I don’t know quite why I’m writing this (or swiping it on my phone, anyway). Maybe for posterity? Maybe just because it’ll be cathartic. Hopefully.
Little more than a couple of weeks ago, I was leading a school as it set out to take care of key worker children, and coping with the challenge of an ever-changing landscape, while planning for potential staff absence. In the end, the absence has been my own after a feverish toddler led us into insolation for 14 days.
And while I wasn’t looking, the world changed.
I sort of knew this. I’ve watched the news and seen the photographs. I’ve heard plenty about it. But emerging from our quarantine today to pay my first visit to Tesco has felt genuinely harrowing.
Just a fortnight ago when our son developed a fever, I wasn’t concerned. We rang 111, mainly because it’s what the website told us to do. We didn’t suspect coronavirus, but we did our bit and isolated because it’s what the advice said, and it’s better to be safe than sorry. My school continued to run perfectly well in my absence, as a brilliant staff team picked up the reins and continued to serve the community. Meanwhile, we prepared for 14 days of potential boredom, frustration, and regretting the fact that we’d not done a “big shop”.
Today, we started planning for our “release”. At 8pm we joined neighbours to applaud, and then I headed off to the supermarket. And something previously so mundane, so routine, made me nervous. My last trips just a couple of weeks ago had involved some empty shelves, but nothing has worried me about it. This was different.
I no longer was sure I know how supermarkets worked. Rather like coming to buy petrol in a foreign country, while everything looked vaguely familiar, I was in fear of getting something wrong.
Normally I take our son shopping, but this time my venture into the parent and child parking area wasn’t to park, but to queue – at least two metres apart from everyone else. I knew this was likely, but seeing it, being part of it, made me wobble. Part of me wanted to joke about it with my not-so-nearby queueing compatriots… But it wasn’t the time for the. Instead, I just stared, deciding not to cry. Outside a supermarket. A supermarket that I’ve visited a thousand times.
So much of what the trip involved felt vaguely foolish. Had I seen an anti-bac station next to the trolleys three months ago I’d have thought it absurd. Tonight I waited at a distance, watching someone else spray the handles of their trolley, observing them as I once used to watch adults dealing with payment cards or writing cheques, knowing that I too would soon join the world.
Inside I panicked sightly about whether I was allowed to use the self-scanner, or whether I could head directly to bananas without breaking the rules about distance and direction. This place that I knew so well felt so alien to me. And all around me were others. Others who I had good reason to fear, while knowing that they, too, had reason to fear me.
I glanced at the list I’d prepared, knowing that sequence would matter tonight, and all the while grateful that it was relatively quiet in the store. Goodness knows how anybody copes at peak times. I can only presume that if you miss something, you go without. Even at this quiet hour, people were everywhere: hazards to be avoided at all costs.
And again there were more rules that I wasn’t sure about. Our son still has some formula milk each night, but am I allowed to buy a week’s worth? If I do will it look greedy? Is it greedy? Am I depriving someone more needy?
And then there’s the staff. I’ve no idea if there were more or fewer staff than normal; I’ve never taken the time to notice before, but I noticed every one tonight. In aisle after aisle I passed them, unwrapping pallets of baked beans, or re-stocking the frozen peas. My urge to thank them simply for being there overruled by my British need to keep to myself. The knowledge that I needed to steer clear of them – for all our sakes – battling with the strange temptation to reach out and shake every hand. I wonder if they suffer the same constant contrasts, shifting from “just getting on with the job” to feeling like every movement presents a risk.
For how many of them is the risk calculated? Who has decided that the possibility of being struck down is outweighed by the need to bring home a wage. How many times today have they felt a customer just too close for comfort, and suddenly thought about their loved ones? How many of them heard the clapping at 8 o’clock and ever thought that any of it was for them?
As if to illustrate the international debate about masks, it was the masked patrons who seemed least concerned about maintaining physical distance; the rest of us adapting our route or our gait to accommodate their indifferent roaming. A few awkward moments shared, as we smile at one another at the absurdity of it all, while all the while planning our next steps to avoid proximity all the same.
I must have thanked every member of that staff several times as I passed, but only ever in my head, as though somehow saying it out loud would bring home the enormity of what they were doing in a way that might be too much for either of us to bear. Or for me anyway. Maybe it was selfishness that prevented me from committing those words to an audience.
By the time I reached the till, some normality returned. I know how to work these machines now, though they’ve defeated me in the past. But even the absence of the little blue counters brings home how nothing is the same at the moment. Normality is on hold, at least for now.
Maybe things won’t ever quite go back. Maybe there’ll come a time when I tell my son of the days when till staff weren’t behind plastic screens, and nobody disinfected their trolley.
And it’s that thought that truly hammers home the horror of it all. Two weeks ago when he had a fever, it felt like admin to be going into self-isolation. We were following the rules, but had nothing to worry about.
Now I wonder when I’ll next feel safe enough to take my child into a supermarket.