I’m sitting at my desk, in the space that we in my family call ‘The Cabin’. It’s a large, wooden summerhouse in what we are lucky enough to call our garden. Not lucky in the sense that we found the garden, or won it in a raffle, or were bequeathed it by a relative, but lucky in the sense that when this unprecedented crisis swept across the earth, rewriting the rules by which we live and shrinking all our worlds to the size of the property we live in, we were lucky enough to find ourselves contained and confined to a home with that most precious of commodities, a garden.
Of our three children, the eldest was away at university when the pandemic arrived, the middle was preparing to go travelling on his gap-year before commencing university, and the youngest was somewhat ironically, home-educated.
We had become used to the notion that our family was now shrinking, accustomed to the reality of our fledglings flying the nest, reconciled to the diminishing nature of the contact between parents and their half-departed offspring.
Yet in a very short space of time, our family, like so many others, was reunited by adversity and with little or nothing to do but wait and see, we spent an unprecedented amount of time in each other’s company, and I found to my immense pleasure, during this period, how very much I liked the young people that my wife Loly and I had raised.
In the early days, watching the dystopian newscasts spreading word of how Covid-19 was sweeping the world in a terrifying tide of overwhelmed hospitals, filled with the dying, each one experiencing their own solitary death surrounded not by those they loved, but by exhausted medics in hazard suits, I felt like the reaper was stalking me too, as if the angel of death was painting invisible crosses on the doors of those who had been chosen and wondering if I, also, was on that list.
In the absence of human traffic, nature thrived, taking advantage of the lack of human noise to fill the air with birdsong. I awoke each day with the time to enjoy all this beauty and to hold deep and enjoyable conversations with my family. We played games together, ate together, laughed together and stood and clapped together in the street, at eight pm every Thursday evening, to show our appreciation of a health service stretched almost to the point of breaking.
For the first time in the fourteen years that we had lived in our street, we got to know more than just a couple of our nearest neighbours. We found ourselves part of a community. Where before people might hurry past, their minds on urgent business, their eyes steadfastly looking the other way, they began to stop, to smile, and to speak. In the midst of all this horror, our neighbourhood became kinder and more caring, in short, a better place.
It is my fear that when this cloud is lifted and the world ‘get’s back to normal’, when the skies are once more filled with eager tourists, desperate to make up for lost holidays and postponed bucket trips; when we all climb back aboard our hamster wheels to kickstart our stagnant economy; this time will quickly become lost to us, forgotten amidst our collective relief.
The bridges that we built between us may crumble, our neighbours stop talking as the pace of life increases and every minute spent must be weighed against another lost. The collection of houses in our street that came together in solidarity may once more become a row of solitary islands, temples to the cult of self, in a post-community world.
I really hope that doesn’t happen. If there is one thing I have learned in these strange times we live in, it’s that normal is definitely overrated.