A couple of weeks ago, my mate came back from South East Asia with a temperature. She called NHS 111: self-isolation it was, until she could get the all-clear from a Coronavirus test. Her boyfriend moved out and she hunkered down with the condiments in her fridge to await the results.
A few days later, she felt totally better, but the hours of working from home in total aloneness were really doing her head in. She ordered a takeaway and decided to scrub her hands and take the delivery in person, rather than tell them to leave it on the doorstep. She was desperate to see another living human being. Just to feel, you know, kind of real.
The guy handed over her deliveroo, and when she told him to keep the change, he narrowed his eyes at her.
‘You’ve given me a tip,’ he said. ‘So I’m gonna give you a tip.’
Whoah. Obviously a message the universe wanted her to know.
He lent forward and said: ‘Never. Ever. Get. A takeaway.’
‘These days…’ He shook his head. ‘You just don’t wanna know.’
He left her clutching her warm paper bag, all Oh God! What does he know? What has he seen? What’s happened to these noodles?
Her only bit of contact with another person for days, and it freaked her RIGHT out – not only about that takeaway right there and then, but for all takeaways, ever, until the end of time. And she was so hungry.
That’s the thing about human interaction. It involves people. People are by and large bonkers. They are also very bad at doing what you privately long for them to do. Human interaction is always that: human.
My mate ate the takeaway, and she was given the all-clear. She was released to join the rest of us in the cagey, twitchy weeks we’re living in now.
Isn’t it ironic (you imagine Alanis Morisette singing) that in a time of such bitter division, at home and around the world, the latest global challenge is one that gives no fucks for any kind of border? Coronavirus is now a confirmed pandemic: a communicable disease present everywhere, that every human alive is infectable-by. Politics, nationality, religion, be damned. COVID 19 can make its home in any of us.
Communicable diseases are special reminders of what lies beneath the skin of our social norms, our various crazy cultures. They strike us where we’re most vulnerable: our connection to others. Lately, all the talk of social distancing and self-isolation has made me realise just how communal we really are, despite our society’s endless emphasis on individualism.
Alongside this is a curious paradox, one we live with in our emotional lives too: our connection to others always opens us up to risk. Other people are our lifeblood, our reason to be; they are also pain, pestilence and danger. Anti-Coronavirus measures need us to think about how we endanger each other, just being our mammal selves: making contact, gathering together. When we are told to withdraw to survive, you realise just how much this costs us.
Self-isolation sounds a bit familiar to me, the lone-wolf writer. (‘Don’t know what all the fuss is. It’d be fucking awesome,’ says my hard-working lawyer mate, the parent of two small girls.) A certain kind of solitariness goes with the territory of anyone that makes stuff. When it comes to making your work, you’re on your own. No-one can do it for you. You have to pull up the blinds, close the front door, sit by yourself, and dissolve yourself into it. It’s lonely – at least, from the outside. Inside, the person who makes, in the act of making, is thrumming with connection.
As the School of Life notes, some of the most beautiful pieces of human communication have come from loneliness: a voice singing to fill the silence, because there was no-one around to have a proper chat to. I’ve often felt writing is a kind of longing. It comes out of something restless and urgent and aching within, something that won’t stop rising and falling and struggling to become, to exist. It’s an illness, or maybe, a way to handle it, manage the symptoms of being alive. After all, stories, ideas and feelings are pandemic, too. Like viruses, they’re designed to leap the gaps between us.
And what gaps. We can never truly know any other human being (how can we? We can barely know ourselves). And yet, our deepest loneliness is the one thing that unites us all. If you feel homeless within, you feel Ursula K. Le Guin’s truth that ‘all of us are visitors to this country called life’. None of us are staying. In our brief visit we must make our own home, here, where we live in exile, not knowing how many seconds we have. It is on us to decide what is important, what to grow and build and witness and celebrate.
In the next few weeks and months, don’t be a dick. Wash your hands, don’t cough all over people, don’t buy up all the penne, and consider those who might be especially affected by this pain-in-the-ass reminder of our own mortality. Here’s a handy #viralkindness slip you can print off and push through the door of any elderly or vulnerable neighbours, to help them out. If you can, donate some stuff to food banks like Sufra, who are running an emergency appeal, and others (like my local one) that are being shafted by people’s mania to be the bog roll king.
We may be forced to confront our own isolation more than ever before, over the weird time ahead. If so, I hope we’ll find ways to keep reaching out anyway; we always have.
As for takeaways? You decide.