Friday 23 October 2020

Love in the Age of COVID

 Love in the age of Covid. 

How I met my Partner and accidentally moved to the UK. 

(Written by my incredibly talented boyfriend, Thom Shackleford.) 

We met on a dating app, neither of us sure of what we hoped to find in the vast gallery of self-selected portraits. I was only in London for the weekend. We traded quips and questions, filling in our bio’s gaps. She was from Peterborough, the worst place in England according to some survey. I was a Kiwi with a British father, living and working in the Netherlands. The timing was off for this trip so we agreed to meet next time I was in town. A casual promise that could have been tacitly forgotten, but we stayed in touch.

She was quick-witted and I liked that. While I spent tens of minutes drafting replies, workshopping rewrites, occasionally seeking editorial advice from friends at hand, she could respond in an instant with effortless charm and sass. She requested a selfie, and I took one in the bathroom of my Dutch apartment. I squinted, doing my best impression of a complexly brooding dreamboat. She said my fingers, which clutched the flashing phone, looked arthritic and asked if I was getting enough calcium. From then on, she called me her brittle fingered man. We built an intricate web of in-jokes and references: adverts for prosthetic hands, links for reconstructive hand surgery clinics in Turkey.

We met for the first time at a pub in Camden. It was early-February, grey, frigid, on the cusp of spring. We’d swapped stories of bad first dates. Men whose photos had been taken from flattering far away angles who turned up wearing foundation; or from my experience living in Japan, dates that turned out to be free English lessons (including one with an air-hostess trainee who bought a notebook and asked challenging questions about adverbs). To our relief and delight, everything we hoped each other would be was confirmed at first site. We were as advertised.

I remember staring at her green eyes with a gooey smile, too smitten to formulate sentences while she talked volubly with nervous intensity. Yet despite the jitters we felt comfortable together, familiar. We sat on a leather couch and she lay back, fully reclined, her head on the armrest and legs atop mine – turning the public space into our living room like teenagers playing house. I tried to explain my job - data, dashboards - and she looked at me earnestly while criss-crossing her eyes.

An American lady with a Winehouse tribute beehive approached us.

“I wanted to say that you two love birds are just the cutest.” She said with a Hollywood accent.

“I miss being young so much.”

The rest of the night was a competition for who could make the other laugh the most, our cheeks aching and eyes watering. We felt loud, cinematic.   

The next day I left for the Netherlands. I took two magnesium pills to quell my skittish nerves and she told me later she’d cried as she watched the Uber pull away. Dating apps mutually deleted, we spent hours on the phone each evening. We were perfect, we felt, but worried about the distance. It was only a short flight between our two cities and I could make the journey every couple of weeks. But how could we survive the vast stretches of time in-between. We had another weekend together and although it was magic it came with the dread of the inevitable departure. A giddy intoxication you know must be repaid with a comedown. If only you didn’t have to go back, she said. If only.

I left the Netherlands for the last time on Friday the 6th of March. I said goodbye to my co-workers - back Sunday see you Monday – heading directly from the office to the airport. I packed light, cabin luggage in the form of a sports bag. There were parties, drinks, introductions to friends. We went to The Phantom of the Opera and made faces of mock horror as someone in the theatre coughed and sputtered.

Before long, it was departure day again and that same sports bag felt heavier as I lugged it through the underground. We were drinking pre-mixed Gin cans on the train (tube smoothies we called them) heading for a pub roast in Mayfair, our last meal before another two long weeks of phone calls and pining. The food itself was exquisite. It was the kind of place with signed pictures of Tony Parkinson in the lavatory. After the fourth-or-fifth beer I had enough Dutch courage to email my boss. Changing flights, back Tuesday. Will work remotely tomorrow. Pleased, we ordered more drinks and made several toasts to us.   

We awoke the next day with tender heads, but had expected worse. One of those rare hangovers when you cheat pain and regret and the world seems surreal and wonderfully disjointed. I willed myself to check my emails and read my Boss’s reply. There had been an outbreak of Coronavirus in our region, it said. After a five-day drunken street carnival notorious from costumed promiscuity, the virus has spread like wildfire. Brabant was on the brink of lockdown. Perhaps it would be better if I stay put for the time being, he advised. 

It’s shameful to admit now but at the time I rejoiced. We had what we wanted – more time. Had we manifested this, we joked. Had we willed the universe to conspire in our favour. It’s hard to remember, but before people we knew became sick, before the faces of selfless heroes and beloved victims filled our screens in memoriam, before the harrowing figures and infection fears, before Captain Tom, when R-Rates and social distancing were obscure terms, the messaging told us this was just a bad case of the flu. Something that posed a threat to the old and vulnerable, but not us – the general public. We didn’t realise then we were having our own “Tomorrow When the War Began” moment. The start of an invasion by an unknown, faceless adversary that would have us all living in hiding, emerging only to gather emergency supplies like guerrilla operatives deep behind enemy lines.

