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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