I’m writing this sat at my kitchen table, which is now where I spend the vast majority of my time. Occasionally, I move to the sofa, and once a day I go outside – into the streets of North London, with their shuttered up shops, their chalked warning signs, and their strange silence that descends now like a heavy knitted blanket over our homes and our lives.
Beside me are two jugs of tulips – one green, one red, because on my weekly shop I can never resist picking up bunches of flowers and this week one just wasn’t enough. They’re always the last thing I pay for, whilst my boyfriend stands laden with bags, winter gloves on his hands and a bike mask on his face. ‘Just one more minute,’ I say, ‘just let me quickly get some flowers.’ I don’t think he notices the flowers, really, not even when they’re in front of him on the table, but I do. They make all the difference.
When we were all sent home from work, just over a month ago now, I arrived home with a strange sense of optimism, like a child let out of school for a special trip to the seaside, even though I knew there was nothing to feel joyous about. I was clutching a bottle of white wine, a gift from an author at Christmas that had been languishing under our desks, and a pot plant from my colleague that I’d remembered to bring home. Nobody would be in the office to water it, after all, and every time I see it on my windowsill at home I am relieved that it isn’t stuck there, in a tall glass building, wilting slowly on an unused desk. That first week, I woke up almost every night, my heart racing, my breathing fast, and had to wait until my boyfriend’s arms tightly around me eventually forced me to relax. Anxiety is something that I have lived with my entire life, as so many people do, but in those strange, shell-shocked days I felt as though everything I had ever worried about was finally happening, and that I had been right all along. The world was going to come to an end, I would lose my family, and everything up until this moment had been one long waiting game.
As I say, that was about four weeks ago. The initial shock has faded, and I marvel every day at just how adaptable human beings really are. We find coping mechanisms – mine involve limiting time spent on the news, something I failed spectacularly at this morning, and giving myself permission to do things I had basically stopped doing: the main one being reading books for pleasure. Because of my job (and I love my job, I’m extremely lucky), I have to read manuscripts constantly for work; assessing them, taking notes on them, puzzling them out in my mind. I have a constant stack of manuscripts needing to be looked at – and so they should be, because they are from authors who have poured their hearts and minds into them, and they deserve to be read and considered for publication. But I cannot read them for pleasure, because I cannot switch off the analytical side of my brain whilst I do so. The only times I really read for pleasure now are on holiday – but two weeks ago, facing a whole weekend without the structure of back-to-back video calls and a to-do list, I felt the familiar feelings of panic beginning to reach their fingers out to me, wrap around my insides and squeeze. Try to relax, I was told, and for a moment, I forced myself to think about what actually relaxes me. There is really only one answer, and that is reading a good book. For pleasure, not for work.
And so I did. I picked up my Kindle and I bought three books, and I sat outside on the roof and read, for hours and hours until the sun burned my scalp and the tops of my shoulders, and the sky around me changed from a brilliant, azure blue to a dusky pink and then, finally, an inky, magical black. During those hours, I wasn’t a woman feeling lonely and scared and undone in a small London flat, I was in the novels; on a school campus in America, in an emergency room waiting for my baby, in a witness protection scheme placement in deepest darkest Cumbria. I can honestly say that reading those books gave me more joy and peace than anything else I have done this year, lockdown or no lockdown.
The other way I now fill my weekends is writing. I don’t find this as relaxing; it requires more concentration, and I feel pressurised because my deadline is fast approaching, but despite those things, once I begin, once the rhythm of my fingertips hitting the keys begins to gather pace and momentum, I find that actually, I can relax. Just a little. I watch as the word count in the corner of my screen creeps up; I feel surprised when a glance at the clock tells me three hours have passed without my noticing, and again, I am transported, away from my tulip-laden kitchen table to the flat plains of South Africa, where novel number four is set. How lucky am I, really, to have these two sources of joy? And where would I be without them?
Some other things that have given me moments of happiness: the sight of a loaf of bread, left outside one of the houses on a North London road, perfectly wrapped, awaiting its fate. The way an elderly man smiled at me in Finsbury Park as I ran past him on my first ever 10k run. We smiled at each other, rather, and I wondered how many other people he had in his life that he could smile at. The sight of the three boys who live opposite us (I don’t know their names; I would like to be friends but I don’t know how to be) dancing around their living room, waving their shirts over their heads on a Friday night. The sign in their sash window: Thank you NHS and key workers. The faces of my amazing colleagues popping up on Microsoft Teams day after day, making me laugh and making me proud. The strawberry plants that my mother sent me, which we’ve planted in an old vegetable crate found at the side of the road. The way my boyfriend never loses his patience when I ask him endless, unanswerable questions: will everything be alright, what do you think will happen, why is this happening, why do I feel so guilty. The way my Grandma says she can feel the hugs I send her down the phone. The picture of a balloon that my Dad puts on WhatsApp: nobody can be uncheered by a balloon. My brothers sending me videos, the ease with which all of us can pick up the phone. Listening to Elizabeth Day podcasts as I walk, hearing about other lives and other failures and giving thanks for what we’ve got. Pink blossom bursting resolutely all over Highbury, carpeting the pavements; yellow buttercups in the local churchyard, and the sight of the swans in Clissold Park. There is so much to be grateful for.
And so much more to write about.