How quickly strangeness becomes familiarity.
As autumn hunkers down, and the COVID infection rates continue to rise (nearly 13,000 cases reported yesterday in the UK), I see things around me that I never could have imagined before 2020. A trip to the mall yesterday revealed a docile crowd with universal face coverage – gone are those defiant mavericks of a few weeks past. Hand sanitiser stations sit at every shop entrance, and we avail ourselves automatically. On the drive there, we witnessed queues snaking though the car park at the local doctor’s surgery: people actually waiting in line on a weekend afternoon to get a flu jab from a makeshift tent. Video calls, so awkward initially, and now breezy and commonplace. Commuting into Central London a few times a week, where I have learned to walk down an escalator like a boss without touching the handrail; buried somewhere in the mess of my handbag, the Test and Trace app exchanges a socially-distanced bluetooth handshake with everyone I pass, ready to dispense future bad news. The evening ritual of washing cloth masks, and hanging them up to dry for the next day. The sense that contagion is everywhere, but avoidable if I do the right things. So although I am not frightened, the invisible menace is something that never leaves my awareness.
The new normal, in some ways, has been good for my science. Working from home so frequently has unlocked a well of creativity and headspace that I can’t remember ever having enjoyed. Perhaps it is because, aside from scheduled video calls, I am seldom interrupted. In the past few months I have read more papers, planned more new angles of experimental attack, launched more collaborations and written more grants than I can ever recall. Some days I am electric with ideas and find myself having to pause during domestic chores to scribble down an elusive thought before it slips away. Perhaps this state is similar to the grip that takes hold of me when I’m knee-deep into writing a novel, and it will not last. So while the mojo visits me, I squeeze out every drop.
And speaking of which, it has been raining nearly nonstop for three days. There is a massive grape harvest awaiting outside, but I don’t have the heart to leave the warmth and comfort of the house to help Richard tackle it. Instead, I sip at a glass of one of our 2018 vintages (surprisingly palatable) and light candles against the gloom. We are still enjoying produce from the garden: late apples and tomatoes, chillis and kale, chard and beets, a few scraggly beans, and the last of the sweetcorn and courgettes. Parsnips and cabbages are still in our future, and a few more pumpkins. A bouquet of sunflowers, scabiosa, verbena and autumn anemone sit in a vase next to my laptop. The seasons cycle, bringing rain and cold and face-high spider webs, but my family keeps me rooted within the centre of this spinning wheel.
Every time I am being interviewed on television, I am asked what will happen. Will cases continue to rise? Will more restrictions come into place? Will Christmas be “cancelled”? Will hospitals be as overwhelmeed in this second wave as they were in the first? Will the vaccine come soon and save us?
I do not know, and neither does anyone else. So right now, I’m focused on the present: the rain drumming impatient fingers on the conservatory roof. The sound of the cocktail shaker (my lovely husband, making me one of his famous espresso martinis). The rummaging of Lego as my son builds a fantastic space space lab opposite me at the dining room tables. Everything as it should be, safe and precious.