I fetch my daughter from university, plus all her boxes, books and plants – and bring her home. She’s a geographer and she and her friends feel they should be allowed to isolate at the university regardless. “There’s about to be a mini mass migration,” she says.
Great hubs of infected individuals are about to span out across the country over the next two weeks and come home to their families.
When we arrive back, my daughter goes upstairs and I hear her talking to her dad. I follow. He’s standing in the doorway of the bathroom with just his head poking out. In his hand a thermometer. “100.2 degrees.” He grins and shrugs: “Where would you like me to go?”
We laugh. There’s something comical about him hiding in the entrance of the smallest – and most used – room in the house, peeping out, wondering where we’d like to put him.
He chooses our bedroom – the biggest room in the house, and the lightest – not that the blinds have been rolled up since he took himself to bed.
As he goes in, I realise that that room is now a no-go zone. I gather pants, a spare jumper, my laptop, leads, phone and a bag of chocolate I’d been given for my birthday.
My partner gets into bed. His equipment: a packet of paracetamol, a glass of water, and the thermometer; he likes proof, he likes to know where he is with a thing, he likes gadgets and tracking stats. In this case, a simple thermometer is the most high tech gadget we have for him.
And so he sleeps. And doesn’t sleep. His temperature rises. Before I go to bed, I ask if he’d like the window open. Yes please. And, as with the blinds being closed, the window stays open for days on end.
As time goes by, the bedroom becomes icy cold. But not only does his body welcome the temperature, I think the idea of the window being open makes him feel better, later in the week, when his breathing becomes difficult.
I arrange my few things on the chair in the tiny study bedroom that is currently only used by the dog. I’ve forgotten my duvet.
He’s a very easy patient. He believes in sleeping things off. And he believes in getting on with things too. I secretly suspect he quite wanted to get the virus – so that he could get it over and done with, wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. And in a way he’s got his wish – as far as I know he’s the first in our area…
But it’s certainly not something to shout about. And yet when someone asks on the neighbourly site ‘Nextdoor’ – “Does anyone know anyone who has the virus” I confirm, anonymously, that I do – the virus is not a myth.
And there’s a smidge of pride … We have it in our house. Drama, excitement, contained by being 98 per cent certain we aren’t dealing with death. We just have to be meticulously careful we don’t dose it out to anyone else.
That night, his temperature is 102o.
I take the dog out. It was only yesterday that I was chatting online with friends who were worried about their freelance work and another friend who’s been through chemo who wasn’t sure how to keep her surfaces clean when there was no disinfectant in the shops (I told her the virus has a shell of fat rather than protein hence the advice about ordinary soap – it’s fine). I told these trusted friends, that my partner probably has Covid-19. We’ll never know of course because there’s no testing.
Even a week later a well-read older friend implied my partner was being irresponsible not getting tested. He would love to be tested. But testing isn’t an option. At that point it hadn’t been for at least two weeks. Only if you’re hospitalised.
Which means that UK figures are completely skewed. And presumably we’ll be relying on data from other countries when it comes to trying to understand how the virus behaves, especially at the point when it mutates.
In the park however, I can see that people are standing further apart than normal to exchange pleasantries – and I assume chat about the virus. I don’t talk to anyone, or go anywhere near. But I’m glad of the fresh air. Thank you, dog.
Last night his fever was worse. This morning, it’s gone. He’s feeling better. He eats. He gets up. The fever is meant to last around four days. Perhaps this isn’t coronavirus after all. It’s highly likely that it is, he travels into central London every day – but, again, we’ll never know …
Then he decides that in fact he needs to lie down again. He’s weak.
That afternoon a friend calls to ask about a play I’m seeing on Sunday. A seven-hour piece that has been years in the making. Sold out. I suggest that there will be people now who might not want to come and there may well be re-sale tickets available nearer the time.
About an hour later, the PM gives a press conference advising people not to go to pubs, clubs and theatres. That night, I check the NT website. The theatre has closed.
