Someone coughed on me in ASDA today. I was buying Jaffa cakes when a man behind me leaned over to reach for the Digestives – and there it was, that dry cough – the one Boris warned us about.
So what did I do? I stared at him in horror, my mouth opening and closing like one of those automatic pedal bins the day after a huge party. Then, I dropped my basket and ran. I ran all the way home, my bag bouncing against my shoulder; I ran into the storm-porch and fumbled with my keys which were hiding under hand-wipes the size of paving stones. I let myself in, doused my hands with the hand-gel I keep on the hall table. Then I massaged it into my hair until I smelled like a mental health unit.
I dashed into the kitchen with my hair stuck to my head and lathered soap onto my hands just to be sure – as I did so I sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ in my best Marylyn Monroe voice – I got bored with singing it to myself while back. I’d done it so many times if they were real birthdays I would be…well, Biblically old by now.
After that, I made a tea, and sat in my living room, staring at the marble mantle clock, my heart racing. You see, I’m sixty-two and my lungs are not in good shape. Totally self-inflicted I’ll admit – that’s what thirty years of smoking roll-ups does for you. I gave up six years ago, but the damage was already done. Severe asthma, could develop into COPD. I should never have gone out. I was mad. All for a packet of Jaffa cakes.
Except it wasn’t that. Not really. I keep finding excuses to go out – not because I need anything but because I want to check that there’s still a world out there, I am compelled to reassure myself, like a child that keeps running back to its mother to check it is still loved.
To distract myself I go online, only to be greeted with images of you. You remind me of those things we used to make at church when I was a child. Christingles, they were called.
They were oranges with toothpicks stuck into them and loaded with multicoloured sweets, and a candle on the top. The orange was meant to represent the world, and the candle the light of Jesus; and the sweets – that was just a bribe to get kids to go to Christmas service. I used to think it was pretty anyway. Now, I’m not so sure.
You’re an icon of our times, a microscopic icon that would never be famous without the aid of modern science. In fact, Covid you’re more famous than Madonna now, though your way of touring the world is far less conspicuous.
I assume it’s okay to call you by your first name. After all, you’ve been in our lives for quite a few months now, and Covid-19 does seem rather formal. I’m not sure why I’m writing to you, as I don’t really like you all that much. In fact I don’t like you at all.
Because of you I sit alone in my house, counting the hours, like the man in the counting house in the rhyme, except he counted money – well, I count money too, but that’s because I’m a pensioner. Because of you, people all over the world are dying and those left behind cannot even attend their funerals. Because of you – and a man with no manners – I could die.
Anyway, Covid – I’m not sure if you’re listening? Do viruses listen? Are you here now, tangled in the hand-gel that sticks my hair to my head that I’m too scared to wash off because I don’t know how long it takes to kill you – or are you already working your way into my lungs, courtesy of Coughing Man?
Are you lurking in the porch that used to be my shelter? Were you concealing yourself inside the random sneeze of the Amazon man when he delivered the loo-roll that took two weeks to arrive? Or did you stow away on the breath of the postman when he delivered my box set of Downton Abbey, The Complete Series?
When a storm was raging outside I would come back from shopping and stand in the porch while fumbling for house keys I could never find. I valued its protection from the wind and the rain, while I searched amongst the rubble of old receipts, and loudly coloured pizza and kebab leaflets I had pushed in my face by intrusive vendors before the days of social distancing. Now, I fear its indeterminacy, its capacity to be a harbinger of death. You have turned my place of shelter into one of exposure.
As I continue browsing the internet I read about reduced carbon emissions. The canals of Venice are clearer and the fish are swimming in tiny silver slithers of glee; the air in China is cleaner; peacocks are jiving in high streets free of humans; goats are congregating in the town centres in Llandudno; nature is celebrating, dancing its first joyous steps since before the Industrial Revolution, tap dancing to the silence, the beautiful absence of humans.
Nature is happy. The planet has found shelter. It has found shelter in you. We can see the stars and hear the birds; we can tune into the quiet voices in our hearts that say – this is how it should be; this is what normality should be.
And for one minute, just one minute, I imagine that I am the Earth, wearied by over a century of carbon emissions, labouring under the strain of the multitudes polluting my skies in crass abandon.
In that minute, you are my storm-porch, my shelter. And I don’t want you to leave. In that minute I like you because I’m grateful to you. I’m grateful to you for affording me this temporary protection, for giving me the chance to heal, for slowing the madness of humanity to a pace I can tolerate.
The moment passes and I’m me again. My chest tightens, breathing is an effort. To ease my panic I fixate on details, find comfort in trivia – I could make a cup of tea, watch Coronation Street on Catch Up.
The window sill needs dusting, the garden needs weeding. Then there’s that novel – The Girl on the Train – I never did finish reading it. Have I got time? How long will you take to kill me?
A Troubled Citizen.