants and needs what, and how we can make that happen. Listening to people, and creating spaces where people are safe and feel heard. Not bombarding the community with impossible to understand surveys and notices, and building things for them that are of no use to them because they’ve been built by policy teams with totally different lived experiences. There is so much money being spent on services that are only useful for a very small percentage of the intended users of that service. What is the point? We need to listen to this. We need to change how we do things.

~

I have a weird background myself, so I’m invested in this way of thinking from a deeply personal place. I was born in 1982 in Russia, when it was still communist. So, I grew up with the idea that you have extended family as well as your biological family. If there was nowhere to go, you’d be at your neighbours – there were always people around – for example, I don’t remember my mum ever taking me to school, there was always someone in the community doing school runs, and things like that. It was a real community. Obviously, communist Russia was terrible. But in the community, where it mattered, we helped each other – possibly because the government wasn’t doing that for us. We had solidarity. It was us as a community against something unpleasant, so we stuck together.

When I was 8, we emigrated to Israel. I didn’t even know I was Jewish till we started planning the move, as my family could not be open about religious convictions in Russia. I didn’t even have a concept of God until then. So, when I moved to Israel I was handed a prayer book all iof a sudden! I used to hide my own books inside the prayer book and pretend that I was reading prayers. In Israel, there is also a very strong sense of community. If you are stuck in the middle of the street without money, you can tell people there what happened to you and they would help. But at the same time, this only happens if you’re from a certain background. If you are Jewish Israeli, this is you. But when I emigrated there were very few Russian Jews, so there was prejudice against us, “who are these weird white people who speak Russian”. But now it is better. However, if you are Muslim, Christian, or Atheist, you are still excluded, you are not part of that mainstream community. But I didn’t realise that, I didn’t have a vocabulary for it.

Then I went travelling, and for the first time, I saw community that wasn’t based on religious convictions, people not being excluded because of their beliefs. It was then that I realised I could never return to Israel. Because as lovely as some parts of it are, I don’t belong there. It is a macho society. On paper women are equal, but in reality they are not. Expectations of women are very high. Women are multi-dimensional. We are not just what people think women should be. In Israel I experienced it in the form of having good grades, which was viewed as positive, but wanting to be outside a lot, which was viewed as negative and inexplicable. I wanted to go travelling, but then I also spent a lot of time in libraries. So how do those things tally? The expectation in Israel is that if you’re not married with at least one child by the age of 26, then you’re straying from your purpose. I wanted to get away from that, and find my spot in the world. But then I realised I don’t have just one spot, I have many. As many as I want. I was able, then, to let go of wanting just one spot. And of course, there are the terrible things happening across the border of Palestine, and either willingly or unwillingly, people do not want to see it.

So when I came here, I initially sought out Hebrew speaking people, just to still feel a sense of belonging to something, but eventually I realised I was just separating myself from everyone else, and it was making me unhappy. London can be a tricky place to find your community. But in a way, that can be a nice thing – you can have several communities, pick and mix, and get different things from all the groups you belong to. It is very common to move to another country and find your own people, but in doing that we don’t experience the joy of getting to know other types of people, with different backgrounds to our own. I want to learn more. I don’t want to live with the fear that has been installed in me based on politics and religion. There are so many similarities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Especially in the Middle East when you look at custom, culture, food, family attitudes – but we never talk about the similarities. We only ever focus on the differences. There is always a divide. Whether it is a physical wall or a mental one – if you’re not the same, you’re just not the same, and that’s that.

But it can sometimes be lonely, trying to find your community, trying to find where you belong. I felt very lonely for a long time. A lot of socialising in Britain tends to be around alcohol, and I don’t mind a drink, but I don’t like being drunk. And I’m not a girly girl, so I don’t enjoy being in a big group of girls, talking about makeup and all that. I like football, so I always hang out with the guys more. But then you’re in another sort of box. Like, ‘ooh, what are you?’

Running helped me. Initially it was just for a few months, I wanted to lose a bit of weight – I didn’t want to go running unless it was ‘necessary’. But it gave me so much freedom, so much confidence. It’s a different sort of confidence to the one we’re sold as desirable, though. It’s a quiet, internal confidence. It’s about how you feel about yourself really, not just wanting to look a certain way, but feel a certain way too. It’s fine if you like make up and heels, but your confidence shouldn’t come primarily from that. I looked down at myself one day when I was running. I was wearing shorts, bright light green top, bright orange trainers and weird socks – and I looked ridiculous. But I didn’t care! I didn’t worry about what my body looked like. Instead, I was thinking about what it could do, how it felt. That day, during a 10 mile run, I went and explored Little Venice. That’s something I never would have done if I wasn’t running. So, it’s things like that. It makes you braver.

Running is solitary, which is nice. But there is a very strong community in the running world. I was reluctant to join a running group for a long time, but then I found a group that met up regularly in Victoria Park and I joined to see what it would be like. Over time, I built friendships that were more substantial and significant than ‘we just like going to the pub every Friday night. I still like running on my own as a sort of meditation, but it’s nice to be able to share that with other people as well.

For me, finding a safe space, and a comfortable space, to do my own thing but also be with people, was really valuable. We can be individuals, be ourselves, but still need people around us. We can still be an individual in a group. But we cannot just be an island. Or think our actions don’t affect other people. There is so much joy to be gained from making someone smile or laugh, or being there for them when they’re having a tough time, or accepting support when we are struggling ourselves. We need community. We need to be vulnerable with each other.

Vulnerability is a strange thing. I can easily tell others how important it is, but it’s often much more difficult for me to allow myself to express it. To be honest about my needs. If you’re used to being the helper most of your life, how do you switch roles and admit you need other people? It is easier to be needed; empowering. It’s the ‘I’m being a nice person, I feel good about it’ effect, but you’re still in the position of power in that dynamic. So vulnerability, too, is important in our communities – for all of us. A lot of people who want to help, in my experience, have a fear of losing control. They regain power and control by helping others, because honestly, often, people feel powerless. So you don’t want to feel even more powerless by being the person accepting help, instead of the one giving it.