Another thing that we’re told is that households harbouring a person displaying symptoms of Coronavirus must quarantine themselves as well as isolate the infected person. So this is it. We already have an ill person in the house. Our quarantine starts now. All that careful avoidance thing we’ve been doing, the washing of hands – gateway for the virus to and from – isn’t enough any more.
It’s funny all the things you don’t think of even when you know something’s coming. But I suppose this isn’t like planning a birthday party – you don’t get to choose the colour of the balloons or when the guests will arrive. This is more like giving birth. You know it’s going to happen but you have no idea what it’s going to be like (despite having read other people’s accounts), or when it’s going to happen, how quickly, slowly, or what life will be like after the arrival.
That night a friend sends a message saying she’s going to propose her village digs up the village green to plant potatoes. I have an allotment. I wanted to get seed potatoes. What if, by the time we’re out of quarantine, either we’re in complete lockdown or there are no seed potatoes left.
And if we go into complete lockdown, we won’t be allowed on public transport. My father is 91, lives on his own and has only one leg. He’s 50 miles away. As it is, I don’t know when or if, it’s safe for me to visit him. There’s only one other person who comes to see him, once a week to help him clear up the house.
What if I really had to get there. We have a car. But we hardly ever use it. It has very little petrol in it and its MOT has run out. I need to solve these things before we’re quarantined. Why didn’t I think of it?
I hatch a plan to sneak out and lay my hands on some seed potatoes without laying my hands on anything else and pipe petrol into the car. I will also call our mechanic and discuss the possibility of an MOT given that we have someone in the house with all the symptoms of Covid-19. But these are wee-hours thoughts. In the light of day, I trust that potatoes (even if they’re not seed potatoes) will still be available in England in ten days’ time and that there will still be petrol in pumps.
And if there’s not, my father has neighbours. Everyone is offering to each other now, all over the country.
The irritation in his lungs has started. He doesn’t like it. He was an occasional asthmatic when he was young. And had pneumonia twice as a teenager.
Time. And the warping of time. Right now that feels like the most pungent thing about this virus for me.
How long ago was it we heard about the first case contracted in the UK with no known link?
That case was in Surrey. We live on the border, in Middlesex. So I looked up where the case was exactly. Haselmere. My godmother lives near Haselmere. Early eighties. Fit as a fiddle. But even so…
Did I know then that the spread was inevitable? Yes I’m sure I did. I remember reading the news – and realising that with no explainable link, there could be no containment. The virus was now doing its thing. I also knew that cities – and I live on the edge of the largest in Britain – would surely be where it would spread the most quickly and densely.
But one of the overriding hallmarks of this frantic episode in our lives, for me (then at least), was how my expectations, and my revised expectations, keep colliding with a surge of reality.
Our brilliant human ability to imagine and predict doesn’t seem to be able to keep pace with the shifts and immensity of what’s seeping into our lives. Despite having read about what has happened in other countries, the effects in our own individual lives, the detail, our everyday, is never something we’re quite ready for. We can’t seem to get it into our heads – much beyond buying loo paper.
He gets short of breath walking, on the level, to the bathroom and back to his bed. Where he’s fully dressed. He doesn’t like it any more than he did yesterday but he manages a smile. A smile that says “I’m okay”.
And we’re in quarantine. People are sending each other the latest jokes and ideas for being creative when they have to isolate. I’m spending my time trying to re-organise everything that stopped abruptly a day ago. I try to tell friends to think of the things they’d never think of. But that’s precisely it … how can they.
It’s unsettling, yes. Everything has been unsettled, shifted, uprooted and thrown around. It’s almost the only thing people are talking about. And some people are pleading with us not to talk about it (a woman in my Spanish class, a friend in a Whatsapp group) – they can’t take it any more – I think perhaps they have reached saturation point and it’s underpinned with fear. Our creativity and humour, conversations and cooking, everything is now dyed, flavoured and scented with coronavirus.
