A friend suggests we go for a walk, fully masked. I am so touched to see her that I weep uncontrollably

Written on 08/09/2020 12:00 am

Contribution by David Woodhead

I hunker down, face my fear, and

Peer into my inside world, and

Thoughts of death and love and you

Fall from my mind like flags unfurled

It’s May or June, I’m not sure which, and I am pacing around the flat which I have left rarely since late March. My cough has stopped but my taste and smell are still playing tricks. I keep myself occupied, as best I can, with varying success. I catch myself muttering to myself as I check how little food I have left, or scour supermarket websites – no deliveries, I surmise, until Christmas. I count bags of pasta in the cupboard and rifle through the freezer. I have enough food, for now.

I decide to order an Indian take away, again, and justify the expenditure by reminding myself of how much I am saving on tube fares to work, coffees en route, sandwich lunches. I want the same as last time and the app does all the work – chicken bhuna, bhindi bhaji, sag aloo. It won’t be long. I wonder if I should get dressed for the delivery man (it is always the same guy). He usually leaves it on the front step, presses the bell, jumps back on his scooter and is off. I shout after him, ‘thank you!’, but he’s gone. The world is getting ever stranger.

I can’t quite remember when I last wore anything other than jogging bottoms and a hoodie, or got a haircut, or for that matter, took a shower. I resemble a recluse, which is not far off the mark; I am certainly starting to feel like one. My nephew, on a rare video call appearance, says my grey-white beard makes me look like Father Christmas.

I pick up books and pens and then put them down again. I committed to write a 4 line poem everyday – as a way of maintaining my mental health and capturing the mood – but my enthusiasm and ability ebb and flow. I start crosswords and don’t finish them. I read newspapers on my laptop but seldom get past the second paragraph.

For fun, I buy books on line. And they come thick and fast. Spending money, a remnant activity from before lockdown, liberates me somehow, brings a kind of frisson, joy. Sometimes I am so excited that I forget which books I have bought and end up with two. I have double copies of Adam Rutherford’s brilliant new book, How to Argue with a Racist, and wonder which of my friends might like it.

I talk to them on Zoom. Several express an interest. The death of George Floyd has caught all our imaginations and fury, and I can’t help but wonder if part of the reason we are so animated is because in lockdown white people are finally beginning to understand, in some small way, what living with limited liberty feels like.

That Sunday, last summer, in the garden, in the quiet

Your arm across my chest, breath on my neck, sunburnt

It’s the spaces between the notes, you said, that make the music

And now I miss them, our silences, the closeness, you

I flick quickly through channels stopping only for news – which is depressingly consistent – or when someone catches my eye, a fleeting compensation for having exited social media dating sites as part of the anti-COVID war effort. Being in lockdown has not diminished my libido, of that I am certain, but all possibility of it being satisfied is obliterated.

Outside of Soho and its numerous opportunities for spending, I am not convinced that the gay community was really ever a thing, but I haven’t seen a gay man in weeks and its starting to smart. I yearn for a glance, an acknowledgement, maybe even a shared joke. Anything else is off the cards.

I read that internet porn use has gone through the roof and sexual health clinics are expecting a downturn in infections, a silver lining of sorts. I am reminded of my grandmother, who whenever she went shopping with limited means always replied to shop assistants in the same way. ‘Thank you, dear’, she’d say, ‘but I’m just browsing’.

Don’t misunderstand me, my lockdown life is full of people. My days are spent on video calls for meetings at work. Contact with friends is more regular than ever. We use an ever-growing number platforms to meet, and chat, in ones, twos or more. My WIFI connection is intermittent, and whilst videoing brings an intimacy of sorts, it also provides the perfect opportunity to retreat.

When a conversation loses its appeal, or my anxiety takes over, or I can’t tolerate other people for a second more, I squint a bit, grimace a bit, tap my ears quite dramatically, and shout, ‘I can’t hear you’ and end the call. My craving for company is equalled only by my desire to retreat ever further into my COVID gloom.

These feelings slither, creep into my dreams,

Puncture my hope, my everyday me

And quietly suggest life is not as it seems,

So I stick to the rules because I want to be free

I’m not a terribly sociable person. At least, I’m not anymore. I used to be, a thousand years or so ago, or more maybe, when I drank. In those days, long gone now, I was always with somebody, in some bar or club, at a party, somewhere, out, away from home, away from myself.

I hung out with people, friends or strangers, being sociable, drinking, until my words became slurred, opinions swelled, and inhibitions diminished. The company inevitably dwindled, as they called time on their drinking, went back to their partners and families, their self-respect intact, and I returned home, to struggle with my keys at the door, open yet another bottle, and climb into bed, or stay slumped on the sofa.

