My year of lockdown alone – enough already, I want my damn life back
Living alone has its advantages but 365 days of solitude have taken their toll
here are a number of ways you could tell the story of my personal lockdown, but one of the most economical would be through my shopping lists. After the initial shock of actually being in my house (as an arts journalist, in The Time Before I spent an average of four to five nights a week out seeing stuff) they became quite revealing.
With the onset of lockdown, like many people, I inexplicably thought that the Nancy who would be Staying at Home would be a different Nancy from the one who had hitherto disliked the faff of cooking for one, preferring to get in late and munch a quick slab of thickly buttered Ryvita standing in the kitchen before falling into bed. No more of that; instead I bought spelt flour, fresh yeast and little tubs of mysterious pastes that promised to enhance the many, many mealtimes I was suddenly facing at my own table.
For several months, I fancied myself the sort of person who ‘supports’ independent local businesses, as if I were a benevolent local aristo living in the big house and not a single woman in a one bedroom flat in Lewisham, having to shop for food like a normal person for the first time in her adult life. I ordered a huge box of meat from a company that had pivoted to home delivery after losing their restaurant clients even though I don’t eat much meat. I started a regular veg box and struggled vainly to keep up. I bought beer brewed in Brixton and vermouth made in Highgate and drank all of it, and bought more.
Of course, other than the vast increase in both my alcohol consumption and my waistline, none of it lasted, and incrementally, each shopping list became more perfunctory, and a bit more joyless, than the one before. Last week’s lockdown anniversary list was a sorry affair that read simply ‘gin, ice, milk, drain cleaner’. That was a particularly trying few days.
But let’s rewind. On February 10, 2020, I started my new job as the Arts Editor of the Evening Standard. I knew barely anyone at my new Kensington office, I’d never been head of a department before, never directly managed a team. I bought two new pairs of high heels (I know, hilarious), went in, met everyone, figured out where the toilets were, vowed never to eat anything from the canteen and then BOOM.
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Five weeks in I was back in my living room staring at my laptop, watching regretful announcements flood my inbox as museums, galleries, theatres and other venues cancelled shows and closed their doors. I expected to be furloughed – instead we became the Cheer Up London department, jollying readers along with TV round-ups and film recommendations as our cultural institutions stared into the abyss and the newsdesk doled out rising death tolls, R-rates and unemployment figures.
Obviously, in April, I got it. God knows how, since I wasn’t seeing anybody from one day to the next, though at that point the social distancing in Lewisham M&S Foodhall did leave a lot to be desired, but I was lucky – my Covid experience (if that’s what it was – my symptoms were atypical, though as we now know, that’s a thing) lasted a grand total of about six days.
I think, though, that on the worst of those days, when I was curled up in a sobbing ball with a small, dark part of my brain wondering whether I should pack a little hospital bag and whether they change your knickers when you’re on a ventilator, was probably the first time it hit me that I was, in a very literal sense, on my own.
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There are a number of advantages to living alone. Luxuriating in solitude I can watch five episodes in a row of Say I Do without either judgement or interference. I can have a dirty martini for dinner (olives!) and go to bed at 9pm without having to consider anyone else’s rumbling stomach or emotional needs. I don’t have to listen to anyone’s ‘meeting voice’ while we’re forced to work from home; I can write in silence. I am not caring for children. I look upon the endless labour of my friends-with-kids with awe, and not a little relief.
And yet, a year is a long time to spend in your own company. I’m a cheerfully solitary beast quite a lot of the time, but I’m also an extrovert. I need people. I love to chat. One of the many things that this year of living quietly has taught me is the value of small talk. People who say they hate small talk are psychopaths – it may seem trivial but it’s the glue of humanity. Just a brief, friendly conversation with the young woman behind the till at my local coffee shop (baristas, I salute you, you are serving so much more than hot drinks) is disproportionately effective in lifting my mood. It makes me feel like I’m part of the world.
Though I’m not entirely devastated at not having to travel from Lewisham to Kensington and back every damn day, the short period during which I did return to the office, before Christmas got cancelled, reminded me of one of the great joys of the workplace – the unplanned chat. A brief exchange of compliments over a skirt, or an enquiry after a recent holiday; these interactions imperceptibly knit us together.
I have felt the lack of them keenly. I thrive on talk, on conversations and shared confidences. I am a luncher, a coffee-and-caker, a quick-drinker; I do business over clinking cups and glasses; I form relationships by sharing time and tea, and my work (and frankly my life) is better for it. I’m the arts editor, right, it goes without saying that I miss plays, art, live performance, but a large part of why I love those things so fiercely is that they are always about people – their stories, their lives, their feelings – shared in turn with more people, and I find people an endlessly fascinating source of energy. Without regular doses of people, I am increasingly untethered, my creativity limited.
I’m the arts editor, get me out of here / Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd
There have been joys over this past year, no question. My tatty little garden, for one, which I barely used before. I moved here in 2017 and until last year, I had no idea that one of the shrubs flowers in the spring; tiny, deep purple blooms with a biscuity scent that floods the air as the sun goes down. My vegan neighbour, who left homemade mezze outside my door when I was sick, gave me her old barbecue, so at least I had something to do with all that meat. I bought art, via the #artistsupportpledge, and charity editions, got it up on newly painted walls, and I’m still in love with all of it. Christmas celebrations and January marmalade-making with my support bubble made everything seem almost normal.
And I developed a proper new friendship, accelerated by virtue of proximity and concentrated by the curtailment of our social lives, with a brilliant woman I already knew and liked who lives nearby – as the summer went on, our companionable, socially distanced walks (exercise! Totally allowed. I think), venting our frustrations and laughing and peering into other people’s houses, became a genuine lifeline for both of us. Whatever happens in our lives now I will cherish this relationship forever; it has kept me, at times, from losing the plot.
The fact is, I am incredibly lucky. On the face of it, for me, things are basically fine. Compared to what some people are dealing with at the moment, things are basically amazing.
But you know what, I’ve had enough now. I want to hug the s*** out of everyone I know. I want my shopping list to go back to ‘milk, butter, Ryvita, vermouth’ (always vermouth, for the martinis) and eat my dinner standing up, dropping crumbs on my sweater, having BEEN somewhere, and DONE something. I want to see people and talk to people and catch up with people at speed, plastic bucket of crappy red wine in hand, before the lights go down on a theatre show. I’ll stick it out for as long as it takes because it’s the right thing to do but my God, MY GOD I want my bloody life back.