*Photo: Jane with Jenny in March 2020 credit Camilo Queipo
So it’s a year today since we gathered around the TV to watch Boris implore us to “Stay at Home” and then went out (exercise!) to marvel at the empty streets.
In that time, I have pretty much followed instruction. It is over 52 weeks since I went to a supermarket (thank you Waitrose online), sat in a restaurant, got a manicure, saw a play, or took a bus or a train.
The last time I did travel, at the start of March 2020, I went to London, lugging a choice of frocks, to present the Romantic Novel of the Year Awards with the excellent Jenny Eclair. Jenny – ahead of the curve – announced at the start that there’d be no kissing and introduced the elbow bump to proceedings. In photos we are still a damn sight closer that we’d get now!
Ten days later, I introduced the last event we put on for BroadstairsLit, joking – JOKING folks – that there should be no snogging and how brave we all were to mingle at all! Not many people laughed and I wouldn’t have done either had I known that a whole year later I’d be attending a strictly-distanced funeral in a mask, unable to even hug the bereaved.
This year the same awards from the Romantic Novelists’ Association had to be held online which was not without challenge. On the upside I was wearing pyjama bottoms – only having to worry about shoulders, earrings and make-up. On the downside, I’d forgotten how much sheer effort make-up took. When you are facing a ballroom with three hundred people in it, you can see when the winner is taking her time to get to the stage, and how long she’s likely to be. On Zoom with break-out rooms, it’s a dismembered voice in your ear that tells you the victor’s internet has gone down and to keep talking at all costs.
Fortunately, this year’s celeb was Larry Lamb of EastEnders and Gavin & Stacey fame, who held forth like the pro he is in response to my desperate queries about what it was like to be in a clinch with Barbara Windsor (pretty fine by the sound of it), and who saved the day when my screen went blank and I gaily encouraged him to rip open the next envelope before we’d even heard the shortlist. If you want to see him in action and the manic look in my eye, it was recorded for posterity here.
You probably don’t though, for generally we are all Zoomed-out. Video calls have begun to feel exhausting; carrot cake has lost its appeal and the charity bags that have been gathering dust since that mad burst of de-cluttering and kitchen-chair-painting last April are getting right on our collective nerves. “I just want to have coffee with my mates,” said Dame Sheila Hancock on Woman’s Hour this morning.
I know where she’s coming from – there are friends I miss too – but I’m not sure I have the conversation in me anymore. When one’s idea of a packed schedule is a WhatsApp yoga session in the morning and a vaccine in the afternoon, and the only person one’s spoken to for eight hours is the Amazon delivery chap, one has to go some to rake up palatable topics of interest to exchange with others (I am aware of how polarised my Lockdown opinions have become – nurses deserve a tax-free lump sum, covid-deniers protesting outside hospitals should be shot) or be able to concentrate sufficiently to comment on theirs.
I quite like the idea of going to the pub but I wonder if I have the stamina. And as for that continuously moveable feast – the foreign holiday – did I really used to know what to pack in a suitcase, and think nothing of the trek to the airport, the cheek-to-jowl crush through security and the long queues at the gates. It all sounds like rather hard work now, when one could simply order yet more bedding from BrandAlley and watch another episode of The Blacklist. There is a kind of peace to be had from having choice removed and I have found myself embracing my inner hermit for the last 12 months to the point where I’m not entirely sure I am ready to push her back out into the world.
But aren’t I lucky to have the luxury of internal debate. I have not lost my job. I am not using food banks. I have a home to stay at a bit longer. I am still here. Something I shall think of when I light a candle this evening for all those who aren’t.
A candle tribute to all those who have died from Covid is being organised by end-of-life charity Marie Curie. People are encouraged to stand on their doorsteps at 20:00 GMT this evening (23rd March 2021) with phones, candles and torches to signify a “beacon of remembrance”. I will be one of them.
Four friends… one VERY big birthday…
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