I didn’t pay proper attention to the flu-like illness that was sweeping East Asia until March of 2020 (some journalist, eh?). And looking back through my calendar, I can see days unfolded almost as normal. I gave a talk to some students at Westminster University; I went on a Tinder date at a London bar that was noticeably quiet; I made plans to visit my grandmother in Somerset; I phoned my brother who’d been at the Cheltenham Festival and I watched Liverpool get knocked out of the Champions League.
I was brought up by my gran – or grandma as we called her – and I would make the trip back to the Somerset countryside around once a month. Usually, I’d be out on Thursday evening and back to London by Sunday night. On 12 March, I finally packed up a small suitcase for the weekend and left London. A year later and I’m still out here, stranded in the middle of nowhere, waiting to come back to the city.
The initial weeks of lockdown were easy enough. I was sad to leave my roommate and I felt like a quitter for abandoning our rakish existence in Hoxton. But perverse as it sounds in hindsight, the beginning of the pandemic felt like an opportunity to unplug and pursue some otherwise neglected ‘deep work’. Spurred by tweets about Shakespeare writing King Lear under quarantine, friends began to pen novels. I never rose to those lofty heights; though I did get through every episode of Air Crash Investigation on the Discovery Channel: a long-standing personal goal.
Nostalgia was a side effect of the first lockdown. Apparently this was a common response: ‘Ever since the coronavirus lockdown began, I’ve been longing for my past,’ began an article in the New York Times. I can relate. Familiar objects are comforting during stressful or traumatic episodes. Which was fortunate for me, as my bedroom at my gran’s house contains nearly three decades of memories wrapped up in childhood paraphernalia. For those fortunate enough to have these untouched sanctuaries (or merely too lazy to conduct a proper clearing out) the world of childhood things is an ever-present refuge. Indeed, coronavirus could not reach its nasty fingers into my dusty world of broken Subbuteo figures and yellowing copies of the Beano.
My bigger mission in Somerset was to shield my grandmother from the virus at all costs. She was 90 when I arrived and, while in good health for her age, was inevitably at high risk. I did all the grocery shopping and turned myself into a dishevelled hermit who barked at uninvited guests who continued to show up at the cottage – apparently oblivious to the lingering presence of a deadly pathogen (perhaps Marx was right about the ‘idiocy’ of rural and market town life). We made it to my gran’s 91st birthday in July relatively unscathed and I ordered a Chinese meal to celebrate.
In many ways, 2020 felt like the repayment of a childhood debt. It’s unlikely I would have reached my 18th birthday, had my gran not stepped in when I was a child. This is not hyperbole. My father fled, never to be seen again, after getting my mother pregnant. She subsequently remarried to a backwards country chap who was all about ‘stock’ and the ‘bloodline’ (yes, such people still existed in Somerset in the 90s).
So, I spent most of my childhood in exile at my gran’s three-bedroom cottage by the sea; me, my gran and Len, an old Welshman who liked to talk about politics and women and who became a surrogate grandfather. Growing up with a different generation to most of the kids at school meant I stood out, though I was never picked on or bullied for it. I used old-fashioned words. I turned up with a wooden tennis racket for PE while the other kids had metal ones. I dressed like someone from behind the Iron Curtain.
Len died in a nursing home in 2014 just before Christmas. A few weeks later I went to the cinema to watch Interstellar, a convoluted but compelling space adventure starring Matthew McConaughey. A year deep into lockdown, stuck here in Somerset, I feel like one of the astronauts in the film who spends 23 years in space waiting patiently for his colleagues to return. The first greys have appeared in my beard. I’ve become institutionalised by my own bedroom. The extreme highs and lows of the first six months of the pandemic have been replaced by an emotional flat effect. And yet, unlike in the film, my childhood bedroom lacks a hypersleep pod to slow down the ageing process.
Like every elderly person, my grandmother has good days and bad days. There is truth to the adage about senility being like a second childhood. Everyday chores and inconveniences – like making a phone call or the prospect of a trip to the dentist – frighten her or induce a days-long spiral into confusion, panic and worry. Some days she forgets that coronavirus is sweeping the globe at all. But then, so would you – if you only watched repeats of Bullseye and The Chase.
She also sometimes hears phantom music, which she blames on me or the neighbours. My gran must grapple with a new bodily affliction on an almost weekly basis: a shooting pain here or a mysterious throbbing elsewhere. These form a regular topic of telephone conversation with a dwindling circle of friends. Ailments are reeled off and described with relish; comparisons are made; notes are taken. Industrious grandsons are then sent to the shops to locate and procure the newly crowd-sourced remedies.
I haven’t always played the part of the stoic and self-sacrificing grandson. I have been unpleasant to live with at times. I tend to snap at people (including my gran) and my culinary talents are merely functional. I hate the solipsistic phrase ‘self-care’ – ubiquitous nowadays – yet living in extraordinary proximity to someone for 12 months has necessitated significant introspection and deeper reflections on my relationship with empathy.
I’ve done the ‘right thing’ over the past 12 months – but often reluctantly. I get tired of repeating myself – three, four, five! – times because my gran cannot hear what I’m saying. I miss the independence and deliberate irresponsibility that comes with adulthood. ‘I’m not your bloody carer,’ I yelled at her one day when she was making a fuss about some house-related minutia. I’ve felt horrible about it ever since. And besides, right now I am a carer: I’m just temperamentally ill-suited to being one. I’m too impatient for starters.
I always intended to return to London once we’d reached the other side (so to speak). And the bridge to something better arrived in December thanks to Big Pharma. It was no chore to take my gran along for her first Pfizer jab; the experience was a genuinely joyful one and felt like coming up for air. She insisted on dressing up in a hat and fancy scarf for the occasion. I turned up unshaven in a hoody flecked with the remnants of my lunch. It must be a generational thing.
Once she’d had her second jab, we talked about my move back to the city. An effective vaccine has always been my ‘roadmap’ out of the isolation of provincial life, to use that ubiquitous term. My gran sounded happy for me; yet there was sadness in her face, which made the closing days of 2020 somewhat bittersweet. While I’ve spent months excitedly making plans for when things reopen, my gran is probably dreading me going back to London.
The last 12 months have often felt like a lost year. Yet complaining publicly about anything besides the death of a loved one is considered bad taste at present. If you post even a minor gripe on social media, then someone will jump down your throat, to tell you to quit whining. It feels like we’re supposed to shut up and just be glad we’re not strapped to a ventilator in an ICU.
And in my case perhaps that’s right. I don’t expect my recollections of the pandemic to exist forever as fragments of a tedious and anxiety-inducing interregnum between the pre-COVID world and whatever the ‘new normal’ is. For as bleak as it’s been at times – locked in a few small rooms waiting for it to end – the past year has furnished me with a fresh set of memories of my grandmother.
She is noticeably fading now – she gets confused by the television remote and the other day she forgot how to use the washing machine. But we did see off the coronavirus together. And because of that, alongside the laments to so much wasted time, when it’s over I’ll also have at least a few nostalgia-tinged stories to bore people with, just as my gran used to bore us as kids with endless stories about the war.