Presence and absence at home in the time of Covid

Railcard (expired)
Masks (new, more on the way)
Scrapbook (work in progress)
Phone (ever-present)
Photographs (framed, attached by magnets to a board and loose), including one of my mum and young daughter making scones together, 2007
Wallet, containing cards, stamps and a twenty pound note
Work backpack (gathering dust)
Felt tips and colouring book
Orange linen jacket (cheerful)
Favourite shoes
Household/domestic manuals, various, 1880s – 1980s, including ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’, 1888 edition
Cat (treasured)
‘Seascapes of the soul - beautiful unrest’: a pastel drawing of the sea (framed and on the wall)

Here at home, three months into lockdown.

Five things in particular that seem to me to hold within them both presence and absence, now and yesterday.

1. Household/domestic manuals, various, 1880s – 1980s, including ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’, 1888 edition.

I love these. Windows into the ordinary, laying out small domestic details, standards to aspire to, practical hints and, in the early ones at least, a heavy dose of moralising. They show us both how we have changed down the years and how we are the same. ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ (1888 edition) has an aphorism at the top of every page. Before the tip about ‘Turnip Wine’ we read “A word before is worth two behind” while ‘Rustic Work Seats etc’ sits below “To hope and strive is the way to thrive”. 

I’ve been drawn to these again just now, reflecting that the current pandemic and the sudden and enormous changes we’ve made in response to it has shattered so many of our social norms. New, alien measures have come in their place – ‘social distancing’ (which will surely be listed as a phrase of the year or new dictionary entry at the end of 2020), wearing masks or face coverings (controversial, but now compulsory on public transport), keeping to one’s own household and then cautious meetings with other outside and with a 2 metre invisible boundary between us. 

In ‘Enquire Within’, among the ‘Hints upon Etiquette’ are the following:
“Cleanliness – The hands should receive special attention.” We’re all with you there.
“The Handkerchief – Avoid extreme patterns, styles and colours. Never be without a handkerchief. Hold it freely in the hand, and do not roll it into a ball.” Tissues now please, despite the environmental cost... Thankfully extreme patterns and colours are enlivening many of the face masks or coverings being produced at speed, in homes and businesses, to meet the new demand. 
“Be Sociable – avoid reserve in society. Remember that the social elements, like the air we breathe, are purified by motion. Thought illumines thought, and smiles win smiles.” Oh dear, lots of problems there. Despite our different understanding of disease transmission, I feel we aren’t so far off from our medieval counterparts with their plague masks and terror of what’s in the air. As for smiles, they are increasingly hidden.

I wonder how we will navigate the new social landscape as we emerge from lockdown.
Handshakes, hugs, entering the 2 metre zone? Sharing food and drink? How will we know what individuals welcome or dread, once restrictions are lifted? So many of us have missed hugs, even those of us fortunate enough to have them at home. It’s wonderful to once again meet a friend but strange to sit apart, tea-less, greeting and leaving each other by hugging the empty air in front of us and laughing as we make elaborate bows and curtseys.  I will be sad if we don’t regain this contact with others when we’re mixing again, even for a time. My daughter and I have acquired badges along with our masks. Mine: “I’m deaf” and “I can’t lip-read behind your mask”; hers: “I have asthma”, pre-empting disapproving looks should she need to cough or to remove her mask on a bus or train. Other badges on offer state “Stay 2 metres away”, “Please don’t hug me” and “I’m social distancing”. Strange new world…

2. ‘Seascapes of the soul - beautiful unrest’: a pastel drawing of the sea.

How I miss the sea! We live in a lovely place, but we are landlocked. It’s four months since we were last by the sea. It feels longer. Without lockdown, we would have had two trips in the spring to Irish coastal places, both east and west. I long for the smell of it, the vast horizon and huge skies, sand sucked from under my feet by the pull of the backwash, mesmerising sound and movement, eyes down for sea glass among the pebbles. I’ve tried to take myself there by reading about it, devouring seafaring tales and reflections from fellow thalassophiles. But now there’s a new picture on our wall, intense colours, many hues of blues and greens through to black; white dashes, yellows and ochres of the sea bed, and oh so much movement! The swoosh and swirl of water. It’s a picture of the sea, but I feel it IS the sea. It draws me in and I am there! 

3. Photograph of my mum and young daughter making scones together, 2007.

Skimming through packs of photos that never made it into albums, I found this one, quite forgotten. An ordinary moment captured and then consigned to the cupboard. They’ve both turned towards me, smiling, Mum with the rolling pin in her hand, freshly cut scones on a baking tray next to them. My daughter, at seven, stands on a stool to reach the worktop, a pinny covering her to her ankles. It was the best of times. My lovely mum died two months ago, without us; death in the time of Covid, though hers was a gentle passing and in tender company, if not ours. Dementia had taken so much from her, though not her love for her family, her sense of being blessed. She was both present and absent. We can’t quite believe she won’t be there when we can eventually go to what was her home. We summon her presence in sharing stories of her and looking at photos. Now she is gone, we can bring back all the versions of her we ever knew. So here she is, as busy Nanna enjoying a grandchild, living, loving, free.

4. Twenty pound note

A twenty pound note, stashed in a fold of my wallet. My ‘crafty’ that Nan advised me always to have, for the unexpected expense, perhaps a taxi home (“never hesitate to get a cab!”); advice I’ve passed on to my daughters. It’s surprising how often I found a use for it, though I’ve long favoured cards for spending. To glimpse it now is to catch sight of something…exotic? Like the first look at an unfamiliar currency, ordered ahead of a trip abroad. Yet it IS familiar, but it does not belong to now. Spending in the time of Covid – on a rare visit to a shop (for essentials only, we’re told, though you may pick up chocolate or alcohol when you’re shopping for bread and milk), it’s cards only, preferably contactless, certainly no cash. Keep your grubby money to yourself. Besides, there’s no easy getting a cab (with or without hesitation) just now. Essential journeys only. Stay home, let the note gather dust. Take it out if you will, just to remind yourself of a time when you might have spent it.

5. Favourite shoes

How I love these shoes! Ordered online, a couple of years ago, and when I took them out of the box, I wasn’t sure. My daughters told me “yes!” and I thought “why not?”. Nubuck leather flats, circling my ankles (are they shoes or boots?), a zip at the side; tiny multicolour checks- actually quite fabulous. They turned out to be a conversation piece from the off. At a launch event, the director of a charity turned in the seat in front of me, to hear a question from the audience. His eyes dropped down and then snapped up to find my face. He mouthed: “I LOVE YOUR SHOES!” Afterwards, he asked to touch them! He wasn’t the last. I’ve had lovely conversations with strangers, sparked by The Shoes. Since lockdown began, they’ve sat in their box. Not neglected, as I do think of them. Totems of my former life, when I went places, and emblems of hope that I’ll get out there again, flashing my fancy footwear as I catch buses and trains at will, strut along the South Bank perhaps, tuck them under my theatre seat, or run up the stairs to the office. I don’t think people will be asking to touch them, but their time will come again. We WILL go out!

Sarah Chapman works for Cochrane UK, sharing health evidence through blogs and other media. She has a long-standing interest in women’s letters and diaries and is enjoying discovering graphic memoirs. She tweets at @SarahChapman30.