It happened slowly and then all at once. 60 cases in the Netherlands, 120, 500! The daily stats became an addiction. It was scarier back then when the numbers were lower. Today’s figures are too high, too abstract to think about death in the hundreds of thousands. When death was lower it was personal. There were obituaries. There were faces instead of graphs. The Dutch prime minister went on Television, he told people not to shake hands and then he shook them. He announced the end of public gatherings, bars and everything else that had made life in the Netherlands permissible that winter with its ceaseless moth-like rain. Thank God we were in the UK, where the cases were relatively low and we still had freedom.

Soon it came for us. Social media was a mass game of Chinese Whispers. A guy who knows a guy overheard that London was about to go into lockdown. The military were poised to enforce it; Prince Phillip had died for the fourth or fifth time this year and they were waiting to announce it; Freemasons were building secret morgues in Dorset. In the absence of government transparency, rumours became lore. Face masks started appearing on the streets like figurants. I watched a distressed chemist yell at a customer “for god’s sake Madam, we don’t have any hand-sanitizer” can’t you read the sign!?” Going to Tescos became a primal act. People standing in line, staring suspiciously at one another, scanning for tell-tale signs of disease. Clearing your throat, a dark taboo. Everyone half crazed and after eggs. We saw a woman use a trolly as a shield, wielding it in the direction of other shoppers to fend them off as she moved with her back to the isles - like an inmate fearful of a surprise attack. The atmosphere thick and humid with paranoia. Amidst the pandemonium, we fled London while we could, seeking refuge in the open-aired comfort of suburban Peterborough. Her parents had three stray cats and they took me in as a fourth.

Borders shut. Supermarkets were stripped of pasta and disinfectant. The world closed, and soon all we had was each other. Us and isolation. Within a few weeks we had gone from getting dressed up in our finery, eating at upscale restaurants we pretended we couldn’t afford - to wearing sweatpants all day and stockpiling cans of soup. We half remembered what we were like before. Those young carefree sprites, soaked in love and champagne. How we yearned to be closer to one another. How we had missed each other so much we were worried about our mental health. Now she was composing limericks over the dinner table about my annoying eating habits. “oh, clicky jaw. What a bore. never ending, hell sending.”

Early dating involves the removal of a series of facades, of layers being removed in a beautiful drawn-out striptease. You want desperately to see what is underneath, who someone truly is, but you never want the performance to stop. Now we were stripped bear, naked, all our faults visible and on display. A slow dance that should have taken months, years, was reduced to weeks. The two outfits I had packed for my two-night getaway on continual rotation, unshaven, aging before her like milk instead of wine. She wearing a haphazard bun and pyjamas for 80% of the day. Spending sexless hours in bed binge-watching obscure crime dramas and compulsively reading our news feeds, swapping tales of the mythical, troubled world that lay beyond the front door.

Yet there was still love. To have been apart would was unspeakable. We missed our old selves, those na├»ve star-crossed lovers. But in the midst of all this tedium and terror we found something else, something more durable.  

As the weeks have turned to months, work has resigned itself to the fact that I will never return. And so here I’ve been, an accidental immigrant. Clapping for carers in a cul-de-sac on Thursdays. Sitting in a socially distanced semi-circle with the elderly neighbours on VE day, their houses adorned in pastel bunting like a pensioner bloc-party. Still very much in love and thankful for all we have. When wedding bells chime, an obligatory part of speeches and vows for all future bride and grooms together now will be “if we can make it through coronavirus, we can make it through anything.” And although we find it hard at times - my tendency to swallow too much tea at once and gulp it down has caused her to develop an eye twitch - we are thankful that fate, kismet, a-random-series-of-terrible-events-that-our-minds-interpret-as-being-predestined-in-a-search-for-existential-meaning, whatever you want to call it, brought us together when it did. And with The Netherlands a never land of no return and my home in NZ 9,000 miles away, I’ve found a new home and a new beginning in a very different world. 


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Friday 8 May 2020

Navigating life in lockdown

Hi and hello! First post of 2020 and what a year it’s shaped up to be eh? A couple of things have changed for me since I last wrote on here. 1. I got a boyfriend. Yep, a real one. The fact that someone would willingly choose to be with me after my previous post is a surprise to me as much as it is to you. And 2. Oh yeah the entire universe as we know it has shut down because of the biggest pandemic to hit the world since the plague (might be somewhat inaccurate but I’m not claiming to be The WHO – the health organisation or the band).

So yeah, life in lockdown. Pretty strange stuff. A couple of pointers about my current situation for some context before I really get going – I moved from London back into my parents’ house along with my boyfriend a little while ago, and I am fortunate enough to be working from home throughout this. I began by loving the idea of working from home and memories of sweaty, stressful tube commutes were fondly discarded along with meal deals and overpriced coffees. However, this quickly descended into “oh my god I hate my life I have nothing to life for who even AM I” when the realisation hit that all my free time had to be spent indoors. I very quickly realised something about myself – I thrive on variety. Working hard in the ‘big city’ during the week, wearing myself down until I craved Friday like oxygen to my little overworked lungs, and finally letting off some steam discovering pubs and parties over the weekend until I was ready to rinse and repeat all over again. Ah that sweet, sweet mid-twenties lifestyle.

