Our family lockdown begins a few days before the national one. The children burn with fever; Embla, the worst afflicted, begins to cough. I sleep in her bed all night, smoothing the hair away from her sweaty forehead and soothing them both when Embla’s cough wakes them from sleep. It passes almost as soon as it comes, but then Kirsty is sick and by the time that she is starting to feel better, a strange sense of chills and burning grips me in the night. The cough is ferocious; I mute myself on work calls and schedule lunch breaks to nap, so nobody will know that I am sick. We don’t know if it’s Covid. It could be any virus; it doesn’t feel so dissimilar to ordinary bugs we have had before.
It means that we don’t get to say goodbye. There is no ‘last day’ at work or at school, just the dawning realisation that whilst we stayed at home, everything around us was swept away.
Our world constricts. It feels like a sort of shedding: not just of work and school, but the commute, of buying lunch out, of laughing with friends, catching the eye of a stranger. ‘Outside’ seems sinister, somehow – the same endless blue sky fills me with a sense of smallness and dread. We stay indoors. The children learn to climb doorframes and to scale the outside of the stairs; they break three chairs on the trot, building playgrounds out of furniture and a dismantled kallax storage system. We order crafting supplies, reading books, Kirsty renews her antidepressants.
My heart feels like a wild thing all of the time, but I am known in my industry for my portrayal of calm under pressure. At the beginning of the pandemic I am promoted into a new role, and I take on my responsibilities remotely in the quiet of my bedroom, laptop on my knees and legs dangling off the edge of the bed. Working from home makes it easy to roll out of bed and straight onto the laptop and goodness knows, there is enough to do – but there are children missing their community and eager for attention and affection. I feel the tug of these responsibilities whenever I am awake, and at night I dream of missed deadlines and small voices calling my name.
I tell the children “I love you” so often that they tire of it, answering boredly “we know!”.
Our world is small, but our local Whatsapp groups explode like stars; everyone wants to help somebody else. I think about all of the families navigating the pandemic across the world and feel grateful for what we have: a place to live where we feel safe with each other, an abundance of resources. When I hold my children tight, I think about the children trapped at home with parents who hurt and frighten them, or bored with no books and drawing supplies. At work, I am able to coordinate a project assisting some of these vulnerable children; it feels so good to make a difference.
I don’t sleep. At night I scroll the Guardian Live Update blog, my heart thumping in my throat and the moon glimmering softly through the window. I don’t feel tired, just alert and watchful; I think of the wild horses that I loved so well as a child, their flared nostrils and the white ring around their eyes as they scanned the distance for a perceived threat. Restless in bed, I remind myself of those horses. Periodically, my breath catches in my throat and I have to consciously practice calm; I think of still water, of calm seas, I focus on breathing in time with the waves.
I think about the emergency response plans that I had crafted as a little girl; I was prepared for any disaster. I think about the unmaking of a person, about metamorphoses. I think about how, in all of my childhood panics, I had never accounted for the tremendous responsibility of survival with five small children in tow. The weight of it both frightens and anchors me.
In the mornings there are children with nowhere to go, drawing rainbows on windows. Our sons are learning to read; they miss their teachers, their new friends. We try to bring structure to their days, Kirsty makes lesson plans and activity walls, every Friday we bake a cake together to celebrate another week indoors. Our daughters speak wistfully of their nursery workers, they all miss parks, soft play, their grandma. I have never spent so much time with them in my life; they express amazement at how much coffee I drink, and every time I venture downstairs from my laptop there is a welcome committee ready to greet me in the hallway, ten small arms wrapped around my legs or waving in the air, begging to be picked up. The baby grows into a toddler in the isolation of our home; when it is safe to venture out again, she is afraid of people and won’t smile or speak.
I take over bedtime, but nobody believes that I can put five small children to bed, certainly not the children and truth be told, not even myself. So instead I teach them to handstand, and to make shadow puppets with their hands on the walls. My shadow-snake chases them around the room and they run, squealing, until our neighbour bangs on the wall. We decide to move house as soon as reasonably practicable, to somewhere with fewer party walls.
The secret to bedtime, I learn, is to read them stories. So I order books that I remember from my own childhood and in the darkness, lit by iPhone, the stories rise up from the page and greet me like old friends. I learn that they love Dahl, that their favourite character is James and the Giant Peach’s Grasshopper – ‘that pest!’ – and that small though they are, they have sufficient emotional maturity to recognise and deplore that sneaky, subtle nastiness carried within some of Dahl’s most beloved characters. Blyton’s Saucepan Man has them laughing until they ache and striding around the house with an assortment of kitchen utensils dangling from their bodies, some of which are never to be seen again. We try C. S. Lewis, and my voice cracks when the Lion is murdered. The children marvel at seeing me cry. I had never realised how beautiful they are when they are sleeping. No matter how tough the day, how relentless that hour of bedtime, there is something in me that softens when they are bundled like puppies, asleep in their beds. Or – not in their beds. We build them dens in the living room, they sleep there for months.
The first time that I step outside of the house again, I could almost cry with the magnitude of it. The roads are empty, and the queue outside the supermarket is silent. A tinny voice reminds us to keep our distance from each other, and stickers on the floor direct the travel through the store. Nobody dares cough inside their mask.
Sometimes we wake early to take the children to the beach whilst the world is still silent and empty. They bundle in jumpers and coats over their pyjamas, until they look like little teddy bears and squish when I cuddle them; still, their fingers and noses are awfully cold and their eyes stream in the sea breeze. We watch the waves crash onto the shore and the light turn from black to blue to gold; they chase each other and laugh and howl, and sometimes I join in. We are back home before work and school officially begins, warming up beneath blankets on the sofa.
Other times, I swim alone, or with friends. I swim from May to November; the water is bitingly cold and makes my skin burn; it feels simultaneously terrible and wonderful, it steals my breath and reminds me of what it feels like to be alive. When we emerge from the water, we wrap ourselves in jumpers and dressing gowns and bare our souls over hot coffee and kannelbullar fresh from the oven.
My sister’s baby is born. Penelope. My sister’s courage astonishes me: her stoicism during a long and lonely induction, her strength in advocating for the birth that feels safest and best. We cheer her on in our family Whatsapp group, and when she finally shares photographs of her tiny, red infant, snuggled tightly in a hospital towel, I almost cry. My children are ecstatic – a cousin! Their first cousin. But it devastates us all to be so far from family; I ache to see the baby, to know my sister as a mother, to see my own mum. The children cry often for their grandma and we have to limit phone calls because after, they just cry.
Working from home means that the hours and the days and the months blur into one; it’s March, and we are at home and reeling, and suddenly it is August and my lips taste of sea salt when I chew them, and then it is Christmas and then New Year’s and outside of my daughters’ window the sky is resplendent with fireworks. The children are back at school and doing so well; they are giddy with delight to see all of the people they love so much again.