Journal of the Covid Years: Christmas special

In the first half of this year, each week I published my beloved’s diaries from the covid lockdown of two years earlier. The diaries covered February 2020, when the word “coronavirus” first entered our consciousness, to July 2020, when we could finally go to a café or get our hair cut.

After July we stopped publishing the diaries. The succeeding weeks were a time of increasing normality. Life got easier and we felt that we had been through the fire and survived. But there were clouds on the horizon. On 13 September, we had a new rule that we could only meet six people out of doors.  By October, London was placed in “Tier 2”, meaning no indoor mixing. In November we got a “circuit breaker”. But there was still Christmas to look forward to.

This is the story of the Christmas that wasn’t and how miserable people were. It covers the time when there were regular parties in Downing Street. Since then, apologists for the party-goers have suggested that their behaviour was not different from what everyone else was doing. It’s possible that, two years on, we will see more re-writing of history. Time, I think, to remind ourselves what really happened.

Saturday 19 December 2020

London is now back in Tier 3. The main difference is that the café outside tables have gone. So I’m perched on this bench in York House Gardens, with a take away coffee. The bench is actually too wet to be comfortable, but needs must.

The news is bad. Lots and lots of stuff about the dangers of family gatherings at Christmas. I’ve had it pretty good, with my large flat and longstanding marriage and secure income. I like to think of myself as strong, resilient. Suddenly, I feel sorry for myself. The prospect of seeing Mike [my son] for Christmas is what has kept us going. Tom took to Facebook to mention the days and days he hasn’t left the house. On not seeing people for Christmas, the words “fuck right off” featured.

This unexpected rant actually garnered a lot of support. Dozens of comments expressing sympathy and telling him, in clear terms, to get out more.  Last Tuesday, I dragged him out at 8.30pm, to walk around the block admiring our neighbour’s Christmas lights. People have put a lot of effort into lights this year, to ward off the evil spirits.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Saturday morning now seems a different world, when I was wondering about what to pack for going to Mike’s and wrapping the last of the presents.

The first indication that something was wrong was when I came out of Tesco at 3.40 pm on Saturday, to hear someone exclaim excitedly into their phone: “Have you heard the news?”

When I stepped into the house, Tom was grim faced. “Come and listen to the announcement. It was meant to have started at 4pm”.  What?? London is now in Tier 4, and we’re not allowed to leave. No one is allowed into your home at Christmas, unless they are in your support bubble. And absolutely don’t go to the Cotswolds to see your son.

Massive googling, to find the website and all possible loopholes. Mike could come to London and could go around the park with us (not advised, but permitted). Otherwise?

As always in these circumstances, there is a tendency to fixate on the details. What should we do about the £200 of meat we had ordered from our local butcher – the goose, the beef, the chipolatas, the bacon.  We had planned to pick it up on Christmas Eve and take it with us, for three days of feasting.

Many hurried inconclusive calls. Should we drive up straight away? Or find a pub somewhere between us for a (cold, outdoor) meal on Tuesday or Wednesday? Or could he come to London for a socially distanced walk in the park. Or – shock horror – come to our house, come inside and eat a meal with us?

Yesterday, these options narrowed to three: all drive to a pub in Wiltshire (Mike’s Option 1); or Mike to drive to us for a socially distanced walk (Mike’s Option 2); or Mike to drive to us and eat a meal with us (Tom’s option).

Tom didn’t really want to go to a pub, as he doesn’t much like pubs at the best of times, and he would be constantly worrying that a policeman was putting his car number plate into a computer. To tell the truth, I wasn’t that keen either, as finding a suitable pub was beyond me, and even if we did, the patio heater would be not only immoral but inadequate. Mike, meanwhile, worried that coming into our house would fail the Sun test (what would look bad if it were in the Sun). Army officer drives from low infection area to Plague City and does what we have been specifically told not to do (have a meal with family).