We have clients that swear they’re fine, but we know they’re not. When we offer those people support, they don’t want it – there was one person who cancelled a service we provided because they wanted it to go to someone else. That person is very sharp, very independent, a real survivor – so when we gave them a laptop to increase their connection with others, they wanted it to go to ‘someone else who needs it more’, because ‘I can still entertain myself somehow’. Yes, there are people who need those things as well. But it is not a competition, resources should never be finite but we are taught by society that they are, and they must be – so we learn to assume someone else needs it more. It is heartbreaking. And we have people who we ask directly, ‘do you need help, do you need food?’ they’ll say ‘no, I’m fine’, because there is a stigma around food poverty, a shame in needing help.

However, there is sometimes the opposite thing, of people who take a lot more than their fair share. But this is much more complicated than surface impressions more often than not. For example, if they lived in poverty for a long time, they’re now used to not knowing when a resource will be available again, so they stock up. It is too simplistic to default immediately to ‘they’re greedy’ – there is a reason for everything, people behave in the ways that they do based on their life experiences, so it is never black and white. We always make an effort not to blame or shame, because that isn’t fair at all. We try to understand instead. The mind goes straight away to judgement. But when you hear that judgement come up inside you, you can decide to think more deeply about why this may be happening. Why are they stuffing sandwiches into their bag? Is it because of what they’ve been through?

Some of our clients have incredibly complex stories. I wish I had time to hear everyone’s. But sometimes there is a huge language barrier. And the problem I’ve seen with that is that when there is a language barrier, everything becomes simplified in order to relay the message, so it becomes about the very basic needs – food, rent, heating, etc. Every person has so much more than that. Thoughts, dreams, life experiences. We don’t want to reduce them down to whether they need to use the food bank or not. They are so much fuller than that, they are a whole person, and we need to always remember that when delivering services. The people who come to us are human beings. Same as all of us. We are human, trying to survive, trying to love as fully as we can, do our best with the tools we were given.

Joyriding Down the Roman

for Denise Arbiso, by Sam Dodd

“I’ve been joyriding down the Roman on my mobility scooter. Gets me about alright, that thing does! Went to Toynbee Hall today – wasn’t able to go there all through lockdown. They’re so lovely there. You know, I’ve got a terrible memory. You may not get a lot outta me. But let’s have a nice chat anyway.”

~

I grew up in Stoke Newington originally, and when I was very young, we moved more into the centre of Hackney. I was born 62 years ago in 1958. All my family were from there, going back generations. I had two brothers. Those two used to torment me – take my dolls, shake them teasingly… boys can be that way. Ah, but they were only messing. They loved me really. Both of them are still alive, they live near to me – we are all in Bow.

Growing up, my mum used to do the cooking. She was a good mum. Loved cooking dinner – she was very good at spaghetti bolognese and stews! I still love my stews now, make em all the time, but they’re never as good as when your mum makes em are they! She liked getting her hair done, and she’d wear lipstick. Pink, I think. That’s my favourite colour now too, I do like a bit of lippy sometimes. Her and my dad rowed a lot. He was argumentative, never grateful for her. Her catchphrase was “That fucking man.” Hah! He was difficult, yeah. Difficult man. My mum worked in the same warehouse department store in Shoreditch High Street as me and my cousin, it was called Spencer Rotherham. She also had another job, swing park attendant over at Springfield Park in Stokey – looking after all the kids on the swings, making sure they were safe ‘n that. She loved that job. So she did all that, plus being a full time mum. I dunno how she did it.

We had a tortoise, a real one, I used to play with him in the garden. It’s funny, when you look back. What a strange animal to have! I liked mixing with other girls my age at school, didn’t like school overall to be honest, and I couldn’t bear P.E.! Did not like that at all. Climbing apparatus and all that nonsense – what is the point in that?! But I did like netball – that was great. It was called Clapton Park School on Chelmer Road, an all-girls school. It is still there, but the name has changed, it’s now part of Clapton Girls’ Academy. I was a very good child. I never got in trouble, not even as a teenager. The worst thing I ever did in my life was start smoking at the age of 11 – and I’ve been chuffing away ever since. It’s ever so bad for you. I never told my parents; I hid it at the time. If they’d have found out they’d have told me off something rotten.

Hackney has changed a lot over the years. The people are different. It’s more posh now than what it used to be. In some ways it’s a lot better. The crime has gone down for sure. The community was tight knit back in those days, but my family kept ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t go spend time down the community halls or anything like that, not like other families. Just wasn’t my parents’ thing. Some people loved all that though. We didn’t go to church; my parents weren’t really all that religious. I was christened in the Church of England but I haven’t kept up with it. We stayed in a lot.

Much like right now, I suppose. My mood goes up and down a bit recently, with all this virus stuff going on. It can feel a bit frightening. I have my days when I feel down – and the grey weather doesn’t help. I just keep going though, best way I can.

~

The only job I ever had was in that Spencer Rotherham’s, founded by a fella called Jeremiah Rotherham. Textiles warehouse – fabric, home decoration sections, all that. I worked there for a long while, in the curtain department. When I was a child, I wanted to be an air hostess! I never did get round to that. It’s funny, when you think back to your dreams as a child. I loved airplanes. But I retired before I had my kids, so it’s not like I was at Rotherham’s for decades – I was a stay at home mum – and I wanted to be.

I didn’t really go out an awful lot, didn’t have a bunch of girlfriends, but I did go about with my cousin Elaine. We liked the pubs. One in Camden Town, The Eastnor Castle, as she lived over that way, and one on the Roman near me, the Earl of Aberdeen. We had a lot in common with each other. We wanted the same things in life and were on the same trajectory. She worked in the warehouse with me. Then we both got married, started families, both had a girl and a boy. She was about my age too. We were so similar, and we really had a laugh together. One club we used to go to was on Neal Street in Covent Garden, called Chaguaramus – a gay club – we used to love it there. And funfairs, we went to them a lot too. Hackney, Lea Bridge Road – they’d be big ones, every year. My favourite ride was the Big Wheel. I couldn’t go now! I’d get dizzy ‘n that – I’m too old now. And Saturday morning pictures – we’d go there regularly. It was called the Vogue Cinema, on the corner of Stoke Newington High Street and Batley Road. We did a lot of things together, me and Elaine. Wish I was young again sometimes. If I was, the first thing I’d do would be to get dressed up and go out more, enjoy myself more, have more fun, I think. She’s still about, my cousin, though we don’t stay in touch as much. She still lives in Camden. And I’m still here in the East. Won’t be going out on the town tonight, sadly! Think I’m past all that now, it’s for the young ones to do.

