I am trying to create a tiny meadow in my garden, but my hen is eating it. I know I could try to fence her out of the area but, right now, it seems sort of apposite to feel powerless in the face of her overwhelming desire to eat seed.
A young colleague who I’m working with on a little book asked me if I’m keeping a coronavirus diary. It made me feel rather guilty. I’m not really writing anything, I explained. The newly launched magazine I was writing a column for is in aspic for the foreseeable: how do you publish a local, lifestyle magazine when all visitor attractions and events are cancelled, and advertisers have nothing to advertise? Events and organisations I’m involved with are either postponed or holding their breath.
The self-justification continued: Who am I to add to the corona-word-mountain? Mind you, that didn’t stop me adding to the heap of cancer words when I had bowel cancer. And, actually, this self-isolation is a bit flashbacky. During chemo I isolated myself and spent hours in the garden, desperately trying not to pierce myself on a rose thorn and develop septicaemia. It felt lonely. However, this is now, and the whole world is in it with me. Besides, I am not ill and not pumped full of drugs. Frankly, being able to lay my hands on some paracetamol would be a fine thing.
This morning I went to the supermarket. It was the first time I’d been to the big supermarket in a fortnight. Last week I did my shop in Berwick. We’re lucky enough to live next door to Iceland, have two great local butchers, and the feisty organic Green Shop down the way. However, yesterday a friend was in touch. She’s a nurse and has Covid-19. Her mum lives out of town and there are no home deliveries to be had this side of Christmas.
I was happy to do the mum’s shop at the same time as I did my own. Her order was easy compared to ours and did not involve huge quantities of wine. I felt like a naughty schoolchild when I was told I could only have six bottles. It was hard to choose which four bottles to say goodbye to. I also couldn’t understand why people kept coming so close to me. I think I may actually have said, ‘back off’ to one woman. I’ve just tried saying ‘back off’ to the hen who’s still pecking what has become bare soil but, a bit like my fellow shopper, she’s giving no quarter.
When I dropped off my friend’s mum’s shop, I felt guilty leaving it on the doorstep. That guilt was nothing compared to how I felt when the elderly woman appeared at the door, leaning on a stick. From my social distance of five metres along her path, I shouted to her that the bag was heavy and that she should carry the items in a few at a time. And now I’m haunted by a vision of her wrestling a giant honeydew melon from the bag with her walking-stick-free arm and somehow transferring it to her kitchen.
I’ve never been a big fan of warfare discourse when talking about illness. It’s always felt like a huge burden to place on the sick: as well as feeling crap, they’re supposed to show their mettle by battling down their illness and winning through. Presumably the alternative is to be a wimp and die. I acknowledge the fight formula works for some and, apparently, is particularly good for fundraising. ‘We’re going to thrash the living daylights out of this cancer/Covid-19!’ Woop-de-doo! Yeah! Let’s annihilate the plague! Meanwhile, those who have it will carry on dealing with it any way they see fit.
Having said that, war as a metaphor for illness and vice versa has a strong literary pedigree. According to a piece in the Guardian, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel ‘La Peste’ (‘The Plague’) is selling in extraordinary numbers. The plague of the title was symbolic both of the Algerian cholera outbreak of 1849 and of Nazism. It’s a book about individual and community responses to the plague of the title – heroic and selfish – during a time of lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. I studied it for French A level and was profoundly moved and disturbed by it. But I can’t say I fancy reading it right now.
The fact is, I’d rather concentrate on feeling irritated with my hen’s obsessive destruction of my tiny nascent meadow. And, while she feasts, I am wondering whether or not I will rouse myself to fight back.