Without having the opportunity to activate that reward system that I’ve grown so used to (I am little more than a lab rat waiting patiently for my hit of cheese) I’ve discovered that stress compounds remarkably quickly and I, in turn, swiftly descend into an anxious blob of uncertainty that doesn’t really see the point in anything. Please don’t think that I’m disregarding how lucky I am to be working right now because I really do feel privileged, I’m just speaking candidly about what I’ve been experiencing over the past couple of months in my situation. But yeah, the novelty of living a quiet cosy life wears off pretty quickly when you thrive off the very opposite, so I’ve been forced to get creative in order to stimulate that reward system that so desperately needs tending to. 

To create this sense of fun at the weekends (nothing like a bit of forced fun eh!?) and attempt to strike a real difference between my time off and my working week, I’ve been doing some of the usual things like quizzes or games nights at home, but we’ve also been replicating our much-missed pubs by piecing together our very own “Isolation Arms”. The Isolation Arms comes featuring your standard bowl of salted peanuts (this time I do know who’s had their hands in them) for ultimate authenticity, along with other details like strange pictures of unknown landscapes on the walls and Britpop playing on the speaker. Extra points for ‘background pub noise’ playing from someone’s phone, you won’t even notice the difference. Other ideas we’ve had but are yet to execute are a mad hatter’s boozy tea party or an American’s on tour weekend in the back garden, with Hawaiian shirts, bowls of punch and floral lei necklaces (saving this one for when there’s good weather confirmed).

Aside from all this work/life balance confusion I’ve been experiencing, another thing I’ve noticed is how much I compare myself to others at a time when quite frankly it couldn’t be more irrelevant. For example, everyone posting their 5k run screenshots has honestly made me feel like I must have something wrong with me because I find doing that really really difficult and can just about manage 3.5k before I say thank you but that’s enough for me. Now, despite having the athleticism of a spork, I do however feel that exercise has a wonderful ability to soothe and rebalance the mind so I’ve been doing YouTube workouts or a light jog most days. I’ve been really enjoying this channel for workouts if you need some inspo.

But yes, despite the fact I’ve personally been feeling really good in myself with my daily exercise, watching people post their sporty achievements with smiley selfies has had me wondering if maybe I’m doing it all wrong and it shouldn’t be so hard and I shouldn’t feel in pain at moments and also why don’t I fly across the meadows like some kind of athletic magical unicorn please!? But wait, that’s stupid. I’m being silly and doing that weird thing where I compare myself and my abilities to strangers on the internet again. Luckily, we have legends like Emily Clarkson to keep it real and strip back some of this internet fluff to remind us that running can be hard and horrible and gross and that that’s normal too. To quote “If running was super easy, walking wouldn’t be a thing. The fact is, it’s quite hard.” As a novice jogger with just about as little confidence as experience it’s really encouraging to read things like this, and I would definitely recommend that if you are active on social media then you follow accounts who remind you that life was made without Instagram filters.

Another person who has been having a positive influence me throughout these bizarre times is Bella Mackie – more specifically her book Jog On. In my opinion, Bella is a complete and utter legend for two reasons.

A) Her writing is super relatable and she talks so candidly about OCD in a way that just isn’t done enough. Her words do wonders to dispel the stigma around medication and I think the world would be a better place if everyone picked up a copy of Jog On

B) She’s married to Greg James

Seriously though her book gives me that extra bit of encouragement to pick up my running shoes and force myself out when the majority of me would much rather be binge-watching Miranda or watching my cats clean themselves for the 39515th time that day. I’m also discovering some great literature within the book and am loving learning more about the relationship between exercise and mental health.

Another thing I’ve been experiencing during lockdown is the overwhelming feeling that I’m not maximising all this ‘extra’ time I’ve got. When the changes were announced, I thought of all that extra commuting time being shaved off my days and immediately starting concocting big plans for myself – ranging from lists of Netflix series’ I would finally make my way through to writing a novel. Well. Guess how many novels I’ve written? None. Guess what I’ve been watching on Netflix? Old re-runs of Spongebob, Outnumbered and Friday Night Dinner… Shalommmmm Jackie. But you know what, they’re comforting and nothing bad happens in them (I tell a lie, when Wilson dies that hits me hard) and right now that’s the kind of stuff I want to watch. And all this extra time isn’t really extra is it, because making sense of all this stuff and dealing with the emotions that come with it doesn’t really leave a lot of room for anything else. What I’ve come to realise is that it’s fine to be doing things that make life more bearable right now, even if that is a jigsaw puzzle instead of writing the best fiction that the world has been graced with since Bridget Jones.

I’ll cut my ramblings here but before I do the last thing I wanted to mention was the importance of friendships in these weird and not-so-wonderful times. I know that every kind of media is telling us to stay in touch with loved ones right now so the last thing anyone needs is me regurgitating that message, but one of the nicest things that has happened to me in the last few weeks is my best friend sending me flowers for no reason other than she is wonderful gem of a person. My friends keep me grounded and provide much needed optimism and humour right now, and I think it’s so important to treat those special people like the diamonds they are – whether it’s a card in the post or a phone call, it’s so nice to be nice and we all need it more than ever! x

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