A year ago this weekend husband and I travelled to Cardiff on a planned city break. Our younger son was at university there and we looked forward to spending time with him and continuing our exploration of the city. We had booked tables at restaurants to take him out for good feeds. We also packed running gear to enable us to take part in the Bute Parkrun on Saturday morning. For reasons financially careful husband would justify, we went by train rather than driving.
Rumours were circulating in the media of some sort of proposed lockdown – whatever that meant – in response to a virus spreading from China. When our son told us a day or so before the weekend that he was feeling under the weather we decided to bring mostly empty suitcases that he could pack what he needed for exam preparation, returning home with us for an extended Easter break. I did not like the thought of him struck down in his halls of residence, alone and unwell. Husband and I had both recently suffered a particularly nasty flu that left a lingering cough it took weeks to shake. We didn’t want our son suffering as we had without support.
The weekend did not go as planned.
Eating out on the Friday night we learned that all restaurants in the city were being closed down, effective immediately. Staff at the Bella Italia we had booked – mostly empty which was highly unusual – had been invited to help themselves to perishables from the kitchen, that would otherwise go to waste. Already the impact of fearmongering could be felt in the emptying streets that were usually thronging with loudly partying tourists.
We learned the next morning that all Parkruns had been cancelled. We ran in Bute Park anyway and were amazed by how empty everywhere felt. Streets were devoid of people. There was little sign of traffic. Our hotel was the only place that would feed us on the Saturday. Our son walked back to his halls that night through a city that had unexpectedly grown feral. For the first time he reported feeling unsafe, the homeless the only others around and they actively shouting abuse as he passed by.
It was a sunny weekend so we had walked down to the harbour area where families were enjoying the spring air. It was the city centre that felt eerie, the few people around scurrying from proximity.
We packed our son’s essentials on the Sunday, leaving his room ready for his return. Since then he has been back to Cardiff just for an afternoon, last September, to move his remaining belongings to the room booked for the next academic year. Foolishly, we believed the assurances that teaching would be happening in person rather than remotely. It didn’t happen and his rented room has served only as an expensive storage facility. Nevertheless, when the media reports of students confined to halls aired, we were grateful he remained here with us.
On the weekend of our escape – for that was how it felt at the time – we boarded a mostly empty train to Bristol encumbered by our many bags and suitcases. From there we learned that trains were being cancelled without notice, including our connection. We watched the ever changing departure boards carefully and decided to catch a train to Swindon from where we could get a bus home if necessary – assuming they were still running. In the event our daughter, who had travelled from London the day before, was able to come rescue us in my car.
And lockdown began. The reports from around the country made me thankful my little family had made it home where we could be together. I felt comforted that we had each other and lived in a rural location.
There were initial benefits. The roads emptied. The skies cleared of contrails. The weather stayed mostly fine. I own a bike and was able to enjoy long cycle rides along routes normally besieged by fast moving motor traffic. I ran regularly and built up my stamina to tackle lonely half marathons. We have long had our grocery shopping delivered and this continued, albeit with regular replacements of certain staple goods that caused more amusement than hardship. We were lucky.
The months dragged on. The lifting of the first lockdown was not a return to freedoms we had never before considered at risk. We ate out twice before deciding being treated as a biohazard spoiled the experience. I discovered that wearing a mask brought on panic attacks. I carry a lanyard announcing my exemption but being unable to read others’ expressions upsets me. The only place I felt welcome – until it was closed again – was the town gym I joined when my local facility introduced measures that made attendance unappealing.
I look back on how life has changed. With travel curtailed it feels as though we have gone back a century. It seems only the very wealthy leave their home environs – that they may still travel abroad with impunity. Meanwhile husband’s car is taken out only occasionally to ensure it still functions. We venture as far as leg power can take us.
I worry at the legal powers given to the police to ensure compliance. I wonder if these measures will be revoked when – if – we are allowed to roam free again. The latest pressures coming from on high revolve around the new vaccines. With threats of travel bans for the non compliant, and eternal mask wearing, I harbour a fear that last year’s trip to Cardiff may have been my last holiday, my last enjoyable visit to a restaurant.
The death toll has, of course, been high. On a personal level this plague brought forward the deaths of my elderly parents. What cannot yet be enumerated is the ongoing cost to the many who, for now, remain alive.
Jobs have been lost and others created – not necessarily in chosen specialisms. Fear has polarised opinion, at times dividing family and friends. Unable to get together as previously, mental health issues are exacerbated. With healthcare focusing on Covid, other potential illnesses – some of which will bring forward deaths – have gone untreated.
Husband works from home now, something he railed against at first, missing the office camaraderie. We get used to so much when choice is removed. We adapt as best we can.
I read of rats invading empty office spaces. I read of scams being run by those eager to profit from others’ fear. I hunker down and nurse the injuries my body suffers, probably from over exercise – my way of coping with anxiety induced by so many changes. I watch more TV now than I could ever have imagined – a way to fill a dark evening. As one who lived by the mantra of making the most of every day as it could be my last, this past year feels a waste of what is limited time alive.
Only hindsight will tell if the reaction to Covid has been as cataclysmic as it sometimes feels.
I wanted a memento of the year. To forget is to lose the chance to learn. I chose a book – no surprise there – and was also gifted a furry companion. My cuddly plague nurse, pictured below, never fails to make me smile.
My review of the book, Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, will be posted tomorrow. For now we continue this stymied existence through strange and concerning times.