I got married in my twenties. It didn’t last long. I don’t think he was my first love, but I can’t remember who was! He’s still alive, still very much a part of the family. Our first proper date, really, was our wedding. We didn’t really do dating much, me and him!

My best memory is when I had my daughter Keely. She was born in Jubilee year, 1977. I always wanted a baby. Didn’t mind whether it was a girl or a boy, but I wanted kids. And I loved that she was born in the Jubilee year. Then having my boy Terry, it just made me so happy, I was complete when I had those two. I love my kids very much. Very much. And all my grandkids. If I was to give any advice to young people now, it’d be to keep off drugs. They’re different these days. And when we’re young we think we’re invincible. Keep out of gangs as well; there is so much knife crime now, there weren’t any knives when I was a kid, or at least it was very rare. So, stay out of gangs, stay out of trouble with the law, and stay off the drugs.

If I could, I’d move out of London. Loughton is nice, that’s where my son lives with his young family. I’d like a change in the air quality. I’d go there, if I could. The pace in London is much faster now than it used to be – or maybe I’m just slower! I do think though, if you want to move and you’re still young enough, do it. Take the leap. London ain’t what it used to be. The air here is bad now.

~

I’ve been trying to cope as best as I can during this pandemic. The lockdown was tough, didn’t leave the house as much as I used to, just stayed in really, though still made it down to the corner shop to buy my fags and crossword books. I had my hair done a couple of weeks ago, hadn’t done that for months. I felt ever so fancy. Toynbee Hall sent me colouring books and fiction novels through lockdown, and the pharmacy delivered my medication. I went out for food when I had to, I could sort that myself and I didn’t mind. My housing association even called to check I was alright – I thought that was very thoughtful. Did a lot of colouring in and crosswords over the lockdown. This week, I went down the Roman as I needed a new microwave. It’s nice to be able to go out a bit more again now. Didn’t find the one I wanted on the Roman, so I got the bus down the Bethnal Green Road. One of those market stalls with the fridges and cookers on it too. Must be a pain for the stallholders when it rains – what with all them electrics. Anyway, Toynbee Hall sorted me out with a laptop! I’ve never used one before. Just getting used to it – looking at the weather, the news, some pictures, all that. I’ll never put my bank details in that thing.

I don’t know of anyone in my immediate circle who got COVID, but I watch the news a lot – the numbers were frighteningly high. They still are. The NHS response to COVID is amazing. Unbelievable. The nurses and doctors are so good at what they do. Nobody in my neighbourhood did the clap for carers, not that I saw or heard myself anyway. I missed my mum during lockdown – she was in a supported living home in Bethnal Green.

My priority in life now is trying to stay healthy and listening to doctors. I have a lot of health issues now, all of which came later on in life – I was a fit young thing in the old days. I’m still eating chocolate though – even though I’m not meant to! And still chuffing away on the cigarettes! I went for another scan yesterday. Have a lot of scans these days, that happens when you get old. The results will go to my doctor. Not a particularly exciting week. Haven’t really seen anyone. What I do on any day depends on the weather. I can’t ride my scooter when it’s raining cos I gotta hold a brolly at the same time. If I ride, I get soaked – if I hold the brolly, can’t ride!

When I think about the future, I feel good. I like to be positive, not negative. It’s important to think positively. It keeps us sane. If we keep thinking negatively, we are never gonna get nowhere. Negativity puts obstacles in your way. If you wanna go somewhere or do something, go there! Do that! You only live once. We must enjoy this life. We are lucky to have it.

~

Been sorting out me winter jumpers. Coming up winter now, and I like me jumpers. Had a shower, washed me hair. Things like that. The decorator has gone now, it’s all finished. It looks nice, it feels good to have a fresh home. And me tea is in the oven. I’ve got a bit of cod in. Don’t like the ones with bones, too fiddly.

I like my own company, enjoy living alone. It’s nice to be able to come and go when you want to, do your own thing, don’t have to answer to no-one. Peaceful. Course, things changed a bit when we went into lockdown. You realise how much you like to get out and about, the moment you can’t do it no more. But I feel lucky to be here, to have a safe home. These days you can lose everything so quickly, there are so many homeless. And I’m grateful I’m not one of them.

~

My mum died this week. I’ve never felt anything so acutely in my life as I am right now. It wasn’t COVID, it was dementia. When she first started getting ill with the dementia, it was so hard to watch the gradual deterioration. She just didn’t know what she was saying half the time, and then eventually, all of the time. This feels painful, to lose her hurts.

Her name was Joan, and she was a fantastic woman. When she died, this week, she was 91. White haired, lovely old lady. She was so kind, to everyone. Much more outgoing than me! I’m quite shy, but my mum never was. Got on with everyone. Loved going Bingo and socialising – well known in the community, cos she would always help a struggling person out – sometimes with money, sometimes with food, sometimes just with a kind word. Such a good heart, my mum had. She was never strict, just understanding. Loved all her grandkids too, mine and my brother’s kids, and when they were little she came round a lot to help me out; I needed it. She was always out with her trolley, out and about, she liked being active. Loved the markets; Dalston, Mare Street, Stratford, Hoxton – all of them. She loved buses as well, was always on and off a bus somewhere or other. I’ve gone through her photos with my daughter, she was much closer to her than she was to me. One has got pride of place on top of my telly. I am going to miss her so much.

It’ll be another Christmas soon. I hope people are OK this Christmas. Never had one like this before, have we? My mum won’t be here for this one. It’ll be the first one in my life I haven’t spent with her. I suspect many people’s mums won’t be around this Christmas. I hope people cope OK.

Getting On With It

for Joan Barham, by Rowena Price

‘There’s nothing you can do ‘bout this, it’s just gotta take its course.’

‘That’s a good way to look at it.’

‘Well, there’s no other way to look at it.’

***

Resilience, for those of the generation who can remember the Second World War, is born out of survival – a choice between suffering and endurance. That drive and zeal for life is the river through which ninety-year-old Joan Barham, who has lived almost all of those ninety years in East London, channels everything she does. It is probably fair to say that the relative comforts and privileges of contemporary UK life has not bred the rest of us into stoics, and that, until this year, most of us had never experienced the call to unite in collective action to keep everyone safe – much like in a war. But has the pandemic really got us all keeping calm and carrying on?

