Gregor Powrie charts his wife’s battle with coronavirus through the lockdown.
Dogs are up, dressing gown on. I’ve just changed my slippers for sandals, and slip slapped out the back door onto the garden grass to pick up and bag their morning motions. 7.15. Something of a lie-in; a 6 am start has been more typical. The garden is unusually immaculate just now; well, insofar as I haven’t killed anything yet. I’m more of a mower than a grower, but that seems to be changing. I enjoy quietly walking around it now, and remembered not to cough as I passed the open window of our bedroom. I always check the pots, the clipped verges, hanging baskets, and homemade planters. Attempts to control nature. Then drop the bags of shite into the poo bucket. Cup of tea.
I’ve started using more toilet roll again, which is a slightly unexpected unravelling metaphor. I mean I never reached Steven Fry’s “one sheet to wipe, and one to polish” levels, but I was really efficient for a while.
At the start, our cupboards and freezer were full, a list of house jobs was drawn up, and a more frugal arse-wiping technique had been perfected to preserve stocks. And thanks to the breezy, capable planning of my wife, who said she “lived for this sort of thing”, I felt better prepared than most. My teenage daughter was delighted to be out of school, and my agent was still in her office, so I was more than happy to pull up the drawbridge for a while.
There was a flurry of activity. A long overdue living room redecoration was started, and, surprisingly, finished, accompanied to the soundtrack of archived episodes of Desert Island Discs. I had a two week window to get things done before the next job started. Then the job got cancelled, and my agent closed her office. There were repeat guests on the desert island. Then the local theatre closed. My wife’s job got cancelled. Then she fell ill.
We have a lovely wee spare room, most recently used for Airbnb guests, so it’s always prepared. She isolated herself in there, and eased any worries by admitting she didn’t feel too bad. But a couple of days in, any notion of it being “a bit like flu” or a “bad hangover” were gone.
Most of us haven’t had to fight the Covid 19 “mugger”. It’s distant. It’s happening “out there”, and even with the incessant bombardment of information, the fucking clapping, the unintelligible graphs and statistics, and all the hollow war-like rhetoric of “fronts”, it just feels removed somehow. The reality is different.
In the war at home I felt like a voyeur, watching my semiconscious wife wrestle with an ever-changing set of symptoms. It was macabre. Isolation meant leaning through the open bedroom window, from the garden, masked, to watch the latest developments, as if I was peering through an observation hatch into some sordid peep show. The nights were worse for both of us, while we separately dozed to different rhythms. As a new parent becomes accustomed to their baby’s cries, so it was with my wife’s cough. Hearing it through the wall was perversely reassuring. However awful it sounded, as long as I could hear it, it meant she hadn’t died. Increasingly enthusiastic birdsong would herald another Spring dawn, the new puppy would need let out, and as I passed the window on poo patrol, my pale frail wife would sometimes give a feeble wave. She told me that only after she had asked me how I was feeling (I always replied that I was fine) and could see that I was up and about, did she feel safe enough to pull down her eye mask, and allow herself to try and sleep.
The duality of that fortnight was weird. Beyond the closed door of the fetid Covid Cabin, our house was oddly serene. I had control of the remote. There was nothing to be done. Dust had a little longer to settle. My main job, apart from checking that my wife was still alive, was keeping anxiety levels down with my youngest daughter. I assumed an air of what I can only describe as a sort of light hearted nonchalance. There really wasn’t much new about our normal. Meals were cooked by and for the two of us, and my wife said that the sound of my daughter and I laughing in the kitchen while we ate was a comfort. Our eldest daughter living half a mile away could only communicate by phone or the dreaded text, and the conversations at that stage seemed to consist entirely of “Do you think she’s got it?” and “Where do you think she caught it?”
Answering the first question proved difficult. I wanted to yell “OF COURSE SHE’S GOT IT!” but I settled for a shrugging emoji. I mean, there was no doubt about the diagnosis, but in the absence of a test, it sometimes felt like her illness wasn’t validated, that it was something else. It didn’t seem to matter that two doctors, one of whom had had the virus, agreed 100% that what we were dealing with was “it”. At the same time, I needed to downplay how seriously ill our girls’ mother was becoming.
