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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