A Journal of the Plague Week

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Thursday, March 12, 2020, was the last really “normal” day—normal in the sense that I felt like I could leave the house without endangering myself or others too terribly much. We met with our mortgage advisor in the morning, I got my hair cut in the afternoon, and in the evening I went to ballet class. Our one concession to the looming virus was not going to the pub for our usual post-ballet Thursday night dinner; it didn’t feel right to sit in what would undoubtedly be a crowded bar just to eat some chicken wings when we could eat safely at home.

But there was a little hum of disquiet throughout the day nonetheless. We didn’t shake hands with our mortgage advisor, though we laughed and somewhat made light of our own caution. My hairdresser works from his home, but as he sat in such close proximity to me, I wondered whether any of his other clients might have brought the virus into his kitchen—or whether I might have. And when I left ballet class that night—sweaty, exhausted, but laughing and buzzing from a fun rehearsal—I had the distinct and poignant sense that it was the last time I was going to be in the studio for the foreseeable future.

I worked from home as usual on the Friday, and when Jeremy came home he said that Monday would be his last day in the office for a while; Clearleft was going remote. We had band practice on Saturday, and in the rehearsal room I somewhat sheepishly wiped down the amp and microphones with a wet wipe. Jeremy took a chance and played in an Irish session at a nearby pub early that evening, but I walked in the pub and walked straight back out again, spooked by the number of people (Jeremy said it emptied out after the dinner rush, but I would have been a wreck had I stayed).

We hibernated for the rest of the weekend, like we normally do, and then Jeremy went to the office for one final company meeting. He came home in the afternoon with a monitor and desk chair in tow, and the neighbors must have been very amused at the spectacle of us trying to squeeze the big chair through our very narrow doorway and up a steep flight of steps. I don’t know how we managed it, but we did, and now our living room does double-duty as Jeremy’s office during the day.

And here we are, one week of social distancing later, though that week feels like an eternity. I didn’t go to ballet last Tuesday or Thursday (though the studio was open and class was busy otherwise), we didn’t go to the St. Patrick’s Day session at our usual pub (we stayed home and had ham, potatoes, cabbage and homemade soda bread instead), there was no regular Wednesday session the following night, Jeremy had to have virtual “desk beers” with his colleagues on Friday, there was no tune-learning workshop on Saturday and none of our usual food shopping, save for a few trips to small local shops for essentials. With none of the usual markers to delineate them, the days started to stretch out and blend together in a stifling mix of worry and ennui, and it was a relief for evenings to roll around so we could stop trying (and failing) to get any work done and instead just kick back with a cocktail, a nice dinner and a few hours on the sofa watching whatever distracting thing we could stream on television, just like we would do in the Before Times.

On top of the existential fear that each day brings, we’re having to deal with more trivial but nonetheless disruptive issues, such as a washing machine and a dishwasher that decided to break within just a few days of each other. The washing machine needs to be replaced, which would be stressful enough under normal circumstances; it’s difficult to get appliances in and out of our house (the desk chair was nothing), so I’m already tense in anticipation of the grumbling that’s sure to come from the delivery men. Add the virus nerves on top of that—strangers huffing and puffing all over our small flat when we’re supposed to be keeping our distance from one another—and it’s just not a great situation. But being trapped at home indefinitely with no way to wash our clothes, sheets and towels is also not a great situation. So.

Despite all this, I can’t deny that in the beginning, anyway, there was certain entertaining novelty to the whole scenario. Since I’m usually at home on my own during the day, it was exciting to have Jeremy here, as if it were a long weekend. He started to have online meetings and even remote baking lessons with his colleagues, and I was able to connect with my ballet class online and rehearse some choreography with them live from my kitchen, giggling the whole time (there are now so many dancers offering free classes online—including the wonderful Tamara Rojo of English National Ballet—that I can’t even keep track of them all, much less do them all). The people on our street began self-organizing to support each other in case of need, and it was reassuring to feel like a local safety net was being woven around us. And several weeks ago, in anticipation of a worst-case scenario, I had gradually started stocking up on a few foodstuffs (meats for the freezer, dry goods, long-life milk, cans of tomatoes), so when we first began “social distancing”, I was feeling pretty good about our ability to weather any storm, food-wise. In any case, I was still able to get a next-day Ocado delivery, I could order a local veg box, I ordered more meat from our butcher, and I didn’t think twice about using up flour or eggs because I assumed I would still have easy access to such things even if the Situation got worse.

