At the end of March the ink dried up and the world went into a tepid sort of hibernation.
We crawled into our holes and disappeared from view while a world of virtual contact rose up around us.
Weeks before, the pressing howl of infections began to climb up the charts until it was all we were talking about. The dawn of a new language broke and we quickly capitulated, embracing this new lexicon that engulfed the airwaves; the air between us vibrated with talk of disease and everything felt as though it just stopped, the way a high speed train might just all at once decide to stop.
We sat in our carriages looking at the landscape around us as it welcomed the seasons’ touches. The conductor’s voice sighed and soothed and quivering lips stiffened.
I remember the last night in the van before lockdown. I felt cheated out of this challenge life had set me. I counted the nights spent in the van, atop cliffs, hidden in woody valleys, on empty beaches and in lonely church car parks. I felt like I couldn’t now finish the race: I was halfway there. Disappointment, but also relief. The wall went up, the doors were bolted and I arranged for the van to sit and idle away, forgotten about in my wife’s school’s gated car park.
The next few months were spent up-skilling. I have never felt so remote.
Days online, or not online, wi-fi on, wif-fi off; wi-fi on, wi-fi off, Daniel-san.
Each block was interspersed by playtime with our growing girl and the hollow fug of remote work lifted until the Internet pinged back into life and I swivelled back into place.
Our one-hour of exercise was what we lived for, discovering new paths and routes away from crowds doing the same. I picked up the essentials once a week from town and washed every package, going so far as to bleach the bags on return and hang them to dry. We organised a meat and veg delivery from a local farmer, Pete arrived every Friday, often the only person I spoke to until the NHS clap came into being.
We dutifully waited, opening our door at the allotted time and clapped; just a few of the neighbours the first week, but soon pots and pans and gleaming faces filled the entrances to our hideaways for two minutes and then 5, ten as we caught up and consoled and felt human, and part of something and together until it wasn’t, anymore, the done thing and suddenly clapping was a bad thing and the government was a bad thing and now it was all about politics and the doctors and the nurses didn’t want our show of appreciation, so we couldn’t gather and chew the fat anymore. Our solidarity wasn’t wanted.
It was sad, not seeing each other in this way, but then there was VE day in the middle of it. My wife cut up a number of colourful shirts, prone to give sight to my expanding midriff, and made bunting. We coordinated with the neighbours and strung up our stringy statement of union. We took a table into the square and cake gathered, tea was surreptitiously replaced with beer and, with an adequate number of metres between us, we saluted the last great effort, hoping to salute our own recovery in the months to come.
All this time the van sat and gathered an assortment of cobwebs, leaf litter and the muddy marks strafing runs from up high had left behind. After 8 weeks I thought I better take the van for a spin and make sure everything still ticked. It started eagerly and we left the confines of the town, breaking the barrier of our daily exercise border. The world was in bloom with hardly a soul to enjoy it.
I returned elated and later suggested my wife disappear in the car and breathe.
When rules changed we were zephyr-like and emboldened by the expansion of our border. Still feeling like we were breaking agreed social conventions we took ourselves off in the car, a ten minute drive, and soaked in the woods and river achingly close, but not close enough to the doorstep. News of life in London for others made us give thanks for life in the sticks.
Remote life went on and on. An unending horizon with no twilight. Pupils emailed to ask why they couldn’t go into school. They had done all the work, surely that was to their credit and they deserved this reward. I empathised. I set work; I marked work; I chased work. Frustrated by the disproportionality of these tasks, days sagged in the middle until a call to test the waters and expand provision in centres brought me back into school one day a week with Key Stage 3. The moment I saw staff and kids in the flesh was a strangely hollow one, unsure of how to behave, how to breathe, but it quickly became the week’s highlight.
And then we were done. Just 6 weeks and it was summer. Each day was a new world it seemed. Restrictions came and went and came again, and went again. We sat in the sun outside the house, our neighbours mopping up the rays on their side and had tea, or beer as the occasions demanded. Passers by traversed the 2-metre dividing line gulfing out between us. Looks of envious approval shadowed them all.
When the tourists came we all retreated in fear of the air they brought along with them until gradually we grew accustomed to the swell on the streets. Still we kept clear of the tourist hot spots and held on to the secrecy of local knowledge like Blackbeard’s hoard.
Now back in the van, for the third year, I nightly look back at all this as if it is a blur; someone else’s memories.
The summer plan to put a proper bed into the van fell by the wayside and the first few nights of term I resemble something like Moley as I burrow between sheets and bits of hardboard, until eventually a weekend free gives me the chance to tidy up from the Summer’s DIY and finish insulating my tin can.
By the end of the first fortnight cycle two Year 8 girls, new to me, tell me they didn’t used to like English, “but we do now” and the claws of the virtual world slip away.