In which normal life flickers just ’round the corner

Today on a neighbourhood walk with my son, blustery and cold with a few flecks of rain, we passed a window that still had a faded child-drawn rainbow and the advice to “stay safe”. It struck me as rather quaint, like a decades-old newspaper you might find lining a crate of belongings in the attic. A world that was once new and perilous had evolved into a blasé shrug of familiarity.

It’s been more than a year since I first started being a scientist from home – aside from those brief few weeks in summer when the first pandemic wave had subsided enough for lab heads to be allowed to make an appearance. Even then, it was only a few days a week, since my officemate and I were not allowed to be in the room at the same time. With face-to-face meetings forbidden, I found myself sitting in my office all alone attending the same online meetings I could just as easily have done from home – with better coffee. And the three hour round-trip commute was costing me about £25 for the privilege of those hours being subtracted from my work time.

Like many other people in many other privileged professions, my dining room table has become a nerve center of focused and productive activity, and my HD webcam, a window into the exotic dining rooms, studies and bedrooms of other similarly fortunate colleagues. I have written successful grants, aced two funding interviews, reviewed and submitted papers, examined a PhD candidate, and forged several exciting new collaborations with scientists and clinicians I’ve never met in person. I’ve co-presided over an international conference, given hundreds of media interviews, filmed hours of teaching videos and taught ‘live’ many hours more. I’ve interviewed and hired a post-doc I’d never seen in real life. I’ve sat through faculty meetings, committees and webinars, given undergraduate office hours, and held weekly meetings and one-on-ones with my research team.

Each day, I’ve surfaced to take a little walk around the back garden for some fresh air. I watched summer fade to autumn, the great twisted willow tree losing its leaves all over the stone paths and the sycamore helicopters invading from the nearby park, showers of whirligig seeds that soon sprouted in the tubs of withered courgettes and begonias. Autumn morphed into the longest winter I can ever remember, bitter-cold gloominess relieved by only a few days of patchy snow that the neighbourhood children rubbed off almost immediately from the muddy hillsides. I witnessed the bare earth giving way to snowdrops and crocuses, then to daffodils, hyacinths and cowslips, and now, finally the first tulips and bluebells, unfurling into the near-zero temperatures of a springtime that keeps refusing to come. Our fruit trees and hedgerow are fuzzed with pinkish-white blossoms that fall like snow in the bitter wind.

Yesterday I went into work to get my second COVID vaccine in the hospital staff scheme, and a trip I’d made hundreds of times felt alien. Most of my team were on Easter holiday, but I stepped into the lab anyway, feet planted in what used to be our designated bay (now reassigned for socially-distanced “hot benching” to whomever might book it first.) The greater lab space was empty save for a white-coated researcher I didn’t recognize, who looked up and said “Can I help you?” I held out my hands, unable to find the words. This is my lab. I belong here, even though you’ve ever seen me before. A year in hibernation, taking its toll.

Various signs and portents, from the success of the UK’s vaccination scheme and the flattening of the second wave’s curve, to various hints spotted between the lines of staff bulletins, suggest this strange situation will soon be coming to an end. Any week now, I’ll be packing up my home AV equipment, dropping more than five thousand pounds on a season rail ticket, and ‘real life’ will resume with a judder. I will become far less productive, my foot problems will resume – but I might shed a few of these unwanted lockdown pounds, and I will be able to look my team in the eye.

I am not entirely sure how I feel about the closing of this chapter. But close it will, and I will be blown along with it, like those petals and sycamore seeds, waiting to find out what the new season holds.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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