God, life is bad enough without a family argument. I put my foot down. Mike and G are driving up to us on Tuesday (which is against advice, but actually legal). They will pick up the goose and presents. We are going for a walk – me with Mike; Tom with G – and then we’ll swap. If they want to come in the house to have a cup of tea and warm up, that’s fine. I’ve bought a Christmas log, just in case. But if they decide not to, we’ll respect their decision. End of.

I phoned Jenny, who also has a story of family rows. The original plan was that her two sons, and her sons’ girlfriends, would all come to hers. When I rang, Jenny was trying to decide which son would be in her support bubble. Christmas 2020 – choose your favourite child.

By 6pm yesterday, Tom and I were exhausted by the stress of it all. I cooked a stew, which we wolfed down, without tasting it. We plonked ourselves down in front of Prom, which shut out reality for a blessed 1 hour 30 minutes. Unfortunately, reality returned once I was in bed. I took a valerian and slept – adequately.

Today has flashes of sunlight. Tom and I walked to Syon House along the river, including a stretch we didn’t know. After all this time, we are still finding new places. Perhaps we are stronger than we think, and can cope with three more months of no contact?

Thames near Syon House, December 2020

Have just heard news that France has closed the Dover-Calais crossing, even to trucks. My original plan was to stock up on fruit and veg next week. Will bring that forward.

Monday 21 December

Today my first task was to go the butchers. Our ultra-cheerful butcher was almost in tears. “I’ve had 75 people cancel so far this morning, and they are being such dicks about it. I’ve got several thousand pounds of unsold meat and it is only 9am”.  He was so grateful that I paid for and took away the goose, he let me off the beef.

Then to Richmond, which was deserted. Closed shops – depression everywhere. A homeless guy asked me what was going on. Walked straight into Tesco, and bought fruit and veg.

Jenny has been full of suggestions for a Christmas roast. “Why don’t you cook the beef yourself? Or have a duck? That’s small.” The butcher said I could have my pick. But I haven’t the energy to roast meat. That says special occasion, company, family. And I’ll need to do all the trimmings, which will look sad and inadequate. All I want right now is something comforting and familiar and full of winter vegetables.

If Covid is spread by tears, it’s had a lot of opportunities. Friends of ours are cut off from their children. And children are cut off from their parents – particularly awful for one friend whose mother has gone into hospital to remove a brain tumour. She hasn’t come out – complications apparently. “I might never see her again,” she said.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Fantastic news. Yesterday Mike, Gilly and Morley (their dog) drove to see us. We walked along the river, up through the terrace gardens to King Henry’s Mound. I walked with Mike; Tom and Gilly walked behind us. At the view point, Tom and I sat on one bench, Mike and Gilly on another, and I handed round paté paninis and smoked salmon bagels. On the way back, we swapped. I talked to Gilly and Tom talked to Mike.

Then, when we got to the park, Tom brought out two chairs and a table, which we put up by a bench. I supplied best china, tea and chocolate log. Mike brought homemade mince pies. He has been making mince meat and overdid the quantities. “I’ve got enough for 75 pies – I’ll take them round the patch [garrison housing where he works]ninstead of a Christmas card”. They were delicious and we polished off eight. They were quite small.

I asked Tom to take a picture: our Christmas tea, in the park, with mud and wellies. The defining image of Xmas 2020. “For God’s sake, don’t put it on Facebook”, Mike worried. “We could get into trouble”.

Criminal behaviour

We were lucky, hitting a window in the normal rain and cold. Even glimmerings of sunlight. The saddest bit was saying goodbye. The official line is – see you at Easter. I even looked up when Easter is: 4 April. Seems like a long time.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

I spent this morning ringing friends. Laura talked about her son and his wife who will declare bankruptcy in the New Year. Dan talked about cancelling his trip to South Africa: “My father’s quite upset about not seeing me”.  I mentioned my steps towards retirement. “It’s important to have plans,” Dan told me, “or you can lose your sense of self.”  Well, my plans were staying with Mike for Christmas and going to an exhibition on 20 January. Look what happened there. Otherwise, Tom has booked for the ballet on our wedding anniversary: 24 June. That is the date to watch.