Joan is divided on this. She tells me many stories of the kindnesses of people; neighbours from down the road knocking on her door to see how she is, her daughter-in law who checks the labels of the food in her fridge and restocks it when it’s out of date, regular phone calls from a whole host of friends and relatives. She has a large family, with four children, fourteen grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren; she is the ninth of thirteen children herself. Joan is particularly close to her sister, who lives a short bus ride away. Before the pandemic they would regularly visit each other and go out to town for a walk and a cup of tea.

‘My sister I go out with, she’s the baby. So every time she got anything wrong I’d say, “that’s because you’re the thirteenth child”, and we’d have a laugh over that. I get on very well with my sisters. I’ve got two sisters and two brothers left out of thirteen.’

Although she is unable to go out much of the time at the moment, Joan is never short of friends and family to help her out with errands and tasks around the house. On one occasion when one of her sons visited, he insisted on cleaning the tops of the wardrobes, which she tells me with a characteristic chuckle that she is too short to see, and that what she can’t see she doesn’t worry about. Over the course of our conversations, I come to see that this last sentiment sums up Joan very well.

But as well as people’s altruism, Joan has also witnessed their selfishness during the pandemic, and has noticed a definite drop in common courtesy among the public. She regularly travels on the bus, and says that despite her obvious age, no one will offer her a seat. She thinks that peoples’ manners have dwindled over the lockdown towards people vulnerable to the serious effects of COVID-19, including the elderly, because they believe she probably shouldn’t be leaving the house at all. Yet, what she says next surprises me – not in the context of her experiences of the often self-serving public during the pandemic (think toilet-paper hoarders) – but because it seems to me a belief that has evolved over the course of a whole lifetime of experiences:

‘There’s more unkind than kind people in this world.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Yes. Yep.’

***

In mid December, Joan has her first round of the new COVID vaccination. She asks the doctor how busy they are at the moment and he tells her that they are, although a lot of people eligible for the vaccine are refusing it. ‘I mean, why refuse it when it’s free?’ Joan asks me. ‘The scientists have worked so hard to get this up, and now people are throwing it back in their face. It either kills or cures; if you get the virus you’re better off for having the vaccine either way! But people are really stupid.’ She tells me about a friend who was offered the vaccine and asked for a few days to think about whether she wanted it or not; Joan is pretty incredulous at this. Her view is that there’s no time to waste. She has faith that the vaccine is well tested – ‘they wouldn’t give it to people if it wasn’t’ – and that we all need to put our trust in the work the experts have done to make it available to the most vulnerable members of the public so quickly. I agree with her.

‘I don’t know what’s wrong with people, I really don’t. I think they’re frightened. But I’d do anything to stop this virus. I think of my grandchildren growing up, and I’d do anything to make it a clearer world for them.’

Joan’s no-nonsense approach is well tempered by a very large streak of compassion, and a warm, wisecracking sense of humour. She is sociable and outgoing; she likes to be where there’s a lot of noise and a lot of things going on, and is most comfortable surrounded by people. With such a big family and living in a city, this doesn’t surprise me. Her son used to say that he had to make an appointment to see her because she was always out, to which she pointedly countered that it was his idea for her to start attending her social club, so he shouldn’t complain when she was making the most of it. Talking to the ever-affable and level-headed Joan now, you wouldn’t think she had ever been the shy type. But she assures me that she hasn’t always been like this.

‘I used to be so quiet when I was young. Really really quiet I was; I wouldn’t say boo to a goose! But when I started work, that’s when I changed.’

I ask Joan how much she’s noticed her city changing over the pandemic, and what it’s like watching this happen. In London, where usually everything is open all the time, nothing shuts down at five or six in the evening like it does in the countryside. She tells me everything being closed feels more frustrating than eerie, though; she can’t visit her social club, or go out with her sister like they used to so often. And in the city centre, where one of her sons works, it’s like a ghost town: ‘You wouldn’t think you was in the heart of London.’

She worries about all the businesses that inevitably won’t survive the lockdown period, how hard people work to get their livelihoods up and running, only to be knocked down by something so totally out of their control.

‘Well, I reckon it’ll get worse before it gets better. I reckon there’s been a lot of suicides.’ For her home, her family and friends during this time, Joan counts herself lucky. ‘Lots of old people can’t go out at all, and they ain’t got any family to help ‘em out. People are struggling, really struggling.’

***

When I speak to Joan in early January, her tone has changed; even in the short time I have got to know her I can tell she isn’t feeling herself. I can hear it in her voice: the restlessness, the fatigue, and the loneliness, too. She tells me she is really struggling now with having to stay inside all the time, not being able to see her friends and family and being alone over Christmas and New Year. But she always qualifies these frustrations with something to the effect of ‘well, a lot of people are doing a whole lot worse.’ And while this may be true, suffering isn’t quantifiable, and clearly she is suffering. Yet I can tell it helps Joan to feel in control by feeling thankful for the things she does have, and this is the constant that runs through her: she is endlessly appreciative and selfless. I know not many of us are able to be the same.

Midwinter is probably the worst time to be in lockdown, especially for those who live alone like Joan. To some extent it was bearable for her last spring and summer, keeping the windows open or sitting in her garden in the sunshine. She’s excited to do some planting for the spring, when the weather allows it. But at the moment it’s raining a lot, and when it’s not raining it’s cold and windy.

‘I put the TV on and I think, I don’t wanna watch this, I don’t wanna watch that either. And I don’t like watching the news cos it’s all about this coronavirus. I put my music on; I’ll listen to anything really, I’m not fussy, me. I like the opera, the male opera singers, though, they’re good.’ Joan listens to her music inside and watches the few people who walk past on the street.

Joan’s optimism has rubbed off on me. The tide is turning, slowly but measurably.  We may feel we are at the lowest ebb, but each day we get two more minutes of daylight, and each week we are one week closer to normalcy. Joan may have lived most of her life already, but she deserves to see the rest of it from the other side of her window, in the air and the light, with the people she loves. For her and all the people displaced, afraid and isolated because of this virus, I can’t wait for that day to come.

Do Your Best and Leave the Rest

for Claire Chatelet, by Nic Peard

When Claire and I have our first call, she is in a hotel in Folkestone, two hundred and seventy-two miles away from me in York. I can hear the gulls keening nearby as she tells me she’s just getting settled after walking like mad to keep our appointment. I take a quick glance out of my grey, northern window as Claire says she is trying to find a sunny spot to sit in her hotel room. I immediately picture a cat stretching out in a sunbeam, which illuminates dancing dust mites in a picturesque sort of way. 

