At 7.55pm on Monday night, I sit down in front of the TV waiting for the prime minister’s latest briefing. I stare at the screen — that all too familiar feeling of dread stirring in my stomach.
It’s a BBC News special anchored by Huw Edwards. ‘We’re expecting an announcement at 8pm,’ he says.
I glance at my watch. We’ve expected announcements before. I remember sitting in front of the TV one Saturday afternoon in October waiting for a 4pm briefing that ended up being almost midnight (slight exaggeration; it was 8pm). By that time, I’d given up waiting and was on a Halloween Zoom party with the family.
Tonight, from the warmth of the studio, Huw Edwards hands over to deputy political editor Vicki Young who’s standing outside No 10 looking like she might freeze to death at any moment. Her face is pale, cheeks pink. I feel cold just looking at her.
The BBC is obviously thinking the same, so they switch to an aerial shot of the London streets. While the camera moves shakily towards Vicki in Downing Street, she talks about the current situation. Her words are clear and concise and delivered with authority.
And then the camera jumps to Boris Johnson, seated inside No 10, ready to begin his briefing but looking slightly surprised, as though he didn’t expect to be there.
‘Chris,’ I call. ‘It’s on.’
Chris walks into the room, looks at the TV, sighs loudly and sits down next to me.
I tell myself to concentrate. Whenever our leader is on TV, two things happen. My mind drifts and I think of nice things like books or cake, or I get incredibly frustrated and start shouting at the telly. Tonight, active listening is essential.
In his stumbling and stuttering style, the prime minister begins. ‘Since the pandemic began last year, the whole United Kingdom has been engaged in a great national effort to fight Covid.’
‘Have we?’ Chris says.
‘Shh,’ I say.
The PM continues. ‘There’s a new variant of the virus…Hospitals are under pressure… More people are in hospital… We’ve had a new record for people testing positive… A tough national lockdown is essential… Shielding is being reintroduced… Schools are shutting… Exams are cancelled… The NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed.’
It’s cheery stuff.
‘But…’ the prime minister says. ‘The pace of vaccination is accelerating.’
‘Please don’t say the cavalry is coming over the hill,’ Chris shouts. ‘I can’t cope with any more crap metaphors.’
‘Shh.’ I lean forward, keen to listen to news of the vaccine, our only hope to get out of this mess.
The PM clears his throat. ‘By the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails — ’
‘Ahhhhh,’ Chris shouts, making me jump. ‘Another one!’
‘Shut up! We need to listen.’
‘By February, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups. That means vaccinating all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers.’
‘That’s too late for my grandma,’ I shout at the TV, unable to stop myself. ‘She’s 98, in a care home, fighting Covid, and we can’t even see her.’
The PM must sense that he’s losing his audience. ‘We must pull together,’ he says. ‘The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet, but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle. But for now, I am afraid, you must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.’
‘I’ve been staying home since March,’ I say. ‘I’ve hardly moved from this sofa.’
I slump back on it, exaggerating the point, then turn to Chris. ‘Well… that’s knocked the wind out of my sails.’
He rolls his eyes. ‘Here we go again.’
‘It’s really worrying.’ This morning, I’d been optimistic. The Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was being rolled out. There was hope that we’d soon get our lives back. A few hours later, and we’re locked up again and hope is fading fast. ‘All the efforts over the summer. The tier systems, November’s lockdown. It’s like we’ve gone back to the beginning — back to how it was in March.’
‘It’s worse than March,’ Chris says.
On TV, the analysis of the speech begins. I press mute. ‘I’ve had enough. I miss people. I miss my life. I still can’t get my head around what’s happening — that there’s a killer virus out there. And we have to treat everyone like they’re infected. It’s mad!’
Thinking about the virus makes my heart beat faster. I suddenly feel hot and a bit sick and… is that a headache coming on? The same fear, panic and anxiety that I’d had in the first lockdown grips me again. I have the same overwhelming urge to clean.
I grab a duster and start with the TV cabinet, then the bookcase, skirting boards and finally the curtain pole — because if coronavirus is coming in, I’m sure the curtain pole is the first place it will go.
When the cleaning’s finished, I go to bed. Thoughts of coronavirus fill my head. Life is always bleak in January. It’s cold, dark and miserable. Throw in a global pandemic and national lockdown, and January this year is cruel.
I’m not sure how I’ll cope. I don’t want to spend this lockdown cleaning, worrying, and comfort eating like the first one. With all the chocolates left over from Christmas, there’s a real danger I’ll end up the size of a house. I need a different approach. I’m not sure what.
The next day, the little energy I had has vanished. I don’t feel like writing or running or walking. I just want to stay indoors, drinking tea and reading. I order a few books from my local bookshop and decide to hibernate until spring.
While my reaction is to withdraw from life, each member of my family reacts differently.
My niece cries. ‘I want to go to school,’ she tells Sarah, my sister. ‘Please can I go to school?’
‘Only the children of key workers can go,’ Sarah explains.
‘But you’re a key worker.’
‘Olivia, I work for a sausage company. I’m not a key worker.’
‘Sausages are important.’
‘I’m not sure your head teacher will see it that way.’
Olivia goes on a mission to convince her school that her mummy is feeding the nation during these tough times. When she fails, she cries some more, but soon stops when my sister goes online and orders a new desk for them to begin home schooling in style.
On hearing the lockdown news, my sister also cries, but then grabs her laptop and starts shopping. Not just for a desk and handbags, but for a family holiday of a lifetime to Florida.
‘Are you coming?’ she asks over a FaceTime call. ‘I’ve found a villa for us all. I just need someone to look after the ducks and rabbits.’
I take a deep breath. ‘You want to book a holiday now?’
‘I need something to look forward to. I like to do things. It’s awful not having anything to look forward to.’
‘Sarah, booking a holiday two years away will not help me through lockdown.’
‘It’s not two years. It’s eighteen months. And why won’t it help you?’
‘I’m taking it a day, hour, minute at a time. I’m going to read.’
‘Well, you do that, and I’ll get some more prices.’
Chris carries on as normal — staring into his spreadsheets, walking the dogs, going for a run — stopping only to grumble about the government’s use of metaphors.
‘We’ve had them all,’ he says. ‘Cavalry coming over the hill, tooting bugles, volcanic eruptions, shootouts, trains, home runs, slam dunks, it’s ridiculous.’
On an afternoon tea break, he sits quietly at the kitchen table.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask.
‘I really hate how people call Boris Johnson by his first name.’ He sips his tea. ‘It really bothers me.’
‘As much as the colour lilac?’
‘More… Boris! It makes him sound like he’s their best friend. And he’s really not.’
‘Everyone does it.’
‘I know. It makes me angry.’ He takes another drink of tea. My lovely husband has never been angry in his life — it’s not in his nature to rage against anything or anyone (that’s my job). He’s obviously feeling the strain of these strange times. I make him another cup of tea and tell him to calm down or he’ll end up like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Meanwhile, Mum and Dad go into preparation mode. They drive to the pet shop and buy enough hay and feed to last our various pets until next Christmas. Then they go into town.
‘Barnsley was so busy,’ Mum phones to tell me. ‘I don’t know what everyone was doing.’
‘What were you doing?’ I ask.
‘Just getting a few last-minute essentials before lockdown. It was absolutely heaving.’
And she was in the thick of it. ‘Mum! What were you thinking? You need to be careful.’
‘I am careful. I have my mask and coat on,’ she says.
And it’s like we’ve wound the clock back to March — Mum thinking she’s invincible, me being over cautious and fretting nonstop.
‘You need to stop worrying,’ she tells me. ‘You can’t control it, so get on with it. Life won’t be like this forever. We’ll get through it.’ She doesn’t say, ‘pull yourself together,’ but I know it’s what she thinks.
I say goodbye and go into the kitchen. I hate to admit it, but she’s right. There is no way to stop what is happening. The only way is through. I make a cup of tea and head for my book room.
‘Are you reading?’ Chris asks.
‘Yes. I may be some time.’
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