2007 - 2020

Day 99

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Tam Dean Burn says:

    A lovely piece of writing Greg that captures much of this crazy zeitgeist. So so glad that D is out the other side of it. I didn’t know. My very best to you both.

    The description of family Zoom sessions will I’m sure particularly ring bells for many. There’s much I can relate to, apart from the dugs and the decorating, but the Virus Assessment Centre conjures up images of the science fiction movies that used to get made before we both became thespians. I’ve only had a tiny whiff of that when we had to go to GlasgowAirport to get me a test because of a temperature that thankfully turned out to be caused somehow by cellulitis. The airport section given over to testing was completely empty apart from security and zigzagged barriers that looked like a cross between those 60s Brit SciFi films and the entrance to Glastonbury.

    This week I’ve thought about the other 9000 spaces available at the Test Centre back then in relation to what folk have been facing now. Friends having to take their kids for tests to Inverness from Edinburgh or to Stirling from Glasgow and knowing that these anecdotes will still be relatively easy compared to the suffering that some must be going through. Like you, there was much I found to enjoy about lockdown. Life was strangely simpler whilst of course with moments that brought back my mum’s favourite Lena Martell and her rendition of One Day at a Time…sweet Jesus.

    But now it feels like complications are only just starting to set in. It’s a bit like Peter Arnott’s description of the period in terms of a patient’s process of recovery. The fever and sweats are maybe just starting. I had a wee dingdong with Gordon McIntyre from the band Ballboy on Twitter this week about the source of hysteria in getting kids tested. I heard Nicola Sturgeon highlight that testing for under 17s had gone up 300% to 17.5K I think and that only 0.3% proved positive. She said this should offer reassurance but from what I’d picked up it seemed to indicate that schools were sending kids home and demanding tests before they returned whilst Gordon argued that it was the parents that were chasing tests for what were most likely cold symptoms. Next day our daughter got a letter home from school that tried to clarify the situation but actually highlighted that none of us really know quite where we’re heading with all this but we’re praying that the headless chickens running around don’t come home to roost or some such metaphor.

    Right this moment I have a bit of a temperature and feel very sluggish but the heavy snottered nose calms me that it’s the same sort of cold as another pal had yesterday and will pass like hers tomorrow. I had to take her kids to the play park for her and that sort of looking at and out for each other can hopefully help us through whatever is to come. I do fear for the worst too sometimes. But hey, there’s always the auld Gramscian communist maxim to hang on to – Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will…let’s just hope we learn this lessons from all this and can concentrate collectively on what’s been clearly shown to be important and needed. All the other bullshit can go straight in the poo bags too x

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Thanks Tam. This was an easy write about a difficult time, and I say that as someone who has never written before. The impotence and rage come and go, but it is important to cling onto what really matters, and other such platitudes. I am no supporter of the current Westminster twits, but all the disaster themed talk from the press of “u-turns” just isn’t helpful, it merely highlights what we all know, they really have no idea what they’re doing.

      I hear tonight that Scotland has had the biggest rise in cases since May or something, and I fear that the fever Peter talks of is very much still with us. You take care of yourselves, and thanks so much for your kind words.

      Greg

  2. Stuart Bowman says:

    Greg,

    I’ve read your Facebook posts over the past months with huge love. The fire-pit, the pergola, the Tesco deliveries – they’ve been a summation of so much of this shit show that resonated so many times. But I’d forgotten how close you and Deirdre had been to the scariest end of it, and this post was beautiful and kind and warm, and decent, and I thank you so much for sharing it. You’re a wonderful human mister, and I’m delighted that, in some small way, you’re part of my life.

    Much love to you and Deirdre,

    S xxx

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Thanks Stuart, that is very kind of you. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the response to this, but I guess it has resonated for some, and there is a strange comfort to be had in that.

      I hope you are all staying well and happy. Take care of yourselves, and one fine day we shall drink and laugh together again.

      G xx

  3. Stephen Brown says:

    Spoken like a real man Greg. Having the strength to question yourself that way speaks of a profound love. A marvellous read and I wish I knew you better. All the very best to you all.

    Stevie

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Thank you Stephen, that is very kind of you to comment. Stay well.

      Greg

  4. Dystin says:

    An extremely compelling piece of writing, Greg. Such an important document of ‘where we were’ in 2020. Thank you x

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Aw thanks Dystin,

      It’s all been a bit overwhelming the reaction to this. Glad you and Dee were able to catch up recently, she was so happy to see you both.

      G xx

  5. Victor says:

    May the green shoots of recovery (another *r*) appear
    May you treasure this new found peace……
    All be happy
    All be free from disease
    All creatures have well being
    And none be in misery of any sort

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Thanks Victor. True and hopeful words.

      G

  6. Aileen Dickson says:

    Everyone should read this and get a sense of the fear and helplessness experienced by so many over these past months, and as Greg points out, the virus is still with us seeking out its next victims.

    Before we entered lockdown I was glued to the news happening in Italy since my daughter lives in Rome. The daily deaths were terrifying, movement was halted and my daughter was allowed out of her flat to let her dog relieve herself. She couldn’t go further than two blocks whilst the police checked she had the appropriate papers that permitted her this activity. She taught class via zoom so the children were still learning and maintaining a routine. She called me two or three times a day to express her exasperation at the complacency shown by the UK and she would scream down the phone “can no one see what’s happening here! “.

    We are living in strange and for many of us frightening times. I hope Greg, Deirdre and their family’s experience will make people sit up and take note and behave in a manner that will help keep us safe. We all have dreams and ambitions and that is very important however postponement of these would be wise until the science and medical professions develop a way of protecting us from this virus.

    Sending love, good health and best wishes to Deirdre, Greg the girls and grandkids.

    Aileen D

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      How lovely to hear from you Aileen, and thanks so much for the feedback. I hope you are all ok? Tough times. Much love to you all.

      G x

  7. Jo Tope says:

    Oh Greg … what a perfectly brilliant piece of writing. So so glad that D made it through and that the post viral isn’t too bad .
    Immersed in your world for the duration of the read was strangely comforting ( as I suppose I knew the ending so to speak) and the experience you shared will stay with me . Stay safe . And keep writing . You have such a skill. Xx

  8. Beth says:

    Beautifully written Greg and I am so glad Dierdre is doing ok. I know the road may still have a way to go from hearing of other people’s recovery issues but I do hope D is on the positive mend. I completely identify with so much else of what you said, the slight relief at that ‘out of work’ pressure not being there. I’m trying not to think of the long term . And I have to admit for all the lovely positive supportive responses I’ve seen through this crisis the amount of selfishness and carelessness has rocked my faith in the human race somewhat. There is an inner anger and frustration (to say the least) at the stupidity and ignorance out there that will take some time to shake off I think. But negatives aside I’m just glad D had you there to care for her and that she is on the road to recovery at last I hope. So much love to both of you from both of us. ❤️❤️

    1. Gregor Powrie says:

      Thanks Beth, that’s really kind. We got lucky, and thankfully Dee is recovered and now working. It has left its scars though, both physically and mentally, but to be talking of recovery is in itself a wonderful thing. Huge love to you both. Stay strong. xx

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