My first question when she’s ready is: how have you been?

Claire does not hesitate in her answer, and over the next few weeks she will not hesitate to answer many more that I have for her. “Up and down,” she tells me frankly. She’d been feeling unwell, and had to get out of London. She’d over-committed and was worn out. According to Claire, this is a mistake she has repeated several times throughout her life. “Every time I think I’ve learned a lesson,” she says. We both laugh.

What did you over-commit on? I ask.

“Oh, it’s a long story,”says Claire. I will learn over these next few weeks that these words promise a story of an incredible, profound experience that she is about to share, and I will be honoured to relive those experiences with her. “Did you get a chance to read my previous story?”

I did! That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you – how is it having seen two pandemics in your lifetime? That must be mad.

She responds instantly. “It was very strange – I don’t know which one to start on.” She pauses briefly. “Shall I start on the first pandemic?”

I affirm – go for it. Whatever you want.  

She launches right in. “I burnt out in ‘97.”

***

When Claire began to recount the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown in the UK, it was hard not to recall the old fable of the boy who cried wolf. The key difference was that in Claire’s case, the wolf was not only there, slinking up the hill, but he had been there before, and she’d always been telling the truth. That is not to say she knew what was coming before anyone else – in the beginning, she was tempted to dismiss the whole thing out of hand, even admitting frankly that there were moments that she laughed about it all. It was only when news from Italy began to reach the UK and Claire saw the images of all the coffins, stacked up on top of one another, that she stopped laughing and began preparing.

Friends who weren’t too worried at the time observing her efforts speculated that she must be frightened.

“But I wasn’t,” she said to me. “I wasn’t scared. I’m not afraid to die – what will be will be. If I catch it, I catch it.”

I was not the first person that Claire had told this to. She had already told herself the same from 1987 to 1997 in the ten years that she was a nurse through the HIV/AIDs pandemic.

***

With no small amount of irony, Claire tells me that she applied for a placement on the Genital Urinary Medicine (GUM) Clinic at Newham General Hospital in 1986 because people weren’t dying there. Claire’s training as a nurse had concluded in 1983 at Royal London, and she was frustrated by what she saw. It was a time where managerial bureaucracy was beginning to stifle the effort of nurses who were already jumping through mandatory hoops to prove their professional competency – requirements that still live on in the NHS today in various forms. AIDS/HIV was slowly on the rise – doctors were returning from the United States and reporting that gay men were beginning to die of an unknown disease. At first, Claire’s work at the clinic offered a welcome relief from the mounting frustration she had endured during her training, which was coupled with systematic sexism that prevented nurses from speaking up to the male doctors and from even having boyfriends. “The sisters were very strict!” Claire would tell me as she sketched out the restrictive atmosphere she worked and trained in.

When her training concluded, Claire worked part-time, and took up a programme at the University of East London. There was a balance between her work and her personal life. But there came that first wolf up the hill, low to the ground. In 1986, cases of HIV/AIDs began to appear in the UK and in London, government-run awareness campaigns began and testing became available. The atmosphere changed overnight, and the fear, says Claire, was comparable to the early days of COVID-19 in the UK. It was at this point Claire declined the invitation to return to Royal London, who were becoming quickly overwhelmed and applied to the Newham GUM clinic. Cases that came under the remit of Claire and her colleagues there weren’t too significant, and – crucially – there was nothing that wasn’t treatable.

But as the HIV/AIDs pandemic truly got underway, and patients began to arrive at the GUM clinic, this was to fade quickly. Claire and her colleagues were faced with a never-ending catastrophe. For the next ten years, Claire would watch many people die slowly. It drained her beyond belief. And as the bureaucracy tightened its grip on the hospital’s operations, Claire – whose native language is French – was called upon constantly to translate for patients dying of HIV who were often refugees from Central Africa, having found a home in the Labour borough of Newham. Day in and day out, Claire had to work twice as hard, communicating in French and English and trying to keep up with her own duties. She was the voice for those who were dying alone, far from home.

Her feelings on the enormity of what she faced are here in her own hand, written in 1996 as she rapidly approached the limits of her capacity:

Too much grief, not enough time to recover from the last death, too many problems accessing services, not enough energy to be heard adequately……so the not enough have their share of the too much, the type that the care workers eventually find difficult to contend with, to address adequately, that leads to burn-outs or bring out to the fore the competition of do-gooders…

God I need a rest.

Claire, in 2020, puts it to me plainly in our first conversation:

“Who cares for the carers?”

***

This sentiment resonates with us both as our interviews continue. In York, autumn arrives with more grey skies, and Claire returns to her flat in London. The sounds of gulls are replaced with sirens that go roaring by on the other end of the phone.

Claire tells me about how she had initially responded to the call for retired health practitioners to return to work as the NHS began to struggle, with the hope that she might help out with a tracing system that was similar to the work she did during her first pandemic. Explaining how she detailed all of her telephoning experience and previous work on the response form, Claire explains to me the complex feelings she had toward a potential return to nursing, so soon after her retirement: 

“But then I thought: why do I want to do it? But when you are a nurse there is always this thing… you want to respond to crisis.”

It was the bureaucracy that punctuated Claire’s nursing career that held her back from returning, and was at the core of the burnout that was still with her nearly twenty years on. She backed out of the recall.

The mismanagement of the HIV/AIDs pandemic had forced Claire to think about her own limits, then and now. At the end of her time nursing during those difficult years, she had a postcard on her desk. It said: do your best and leave the rest. It was to contextualise her exhaustive efforts in trying to do all she could for people who didn’t stand a chance against both disease and systematic prejudice – whichever killed them first.

Claire had done her best, and in deciding not to come out of retirement during a second pandemic, had decided to leave the rest.

Do your best and leave the rest…I think you’ve given me the title for this piece just there.

“Oh, have I? Good!”

***

That is not to say that Claire has been idle during the pandemic and varying stages of lockdown. If anything, do your best and leave the rest came to serve her actively once again in the months that were to follow.

Long before masks were mandated and even before lockdown itself, she was already hard at work with a sewing machine, making masks at home in her flat in Tower Hamlets that she shares with her daughter. (“I got very intimate very quickly with that sewing machine,” she would tell me. “I even read the instruction booklet!”) Hand-made hand gel followed swiftly after. As masks became more and more popular and demand rose, she was even able to sell a few. But before the demand came a lot of scepticism from friends, colleagues and other community members who simply didn’t want to hear what she was trying to tell them – that something awful was coming, and that they should take measures now to help themselves and their loved ones.

