‘If you think we’re having a hard time’, texts a friend whose daughter is friends with Anja, ‘A friend of mine self-isolating with twins has just discovered both are crawling with nits.’
‘I can do better than that’, I reply, ‘There was an earthquake in Zagreb!’
All my loved ones are safe and reasonably undamaged. Nevertheless all my preoccupations, writing and complaints these days regularly trip over this one sharp thought, at least we’re in our home, at least we are structurally safe. Was another dollop of perspective really necessary?
‘If this goes on for a long time I’ll come out the other side like an elephant’, says another friend. ‘I’m eating a lot of biscuits. A lot’, I reply. ‘Every time Anja says ‘What are we going to do now?’ I reach for a biscuit. I figure we’ll pile on pounds for as long as there’s food. Then the food shortage will take care of the extra weight.’
The three of us are trying to keep up our exercise routines. Dougie rides his bike on the quiet roads. Anja and I run up and down our long hall. The estate agent advertised it as a dining hall, perfect for a big Burns night supper. You could string together three dining tables and host a dinner for twenty. Who would have thought it would actually be perfect for mimicking animals’ walk during quarantine?But when this is over how long until the side-effects of the psychosis subside? In the streets people are twitchy, grumpily negotiating stepping aside. They hiss at joggers, their droplets of sweat and their laboured breathing. When it’s over, how long until we feel comfortable sitting down to dinner with twenty other people in an enclosed space, before we let someone else feed us, before we taste food off each other’s plates, kiss and hug and whisper gossip about someone at the other end of the table in each other’s ears? It’s important we are safe and do our bit to stem the spread but it’s not unimportant that we stay sane.
Anja’s on my back, her favourite animal impersonation, a koala. We’re doing squats and she’s whispering she loves me, mainly as an incentive not to put her down. I kneel to allow her to slide down. She lands on my feet feeling my heels with her silky hands and says: ‘They’re rough.’ To be negged by my own child. ‘Firstly, your three year old heals are no reference frame for anything. Secondly, the post-corona world will be free from the shackles of the beauty industry, as we shall all be forced to reveal ourselves as we are, at least to our family members, housemates, neighbours and key workers.
We’re watching Annie. It’s time she knew what an orphanage was, that place I occasionally threaten her with. Also, a gentle nudge toward ‘orphan chic’, a more sophisticated style than her favoured glitter on purple.
How I loved Annie when it came out. How it aches that it’s another one of those childhood favourites that makes for a cringing watch like Gone With The Wind and The Sound of Music. All the hard-working, honourable, upstanding rich. All the alcoholic, lazy, conniving poor. The beautiful, competent, mind-reading secretary quietly pining after the bald, rich boss. Though to be fair, pining after Albert Finney, hair or no hair, doesn’t seem like a stretch.
‘Why does Punjab have magical powers?’
‘Because Annie was made in 1982. Magical powers fall into a particular subdivision of the racist worldview, which we are going to discuss in a few years. In a spectacular example of ethnocentric reductionism the character is not only called Punjab but also played by an African American actor.’
‘Punjab used to work as a magician before the Great Depression when he had to take up work as bodyguard to Mr Warbucks.’
‘What’s great depression?’
‘What a wonderfully apposite question. It was a period of time in the 20th century when a great economic crisis – ‘
‘Mummy, could you be quier, I can’t hear the singing.’
A relief, really. And obviously always good to see the good manners applied.
Later I’m filing my heals in the bathroom and reading the corona news I might have missed. The great leveller, some are calling it. Except if you can afford your own ventilator. I notice that Prince Charles seems to have got ill, diagnosed, isolated, well and out of isolation quicker than it takes some to be admitted and seen.
Days are flying by, monotonous and exhausting.
‘Any viewing to recommend?’, a friend asks. Me, from a previous life. ‘Sure, Andy’s wild adventures, a compelling hybrid of information and exercise. Lion King, Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, Zootropolis.
First Thing in The Morning Andy’s Wild Adventures is followed by play dough, drawing, painting, reading, putting the washing on, tidying up, Viber with granny, FaceTime with nursery friends, cosmic yoga, ballet, running from the wild animals, hanging up the washing, Lego. Where do we stand on ironing in the times of corona? At the best of times I iron only the clothes I don’t trust to be ironed by body heat. Also Anja’s clothes because at this stage in life the nursery reputation is really the only reputation that matters.
Is it important, on those rare occasions we go out, to be ironed? Is it important to maintain standards for each other indoors?
And then it’s lunchtime.
I find I’m missing my lattes from Licorella.
They’re expecting a wonderful weekend in the UK. Dougie says, ‘In other words, it’s going to be sunny and warm in London. It’s going to rain a little less hard up here.’
I’m trying to write while Anja pretends I’m the branch on which Simba climbs chased by a stampede of wildebeest. She finds it irritating that the game is causing me pain. She finds my commitment to being the branch whilst writing disappointingly lacking. I’m living with a tyrant.
If only she could read, it would make things so much easier. In the words of Zog, ‘What a good idea!’ A for Anja she got on her own. And very quickly she’s advanced to T for Tena, D for Dougie and X for Play on the remote. But then it’s time, again, for her favourite game of ‘Mum and Baby’. I’m the baby, she’s ‘the mum of you’. The game largely consists of me sitting on her bed suffering various kinds of abuse. The moment I transgress (all the time), I get reported to daddy, which seems like a really worrying primordial call to patriarchy and when I really cross the line I get taken to the office for a talk with Ms Vari, the head of the nursery.
‘What are you doing?’, she says.
‘I’m putting numbers up on the board.’
‘We’re not playing that game. We’re playing mummy and baby.’
‘You could teach your baby how to count.’
‘I’m not that kind of a mum.’
‘What kind of a mum are you?’, let’s see what you do with this.
‘I’m another kind of a mum’, she says without so much as a blink of an eye, ‘Babies don’t talk, remember?’
But this rule is not as helpful as she thinks.
‘Baby, what to do you want?’
‘Listen, it doesn’t work like that. Babies can’t talk, which means I can’t tell you what I want. You have to guess.’ She listens, her eyes narrowing, ‘You have to offer me a thing and another thing, still another thing, and back to the first thing. You have to anticipate, assume, guess, mind-read, interpret. If you don’t get it the first time, you try again. That’s what being a mum means’.
‘This game is annoying me up’, she says and skips off to the living room. Dougie’s rendering of both Monster and Bear seems to be flawless. Having ruined the favourite game I start tidying up. Putting every single piece of various wooden sets in the right slot is an almost meditative exercise leaving me with a restored sense of equilibrium. Much needed in these times, not to mention ahead of bedtime. Then I remember it’s Dougie’s turn tonight to put Mao to bed. Happy days!
I hope the post corona society pushes any remaining closeted feminist out. Even if you share the burden with a partner, if you’re finding it quite challenging doing nothing but childcare and house chores all day every day, staying indoors for your own good, all your desires and ambitions on hold or annulled, that’s what life was like for an average woman for hundreds of years until feminism.
Late at night, Anja totters into our bed and snuggles up.
‘Anja, listen to this’, I say to a half-sleeping child, ‘Henry’s eyes are on his portrait of himself, massive, on the wall of his chamber. His own eyes consult the image of his master. ‘What should I want with the Emperor, were he emperor of all the world? Your majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings’.’
‘Nothing, baby, go to sleep.’
‘I’m not a baby…’
The trees outside are house are starting to green.
Foxes walk their young down empty Oxford Street in London.