I was wrong. As the week went on, almost every grocery delivery service—national supermarkets and local producers alike—started to collapse under the weight of customers clamoring for food. Jeremy and I took one cautious trip to Sainsbury’s on St. Patrick’s Day, and I was shocked by all the empty shelves. Our nearby corner store is doing an amazing job of staying as stocked up as possible (and even allowing people to place pick-up orders over the phone), but when we ventured down there on Sunday because I wanted to comfortbake and needed some ingredients, even they didn’t have any flour or eggs. Under normal circumstances, I can go for weeks if not months without cracking open a bag of flour (I love to cook, but baking isn’t really my ~thing~), but I’ve become irrationally fixated on it, and I spent pointless hours online yesterday trying to find a single bag of anything, to no avail. I imagine things will somewhat normalize over the coming weeks as producers and retailers figure out how to keep goods flowing to people who need them, but right now I find myself introducing a sort of personal rationing system, weighing up the best possible use of the ingredients we have left. Just in case.

And I guess that “case”—i.e., almost the worst case—is kind of already here, because as of today we’re on “lockdown” in the UK. For the next three weeks at least, all but the most essential businesses will be closed, no public gatherings are allowed, and we’re only supposed to leave the house if absolutely necessary (e.g., to buy food or get “one form of exercise a day”—good thing ballet is an indoor exercise). Considering the scenes of crowded parks and packed public transportation from the past few days, the lockdown is definitely a good (if woefully belated) measure, and Jeremy and I have basically already been living like this for the past week anyway. Nonetheless, the official announcement last night sent a knife of fear through me, and I woke up this morning with a heavy fluttering feeling just below my breastbone, the one I’m so familiar with from past bouts of anxiety.

Only this time, the anxiety isn’t necessarily misplaced, nor is the accompanying catastrophizing. Admittedly, it feels like a bit of a “cozy catastrophe” for us at the moment—the sun is shining, neighbors are gardening, our cupboards are full (except for flour), our broadband is holding up relatively well, and I’ve got plenty of coffee beans in the freezer to see us through the next few weeks. At the same time, I’m getting text messages from our doctor’s office saying they’re locking the clinic doors and only allowing people with appointments inside, and text messages from the UK government saying “you must stay at home”, and I’m seeing charts and graphs with lines that just go up and up and up regardless of what they represent (infections, deaths—curves that never seem to flatten), and I realize that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

I’ve always loved a good bit of post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian fiction. My favorite part of disaster movies is when the disaster just starts to unfold, as the understanding of the impending catastrophe spreads slowly from person to the next and the tension ramps up. I’m attracted to fictional visions of bleak landscapes and blasted cityscapes, desperate situations and ambiguous if not downright unhappy endings. Few movies have made as much of an impression on me as Children of Men, with its note-perfect evocation of a dystopian near-future Britain that happens to look a lot like now. But these fictions are only appealing as a counterpoint to an otherwise safe, comfortable existence. When the disaster is unfolding right outside your door (literally), it’s not nearly as fun to watch.

We’re in the part of the movie where you still see people chatting too close to each other on the street, or squeezing past each other in crowded stores, or hanging out together in the park as if nothing were amiss, and you wince because you know what’s coming. They should know what’s coming, too, but they either don’t know or don’t believe it or just don’t care (or, like so many of the people squeezed onto the Tube, they have no other choice). So some of us hunker down inside, and others go about their business, and meanwhile the asteroid, the alien invasion, the wave, the blight, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (or two of them, anyway) bear down on all of us, whether we want to believe it or not.

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