Like a lot of the population in lockdown, Claire was fixated on the news. For the first six weeks, she drank in headlines and took on hours of research outside of the reporting from the typical news sources, forming her own opinions on a huge range of material. And those parts of her that still wanted to respond to the crisis did what they could – she tried to spread the word. As someone who was involved in a lot of different volunteering and community efforts, Claire was in a couple of Facebook community groups where various organisations discussed and planned group activities. 

The thing about Claire is that she is the kind of person who, upon seeing a problem, addresses it. When everyone else is ignoring the elephant in the room, you can trust that Claire will be there, looking it in the eye. According to her, this has typically resulted in two scenarios: becoming the one who should fix the problem, or the one who is silenced.

“So many times in my life I have told myself, ‘Claire…shut up…’”

In this case, it was the latter. In her groups, her posts on how masks reduced the spread of disease would either be deleted or would spark heated debates in the comments that declared she was talking rubbish. There came that wolf up the hill, and the village didn’t want to listen to the woman who had seen the total human catastrophe the other wolf had caused before.

One thing that struck Claire in this was how very glad she is that there was no internet during the time of HIV/AIDs. The stigma that enabled the UK government to brand the crisis the “Gay Plague,” given free reign on the internet? Unthinkable. But she also had some hopes for how the internet could bring thinkers, scientists and leaders together in this pandemic, and she talked a little about this during our numerous conversations on the topic.

“I also naively believed that the knowledge – because of the internet, when we didn’t have it in the eighties – I really believed that scientists would get together and exchange their knowledge peacefully and rationally. But what I’ve witnessed is conflict of interest and money still speaking louder. When we talk about health, you would think doctors would really want to heal people…but the powers of money speak louder — it’s always a bit disappointing when you come into nursing by wanting to help.”

Well, no one goes into nursing for the money, I say without thinking.

There is a pause, and the pair of us burst into laughter.  

***

Claire would eventually leave those Facebook groups that didn’t want to listen to her, and she stopped watching the news. She had done her best, and she would have to leave the rest – even if the rest was in some ways an ongoing frustration and a disappointment.

During this time and during early lockdown generally, Claire went out very little – every three to four days to start. In the midst of all the panic buying, Claire went about with a calm and clear head. She would tell me that she had used up all of her panic in the first pandemic and had simply run out of it for this one.

There was also plenty that Claire missed while in lockdown. She was enjoying lots of things in her retirement, going here, there and everywhere on various volunteering efforts or just to socialise with friends. Pottery classes, meditation – Claire had a lot going on, and missed it when lockdown put a stop to a lot of it. But one thing that she still managed to retain were her visits to the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve.

“Thank God,” as Claire says herself. “I had the trees. I feel so bad for everyone who were stuck in tower flats or had no garden.”

A little way from Claire’s second floor flat across the junction is the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. Once home to the gardens of the London elite and then a church that was bombed to ruins, it has been transformed into a private oasis of greenery and wildlife. Claire’s descriptions of the reserve sketch a total oasis tucked away in an urban sprawl with the remnants of the church stood there still poking through the grass. She is one of the lucky few to have access to the Reserve through volunteering work. 

Knowing the combination to the lock, in the first weeks of lockdown Claire was able to visit the Reserve on her trips home from the shops. Masked up and her hair in her turban, she would sit under the trees and find a moment of solitary peace before pushing on home.

Many ongoing projects at the Reserve were halted when lockdown hit; among them, growing trees for members of the public to adopt and take home with them in the summer months. It fell to Claire, who had volunteered with the Reserve previously, to water these trees in their pots. At first, it was only a couple of visits every two or three days, but as the months went on and the heatwave came, she was going every day. She still visits the reserve now, meeting a friend to go through some Tai Chi in that space.

Claire feels a little uneasy about being one of the few who have access to what amounts to a little patch of Eden in Bethnal Green and that others are kept out, but, in her own words, the Reserve was everything to her in lockdown – a space that held great importance for her and was safe from COVID, with access only granted to a few. 

“It’s a very strong place for me with this connection of impermanence, where it was a place of worship…and nature reclaimed it, and so on. It has a lot of significance for me, in that. I never would have gone so much if weren’t for the pandemic. It was a chance to for me to be outside. You can sit outside, you can sit on the benches, knowing no one who has sat there has had COVID.”

So it was a welcome reprieve? I ask.

“Oh, god, yes. A total present.”

***

Our chat about the Reserve was in our last session, and by that point, the connection Claire had felt with that green space during lockdown made total sense to me.

Over the course of my sessions with Claire, I had the privilege of getting to see some of the writing she had done over the most formative years of her life. The writing that she did during the HIV/AIDs pandemic painted a picture of a young woman who was struggling to keep giving when she had nothing else left to give, and it made total sense that to do your best and leave the rest was a thought that Claire had connected with so readily.

The other piece of writing that Claire shared with me, also written in 1996, was from a writing group. The group had been tasked to think about who they would want with them when they died, and the instructor couldn’t understand why Claire would want to die alone. Claire was not be dissuaded; furious at the thought that someone else could dictate how her own ideal death should go, she wrote it anyway:

Sunset – It is time to go….gazing towards the blue hills of the West, the sky is a crescendo of reds and golds. I am at Peace, appeased. I dismiss the last traces of sorrow for leaving this planet and with gladness turn within, deep within this old, soon to be useless shell. I have learnt to rise above the pain and those old bones will sure make a joyous flame. I will not miss them where I am going. 

GOODBYE NOT ADIEU.

With the subject of our talks being the pandemic we were both experiencing, it was understandable that, as well as talking about Claire’s experiences of two pandemics, we also talked about death. Claire has met death many times before in her work as a nurse, but is unafraid of it. Her spiritualist beliefs, which also deeply impacted her time as a nurse in the HIV/AIDs pandemic, say that death is a natural part of the cycle of reincarnation. It is only through reincarnation that one’s soul can finally break the bonds of the material plane and fully ascend. But Claire does tell me that she would not like to die in pain, unable to breathe – and this is why, above all, she hopes she will not catch COVID. With winter coming, she is preparing herself for the difficult months ahead, stockpiling medicine she knows from experience might mitigate the worst of the symptoms.

