On the third day of self-isolation the sun comes out over Scotland. Such a rare sight in recent months that it must be celebrated outdoors. It seems that people do go outdoors, it seems that’s still alright, walking, getting some air, it’s not deemed too contentious. So we head to St. Andrews. We make a picnic, it’s somehow hasty and a little more modest than usual, but a picnic nevertheless. Swayed by watching a video interview with Marija Mihailovic, a Serbian microbiologist stuck in Milan we drew up our bridge a good few days before the nurseries shut and a week before the official lockdown.
In the car we say to three year old Anja that we’re not going to listen to Moana, the soundtrack to our dreams and nightmares, but rather a playlist daddy made. In what looks like a wonderfully mature leap into solidarity Anja enthusiastically accepts. She is wonderfully cheery about all the disco and Bowie and Blue Nile and Earth, Wind and Fire and even Japan and half way through the journey she falls asleep. Every afternoon nap is a possible boomerang but times are changing by the minute.
As we glide along the road I think about the immediate future. There’s no good reason why self-isolation should be so scary. I self-isolate during my working hours most of my life. Since we’ve lived in Scotland I have barely any friends to go out with so I self-isolate in the evenings, too. Which suits me just fine. I have time to read, watch any god’s amount of TV series and think about what I’m going to eat. If I have too many distractions then thinking about food starts to affect my working hours and jeopardise productivity. I’d have written double the number of plays by now if it weren’t for all the thinking about future meals. The word from more infected countries is that vast amounts of time are spent thinking about food and I will be well practised.
Furthermore, I muse, this could be very good for our family dynamics. Our thoroughly modern child is used to being the centre of our planet. I fantasize, as the sun caresses my cheek, of emerging from this crisis a harmonious and equanimous family with a child, shaped by this adversity, less Dennis the Menace, more Fanny and Alexander.
Judging by all the creative pastimes I’ve come up with in the last few days if this were a six metre sprint I’d be a veritable Mary Poppins. Not sure how I’ll do in the marathon version but this wonderful sunny ride is not the time to spoil it.
I spot a sign by the motorway – Is your car ready for winter? Only in Scotland, I think, in late March.
We drive through Auchtermuchty and Pitscottie. I find both names hilarious. Dougie doesn’t. I think it’s a bout of local patriotism.
We park near the beach and eat our sandwiches.
‘Why are we eating in the car?’, Anja asks from the back seat.
‘It’s Scottish picnic, baby.’
‘Oh’, she says, her query entirely satisfied. And then moments later, ‘I’m not a baby.’
To our left and our right a line of cars with Scottish picnics inside. A lady in the car next to us pours out coffee into plastic cups and adds a splash of milk from a jar. I look on enviously. Coffee we forgot. Coffee and any number of others provisions we normally pick up along the way.
The beach in St. Andrews is glorious. Endless, sunny and calm. We marvel at the genius of the opening shot of the Chariots of Fire. We walk and run keeping a safe distance from everyone. At one point Anja runs within three feet of two young women. One of them squeals and quickens her pace. It is such an uncanny moment. This has never happened before. I’m tempted to say to Anja ‘go on, run after her’ in a misguided attempt to make light of it all. But I don’t.
Anja insists on taking her shoes and socks off. ‘Can I be bosa with my feet in pijesak?’ she asks in her hybrid English-Croatian. ‘Yes, honey’, I say though we have hats on our heads, scarves round our necks and boots on our feet. I’m trying to embrace the strange Scottish ways. But then she delights in walking through the sand with such intensity I must take my own shoes and socks off and jump about barefoot.
It all feels wonderfully normal, only occasionally an unease crackles through the air. And we are desperate for a coffee.
We make our way home as the sun blasts into our eyes all the way to Glasgow. It’s an unusual feeling. Anja falls asleep again and sleeps for over an hour.
‘We’ll be paying for this later’, Dougie says.
‘She’s had so much fresh air and exercise today, perhaps…’, I say.
‘True’, he says.
Neither of us believes it’s true.
At home Dougie makes dinner and I start getting Anja ready for bed. She has a long bath. Then the long Battle of Bedtime begins. Every night I enter into battle with decimated numbers. After frog leaps on the bed, about thirty six ‘Mummy d’you know what I can dos’ and twenty two times ‘Mummy, watch this’, after Tiddler and Beyond the Fence and Yacca The Alpaca I switch off the light and flip open my Kindle.
‘Can I have a lullaby? Just one, pleaaaase.’
‘Only one, only once and then immediate sleeping’, I say in the tone of a person whose middle name is authority.
‘Yes’, says Anja as if she couldn’t agree more.
‘Can I have the rarara song?’
This is Doris Day singing Che Sera, Sera, which we stumbled upon a few days ago listening to Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I figured anything that Doris Day sings can’t possibly be inappropriate for a three year old. Then I listened to the lyrics, all the wondering if I’ll be pretty and rich and I shuddered. Now on reflection, I am almost dumbfounded at the child who elects ‘What will be will be, the future’s not ours to see’ as a lullaby on a day like this. So I succumb. It’s still better parenting than lacing milk with whisky, which is also crossing my mind. After Doris Day I attempt to go back to my Kindle.
‘What’s your story called?’
‘The Mirror and The Light’.
If this were a film and my words were written for me by someone with the benefit of some emotional distance and calm I would come up with something magical yet relatable to say about kings and queens and mirrors and lights shining, perhaps from within.
What I want to say is, if I could just have a few minutes quiet to read this without you digging your heels into my thighs and listing all your nursery friends by name and surname perhaps I would get to understand why it’s called The Mirror and The Light. As it is the meaning totally eludes me.
Instead I beg her to go to sleep again.
Some twenty minutes later the room is quiet and I think I’m in the clear. The pages are flowing though three books in I’m still confused about the Duke of Norfolk. Then through the dark I hear ‘It’s pure insanity. Lunacy. It’s pure lunacy.’ Anja is quoting Mia in La La Land.
‘Oh for Christ sake’, I mutter. I mustn’t say it aloud. She asked the other day if it was okay for her to say for Christ’s sake. I said yes. Dougie said no. We settled on yes but not at the nursery.
Just as I thought we were in the clear again, Dougie comes to bed. There’s some rearranging of positioning going on, pillows off the bed, on the bed and off the bed again.
There is quiet for a while. I’m doing my best sleep impersonation.
‘Nobody is talking to me’.
I groan. Dougie says to her, ‘Come and snuggle up’. She does and within two minutes he is snoring. I’ll take it. Alas Anja won’t.
‘Daddy, wake up. I don’t like your noise ‘.
They break away, he turns to the side thus extinguishing the noise, she turns to me and finally, finally the breathing slows down.
It is twenty two hundred hours on the third day of social distancing, a day spent running up and down a beach!
I check my phone to find a message on Whatsapp : ‘Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague he wrote King Lear’.