Yesterday, for the first time, I escaped lockdown. Today, I’m in a family home a long way from my own house, sprawled across a bed, writing for pleasure. A child’s splayed out behind me, at liberty to be with other family members, because here we have more adults than children, but still so used to being with me that to be apart feels odd. We’ve been together for seventeen weeks and four days, trapped in a small house, shielding a sick person, barely seeing others and if so, in a carefully controlled social “bubble”. I’m lucky to have been locked in with my three favourite people. I’m also exhausted.
In this new reality, where some families have been struggling with isolation, debt, or illness, while others have decorated houses, baked unicorn cakes, perfected their jigsaw technique, and congratulated themselves on their luck, we’ve been paddling furiously with our faces half underwater, trying to work, educate, care for the sick, and keep the home intact. I’ve tried working till midnight and starting work at 4am in turn, but still, every day, hour, even every few minutes, I’ve been dogged by the unending sense of not doing anything well: failing my children when I work, failing my work when I parent, failing everyone’s education by not having three sets (or even one set) of 6 hours a day to support or inspire, putting everyone at risk while shopping (or failing to provide if I didn’t), and the housework both the lowest and highest priority, and always more to do. None of these actions can be ignored without consequence, and at any time, any failure of mine could mean our family crashing down; our whole show depends on me.
Over four months, things are bound to to go wrong. Our washing machine, drier, and vacuum cleaner all broke. Cue late night spanners, tears, and tortuous hours in phone queues that, under normal circumstances would have warranted an eye-roll, but under pressure, felt like purgatory. I tried to be the responsible, perky parent but I knew I’d failed when all three of my children wrapped their arms around me and asked, all together, “Mum, are you OK?”
They cleaned the house, learned to cook, and gardened.
I’m always wary of using the word “exhausted” – we don’t carry sulphur up from mines all day, we don’t even pump our own water or grow our own crops, but the other day I was rooting around in our garden and found myself walking through brambles, which were tearing at my legs, and while I was feeling the sting and seeing the blood trickling down my shins, my mind couldn’t register it. My face, neck, torso and arms were already covered in shingles scars, my back was aching, my head throbbing, and my eyes tingling and too tired to read or even see the other side of a room – everywhere was a blur. There was no part of me that didn’t hurt already; the bramble cuts didn’t matter, so I just carried on. It was only the next day, seeing my shin so red, big and criss-crossed with scabs, that I realised I’d also been stung by a bee, and the pain started to feel real.
Another moment was in a work conversation, when someone asked how I’d been managing my holiday cover; was I aware of the policy? I curled up with shame; I take my work very seriously and felt mortified not to have organised suitable cover for… I realised that in nine months, I’d not taken any holiday (or had used any time off to catch up on work ?): I’d not breached any protocol – the relief! Take a holiday, said my boss. Rest.
I took a day off, slunk away to a corner of my garden, my special place – the only place within reach of my kids where I can safely and responsibly hide away alone to breathe, talk to the magpies and foxes, and stare at the sky, only to find that someone had just built a fence there, my spot now an ugly cage, looming spiky and harsh against the blue. The foxes out of reach, the magpies laughing. A pre-lockdown promise broken. Final straws, crashing overwhelm, and all that. Cue a fierce argument, a no less angry walk out, and a desperate need to leave this place that was no longer home, but in all ways a prison.
I got ready for a holiday. A lot of people will smile: we know this means working till 2am to prepare for a week away, scrubbing the house, laundry-max, paperwork filed, bills paid, creatures to kennels, children banned from spraining their ankles (fail), last minute X-rays… pairing socks at midnight, setting off late, posting legal briefs on the way past the post box, and counting the stuff we’ve forgotten all the way up the motorway.
I drove a long way, fuelled by Costa lattes and Haribo sours. Navigated service stations full of people in masks trying to eat. Saw a man in a Black Sabbath t-shirt, the letters partly obscured by an over-shirt: BLACK ABBA. Pictured Ozzy singing Mamma Mia, smiled. Arrived at my destination after midnight, chewing my fingers so the pain would keep me awake, my children asleep beside me, AC/DC screaming from the radio, and trying to remember the lyrics of a Mock Turtles’ song. A blur of arrival, hellos, 2-metre apart air hugs, you-look-tireds, thank Gods, and a bed.
For the first time in four months, I’ve had five minutes to look at myself. I’m a stone heavier. My legs are itchy and arms bruised. My face looks pole-axed. Overall, I look like shit. Work is playing in the back of my mind: I’ve brought my laptop, of course… but today, Day 1 of my escape, for the first time in seventeen weeks, I’m in a place where I’m not the only able-bodied adult, I’m not in charge, and if I just lie down and breathe for a few minutes, the world won’t end… I hope. I mean, that would be really bad luck.
Everyone has had a different lockdown, and for most, this has meant changes. I guess the next job will be to work out which of these changes we would like to keep, and which we would like to kick right back over the fence.
But first, rest.