When she says that, my pen stops on the page of my notebook. For me, in York, the experiences that Claire has walked me through click into place, and – even though we are two hundred miles apart – I feel like I can see Claire in the midst of all our words. I feel so blessed that we were paired.

Distantly, I hear seagulls.

God I need a rest.                                                                                       I am at Peace, appeased.

Do your best and leave the rest.

Don’t you think it’s strange that you pictured your perfect death as being under an open sky, and you’re telling me now that you’re most afraid of not being able to breathe? I ask.

For the first time, Claire pauses before she responds. She gasps.

“Yes. Yes!

A Story for Peggy

for Peggy Metaxas, by Nacima Khan

“Hello?”

The phone clicked quietly as Peggy’s clear voice echoed through the line.

“Hello?”

It was never a formal nor distanced hello, but one which always opened up a door into Peggy’s home, one which invited you in for a cup of tea, one which made you stop and take a deep breath as the humdrum of life seemed to come to a halt in those few moments of opening up a conversation.

“I am so afraid. But we have to do what needs to be done.”

The lockdown had hit in March of 2020 and Peggy had become resigned to life within her home. Unable to leave the house, with fear of a virus which, at the age of 95, meant she might not be able to fight it off, she was scared to face the outside world. But Peggy’s outlook on the whole pandemic from within her home is what struck me the most in our conversations.

 “Well you just get on with it. I spend my time deciding what to cook, looking through my recipe books and seeing what ingredients I have. I tend the garden as much as I can. I have two cats to take care of. I keep myself busy.”

Peggy takes me through a journey into her home and there I imagine myself to be, every time we speak:

The front door opens and Peggy looks out with a smile. Blue eyes shining in a face framed by dark hair as she leans against a walking frame ordered under the insistence of her daughter, from Toronto.

“I don’t like to rely on other people. I am quite independent when I can be.”

Continuing on into the small hallway, the colour blue is dominant as it reflects throughout the décor.

“I like the colour blue, and I like my things.”

She chuckles as she tells me this unapologetically. Books and trinkets line the shelves and any other open space. China plates are framed on the walls, sketched with blue paint as they depict various patterns and scenery. For the first time, I hear a sense of hesitation in her voice as she reflects on her possessions.

“Perhaps I have too many things and should get rid of them.”

But then as if having settled the matter already to herself: “No…they are my things and I like having them.”

A phone hangs on the wall in the hallway. This has been the connection to Toronto – a life that once was and still is being lived through her two children who now reside there. “They would like me to go back, but I am not sure.” Peggy lost her husband, George, twenty years ago, when he became ill. They moved to Canada with their children to live a life which was comfortable and quaint, until Peggy decided to move back to London after George passed away when they were still living in Toronto. The mention of George sparks youthfulness in her voice.

“He always made me a cup of tea and would bring it to me in bed. That was every night without fail. And it was lovely and that was George. He always thought about you. I do miss that.”

I follow Peggy’s voice as she imagines George sitting at the kitchen table reading the Telegraph, with his hazel eyes perusing the words of a language that was never his mother tongue. Years of hard work had made his English vocabulary perfect, while it interlaced with his Greek accent; it had been a journey that began from the moment he met Peggy working at the Greek Embassy.

“This would all have been so much better if he was here.”

Peggy spots a picture of Yorkshire and remembers how it was one of the places she had planned to see with George when they had returned to the UK from Toronto.

“But he never got to see this flat in London. George passed away.”

I imagine her shrugging her shoulders as she accepts life for what it is now.

“I don’t get sad about things like that. I am quite sensible in that way.”

The smell of spices cooking from the neighbouring homes is a stark reminder of where Peggy lives. A heavily populated area, mostly by Bangladeshi families, it’s a world away from the busy city of Toronto where Peggy lived for many years, and the common east London accent is a contrast to her accent as Peggy speaks.

“It’s lovely where I am. I am blessed with the neighbours that I have.”

There is a knock on the door. Another George, who lives upstairs, has come to do his daily check-in to see how Peggy is. He was the first on call when Peggy had a sudden fall. Something she told me in our calls, but not to her own children.

“They will only worry.”

 I can’t help but think of Peggy’s George who no doubt would have done the same for anyone else.

“My George would have been the first to lend a hand if you needed help.”

I can see Peggy’s George standing in the doorway, handsome, with a greying beard and hair that still curled ever so slightly as he nodded to the neighbours. Peggy sees him too, but she remembers the 23 year-old George decked out in a naval uniform as he walked into the Embassy for the first time.

Peggy laughs now:

“He didn’t change my life – I changed his.”

As she looks out into her small garden, Peggy’s voice is laced with vulnerability as she reflects.

“I wish I could get someone to clean up the garden for me. I don’t know who to ask.”

I see the fruit trees blossoming through the sunlight as the lockdown creeps into spring and then summer, with a sigh from Peggy wondering how she can reach for the highest apples, resigned to collecting what she can. I see the leaves being blown off their branches as autumn runs through the garden leaving behind an orange and brown trail of a mess with Peggy only now venturing to the door to look out for her cats.

“I’ve kind of adopted them.”

These particular cats seem to have chosen Peggy’s kindness to keep them fed and warm when the cold hits and when they need somewhere to call home.

“Do you fear the unknown?”

Peggy chuckles at this question.

“I was a child who went through the Second World War.”

I am hurtled through a snapshot of a young girl having to suddenly move schools, live with another family in the countryside, reveling first in the adrenaline of this change which then shifted to a constant fear of German bombs and not knowing when life would go back to normal.

“I was afraid. But you do what needs to be done.”

In my mind’s eye, I see Peggy poring over her recipe books as she talks me through what she will cook that day. Nestled between her books is a copy of her very own recipe book – something which her children had put together. This is where I see Peggy the most animated as she describes the simplicity of cooking delicious and wholesome dishes.

“You just need to roast chicken with herbs and butter, and some vegetables, like broccoli, on the side if you like. It is so simple but lovely.”

I think about the complicated dishes of spiced meat and vegetable curries which have often been offered to Peggy from her Bengali neighbours.

“They’re much too spicy for me.”

But out of politeness, Peggy never refuses the food parcels that sometimes get sent to her door, though they often stay untouched and unopened.

She takes me through the set up on the kitchen table. It is always dressed with a tablecloth; today a white and blue one. A plate is laid carefully with cutlery on either side, with a napkin. Here, Peggy teaches me the importance of taking care of the little things.