Nowadays, in lockdown, I see very few people in person. I haven’t seen anyone I know – except for the nice woman in the corner shop – for weeks. And if the truth be known, I’m struggling. Video calls colleagues, friends and family do not compensate.

I feel a kind of loneliness that seeing people on screen doesn’t seem to ease. It’s far more existential, somehow; it dwells in the bones of me, in my DNA. I feel like a non participant observer in a dysfunctional world and whilst I acknowledge that non participation is keeping me safe, it is giving oxygen to a consuming sense of disconnection.

Being in lockdown is like being in active addiction. Feelings that I haven’t really experienced since the beginning of my recovery start to return: a sense of uncertainty; a descending darkness. I never quite know the day or the time. My sleep is broken, my dreams tormented. I have an abiding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. They’re all there, the demons, in the ether, threatening my mental health, threatening my sobriety. Lockdown has resuscitated them.

A friend suggests we go for a walk, fully masked, and stay 7 feet apart. We plot a route that encompasses wide pavements and quiet streets. I am so touched to see her that I weep uncontrollably. ‘I wish I could give you a hug’, she says.

She calls late and I know straight away

That something’s not right

The end is close, she says, he’ll be gone by

Dawn. I love you, I say. Sleep tight.

A friend from University has died. She was in her mid 50s. I am very sad and cry on the phone. Her funeral will be live streamed. A week later, my uncle dies. We follow the service on Zoom. I just want to see people, talk to them, check they’re OK. I wonder how we are supposed to grieve.

I sit, alone, swearing at the TV when politicians say they are doing their best, really, and any mistakes – it is certainly implied, if not said out loud – are due to the weakness of the citizenry. Our stupidity and inability to decipher the doublespeak are the real problems here, they assure us, not a government too idle to respond, or an enfeebled infrastructure struggling to keep up.

Racism and victim blaming are starting to percolate through – if only people weren’t black or Asian, so damn fat, poor, or old – they wouldn’t be such a burden on the rest. I can’t help but think about HIV in the 80s and 90s when the press and the establishment went to town, blaming gay men for what they trumpeted as a deviant misery of their own making.

I wonder what it would be to have leaders who could bring us together, not triumph through fear. We are at war with the virus, the MP on the telly tells me, at war with ourselves, with each other. And each day the death toll is mounting.

I eat here, read here, work here

Sleep here, mishear, weep here

I sit here and I fear here

But I am here. Still.

These times are unprecedented. I know that because everybody says it. And I yearn for ‘precedented’ times, but struggle to remember when there ever was such a thing. And we have never lived through a pandemic before, we are told, which helps make sense of the mess they’re making, but actually, it’s not true.

We have never lived through such a medical catastrophe, for sure, where the health service is under such huge pressure, where we are locked inside our houses, connecting with our neighbours on Thursday evenings, when we each stand on our front steps, clap, blow whistles and bang frying pans with wooden spoons for care workers. We have not had to face something of this scale before.

But some of us – in fact, many in my social circle, myself included – have lived through a pandemic before. In truth, we are living through a pandemic still. HIV/AIDS took hold of our friends and lovers and killed them, brutally, violently. That pandemic changed our identities and our politics, as gay men, our relationships and aspirations. The mothers who lost their sons and the men who lost their lovers still bear its consequences, day in, day out.

The people we know and love with HIV today are part of the same pandemic. They dutifully take their antiretrovirals every day and will do for the rest of their lives. Yet still they face stigma; still they fear for the future. Perhaps what politicians mean is that this is the first pandemic in living memory that has affected white heterosexuals – which even then ignores the many IV drug users who lost their lives.

I am reminded of something I learnt a long time ago: pandemics are scientific and social facts, but the way they are managed and described, can also reflect and exacerbate deep divides in society.

So I shave my head, and tidy my socks

And cling onto the hope that it will all be fine

But deep down deep I know it will change

Because everything does, in life, in time

Everything has blurred in lockdown. The world is changing, and I am changing with it, but the two processes feel out of synch. I don’t know where we’re heading, any of us. And the uncertainty is hard to manage. But I am trying to do the things that I know keep me well: reach out to family and friends, stay in the moment, hold onto my values.

We will look back and see this as a period of huge social and personal upheaval, I am certain. We will remember all the pain, the sadness and the losses, including the thousands of preventable deaths. And I will be reminded of how fortunate I am to have survived.

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