Place of writing: my home in Liverpool
I was at home with my family during the UK lockdown. My GCSEs had been cancelled and there was confusion as to how grades would be allocated which was causing some stress amongst my peers.
The endless weeks were a strange time as on one hand, it felt like time had been given to you to fll as you pleased, however, an expanse of boredom also plagued you as repetitive days caused the endless horizon of quiet weeks to merge into long months.
Writing about the unusual times we were living through felt important as it served as a timely reminder of how crucial gratitude is for common things, previously taken for granted, like personal freedom. Writing about the time of the pandemic also has the ability to stir up emotions within readers who may be able to relate to the occurrences that they also lived through, as well as giving future generations a critical insight into a surreal time filled with peculiarities.
* * *
Gerald’s eyes were transfixed by the television as he ingested the numbers being shown on the news. The digits seemed to echo around his brain and thoughts began to swarm like a nest of wasps. A withered hand gingerly clutched the remote as he switched off the television, cutting off the solemn tone of the news reporter, allowing his thoughts to simmer in peace, undisturbed.
The death toll was rising, like a vast wave that would come crashing down and stun everyone. The coronavirus was spreading like wildfire despite the government’s watertight constraints. The deficiency of medical professionals was the main concern at the minute, with the healthcare workers being crippled by the number of those infected. Gerald gave a small sigh as he studied an old photograph, depicting him and several other doctors at a hospital which had recently opened. It had been nearly a decade since he had departed from that profession but occasionally a vestigial sense of duty surged into his blood, coaxing him alluringly into returning. He gazed at his sapphire eyes in the photo, alight with a sense of accomplishment and purpose. The opportunity was staring him squarely in the face now; there was a shortage of medical staff, and the option for former doctors and nurses to enlist in the health service again had opened up. His restlessness and impassioned sense of duty fuelled his burning desire to enlist, regardless of the risks. His hand extended forwards, grasping the phone, as he made the call to enrol back into the healthcare service.
The hospital was buzzing in a state of pandemonium. A symphony of mingling voices flowed through his ears as he surveyed the hectic scene. A sea of doctors and nurses, clad in suits and pale blue scrubs surged past him, entrapping him in this frenzied ocean. The apprehension in the room was palpable, with the sound of desperation and urgency injected into the voices of all. Gerald strode to the front desk at his designated ward and showed his credentials before being let further through. He paused by the entrance, unsure of who to introduce himself to or who he should be received by.
Are you Dr Smith?” a weary voice asked behind him.
Gerald spun round to face a young man who was slumped against the doorframe. He had bags under his eyes and his hair lacked a comb. Strands of jet-black hair stuck out jaggedly in all directions.
“I am,” he replied.
The man gave a small smile of gratitude.
“Thank you for offering your service. Follow me.”
The man walked through a door and Gerald followed him through the gateway into his future.
Gerald’s vision started to waver as he attempted to stop his eyelids from shutting. The blurred image of his family on the video call, faces frozen with distraught expressions, burnt into his memory and a wave of guilt washed over him. The nasal beeps pulsated from the machine next to him and the overbearing, pungent scent of hand sanitiser lingered around the room, making him wince. His body was exhausted; any energy had been drained from him and he could do nothing but lie on the hospital bed, taking precious gulps of air with the aid of ventilation equipment. He felt his heart constricting rapidly and his breaths abruptly became shallow. A wave of blackness crept upon his vision as he tried to sit up and focus on his family again; but the minimal movements proved impossible as his hearing began to weaken, sounds with a crisp clarity now merging into one indiscernible cacophony that reverberated in his ears. He faintly heard shrieks of fear as the machine’s periodic beeps decelerated. His eyes fluttered shut and though he heard urgent footsteps entering and commands being given, perhaps to him or other doctors, he relaxed and tried to focus one last time on his family. An image of them materialised in his mind; all of them on holiday in Italy, smiling and basking in the heat and radiance of the sun, while his grandchildren played in the glimmering ocean.