Fielding the endless enquiries about her health was gratifying, but repetitive, and exhausting. It goes with the small-town territory. I wanted one of those rolling LED news displays outside the gate. A sense of unreality was starting to set in; this was reinforced when our local Pastor and his wife came into the garden to pray and gently sing outside my wife’s sick-bed window. Bizarre, comforting, and terrifying in equal measure.
Then there was the trip to the Virus Assessment Centre. The illness had progressed to a level that I felt was beyond any help I could give, and NHS 111 agreed, so we were referred immediately. The whole experience was surreal. A masked half-hour drive in the sun (we have a long record of daytrips together when it poured) with a briefly uplifted masked wife in the back seat, windows open, into a tent, to be examined by a team of masked men and women, without ever leaving the car. “Under His eye” under canvas. Her oxygen levels were good, and despite the cough, her chest was clear, and that is what kept her out of the hospital. Actors know how to breathe. So a third doctor confirmed the illness, but still no test. There was a little part of me felt cheated… Isn’t that crazy? The selfishness more breath-taking than the illness. At the peak of the pandemic, with my wife exhibiting 99% of the symptoms, including almost dysentery levels of diarrhoea, and I felt cheated? How was I going to be able to convince people how ill she really was? My descriptions about making rice water to feed her would never cut it. Why was that important?
Predictably, when I eventually reported to social media, many of the responses after the initial “Sorry to hear that,” were, “Was it the virus?” Fuckssake. Oh it’s understandable. I would probably have asked the same. Online rubber-necking. It is deep-seated, the fear of the bogey-man, aligned to a totally human curiosity with the moribund.
In the aftermath of her slow, slow recovery, the second question reasserted itself. “Where do you think she caught it?” I don’t know. How could I, in this country’s chronic shit-show of a response? The two of us had ideas, but we didn’t know. It doesn’t matter now. “Where?” turned very quickly into “Why?”, and “Why?” I feel has segued into a sort of blame game, followed by increased agitation and anxiety about… well… everything. When my wife shakily emerged, wraith-like, from her isolation, and it was apparent that death had been postponed, I realised in that moment that everything and nothing had changed. She had bravely fought (and I can’t over-emphasise her courage through her fear enough) and won, but I had become so focussed on our personal little petri-dish, that for a while I had ignored a wider infection. It’s still going on. I have a new, creeping level of self-awareness, and I’m not sure where it is taking me. “Why?” has turned into “How? Oh fuck there are so many how’s now!
I have a pal on Facebook, whose comments often make me laugh out loud, or groan at their indulgence and assumptions. He posted recently about how he felt “broken” because of the hypocritical shenanigans of a government advisor. “It’s all been for nothing.” He opined. I couldn’t disagree. He got a “like”. I have come to the realisation that I am scared. There has been talk of opportunities to come out of this mess. A chance to re-boot, rethink, reassess what is really important. What scares me is the ignorance. My ignorance. I see pictures of mile-long queues for fucking Costa or McDonalds, litter-strewn beaches after a weekend flouting or reinterpreting guidelines, mindlessness and selfishness on a scale that if I saw it in a film, I’d think it unrealistic; and I judge. Scared that, despite this horror, the ineptitude of those in charge will not be held to account properly. The stampede, or drunken lurch to try to return to the normality and perceived comfort of before will make us forget. Match of the Day will be back on, complete with empty stands and dubbed crowd noise, there will be queues for Primark, and we’ll be too exhausted with the effort of survival to ask the questions. It is only just sinking in for me. My normal. Our normal, has gone.
Zoom chats. Fuck me. They’ve mercifully fallen off in their frequency. It’s a different experience for everyone I guess, but I find them exhausting. A significant family birthday was celebrated online recently, it only confirmed that despite being technically present, my side of the family can’t communicate at all. A brief cough would highlight a box, like a weird version of Celebrity Squares, only for the culprit to be startled into the realisation that they had nothing to say. The younger ones were texting each other during the silences, simultaneously agreeing that the whole thing was excruciating. The rest of us exchanged staccato sentences concerning the technicalities of trying to include our deaf 94 year old mother into the next meeting. We never even asked how each other was doing. When the birthday girl had to leave to go and play an online bridge game, the relief was palpable. We didn’t even use our allotted free 40 minutes, but I was shattered with the effort.
