12 May 2020

members’ letters from lockdown

Fever dream

Mel Exon is noticing things that were always there – the singing blackbird and the lovely neighbours – but their presence is all part of the strangeness now

I’m living in a fever dream and I can’t wake up.

By day, the dream’s saturated colours warp and beckon. Blue, blue sky above. Green, green grass below. If I squint, they look two metres apart. Primary colours, like the rainbows lining our streets. Come outside, they say. It’s their siren song.

A blackbird has sung on our street early every morning. I know she sang here before, but back then I had an alarm clock and no time to listen. The notes of her song are mellow yet insistent: they add a stronger, louder, longer backbeat to the cacophony of colour.

She only changes her tone to “urgent” to scold a skulking cat. My cat. I take it kinda personally: get up, get out, get out of your lazy bed, you feckless human.

The days race by in seconds, but a month lasts a year. Time does not fly; it is a skittish illusion of a thing. In that way, it’s a lot like control.

On state sanctioned walks, I watch my children circle the bandstand on their bikes. The elder daughter is all grace and rebellion rolled into one, the younger one is infectiously – yes, I use that word deliberately – infectiously funny. She is full of sunshine and, these days, entirely feral. Together, they make me dizzy with love and my vision blurs for the fifth time today. I blame the wind whipping across the common.

By night, this fever dream takes on a different flavour.

I’m a self-confessed prepper. But all that bulk-buying of non-perishables and a “go bag” just gives me more time to wallow at night in “what ifs”.

To blot that out I weep a bit at Curt and Diva playing ‘Mad World’ whilst we wait, wait, wait.

My husband and I drink wine. Even when he doesn’t, I do.

A good neighbour puts up a big projector in their bedroom and watches an apocalypse movie with the curtains open. Giant actors in giant face masks with giant surgical gloves communicate bravely with their giant eyes at me through the window.

My aunt shares a video which suggests we can kill it with hairdryers. My cousin sends back a photo of a hairdryer aimed at his nose. These tiny moments of melt-your-face funny make this time bearable. Another aunt lives in Paris, so she greets us from the future. She has fashioned a phenomenal face mask out of a bra.

Bravi tutti, aunties.

I discover I am a rubbish House Party user, adequate TikTok dancer, a better cook, a decent queuer and an excellent cleaner. I wish – fervently – that list was in reverse order.

So I double up: I listen to podcasts and playlists to speed up the spin cycle of cleaning and cooking. Rinse and repeat.

I write endless mental lists. Alex, a nursery teacher who moonlights as our cleaner to make ends meet (yes, you heard that right), is in my Top 20 People To Hug When This Is Over. The person we took for granted, who’s good humour and hard work we paid for and still do whilst she can’t be here, but have never shown enough appreciation.

The mundane tasks are so time consuming, they serve up procrastination on a plate. I am furiously resentful at the temporary revoking of my many privileges. Then I flush with shame, exactly as I should.

There is so much “should”, I am lightheaded with it. I should have cleaned the kitchen by now. I should have gone for a run, it’s four o’clock now.

My husband works tirelessly from the study that is now his domain. I can’t hear the words, but the adrenaline rush of remote working is long gone: the timbre and tone of his constant video calls has settled to a calmer beat; a stubborn, creative perseverance leavened with kindness, laughter and collective spirit. I listen to the sound of it nervously, needlessly and, I confess, jealously.

I’d planned to be in a new job by now and be doing my bit. No amount of all-purpose cleaner can scrub that secret away. At the very least, I know I should be using this time to do a final edit to the book I took a year off to write, nearly 18 whole, luxurious months ago. Or reading the many beautiful, published books that sit patiently on our shelves, waiting for me to get round to them, gathering all the dust motes I’ve missed.

Read. Write. Run. For the second – or perhaps it’s the third – week running, I elect these three Rs as my top, sanity-inducing priorities. But, you know, the cleaning. And the cooking. And the queuing.

In this strangest of dreams, time presents itself as my very own Charybdis: a confusion of rushing and then dragging, pulling me down. It sucks.

Tears spring to my eyes for the tiniest sliver of a reason. A happy thing, a deeply sad thing – I don’t get to choose. Our street’s clapping hands, clanking pots and a trumpet at 8pm on Thursday. The fact that we now know so many real-life neighbours’ actual names. Their daily, random acts of kindness. A month ago I felt silly stuffing flyers through strangers’ letterboxes, but then Adrian over the road said that he’d take a handful, and we marched up the rest of the street, and it was suddenly okay. “Everything is okay in the end; if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” – so goes the saying.

I promise myself I will remember to thank my children and husband for the heart-lifting gift of their real and frequent hugs. We are lucky. All keeping safe and well, surrounded by love, the odd argument and then more love

We walk and ring on familiar doorbells, then run back and wave at our best friends. We mime hugging them with our arms aloft in the empty air.

I tell myself our reward will be drinking wine with these friends and spending time with much-missed parents and grandparents. I will hug them all and never, ever let them go.

We’re living in a fever dream. One day we will wake up.

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