“It was a good life” his conscience spoke to him and he silently agreed, as he cherished that thought for the remaining seven seconds.
The emerald leaves on the trees in the park danced lightly in the wind, witnessing the young boy gaze at the statue below. The bronze of the statue glimmered, basking in the glare of the sun, though part of the statue was corroded, strewn with dirt and leaves, neglected for years. The boy’s grandfather sauntered up the pathway towards him, taking in the sight of the immense statue.
“What is it?” the boy enquired.
“A monument,” the man replied, “a monument dedicated to the service of doctors and nurses who helped during the coronavirus pandemic, eighty years ago, back in 2020. There was a disease, covid-19, that spread around quickly, and to try to stop the spread of it people were ordered to stay in their homes and not leave unless they had a good reason.”
“Do you remember anything about that time?” the boy asked.
His grandfather stared pensively at the statue for a few moments. “A bit. As the whole country was in lockdown, no one could leave their houses except for a good reason. The schools were deserted, classrooms were abandoned, some children had online lessons with their teachers as schools desperately tried to keep education going.”
“What did you do instead of school?” the boy asked.
“We stayed at home for half of the year. We
were not allowed to meet with our friends and we only were allowed to leave the house once a day.”
“But nobody could stop you from walking outside,” the boy suggested.
The grandfather gave a dry smile, “The police could punish people who broke those rules. It would have made the situation more dangerous than it already was.”
“What was there to do though?”
The grandfather was silent as sudden memories swarmed into his mind. His mother cutting his hair due to the inability to visit the hairdressers; the incredulous look that emerged on his brother’s face when they were both forced by their mother to comply with her request for virtual exercise workouts; the politicians urging people to refrain from bulk-buying toilet roll, reassuring everyone to not panic-buy; feeling a sense of fear when he saw the spike in numbers.
“I remember feeling imprisoned in my own home, spending months cramped up in there. Everyone began to get impatient and most people were bored just staying at home. They felt trapped, like animals in cages. Everyone felt a sense of terror within them, because they didn’t know when everything would return to normal or if it even would. Many businesses permanently shut their shops down and others limped through the lockdown, barely surviving. The experience was surreal. People had been instructed to stay in their homes and not to leave for an indefinite length of time. They had no idea when the number of cases and the death toll would slow down and cease, or who would fall seriously ill. Everyone was slightly in the dark and it was a worrying time. It was a lottery of lives.”
He paused briefly, gauging the boy’s sense of interest and then continued.
“My grandfather…” he trailed off momentarily as he stared at the monument. “My grandfather was a doctor during those times. He had retired from his job fifteen years before, but then the disease came, and the country needed more doctors and nurses than were available. So, he decided…”. The man broke off again and turned back to the boy who was staring up at him with an inquisitive look etched on his face. “He decided to become a doctor again, to help treat the people who became sick. He – he died while he was helping patients. But the sacrifice he made helped save others.”
The boy gave an understanding nod and looked up at the statue once more before wandering ahead. But the grandfather stood motionless for several moments. He gazed up at the statue, the doctor and nurse’s faces etched in solemnness though half of their faces were concealed by masks. He extended his arm forwards and scraped off moss from the brass plaque which was fixed to the statue. “In dedication to the lives of those who served their country during the coronavirus pandemic” it read in golden letters.
He fished into his pocket, pulling out a wallet. Opening it up, he gingerly pulled out a small photograph. Faded with time and worn and tattered at the edges, it depicted him as a child in the company of his grandfather, Gerald, who had re-enlisted with the NHS after his retirement to help alleviate the effects of the sparsity of doctors. He gave a small smile as his mind clouded with fond memories of his grandfather, a particular one concerning a holiday at a European beach resort surfacing at the forefront of his mind.
He stared intently at the photograph one last time, meticulously inspecting the details – his grandfather’s piercing blue eyes, the clothes he wore, and the scenery in the background, before slipping it back into his wallet and following the boy onward.
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK