Emma is a South African-Australian expat who has lived in the UK for over four years. The London that she lived through in 2020 is vastly different from the London that she first moved to back in 2017. March 2020 she finds herself in the first of what will eventually become 3 lockdowns – confined to her two bedroom rented flat in Fulham together with her flatmate and her uncomfortably tall boyfriend who is visiting from overseas and has become stranded when his flight is cancelled. The flat, like most London flats, is not meant to house 3 people on a full time basis. There are two bedrooms, one bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a single living area plus a loft that’s normally used to dry washing. The latter is quickly converted to a home office for Emma and her flatmate, the living room reserved for communal dinners/evening TV viewing, and the oversized boyfriend is left to construct his own workstation from Emma’s bed. This will be how the 3 exist from March through to June.
The rules in London allow residents to leave their houses for a limited number of prescribed purposes only. Luckily, this includes grocery shopping – the online delivery slots are already fully booked for the weeks ahead. The supermarket shelves are fast becoming bare and the flat’s toilet paper supply has dwindled to five rolls – not a lot for 3 people spending practically every hour at home with no waste management alternatives readily available. Emma resorts to using a mere two squares for her number 1’s, but eventually swallows her pride and approaches her site manager for permission to take some extra TP home with her. She stashes the industrial dispenser-type roll in her car and carts it back to the flat – if nothing else it’s an insurance policy.
The city roads are devoid of cars and the streets are instead filled with cyclists. Those deemed “essential” ride to work, weaving amongst those partaking in the permissible daily exercise. The High Street shops are closed, windows dark and unwelcoming, adding to the eerie cloud which has settled over the city. Even the skies are quiet – the Fulham flat, situated beneath the Heathrow flight path and normally accustomed to the regular drone of planes, seems to have been transplanted to an outer city location. A series of questions marks linger over the city scattering fear and uncertainty through people’s houses. You can’t help but feel anxious, particularly when family and friends are not within reach. Emma worries about her parents back in Australia who are older and therefore more vulnerable to the virus. She worries about her little sister who only recently moved to New York and who has not yet decided if/when she will return to Australia. The anxiety is ever-present – after all, this time is unprecedented – no one really knows what’s going to happen.
Despite the sweet sense of community that has matured in the flat as they work at their makeshift work stations and cook meals for each other, it’s inevitable that cabin fever will strike from time to time. Taking advantage of the exception for outdoor exercise and almost adequate Spring weather, Emma walks to the park, yoga mat bundled under her arm, taking care to hold her breath as joggers pass by puffing, panting and potentially aspirating their covid germs into the surrounding airspace. She lays out her mat on the grass and spends an hour exhaling through sun salutations as marshals in hi-viz patrol around her. One stops to interrogate a lady that is seated reading a book – the lady quickly transforms position to a recognizable yoga stretch “oh I’m doing yoga!” she says semi-convincingly causing Emma to chuckle mid-downward dog. The marshal eventually moves out of sight. The lady glances around furtively before retrieving her book to continue reading.
It’s not yet mandatory to wear masks but Emma’s scepticism and wariness have crystalized in the face of ever-changing guidance from the authorities. We know now that not everyone who has COVID displays symptoms, and it is therefore possible to unwittingly infect others. Ultimately it is the desire to protect not only herself, but those who are more vulnerable, which compels her to join the face-covering movement. A friend sends her a discount voucher from a posh online clothing store and she uses it to buy a set of pretty, but breathable, linen masks in three different shades. She wears the sage-green one while grocery shopping (in the hope that her example will encourage others to do the same) and dodges between aisles, trying not to jump when a fellow shopper leans across her to reach a box of teabags.
The UK summer comes and goes. It’s been a pretty shitty year all in all and as winter approaches Emma and a group of good friends each also living solo in London, start making plans for a pseudo-family Christmas. Although restrictions are still in place, BoJo has announced that families will be allowed to celebrate Christmas together for five days. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive given the high number of positive cases, but who are they to question the government’s decisions. The group book an Airbnb in the country and excitedly start menu planning. It’s hard not to be enthusiastic – even the Airbnb host has made an effort to be festive and tells the group that not only have they have set up a Christmas tree but have even installed a new Jacuzzi for them to use.
With only a week to go, Emma wakes with butterflies in her stomach. She has arranged to meet a friend to do a big grocery shop for their epic Christmas feast and wanders out into the frigid air, detouring off the sidewalk and around parked cars to avoid oncoming pedestrians as they charge towards her, also stocking up for their five day Christmas reprieve. She and her friend make their way through Sainsbury’s tossing items into a trolley when they each hear their phones ping. It’s happened – notwithstanding his public acknowledgement that it would be “cruel” to do so, BoJo, Grinch-like, has cancelled Christmas. No travel is permitted. Their country house Airbnb Christmas feast plans are over. Emma’s friend bursts into tears, and the world shrinks until it’s just the two of them, standing hopelessly in Sainbury’s expressions partially obscured by masks. Their reaction echoes in supermarkets and houses all around the country. Emma and her friend, mask sodden with tears and snot, triage the items in their trolley and collect only the weekly essentials. She returns a container of milk to the fridge, and they leave the mostly full trolley abandoned in the middle of the supermarket, their phones continuing to ping with messages from devastated friends who had been hanging out for something positive, some Christmas hope to get them through.
The lockdown continues post-Christmas into a cold, lonely January. It’s the first time Emma has lived alone, her flatmate having become stuck in Yorkshire with her parents following the announcement. It’s now that The Bubble becomes fully formed – the concept is a response to families living across multiple residences – households have been permitted to form a “bubble” with one other household. A shrunken version of the intended Christmas group of now solo households, form a bubble-chain and spend Christmas together in London. It’s the Bubble that provides the basis of mutual support between each member as they forge through the final lockdown. Saturday night Bubble dinners punctuate Emma’s weekly routine of morning online yoga sessions, limited grocery shopping and working hours. The time passes in something like a fog and later, is difficult to recollect.
Two Marches spent in lockdown but as summer approaches yet again the UK is finally starting to poke its head out of the hole, blinking and clearing its throat beneath the English sun. Shops and gyms reopened in April. They still wear masks on public transport, in restaurants and in the office. The Bubble has burst; the flatmate has returned. Emma has achieved another life goal to become a crazy cat lady and has adopted Kiri the cat. She also has her first jab – from a mass vaccination centre, in which she moves purposefully through the production line of kindly, efficient but cheerful workers. She gazes around, enveloped by the community spirit of which she is a part – to achieve that common goal of getting vaxxed and getting back to normal. It’s just over the horizon. We can see it.