I am a prisoner in a five-cubed cell. Trapped in a house that stopped feeling like a sanctuary when my freedom to leave was revoked. ‘Practise enhanced social distancing’. ‘Working from home is the only safe option’. ‘Shield when at home’. The words act as bars; a single sheet of paper which holds so much power.
The prison walls are white. They dissolve work down to nothing more than staring at a computer. I’m supposed to be out there, standing with gloves and gown, a proud member of the NHS rehabbing the old and infirm. I’m not old. I’m not even forty. And I don’t feel infirm. But I remain here, trapped by my body’s lack of adequate personal protection.
Three months ago I was preparing for my daughter’s first day at school. Practising pleating hair, and booking annual leave in anticipation of being there when my baby freed her hand from mine and ran off to explore her new world. I was proud. I was excited. I was happy. Now my eyes throb from the pressure as I attempt the Scottish equivalent of the ‘stiff upper lip’.
The letter’s demands are unreasonable. ‘Don’t go within six feet of your own daughter’. ‘Don’t kiss her goodnight’. ‘Stay behind a closed door and listen as her heart breaks and she calls out to you – Mummy – a name that has become more you than any other’. Even the thought makes me lose control of my face's facade. I can’t obey.
I know it’s a risk. I know I will regret it when the virus is posted through our letterbox, or is bought by accident at the supermarket. But I can’t conform. I won’t. None of us know when we will stand with angels deciding our fate, but no-one ever stood there regretting wiping the tears from a frightened child’s cheek. If I listen to the experts, if I lock myself in a single room for twelve weeks, what will that do to her? It wasn’t just my life that changed.
Instead, we sit as a family, cuddled together under blankets, munching popcorn and watching cartoons. We scold each other for cheating at Snakes and Ladders, practise simple dance routines, and bake cupcakes (which I sneakily eat later – thank goodness she doesn’t count them). We make memories; we smile and laugh, and clap our hardest in appreciation of those who fight for our lives. But all the clapping doesn’t scare the virus away.
I snap after eight weeks. I spend my days hiding tears. I fear the future; it’s a future I’m not ready to face. I’m thirty-six years old and I want my Mummy. I want her to hold me in her arms and make impossible promises. I don’t want to be the brave one, I want to cry and scream and mourn.
My miserable mood brings a pain to my chest and angry words to my lips. I miss normality. I miss freedom. I’m not asking for much, I just want to go to the shops and browse the deals, to choose what constitutes ‘essential’. I want to squeeze fruit and decide if it’s ripe, to fight with the trolley with four wonky wheels. But I can’t. Not yet. But I do start to break the rules. I have to. For the sake of my mental well-being I risk my physical health.
I sneak out for early-morning exercise, walking across the dew-covered park, avoiding dog walkers and joggers as if their enthusiasm were contagious. Then later, as a family, we take our allotted hour. After dinner the park is populated by segregated picnics and toddlers failing to fly kites, our own patch of green on which to break the rules.
The risks I take increase, I fight for normality and convince myself it’s all media hype. My colleagues know better. They share stories of the inflicted; the fatigue, the fear, the sadness. My brain cocoons me, my distance causes disbelief. It’s a film plot, not real life, how could it be?
This sudden mental shift brings new hope; an ache grows inside me, a suppressed hope. A feeling I’m scared to trust and terrified to let go of. A belief that no matter what the future brings, the world will adapt, dragging me along with it.
Two weeks ago my biggest fear was not being by my daughter’s side when she walked into school for the first time. I was there for her first step, first word, first lie. That’s my role. That’s who I am. I’m Mummy. Mummy who goes to all the dance shows, and Christmas concerts, and Sports’ Days. I’m Mummy who put her career on hold and went part-time to be the one who could be there. I have to be there.
No pathetic pandemic will stop me from being there. I have faith in my colleagues. They will defeat this disease. And I WILL be at those school gates even if I arrive looking like a walking gas mask that’s mated with a bin bag. Because I am Mummy, and I will always be there.