Place of writing: Littlehampton, a small town on the south coast of England,
I had to move out of my university halls of residence and stay with my family for lockdown. It felt cathartic to create writing exploring the pandemic during the Times Shifting project; for me, it became a way of escaping the loneliness of isolating, whilst still thinking about what a historically significant period of time we are living through.
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Lockdown: as Observed by an Aloe Vera Plant Living in
The lady sits on her bed and cries. Blankets up over her head, sobbing in the thick warm heavy air underneath the duvet. Matted hair, bleary eyes, yawning from dehydration when she finally surfaces. The headache- inducing afternoon sunlight outside presses against her window and she does not have the energy to get up and shut it out. Today is Saturday, she doesn’t have to work, but everything she does feels like work nowadays. I watch her from my spot on the windowsill as she sits there, trying to be human.
Day slips into night slips into day slips into night. Hours will pass by on the clock but will not feel real. There is nothing to distinguish each moment from the last and from the next. The lady sits in her bed, or at her desk, or at the coffee table eating. She eats the same things every day. She is meant to water me regularly, but there is no routine anymore; she waters me each day for a week without seeming to realise, and then she forgets me for a month.
Sometimes she sits with her phone pressed against her ear. She doesn’t say much, but closes her eyes and tries to absorb the buzz of the voice on the other end, leaning into the sound-waves with a sigh. Sometimes, but only rarely, she will let herself smile.
The lady wasn’t always this shadow of herself. Things used to be different. She used to never be in the flat during the day, she would be out at the office. Oh how I used to relish those hours of peace! I would only ever see her properly in the evenings, and she was rarely alone then. Janet was with her, or Michael, or Amaya. The flat was filled with laughter and voices and music and light. It was rarely silent when she was home. I would do anything now for her to leave for more than a few hours at a time, more for her sake than for my own. Instead she is cooped up within these few walls; waiting in quiet isolation.
The Last Day happened in late March, although of course we didn’t know that it was The Last Day at the time. It just felt like a normal day. The lady woke up like usual and went out to work. We didn’t know that this was the last time she would do those things. In hindsight, it should have been obvious what was coming, but we thought no, it won’t happen here. Not in England. They can’t shut it all down. Later, she sat on the sofa and watched the news with a grave look on her face. Her phone pinged with an email notification from her office; when she finished reading it, she said nothing, but poured herself a large glass of wine. The Last Normal Day had been a relatively warm one, and looking back it felt positively golden.
Funny how the memory does that, isn’t it? The Last Normal Day feels like a million years ago, and remembering it is like wrapping heavy-duty wire around your heart, constricting your breath. We all long to return to The Last Normal Day.
If aloe vera plants could produce tears, I would cry with the lady while she sits in her bed on this Saturday afternoon. I would cry for her mother, who is so worried about her daughter living in the city where the infection rate is highest. I would cry for her friends, who try to ring her every night but don’t always remember (they have their own struggles to keep up with). I would cry for the folks on the news, dying and grieving and in pain. But aloe vera plants can’t cry – and perhaps this is lucky, for me at least.
In the first week of the lockdown, the lady started a home exercise routine in the living room. She pushed the sofa and the coffee table to the side, and put a workout video on the television. An enthusiastic man in his mid-30s led her through a gruelling half an hour of star jumps and sit ups. Sweat poured from her skin and when she was done she lay face-down on the floor for an hour. The lady kept this up for six days, but when Sunday rolled around she decided she deserved a rest. She never watched the workout video again, and slowly the sofa and coffee table crept back into their original positions.
In the second and third weeks of lockdown, the flat was filled with the smell of fresh baked bread. Well – to be more specific, a lot of the time it smelt like raw dough, or of burning. Enough to shrivel my roots up just a little. The lady would curse each time she looked in the oven and saw a soggy unrisen failure. But after several more attempts she started to get the hang of it, and she took proud photos of her final loaf and posted them to social media with the hashtag #QUARANTINEWINNING. After a while, though, the flour disappeared from the supermarkets, so she had to give up on that too.
In the fifth week of lockdown, she bought an embroidery hoop. She sat herself down in front of a Disney film from her childhood, glasses perched on the end of her nose, and embroidered a wobbly daisy onto an old tea towel. It made her think of her grandmother, who had been an expert at sewing, and this made her smile. Over time, she learnt satin stitch, cross stitch, and how to tie a French knot, filling every scrap of fabric she had with increasingly neat designs.
In the seventh week of lockdown she had an online therapy session. She cried for hours afterwards.
In the eighth week of lockdown, she could not bring herself to do a single thing.
In the ninth week of lockdown, George Floyd was murdered. The woman signed petitions and donated to charities helping black people and wore her mask out to protests. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. I wanted to weep with them. Black Lives Matter, even aloe vera plants know that.
In June, the government announced that the lockdown was going to be lifted, just a little, and I could tell the lady was afraid. From my spot on the windowsill her apprehension was clear as day, it filled up the air of the flat, replaced the oxygen with anxiety. Politicians putting lives at risk over the economy – it’s a tale as old as time. The lady was one of the lucky ones though, her office informed her that they wouldn’t be opening up until August. I want as much as anybody else for things to be back to normal, she said to her colleagues over Zoom, but not while the virus is still spreading.
This story doesn’t have an ending. No one knows yet how things will end, or if they will ever end. The lady sits in her flat and I just watch her. I can’t help her, I can’t talk to her or comfort her. Aloe vera plants don’t have arms or faces. I have to sit and watch her from the windowsill. She doesn’t even know I’m here.
I long for The Next Normal Day to come quickly. A day when the lady shakes off her sadness and heaviness, and ventures outside with a spring in her step. She will smile at strangers on the street, and they will smile back, mask-less and giddy with the freedom that they’d forgotten about. She will go to bookshops and cafes and pubs and not fear for her life and the lives of those around her. She will spend time with Janet and Michael and Amaya, blasting music and dancing on the coffee table. She will hug her mother tightly. I long for The Next Normal Day to be a day of peace and a day of no worries and a day of sunshine. The Next Normal Day will be an extraordinary day, beyond our wildest dreams.
Perhaps I am trying to live vicariously through the lady. After all, when The Next Normal Day comes, I won’t be able to celebrate with anyone. Life won’t change for me, I will still be sat upon the windowsill, merely an observer. I will always be stuck indoors.
Today though, this late Saturday afternoon when the lady is in bed crying, all I want is for her to be safe and happy and not alone anymore. And I know that day will come; I may not know when, but I do know that The Next Normal Day is on its way, hiding in the shadowy future, ready to reveal itself upon an early morning sunbeam. We just have to stay alive long enough to see it.
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK