My favourite thing after I wake up in the morning is to step out on the balcony outside my study and stand beneath the vast expanse of the East Anglian skies. The pigeons are generally sitting on the railings or the roof, jerky movements of the head, orange eyes quizzing me. I breathe in the chilly early morning air and tune my ear to all the sounds that will be drowned out half an hour or so later. The rustling of the wind as it ruffles the leaves of the trees, the cooing of a dove on a chimney top, the swishing of wings as a pigeon flies over me, the faraway call of a jackdaw. I look at the splashes of various shades of green, copper and brown foliage and the grey slate roofs that make up the horizon behind a veil of mist.
Since the lockdown, I’ve got into the habit of taking out my camera and looking at the horizon through the zoom lens. I focus until the splashes of colour become leaves, branches and pine cones. Sometimes, what looks like a dot in the distance with the naked eye turns out to be a seagull, perched majestically on a gable, surveying its domain. It’s a strange feeling, to be able to see something as if it were so close when it’s actually so far away. The zoom lens erases distance.
Since the lockdown, something equally strange has been happening in my relationship with people. The same way as the zoom lens of my camera propels me to an area in the distance, making all that lies in between vanish, the pandemic appears to have folded geography like a sheet of paper, so that the top of the page is now closer to me, revealing what is written on the back, making all that is written on the front disappear.
When the British Government finally announced a general lockdown, I braced myself for the long haul. Instinctively, I called all my friends and acquaintances in Norwich and London. How are you? Did you manage to get food in? When I realised that many theatres and opera houses were making shows available online, I told those I thought would be interested. Again, instinctively, I pictured the months to come would make us all even closer, often phoning or talking on Skype, sharing our experiences of these strange times, offering one another help. I looked forward to the day I would see these friends and acquaintances again, be able to hug them, wrote mental screenplays about how happy we would be when we could be together again. How odd we would all feel. And how grateful. I felt in advance the warmth I imagined we would all share. In the meantime, we would help one another by whichever means we could. Listening to one another on the phone or on the computer screen when one of us felt lonely or depressed. Telling one another when one of us discovered another local shop that could deliver food or other necessities to our homes. Exchanging tips on what to disinfect and what not. Just being there for one another, if not together.
And I did speak to people frequently. On Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger. Over the good old-fashioned phone. They were quick to share the latest information about Coronavirus precautions. This is what you do with the Amazon boxes. They sent me links of the latest news about Covid-19. Watch this surgeon from the hospital in Bergamo. They circulated jokes. Famous paintings re-imagined with social distancing. Da Vinci’s Last Supper with an empty space every other Apostle. Cranach’s Aphrodite with a mask. Marat in his bath, writing the umpteenth self-certification note. We exchanged recipes and discussed politics. We expressed our dismay at suddenly being unable to concentrate on anything for long. On even being unable to read a book. I listened to them when they were down and they cheered me up when I felt low. We poured out our anger and disillusionment in our political leaders and laughed at ourselves. We used one another as touchstones. Is it me? No, I’m going through exactly the same thing. And we said how much we were looking forward to meeting again.
I don’t know what I would have done without these people. My dear, dear friends. Strangely, in this even stranger world and times, for the vast majority these were not the people I had called at the beginning of the lockdown. Not the people I used to see most weeks, people we met for a cappuccino at the local coffee shop, people I always bumped into whenever there was a concert at the Cathedral, people who came to our home for dinner and who invited us to theirs on a regular basis. People I’ve known for the past six years, in Norwich. People I’ve been friends with for over twenty years, in London. One local friend did keep in touch. We chatted on Skype on the odd Friday. She asked if there was anything she could drop off, since H. and I don’t drive. Her offer meant the world to me. There is also the wonderful friend in London who called regularly and ran urgent errands for me when I could not get to the capital. Two friends whose names were so close to the bottom of the page that they were not covered up by the folding sheet of paper. The other people to whom I owe my sanity, who kept my faith in friendship alive are physically far away, and yet I feel oddly close to them, as though every time we communicate through the computer screen or the phone, any physical distance between us is no more than an illusion. It seems as though Coronavirus has changed the perception of space. A Saturday morning espresso with a friend in Rome. An aperitivo with chums and colleagues in Milan. Three-way conversations and heart-to-hearts with Paris and Rome. Discussing books with a writer in Paris. Setting the world to rights with a friend in Warwickshire. Connecting with Cambridge. Combining dinner and breakfast with California. Chatting and laughing with Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Now that I can walk along the streets of Norwich freely, I feel alien to the city. I can sense the flint cobbles under my shoes, but it is as though I am not really here anymore. Familiar faces look diaphanous, ethereal, removed from my reality. It’s a city where I hardly know anybody anymore. Where I don’t know what to say. There’s an entire chapter of history that I have spent apart from the people here. That we haven’t shared.
Four months. That’s all it took for us to drift apart. But four months that changed our lives for ever.
What can I say to them after this? How was your lockdown?
*Thank you from the bottom of my heart to… you all know who you are.