A Journal of the Plague Week 5

Monday, April 20th, 2020

For all that I’ve complained so much about being surrounded by people, a lot of the time it’s completely silent around here. When I woke up on Wednesday at about 9, I could have been in a country cottage somewhere instead of an apartment in a busy city. All I could hear was a dove cooing, a bird singing, and the inevitable seagulls (and even the seagulls haven’t been all that loud). There was no one up and about getting ready for work, no people on the street walking their kids to school, no fleet of garbage trucks or delivery trucks, no car doors slamming, no neighbors chatting to each other in front of their houses. Our street is usually quite quiet anyway, but this is a different quiet—the quiet you get over Christmas, when stores are closed and a lot of people have gone away. It’s funny to think that everyone is actually still here, just hibernating.

This was the week that I finally started to get some work done, but only because I finally had enough work to be stressed out by it. I’ve long known that I work best under a bit of pressure, and the pressure was generated as soon as the wheels of this new potential book project started to turn. I’m not complaining; it felt good to sit down at my computer in the morning and focus on translating a few sentences instead of alternately doomscrolling and staring blankly out the window. But the days are loooong, and my concentration is still pretty shot. More than once this past week I got up, made coffee, had breakfast, did some work and then thought “it must be lunchtime”—only to realize it was barely 10:30. By 3 p.m. my brain is ready to clock off, so the late afternoons are generally dead hours when I find myself scrounging in the kitchen for something to eat even though I’m not hungry and wondering just how early I can reasonably make a gin and tonic.

This was the week that our food situation finally felt stable. We now get two fresh veg boxes staggered across the week, supplemented with occasional orders from the bakery down the road, the butcher we would usually visit on a Saturday, and (much more rarely) the supermarket. When I looked around the kitchen on Wednesday, after the first of our veg boxes arrived, I realized we had an almost embarrassing abundance of food: root vegetables and giant onions, tomatoes and apples, a fridge full of leafy greens. It was a far cry from the single tiny cabbage I was so relieved to find in the shop at the end of the road three weeks ago. Absolutely none of this food is going to waste; I was an anti-food-waste fanatic even before All Of This, and I’m even more of one now. I kind of enjoy being faced with a few squishy parsnips or shriveled pears and figuring out how to turn them into something delicious (NB: I made a spiced parsnip soup and really good pear and cinnamon cake). Everything gets used, and I’m grateful for all of it. I also know that most people in Brighton don’t have the food privilege we have, so I always buy an extra veg box for a family in need from the wonderful Florence Road Market and I’m donating regularly to the Brighton & Hove Food Partnership and to two local food banks through Bankuet. It feels like I least I can do, but maybe it’s also the most I can do.

Speaking of food privilege: this was the week of the ham. Specifically, this was the week of the jamón ibérico de bellota. I should preface this by saying that, many years ago, our friend Richard got a whole Spanish ham, complete with a stand, from Lidl at Christmas, and ever since then, Jeremy has dreamed of getting his own ham. When the lockdown started, he said, “Guess what would be a good thing to have around the house that we could snack on through the lockdown and that would last for a long time?” After guessing various incorrect food items such as “bags of nuts” and “beef jerky”, I laughed and said, “Ooh, I know, I know: jamón!” But when you’re trapped in a small flat with not much kitchen space and, frankly, not much regular income, a whole Spanish ham is a ridiculously impractical luxury.

However. As the weeks have dragged on, and there have been times when the fear of our uncertain future has overwhelmed me, I’ve accepted that you need to embrace frivolity whenever you can. And Jeremy has wanted this ham for so long, and you only live once, and if that living involves being stuck in your house all the damn time, you may as well have something delicious to snack on. So Jeremy bought the ham. It was shipped from Spain (I view this as supporting the Spanish economy) and arrived on Friday, and we spent a good portion of the day figuring out how to assemble the stand and start cutting the ham. Once it was all set up, I felt weirdly delighted. We have a ham! It doesn’t take up as much space as we were expecting, and when I walk into the kitchen and see it there on the counter, draped in its “modesty towel” (actually just a tea towel to keep it from drying out too much), I feel like I’m in a tapas bar in Spain instead of a cramped flat in England. The ham makes me happy, and we all need to take whatever happiness we can get.

We went for a walk and visited the sheep again on Sunday, our first time leaving the house in a week (it’s just too stressful to be out and about, so we sit in our garden a lot instead). We packed a little bag with sandwiches and apples and hiked up the hill to the perilous pedestrian tunnel. As we approached the tunnel, we saw two women emerge nearby as if from a secret door. The secret door turned out to be a small hole in the fence surrounding the racecourse, enabling one to bypass the tunnel altogether. We were just about able to squeeze through, which was a relief because it seemed like everyone was out walking on Sunday, so the tunnel was even busier than usual. We circled the racecourse and sat in the middle of a field near the sheep to eat our sandwiches and bask in the sun. Had there been any police around I suspect we might have been moved on, as “sitting in the sun” isn’t an approved form of exercise (jogging smack down the middle of the sidewalk with no mask, however, is just fine). But no one hassled us and no one walked too close to us, and the sea was Mediterranean blue, and it was good to be outside the confines of our flat for a little while.

We couldn’t stay out too long, though, because by 5 p.m I had to be in the kitchen in a tutu for a run-through of the dances we should have been performing in a showcase on a West End stage that evening. We had been working so hard since the start of the year to get the choreography together, we had our costumes ready, I had the hotel booked for the weekend—but as soon as theaters started closing last month and ballet performances were being canceled left and right, I suspected that our West End show wouldn’t be going ahead either. And indeed, on March 20th the show was canceled (well, postponed: now we have until the start of August to keep working on the material). We had donned our costumes for class on Thursday as well, just for the heck of it—which made for an interesting sight when we all took a break at 8 p.m. to go outside and clap for the NHS in our usual weekly show of appreciation. The first week I was in leggings and a t-shirt, last week I was in pink tights and a black leotard, and this week I was in a full emerald-green, romantic-length tutu with gold sequins and a sea of tulle. I can’t imagine what the neighbors think, but I hope my odd apparel brings them some curious joy.

So I’m trying to hold on to ham happiness, and tutu joy, and relief at having companionship and food and work and sunny weather and a garden to enjoy it in. I’m holding on to all of this in an attempt to keep everything else at bay: the panic that engulfs me when I fret about my family, the helplessness, the fear that manifests as anger, the anger that manifests as nihilism, the weird neuroses that come out of nowhere and rob me of sleep (two nights ago I became absolutely convinced that the refrigerator wasn’t working, despite all evidence to the contrary), the general malaise. Our lockdown was just extended for at least another three weeks, so we have at least another three weeks of this strange new world (which is starting to get old), at least another three weeks in which we are pinned down and untethered all at the same time.

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