He gets up for a bit. He wants to be better. I can see he isn’t really. But he can hold his own body weight upright. That’s good. He can read on his laptop. He tries to do some work. He tells me it’s not taxing.
I give a lesson online and my student wants to write about coronavirus. He starts: “Last year, Corona was a beer …”
He’s definitely getting better. But whenever he’s asleep, I wish that we weren’t terraced between two families with young children. The houses on our side of the street were built with half bricks, the walls bow – they were built on the Victorian cheap. Soundwise, the families might as well play “shoot me off the sofa” in our bedroom.
I’m sharing a very old mattress with quite a large dog – she’s thickly furred and warm but she sleeps like a human and it’s been her bed for a long time – the pillow is hers.
He starts to get shivery. He’s cold – and he’s fully clothed, in bed.
It’s okay, I’ve read about this. You feel better. You think you’re over it. And then it gets worse again.
The rest of us have settled into being at home the whole time. I know the rest of the country is watching and waiting. More people know people who have it. More people are doing what we’re doing. Most aren’t.
He’s chilly and then hot. Diarrhoea. He already looks noticeably thinner than he did a week ago. He’s been pretty fit for years.
I start reading about the getting better getting worse thing. Most people get over it after seven days. If you don’t, you might get worse again, and it is these people who might in turn then go on to experience respiratory difficulties.
I’m keeping an eye.
He’s the same worse. Not worse-worse.
The past few nights, despite how uncomfortable my little bed is and living camping style, same clothes, washing at the sink, etc … I’m conscious of how lucky I am. I’m grateful for the roof and walls of this house that keep the cold from me, that there’s clean running water, that someone will come to take the rubbish away for us.
This evening my daughter tells me the first case has been announced in Kampala. She worked in Uganda for three months at the beginning of last year, helping youth groups to establish training in various things. She now has friends there.
“What if my family gets it?” she says – referring to the family she lived with on a farm outside Lira. I think of the photographs of the children, the mother, the furniture in their little house, their outdoor stove. “If they get it …” I can’t remember whether she spoke, or if we both filled in the rest of the sentence in our heads: “how will they survive?”
I’ve been hyper aware of sirens the last couple of weeks. Have there been more? Yesterday the whole country was asked not to leave their houses. Today there is no traffic. No-one on the pavements. No sound but birdsong, even in our cityscape. But then a siren. I wonder why they blast the siren when there’s no traffic to get through …
My partner’s lungs have not improved. He’s lost weight. He sleeps a lot. I’m waiting for it to get worse or better. It’s staying the same.
Day 12 (Wednesday)
I call our GP. She listens carefully to everything I’m describing. But, as she says, “there’s no textbook for this one” and, uncertain, she consults a colleague. She feels he ought to be seen. It might have developed into pneumonia. The safest way for him to be checked – for everyone – is by paramedics. Which means calling an ambulance. I’m cagey about using up the service’s time and say I could take him to a hospital myself. No, better for everyone – your partner, the hospitals, other patients – if paramedics come to you.
They do all the checks they can. They talk about all the other things it could be. They have no tests. They apologise and say they’re not saying it’s not Covid19 but it could be a whole host of other things that happen to have come at once. We all know this is highly unlikely. The good thing is he doesn’t have pneumonia.
All those days ago, before we were in quarantine, when my head was buzzing with the amount I was reading, the checking of sources, all the things to take on board, do, alter – I remember being outside.
I was walking along the pavement, looking down; I can see the mottled red bricks. As I rounded a corner, I looked up and saw, dotted into a high hedge next to me, white buds – and then I smelt their fragrance.
They felt incongruous in my frenetic state. What was nature doing, being so gentle and hushed and beautiful.
Today, the sun is warm. The air is quiet.
Satellite pictures show that pollution has lifted from above Wuhan, and from above northern Italy (where it’s normally hemmed in by the Alps). Soon, no doubt, it will lift from above London too.
And we will all breathe more easily.