Boxing Day, Saturday 26 December 2020

“How are you?” people ask each other on the phone. To which the usual answer is “up and down”.

Let’s start with the Christmas ups. Breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon. Opening our presents over a Whatsapp video call, which worked much, much better than I thought it would. So lots of ooing and aahing over heated coasters, dulce de leche etc. The theme of the day was warm, fluffy and squishy. Tom gave me a matching cashmere scarf and beret and a microwave hot water bottle. I gave him sheepskin slippers and a super deluxe pillow.

Following Jenny’s instructions to “make an effort with Christmas dinner”, I felt I’d made just the right amount of effort: avocado orange; lamb tagine; and Christmas pudding (which was no effort at all – three minutes in the microwave). So full did we feel that all we had for supper was the rest of the Christmas pudding, with a satsuma.

Three minutes in the microwave

Before dinner we had a short walk in the park, where lots of people were sharing flasks of coffee. This did not used to be a Christmas tradition. Then afterwards, we read our new books and Tom suggested listening to the Queen’s Speech. This is Tom we are talking about, committed Republican. The broadcast was pure schmaltz, in a “we are all in it together and will get through it” sort of way (cue: picture of NHS choir, holding candles). And somehow it made us feel better. Then a film Mike recommended, from Pixar – Arthur Christmas. We laughed a lot.

I phoned Beth, who like us, had a present opening video call. But unlike us, the presents were still with her parents. They had to open them for her.   

The down bits? Mainly at night. I slept badly Christmas Eve night. And by 9pm I was falling asleep in front of the telly. I only just managed the cheery Christmas video call with Mike, which involved more upbeat energy than I could quite muster. I took our three existing hot water bottles, plus the new one, to bed and zonked out almost immediately.

Nor could I bear to look at the news. I told Tom that if Johnson finally got an EU deal I would be so relieved that I would be prepared to say “Well done Boris”. So there, I’ve said. Well done. Chaos averted, if rather late and with so little preparation.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Usually, I love the empty days after Christmas, when nothing is expected and it’s socially acceptable to lounge on the sofa eating too much Christmas cake. I’ve been following the traditions – reading round ups of 2020; going for undemanding walks; watching Christmas films. But I haven’t sunk into the experience with the same abandon. There is a hollow feeling. Is this all there is? Will real life sweep us along in its tide, as before – or are we stuck in this muddy eddy forever?

Yesterday I took my bike to Richmond Park to see Dan – despite warnings from Tom that we should now be staying in and seeing no-one. Somewhere, in the mud before the Bog Gate, my pedal jammed – making me late, and anxious, as I kept dropping phone, and key, and gloves and helmet, and failing to get it together. In the end it was fine. I met Dan by the Sheen Gate, wrapped up in full ski gear, as we gazed over muddy tracks and icy muddles into the bleak midwinter.

Dan had recovered from the shock of cancelling his trip and was back to phlegmatism. We sat at opposite ends of a bench which had been icy but was now turning damp, trying to keep our feet out of the puddle. At least in my disorganisation, I had had managed a flask of coffee.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of staying with their own thoughts”, Dan said. “A fast-paced life is great, but you can embrace a slow life too. Don’t be frightened of slow.”  We talked about failures in Government. I squeaked, at fast pace, about how the state should do more, quicker. Dan shrugged and suggested that it would all come around in the end. He then gave my bike a hard stare, at which it started working just fine.  I got home only six minutes late.

The Thames was definitely running high

I have never seen the Crane with so much water in it. And the Thames is running faster than at any time since the floods. Mike keeps sending me pictures of the Cotswold Water Park, where ditches have become streams and streams are rapidly turning into lakes. Yesterday they woke to snow and today is a blizzard. Covid, floods, lorry queues: which to worry about first? Or should I take Dan’s advice and assume it will all work out in the end?