Inside stories

It’s six-thirty in the morning of another indeterminate day. I stumble to the kitchen, down a glass of water and fill the kettle. Now to feed Frederica, the sourdough culture, who’s been relegated from the airing cupboard to the fridge, in an attempt to curb her bubbly personality. She’s the closest I’m likely to get to owning a pet at this stage in my life, and I find myself chatting to her as I spoon a little of the precious flour supply into her jar.

Back in 1976, my then husband and I hitch hiked from Wiltshire to Ireland. An old school friend of his had bought a smallholding near Sligo. The farm had no phone line, and mobiles were a distant dream, so we filled a couple of backpacks, hit the road and hoped there’d be someone home when we arrived. I’ve never forgotten the journey. The summer had been intense. There was barely a blade of grass that hadn’t been burned brown. We were picked up near Ross-on-Wye by the driver of an empty coach on his way to Holyhead. My husband loved to talk, so I settled back to enjoy the scenery. Nothing I’d read about the drought had prepared me for the skeletons. Gaunt and grey, the charred remains of hundreds of acres of Forestry Commission trees lined the roads through Snowdonia like hungry ghosts, occasional wisps of smoke still rising from the barely-extinguished forest fires.

There are so many tales I could tell of that summer living the hippie dream. There was the village shop that sold crisps with pre-decimal prices on the packets, more than five years after decimalisation, there was the stream where we washed because the farm had no mains water, and there were the endless tales Martin brought back from the local market. He grew vegetables not commonly cultivated in rural Ireland in the seventies, including Brussels sprouts. These had caught the eye of an elderly farmer
So, what are they exactly?
They’re like tiny cabbages
And why would I want tiny cabbages when I can grow great big ones of my own?
Forty-four years on, and it’s the tiny things that matter most. Our larger aspirations have been laid waste by a virus so small it can’t be seen with a conventional microscope. Our lives have shrunk to the size of our living rooms, and to admit I talk to a sourdough culture called Frederica sounds nowhere near as crazy as it would’ve done way back last year.

When my brothers were born, the NHS was not ten years old. I’d be lying if I said I could remember which afternoon it was every week that Mum bundled them into the twin pram for the walk to the clinic, but I know it wasn’t Monday. Monday was divvy day at Williams Brothers, so we shopped on Monday. That was a much longer walk. The clinic building was makeshift, and I have a vague recollection of corrugated iron, but the staff were brisk and efficient. I remember my brothers, stripped to their terry nappies, wailing as they were placed in the scales that took pride of place. We’d come home with purple tins of National Dried Milk in the basket under the pram, and bottles of cod liver oil and rose hip syrup, whose tastes I love to this day.

Chocolate buttons were a rare luxury in the late 1950s, but in my mind they are forever associated with the sting of a needle in the upper arm. The small room behind the scales was where all the immunisations took place. The room had two doors. A queue of anxious mums and fearful children would form at the left-hand door, and a steady procession of tearful children would emerge on the right. I think the chocolate button one of the nurses popped into your mouth as the other popped the needle into your arm was supposed to distract you from the pain.

I consider myself beyond fortunate to have been born in post-war Britain. Uncomfortable though my memories of the clinic may be, I’m truly thankful I never had to face the slow suffocation of diphtheria, the agony of tetanus, or life in an iron lung. My mind often chafes at the way my world has shrunk of late, and it’s easy to forget I’ve had a lifetime of comfort and safety, and experiences beyond the wildest dreams of half the world. Whatever the future holds, I’ve already seen and done far more than most people, past, present or future, ever will.

With Frederica back in the fridge, it’s time for the morning walk. Alert as meerkats on sentry duty, my companion and I venture into the sunlight. I take photographs of the ever-changing minutiae of the world around me. Today the seed pods of the buttercups are swelling, the fern fronds continue to unfurl in an infinite range of patterns, and there are tiny, white flowers on the holly tree. In sixty-six years on this beautiful earth, I’ve never noticed those before. The meadow grasses dance higher than yesterday, the bluebells are fading to reveal their green hearts, and a lace of cow parsley spreads alongside the path.

It’s almost eight weeks since lockdown drove us all inside, although in truth, it’s been rather longer for those of us who realised early on our lives were at risk if we didn’t act. COVID-19 has broadsided everyone. Nobody knows who’s got it, who’s had it, or what effect it might have on anyone who catches it. In comfortable Britain, we’ve enjoyed two generations of antibiotics and immunisations, and we’re not used to illnesses we can’t control. This time no-one’s immune, there’s no cure, no defence except isolation, and nobody seems to be in control.

When it became clear COVID-19 was rampant, there was talk of herd immunity. The government denied they’d said that faster than Tim Martin could dismiss his staff. Apparently, allowing half a million and more people to die isn’t a popular strategy. Who knew? Nevertheless, the idea wasn’t far from the mark. For most of human history, our sole defence has been our own immune systems. During the last couple of hundred years, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, antiseptics and immunisation have joined our armoury. Antiseptics, bleach and soap are highly effective against COVID-19, but despite what Donald Trump tells you, they only work outside the human body. Once the virus gets inside, nothing works at all. Scientists are searching round the clock for a cure, or better still, a vaccine, but they haven’t found it yet.

Research on COVID-19 is in its infancy. Nobody understands the long-term effects of the virus, or why it does so much more damage to some people than to others. It seems to me that until these things are understood, any return to ‘normal’ is likely to be at the cost of many lives. All the conspiracy theories, anti-lockdown rallies, burning of 5G masts, denial, point-scoring, statistical manipulation and fake news in the world can’t change the facts. We’re in the grip of a pandemic. Nobody knows where it came from, nobody is immune, and until we have a vaccine or a reliable treatment, soap and social distance will be our only real defences.

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