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Love, actually?

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, don’t say to yourself, “My God, it looks like the end of the world.” What you’re seeing is love in action. What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for our immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet. People will lose jobs over this. Some will lose their businesses. And some will lose their lives. All the more reason to take a moment, when you’re out on your walk, or on your way to the store, to look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love. Let it fill you and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world.It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness. It is the reason the world will go on.”

Anonymous

The above was doing the rounds in late March and was meant to help those struggling with the early days of isolation. What a lovely idea! Unfortunately, it’s a load of bollocks…  in my experience at least. Fear in action, 100 per cent. Love? It didn’t feel that way to me.

For example.

Just before lockdown started in earnest, Theo asked if he could head to our neighbour’s for a play. Usually there’s an open door policy between our homes, and the fact Theo’s heading there is announced rather than requested. “I’m going to Tyler’s” accompanied by the sound of their gate swinging is a soundtrack to the summer of 2019. 

But with school closed and Theo home, he sensed something was up and asked permission to go over. At that stage, I was still comfortable with the kids playing together, but because the boundaries of okay-ness were shifting all the time, I had to check where the neighbours were at. I held Theo’s little hand and took him to the neighbour’s gate. “Hey Paul” I said “is it ok with you guys if the kids play together?”

Poor Paul looked buggered. He and Amanda had just let go of 20 staff from their thriving cafe. “It’s fine with me, but I’m not feeling too good. Bit of a sore throat.”

I jerked my hand from their gate. “I’m sorry to hear that. Surely just because you’ve had a big week, right?”

“I hope so! Big week for you, too. Amanda told me about the Kiva Spa closing.”

I think for both Paul and me it was too soon and too raw and frankly too terrifying to dissect what the fuck was going on, so we made do with shrugs and I uttered a platitude which was to become something of a catchphrase. “Strange times!”

I felt Theo’s little body sag with disappointment. “Come on buddy. No play today. Hope you feel better soon, Paul.”

Back home I made Theo wash his hands and I did the same. He seemed sad but not angry, which made me sad too. 

Paul and my exchange was brief, but it moved me disproportionately. Far more dramatic things had happened that week but my kid not being able to play, and fear over the extent of Paul’s health reinforced that we were not in Kansas anymore. There was something too in the recognition that the bad week I was having was being echoed by my literal neighbour. This conjured up less of a sense that we’re all in this together and more one of: we are all so screwed.

I remember closing our gate and thinking “guess we’re pulling up the drawbridge, then.”

It didn’t feel like love. 

That night I got a phone call from my 24 year old nephew who lives in Sydney. He was worried about losing his job and paying rent and wanted to know whether it would be ok to stay with us. “I’ll talk to Johnno and get back to you.” I said. This killed me. I am so the person who says ‘get your arse up here, of course you can stay.’ The day James was born, so was an indulgent aunty. I relate to him with more largesse than anyone else in my life. I’m not sure why but it’s a sweet and playful dynamic.  

But that day, I had to curb that force. James had a part time job in a busy bar in Sydney, a city with more cases of coronavirus than any other in the country. His demographic are notoriously careless, although he swore to me he’d been careful. What if he literally brought it to my small country town, like the London tailor who transported bubonic plague to a rural village via a bolt of cloth in 1665? Besides, would James actually want to go into lockdown with his young cousins and dull old aunt and uncle? 

I talked all this through with Johnno and told James that yes, he can come and stay but he needed to come now if he was going to come at all. Luckily for him he was able to hold on to his job and decided to stay in Sydney. 

But not being able to freely say “get up here!”? That didn’t feel like love. 

The week after our interaction with Paul (who was fine, by the way), the ‘stay home’ consensus had taken a firm hold – the drawbridge was definitely up. Leaving the house was practically taboo, especially for children. So imagine my surprise when I received a text message from Amy’s friend’s mum, inviting Amy for a sleepover for the friend’s birthday. 

It didn’t feel like love to have to explain to a crying 12 year old that no, I didn’t seriously think she was going to catch coronavirus, but rules are rules and they’re in place for a reason. Johnno did an amazing job of breaking down how individual actions impact on societies, and how if one person is irresponsible it could damage a whole community – theoretically at least. His lawyerly approach seemed to take the edge off Amy’s disappointment, although she remained in a funk for some time. 

“You were a legend, Johnno,” I said to him that evening “I think it really helped Amy to hear the logical reason for lockdown.”

He shrugged. “Personally I’d have been happy for her to go. But you’d said no so I knew I had to back you up. Are we having tea?”

It’s brilliant when your partner of over 25 years can still surprise you. And that, my friends?

That felt a lot like love.