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A month of Sundays

April 20, 2020

When asked, how will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

[These strange times. The phrase concatenates out, reflected and refracted like a hall of mirrors. I hope this email finds you well in these strange times. I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times, but I’d like to check you’re still working to the dates we agreed before The Event. We find ourselves in strange times and I hope you and your family are well, but I’m afraid our deadlines remain unaffected. In these strange times – all best wishes to you and yours – when time’s instrument is an accordion, and minutes are simultaneously months and moments, it is grounding and comforting to gravitate around routines, and processes, and dates, and deadlines, such as yours, which was last Thursday.]

Running through the centre of Cambridge – normally a route to avoid, teaming with shoppers and tourists and students and rickety shoals of bikes – on a sunny afternoon is both refreshingly pleasant and eerie. For a moment it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, until I remember the riots. Those strange few days in the midst of a London heatwave when curfews drained the roads and shuttered the shops. Running through deserted streets, the sun still in the sky, alert for signs of gathering trouble.

I pass shop displays from another time. ‘Make Mother’s Day!’ ‘Easter Eggstravaganza!’ ‘New Spring Collection!’ The daffodils have passed. Cherry blossom gathers in drifts. We’re in the season of bluebells, irises, tulips, beds brimming with pansies, yellow pools of primula gather on the meadows.

The laminated signs for plays, concerts, lectures, and exhibitions all long cancelled have been stripped from the railings.

The language of cancellation hangs in every window and doorway. Due to unforeseen circumstances. For reasons beyond our control. Following government advice. As a result of the coronavirus. Because of covid-19. Signs written before the house style was established: covid-19 or Covid-19 or COVID-19? Hyphen or no? Close up or space? Coronavirus or corona virus? Crisis or situation? The occasional sign of hope – we look forward to welcoming you back – or defiance – back stronger! – from businesses that must now be looking grimly at their future.

Maybe it’s like Sundays thirty years ago. The roads quiet, the shops shut, nothing new or good on TV, and the bright promise of a summer yet to arrive. Supermarkets and pharmacies open limited hours. People queue to enter same (except socially distanced) as the rare Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas when the Southbourne branch of Gateways would open for a fleeting few hours. But it’s a Narnian Sunday and Monday never arrives. A month of Sundays. At least seven weeks of Sundays.

Maybe it’s the same, except for the lingering existential dread. The way the papers, the radio, the internet shimmers with statistics: the number infected, the number dead, the exponential explosion of exponential graphs. The way it infects every conversation, every email, text, WhatsApp. The way it seems glib and facile to talk or think of anything else. And who’d have thought that lingering existential dread could be so dull?

But to throw up one’s hands and declare the month just passed – the at-least-three weeks to come – as dull is glib and facile. People are dying. Relatives of people I know have died. To be bored is a relative luxury. The word ‘dull’ is written from a position of good fortune. When the crisis was first discussed, the surge in patients needing critical care was described as a wave. The first wave. The coronavirus as a tsunami, then, sucking out the water and exposing the sea bed ahead of a devastating surge, revealing as rock pools and fish slapping against sands the inequalities in society. Bored, but grateful. Horrified, but impotent.

Maybe this will be the summer of baking and jigsaws, Skype and Zoom and Houseparty and Teams and Hangouts, of memes and podcasts and boxsets, of banging pots and pans at 8pm every Thursday, and of a few crackpots setting fire to 5G masts.

And maybe that’s okay if this crisis results in a consensus of what to do about the flaws and fault-lines it has exposed.

And if, when this is over, the water floods back in to conceal what was once exposed, and through muscle memory or inertia or indifference we return to normal, what then? How will we describe what it was really like to live through these strange times?

Now more than ever, it’s vital to notice. To observe. To bear witness. We’re all Melmoth now.

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