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.