Other Zooms – and I can’t say that without thinking of Fat Larry’s Band, which dates me – only seem to highlight isolation rather than alleviate it. When you have a conversation with someone, and they leave the room, at least you know they’re still in the same building. I don’t receive invitations to quizzes anymore; I think even Zoom, with all of its fractured functionality, has picked up my vibe. “Chase the day away.” But my social media cynicism stretches on – through the saturation levels of kids stories, the monologues, the sourdough loaves, the dance routines, the virtual table-reads, the songs with alternative lyrics, and the oxymoronic live theatre online. I am actually intimidated by the range of talent out there, but when a Facebook-er declares that they “have to sing” my reaction is no, they have to be seen to sing, rather than just do it. Dunno why that sends me into a funk. Most of my acquaintances are performers after all, our industry is on its knees, and what are we without an audience?
Interesting being forced to confront that question. I thought it would lead to a much deeper, soul-searching realisation that I am nothing without an audience, and that my job defines me as a person. Instead I’m finding that the longer time goes on, that definition is being blurred. This is different to the familiar stasis of unemployment, and the associated paranoia that everyone else is working when you’re not. What’s different here, the Tennants and Cumbersnatches of this pandemic aside, is that most actors are equally jobless, the phone isn’t going to ring; a truly level playing field. Small consolation. But the pressure to find the next gig has gone, and it’s strangely liberating. It has enforced a pause, a pause I would never have the courage to take myself, and I really don’t mind it. I haven’t felt the need for affirmation, praise, or attention until now, and even this, whatever this is, doesn’t feel like that. Although here I am, and you know where the “like” button is.
Lack of money is a challenge. Wasn’t there a character in the old Peanuts cartoons that had a permanent cloud over their head? It sort of feels like that right now. It is difficult to stem an overwhelming flood of despair and panic on the bad days, and on the good days I look for diversions or solutions. How many of us bought microphones I wonder? I have a great wee set up now, but radio silence persists.
Just back from the garden again. Our three dogs were at the front gate, barking at Life, or a leaf, and it took the threat of a water pistol skoosh to bring them back in, happy, and panting for a biscuit. They have been the framework to the days, their walk is sometimes the only point of reference. “Rudderless” is a word my wife used today. She’s having a bad one. But the description is apposite, and truer than all the other hateful “R” word rhetoric that is being bandied about; “ramping up”, “roadmap”, “R rate”. It just sounds like jargon for the hard of thinking. Here’s another one though; reincarnation. If I come back, I think I’d like to be a well-loved dog. I sometimes feel like I’m part of the way there though. I have a cough. A persistent, barking, wheezy cough. Under the circumstances I could be worried, but this is an old friend that has returned, well, actually, one who never really went away after his first visit. From walks to weeding, it’s with me, puffing out my facemask in the co-op. At one time, not so long ago, it drew suspicious, surreptitious glances from the eyes of my fellow shoppers. Not anymore. Their masks and looks have gone, along with the queues. Toilet paper is back on the shelves.
Tomorrow marks 100 days of lockdown in our house. I know this because since the start I have written the date, the days passed, and more recently what “phase” we are at, on the chalk wall of the kitchen. It also used to note the times my wife had taken paracetamol, or when I had forced her to do some deep breathing exercises in the middle of her fever to try and keep her chest clear. If I look carefully I can still see the faint outline of the columns I drew during those dark days. And here’s the thing, I’ll miss it. Not her being ill, God not that. But you see, for the first time in a very long while, I knew what I had to do. My role. There was purpose amidst the helplessness. The parameters were defined, the horizon not so distant. There was quiet in my garden and in my soul. In all this carnage I found some healing. Some peace.
Now there are rumblings. My fears are increasing exponentially with the noise from the dual carriageway. My daughter is desperate to return to school. My agent’s office will eventually reopen. My wife is well.
Somehow, soon, I will have to find the courage to lower the drawbridge.