I can just about keep track of the weekdays because of my regular ballet classes, but I honestly keep forgetting what month it is. Part of me thinks we’re still stuck back in March and another part of me thinks we’re already in May. Poor April doesn’t even exist in my mind. But what is “time” anyway?
Time is the thing I know I should never be wishing away, even when it’s 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon and it feels like all the energy has been sucked out of the universe and I just want it to be dinnertime so I can do something (cook, eat) and then feel comfortable doing nothing for the rest of the evening. Time is the thing that extends to a vanishing point when I think of the weeks (months?) of lockdown to come. And I’m so grateful for our health and our comfortable home and food and work and all the rest of it, but I also want things to go back to normal now.
But what is “normal” anyway? I said it a few weeks ago: even after the restrictions are lifted, life won’t feel entirely “normal” again for quite a while. Being on the ship last summer made me hyperaware of the grossness and potential danger of surfaces touched by lots of different people (I remember sitting in an airport full of touchscreens not long afterwards, and the thought of touching any of those communal surfaces made my stomach turn). And now, thanks to COVID-19, I’m hyperaware of the very air we all breathe. The air we’ve always shared, but which never felt quite as hazardous as it does now.
At the start of the week we took our usual nerve-wracking stroll to the bakery. We’ve taken to wearing masks when we go to the shop, but our first masks were very makeshift; Jeremy’s kept slipping down his face, and I found it almost impossible to breathe through mine. I contemplated digging out my sewing machine and trying to craft something better, but 1) my sewing machine is buried behind a wall of tutus and god knows what else, and 2) I have no energy or motivation to craft anything. So on Tuesday I broke down and ordered some masks from Etsy. Frankly, I’m not sure why it took me so long to think of doing that. I guess part of me believed I would get my act together and make my own, since I do technically know how to sew. But, no. Not happening.
Other things I’ve ordered in the past week (besides the usual groceries and veg boxes) include some little prints by Owen Pomery because I love his style, and a box of cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy because I am attempting to single-handedly keep independent British food producers alive (and because CHEESE). And since it sounds like we’re in this thing for the long haul, I also finally bought a thermometer and a pulse oximeter, because who knows, right? Who knows.
I woke up at dawn on Thursday with a migraine. The hints had been there the night before: a vague headache at bedtime after too much red wine and probably not enough water. Still, the dismay I felt at 5:30 a.m. as I fumbled in the bathroom for painkillers was the same dismay I always feel. Like, how could this be happening again? And, of course, there was a little voice in the back of my mind saying “maybe it’s the ‘rona!” But no, it was just a garden variety migraine. I went back to bed for a few hours, eventually dragged myself into the kitchen for coffee, food and more painkillers, then slumped off to bed again—and by lunchtime I was able to rejoin the land of the living, slightly shaky and bruised-feeling but gloriously headache-free.
In fact, I seemed to get a strange boost of energy on Thursday afternoon. I whipped up a batch of turnip and beetroot pickles to make use of some languishing root veg, and I started fermenting the remnants of a giant rutabaga so we can have “swede sauerkraut” in the coming week. In the early evening we enjoyed delicious snacks in the garden, and then I made what has become my favorite fast and easy soup (adding some sweet potato and kale, because we really are swimming in vegetables right now). Even ballet class was great; I managed to do all of “barre” (i.e., kitchen counter) in my pointe shoes, the first time I’d had them on in a few weeks. It felt perversely good to have my feet crammed into those beautiful satin monsters.
But since Friday, my overriding mood has been one of melancholy. I read the New York Times piece by Gabrielle Hamilton about restaurants and the food industry and then spent a long time feeling intensely sad—sad for the chefs we know here in Brighton who have had to shut their restaurants without knowing when or whether they’ll open again, and sad for what feels like a lost world, one that Jeremy and I loved very much: restaurants, pubs, cocktail bars, delis, diners, cafés, street markets, food trucks, cooking classes… The last meal we ate out was at the Joker with our friend Paul, our usual post-ballet “Wing Nite”: spicy chicken wings, curly fries and cold beer in a packed pub, an experience from a different life.
I lay in bed on Saturday morning imagining what our day would be like in regular times. We’d get up and have coffee and breakfast, get dressed and grab our instruments to catch the bus to our Saturday tune-learning workshop at the Jolly Brewer. We’d play Irish music for an hour and a half, then walk up to Barfields Butchers to grab something tasty to throw on the grill. We might pick up some wine and beer at Quaff down the street, then cross the road to Fiveways Fruits to get veggies for the weekend. If we timed it right, we could catch a bus back down the hill and go to the Open Market for lunch—maybe tacos from Casa Azul, maybe Greek food from Kouzina, maybe a stuffed Turkish flatbread from the lady whose stand is always thronged with customers. We might need to get some bread from the Real Patisserie, and maybe we’d buy some cheese at ridiculously bargain prices from Ovetts (“The BACON KING of Brighton!”). And by then we would be laden with shopping and tired of people, so we’d hop on a crowded bus to go home. It would be such a relief to walk in the front door and close it behind us, knowing we could just relax and be alone for the rest of the weekend. We’d put away our shopping, put on our comfy clothes, make some tea and chill out.
Just writing that out gives me a surprisingly sharp pang of longing. But while I miss many of the specifics of life Before (making music with others, eating food prepared by someone who is neither me nor Jeremy, walking down the street without having to play coronavirus chicken with other pedestrians), I realize that much of my current discontent stems not from my inability to visit the BACON KING of Brighton for some cheap cheese on a Saturday, but rather from the same uncertainties plaguing (ha) all of us. Life has always been uncertain, of course, but under “normal” circumstances, most of us manage to suppress that knowledge so we can get through the day without being overwhelmed by the indifference of the universe and collapsing into a gibbering heap of existential despair. But now the uncertainty of life and indifference of the universe are front and center for all of us, all at the same time. And so many of the routines and rituals that would usually help keep the dread at bay have either disappeared or changed beyond recognition. This is some next-level uncertainty. Planetary-level uncertainty. No wonder I yearn for a time of simpler worries, like whether there would be a long line at the flatbread stand.
On the bright side, now Jeremy and I get to be alone in our comfy clothes all the time, without first having to haul a bunch of shopping home on a stuffy bus. Comfy clothes and tea on the sofa are not just a weekend treat or a reward for a busy day, they’re practically a civic duty. So we shall continue to do our duty (“England expects…” and all that). And we can mourn the world that is no more, but we can also be grateful for all that we still have—not least: comfy clothes, tea, a sofa, and each other.