“Set up the table for the morning so you don’t have to think about what to do.”

I imagine Peggy walking into her living room and sitting in her armchair as she looks down at her slippers hiding the toenails which have become too overgrown for her liking but much too hard for her to reach down and trim herself.

“It’s all getting to me now. But I don’t like to ask for help.”

Peggy looks at the clock and realizes the time.

“For lunch I think I shall have a cheese toasty. It’s very simple, just butter the slices of bread and grate some cheese inside and fry in a pan. Yes, that is what I will have for my lunch.”

I hear her smile and a heartfelt wish for me in one simple word as the door to Peggy’s life closes once again.

“Goodbye then.”

The phone clicks once again and I am engulfed in sudden silence.

Robyn: The Narration of Life

for Robyn Wells, by Marta Guerreiro

It was being a mother that brought her the ability to adapt and adjust, Robyn told me. She does not remember always having this talent to accept whatever life brings, remembering that being a mother meant learning that not everything will always be perfect, that not everything will always be as desired. She carries in her voice the calm and lightness that time does not remember that time has forgotten – at least, these recent times. She brings in her voice the calm that is contrary to the pandemic; she brings the tranquillity that feels like a hug.

Although very patient, Robyn found the start of lockdown difficult. She recalls the lack of options for lunch and dinner, recalls the inability to cook a good meal.

Meals were made from leftovers, soups were made from what was left, lemon or orange peels, whatever it was, I had to reinvent, rebuild.

I didn’t mind going somewhere to buy food, but John didn’t want to.

John, the love of so many years, a love that stayed after a divorce, that remained for being light and for bringing with it a lot of knowledge. 

He is very brainy –

says Robyn, after a few moments of silence. John, who represents a contemporary relationship, but which comes from other times. Each one in their own houses, they decided, giving Robyn space to devote to herself, her art and her passion for dance, also giving space to John, to grow individually and then, in the relationship.

The pandemic did not treat him well and, consequently, the relationship made of space and dedication also seemed to be in a whole new state: pandemical.

He didn’t want me to buy anything, he went into this weird obsession, had a lot of anxiety attacks, he needed to make sure that everything was disinfected and that I didn’t put myself in danger.

For Robyn, the lockdown was another opportunity to learn to adapt. She did not live-in fright; however, with John’s anxiety, she was living in stress.

The lockdown reminds me of dark red roses, the smell of them and the afternoons of good weather, the sun. It also reminds me of hunger, I was very hungry.

Robyn’s hunger was different: it didn’t arise from the impossibility of buying – the lack of money – but from a loved one whose mental health was in decline.

I didn’t know John could go to such an extreme.  I knew he was anxious, but not like that. Now we are fine. He sought help. He fortunately realised that he needed to calm down.

Robyn is the epitome of calm. She can’t remember the last time she could walk in the middle of roads, without the cars occupying the space that people should occupy. Nature marks this as a period of abnormality: the sound of birds, the green of the parks and the bare streets. They mark the change in looking at life as a gift, accepting and absorbing whatever there is, as it is, regardless of restrictions.

The nature and the absence of stress in the streets recall times that were left behind.

That part was good, but I feel sorry for the young people now, without a job, without socializing.

Robyn is observant. Every sentence she says comes after a pause, consideration, reflection, as if she were sewing the words instead of dumping them. Measuring, cutting and studying, leading her to art: sentences full of intensity. She imagines the world for those who are young. Even though she enjoys this distance from the stress, she also knows that life needs movement.

I’ve lived a lot, but there are those who haven’t lived enough, I can’t imagine how life goes with a lockdown for them, and what comes after the lockdown.

In the midst of the madness of life in this very peculiar phase, there was enough time to get to know her partner, a side she wasn’t aware of, but there was also time for the healing process. Homeopathy. While speaking with Robyn we realised that we both share a taste for alternative medicine and the certainty of the importance of conventional medicine. We are from different generations, it is so beautiful that we have the opportunity to share the space and time we have, to talk about adventures and misfortunes of a pandemic, with links that unite us and others that do not, I tell her: You seem to be such an easy-going person. She agrees.

She says that she doesn’t waste time with fashion, that she wears practical clothes that allow her to walk and that at home, she organizes herself to present painting classes when asked, if the teacher can’t make it. She speaks of Zoom as if it were the only tool that takes her to the spaces that once were filled with bodies.

I miss socializing, art classes and music classes. We usually had lunch together and laughed heartily. Now John helps me with technology, and we share art on the computer.

There is a lot of routine in a lockdown and Robyn’s life was no exception. She would meet John for long walks together, have lunch, and in the afternoon they both looked after the garden or made art, and had dinner. Sometimes John stayed, sometimes he didn’t. Routines served to bring mental organization, even though there was time and space left to ramble, to travel mentally, time to ring friends or to enjoy the silence.

I enjoy silence.

Robyn told me in a tone that, surprisingly, also resembles silence. Few words, serene, thoughtful and from time to time accompanied by deep laughter.

I don’t like television. I prefer books and music.

I can’t imagine the expressions she made while talking to me about herself, her life and such an odd time for the world – I couldn’t read her expressions, now that we are all required to keep physical distance, now that we need to think twice before deciding to hug someone. As a writer I never thought I would be able to get to know someone in such a beautiful depth, like I did with Robyn. Our conversation happened over phone and while I was laying on my bed and taking notes with a messy handwriting, I would imagine what was Robyn doing while speaking with me. I couldn’t read her expressions, I could take, however, from our conversation, take the tranquillity with which I also like to sew life together. Robyn speaks as one who dances, and dance perceives her. Perhaps that is why the sentences were carefully choreographed, thought out and created in a rhythm of love and understanding. I don’t know her face, nor have I seen her hands, but I imagine she has a soul painted in all the colours, colours from the art she paints and a face of someone who lives like life is a ballet.

Every time a call was over, I would close my eyes for a second and think about Robyn. Robyn, the mother who learned patience, not necessarily from the major events that the future would bring but since the beginning, since the moment that as a human being she would have to accept that not everything would always be perfect as a mother and that is okay. Robyn, the lover in a relationship that was exhausting, but which is now serene, with soups that resemble hunger and roses that resemble luck. Me, growing with every phone call, for having heard about life as if it was poetry, even what is not good, even what is not perfect. Robyn, with the voice of someone who narrates what life means and with the conviction that life is to be lived and preserved.