Tag Archives: coronavirus

Parallel Lives

22-25 March 2020

This is how our lives should have run:

Mother’s Day is a joyful event planned and executed mostly by my middle child, who has planned to cook a roast lunch. He’s invited my mum and dad who gladly attend. There are presents and cards, laughter and Prosecco.

During the week, my husband travels to London every day and battles with a trendy millennial workforce to help build a franchise-able dark kitchen concept. He’s tired but happy. Seb enjoys his life in Grenoble. He’s going to the gym every day, skiing every weekend and working hard, albeit berating the stringent university regulations on attendance and completed assignments. We WhatsApp call every day and I’m happy to hear about all his adventures. He’s contented and thriving, and I wish I was 21 again and that I, too, could be enjoying life in continental Europe as a student, yet to embark on a fully adult life of 9-5 working and money worries.

I book my B1 Intermediate Italian language test, to be taken in June. It’s the only thing standing between me and an Italian citizenship application. Although people may have heard me moaning less about Brexit just recently, it doesn’t mean it’s any less prevalent in my thoughts, so I’m on a mission.

Thursday sees Leo pass his driving test and we’re all over the moon. He deserves the independence this will give him, and he desperately needs it.

Livia enjoys her last week of school before the Easter holidays: they spend loads of time outside in the vast grounds that the school enjoys. We start planning Easter Sunday with my mum and dad: who’s going to cook what, lamb or chicken, simnel cake or chocolate torte and whether we’ll have an Easter Egg hunt, and somehow this discussion of family traditions just fills me with joy.

Except none of this happens.

Mother’s Day is strange and empty.

At 3 pm, we walk to town to our store, a good 30-minute walk. My daughter kicks off but then seems to enjoy the fresh air. Avoiding other people, also walking in family groups, is awkward. Everyone looks away, embarrassed to find others on their path, trying not to breathe anywhere near the others. I expect we will be told not to walk in groups of more than two, soon.

When we return to our house, our probable cage for the next three months, everyone kicks off their shoes creating a kind of instant disorder which makes my chest go tight.

Monday, at 8.30 pm, the Prime Minister addresses the nation, no longer using his usual array of bizarre hand signals or flippant turns of phrase. Dominic Cummings is nowhere to be seen. Do not leave your homes, he says. I return to that mental graph I hold in my mind and mark on it: Lockdown. We are still exactly 14 days behind Italy both in terms of how the disease is progressing and in the way it is being handled by our political leaders.

Tuesday, Wednesday…we rise to beautiful, cold sunshine and an eerie silence outside, broken only by the sound of birdsong and the occasional ambulance siren. The house buzzes with the sound of multiple televisions or devices streaming online art classes, HouseParty gatherings and Netflix videos. My family of five, imprisoned at home together, is united for once, probably for the very last time. When this is all over, both of my boys will be gone, only to return for holidays and special occasions.

Post after post appears on my Facebook feed from business owners, like me, who have had to shut up shop. Some have lasted longer than us, their optimistic posts about surviving on takeouts and getting creative on delivery packages gradually dwindling until the inevitable final post: we are very sorry, but given the current climate we have decided to close for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, they sign off with a cheery ‘see you on the other side’. Often not. #Staysafe, they say.

And I keep thinking. We’re running from an invisible enemy, not the virtual reality algorithmic one I imagined. Maybe the challenges of a virtually manipulated world aren’t so different after all. This challenge, too, must be conquered by maths, science and ingenuity. More importantly, by pulling together, by leaving our egos behind.

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19 February – 21 March 2020

It starts with a vague feeling of unease.

We see the coronavirus headlines from Wuhan, decide to travel to Grenoble in France for the half-term break to see our eldest son, Sebastian, who is studying there. We travel across land using the Eurotunnel, hoping we’ll be safe enough avoiding planes, enjoying a lovely week, mostly walking in the mountains, eating cheese and drinking French wine…

On 22 February we return to hear stories that parts of northern Italy have been locked down: 14 small towns. It seems drastic. Skiing trips returning to the UK from that area have been quarantined, in fact, anyone who has been in the area after 19 February has to stay away from school and work for 14 days. We joke about how packed out the French service stations were on the way home – but at least we weren’t flying. At least we went to the French alps, not the Italian ones. But in the back of my mind I keep thinking: should I get my boy home?

On 2 March an email pops up in my inbox. It’s entitled ‘The future of Grace Dieu Manor School’. My daughter’s school, the place that has nurtured her since she was three years old, is going under. After 80 years of providing a wonderful education to many generations (my uncle and my two older boys included), the governors are very sorry, but they have no choice but to shut in the summer. My daughter already has a place in its sister school for the beginning of the next school year. Nevertheless, it feels like the end.

On 9 March I receive a message from a friend of mine in Saronno, northern Italy. The whole country is now in lockdown. She is beside herself: stiamo vivendo un’incubo. Living hell. I stare at the message. Google throws up several stats pages that I inspect, doing a few quick and dirty calculations in my mind. I want to know: how far behind Italy are we? The same number pops up again and again: 14 days. Everything is as normal here, but I’m reminded of the peaceful tranquillity that occurs just before a Tsunami. I wonder if, in two weeks’ time, we will be running for our lives.

I insist that Sebastian flies home. I’m not waiting any longer. We do a quick WhatsApp call and book one of the last Easyjet flights out of Lyon and the by the next day, 15 March, he’s home.

20 March and the schools close. My friend takes a picture of four girls standing outside the school in their uniforms and blazers, rolling green fields and the school’s little white chapel in the background. My daughter is among them, smiling and happy, but her smile fills me with a strange sadness. They have all been there since they were three year’s old. Everyone still has a copy of the photo another friend took of the same girls queuing for their reception class at four years’ old, chubby, baby-faced and shiny in their brand-new big school uniforms, some smiling, others clinging to parents’ hands. I think of both photos, knowing they might never return to Grace Dieu after this day… and I can’t help thinking: this is the end of childhood. God only knows what the world will be like when they stand at the school gates of their new schools in September.

That same day, we receive the same order as all bars and restaurants across the country: to close our store. I knew this day was coming, but I am overwhelmed with grief. We clutch at straws, look at figures, promised government grants and rates relief, at takeout and delivery strategies. The next day the store opens for takeout and delivery. We find a regular customer wandering around town. He’s over 70 and lives on his own. Most days he comes into our café three times: breakfast, lunch, tea. He meets his friends there, sometimes dines alone, always enjoys a chat and a laugh with my team. Francesco, my husband, asks him if he has anyone to help him at home, should he be locked down – we omit to mention that technically, he already is. He tells us, no, so we quickly write down our numbers on a piece of paper and give them to him. Ring us, we say. Anything you need.

Back in the store, Francesco is distraught. We put so much into this place.

And this is only the beginning.

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