Our disinfected doorbell rings. Outside a smiling young man delivers a box of essentials: fresh fruit, toilet rolls, paracetamol…and just a little booze.
How often I intended to start a blogpost like that in the strange early days of lockdown. Self-isolating old folk like us – housebound and hiding from covid – a long way from family, we suddenly discovered the kindness of strangers.
Here he was, a local hero, out of the blue. Tommy Singh’s family had only recently taken over the corner shop to find they must close the door to customers. With thoughtful presence of mind, the young man pops a note through front doors in our street – he can deliver groceries with our morning paper, if that’s any help.
A year on and we are among many local people with reason to be thankful to the local shop. But I never did write that blogpost. And to be honest I only disinfected the doorbell once, in that peculiar period when nobody really knew what was going on, who was most in danger, and where the real risks lay.
Bananas in quarantine
Odd to remember that our front hallway (the draughty Victorian vestibule) became a kind of decompression chamber. That’s where boxes of food entered quarantine. With latest arrivals in the ‘red zone’, we separated cans, packets and fresh foods. We’d watched the YouTube videos for pandemic survival. We washed bananas!
It took some time to realise who was most at risk – and it certainly wasn’t those of us in roomy houses with gardens at the back door and money to pay for deliveries.
Remember that in-between time of early March? The uncertainty of dates in the diary as other countries closed down. Would that Women’s Day lunch go ahead? It did. And now my mobile pictures seem incredible – there we are friends and colleagues in the World Kitchen in Leith serving food to a happy, crowded community café. Even more incredibly there we are again a week later, catering to a smaller group but close together, though not shaking hands – but washing them, between each encounter. (“We’re ok”, we texted to each other, “Gatherings under 50 are still allowed.”)
And, oh my word, we actually set off straight after that event, heading north for Ray’s book reading event at another happily crowded space, a village hall in the Highlands. The pictures show speakers standing well spaced but (largely white-haired) audience sitting close together. In the Ladies we shared hints on hand-washing: “It takes me more than twenty seconds to sing Happy Birthday through twice.” We laugh, a little nervously. And part from old friends without kissing or hugging.
By the second night of our stay in the Ballachulish Hotel staff are spending a lot more time wiping surfaces. Sanitiser is everywhere. After the crowded book reading, we explore local woodland and find other walkers standing well aside to let us pass. Empty benches glisten in the rain.
Reality hardens on the journey home. Our last public outing as the government grappled with decisions would be to Doune Castle where Monty Python filmed the Holy Grail and Terry Jones produced a mischievous masterpiece of an audio tour. I had just reached a stone chamber where there’s a mediaeval hole in the wall for human waste when I get a text from my daughter in law: “Are you all right?” It is 15 March, 35 people have now died from the virus, and Matt Hancock has just announced people over 70 might have to self-isolate. For the foreseeable future.
Food for all?
Remember the strange games we played? There was a time of denial. A lot of sour-dough bread making for those with flour and funds to fire up the oven. For a while I imagined there might be a role for World Kitchen in Leith sharing recipes and hints for healthy eating in lockdown. Virtual feasts? Not for long. Food was to become one of the most visible signs of hitherto hidden or overlooked inequality.
Those doorstep deliveries, the occasional eat-at-home treats we ordered from enterprising local restaurants – while some of us had the luxury of choice, others just a few streets away were depending on food banks, or going without meals altogether. This was a distressing discovery and of course I wasn’t the only one writing about the pre-existing social problems exposed by Covid-19. The inequality that makes grotesque gaps in health and life expectancy is right here; between my part of town and streets just a mile away.
But there is another story to tell. The kindness of friends, neighbours and complete strangers. My young friends in World Kitchen in Leith became part of that great voluntary effort, joining the many local community enterprises and pop-ups making sure that people did not go hungry.
Looking back – and forward – I am not sure our governments have yet got the hang of collaboration. In a divided nation perhaps you win elections by keeping people divided. But there’s hope in a wealth of humanity beyond politics. Our political leaders might learn from the inspiringly creative mix of collaborative good spirit and sound business sense that Covid has unleashed in local communities. We are so grateful to all the local businesses who have kept us going. We want them to survive and prosper. The very least central government might do is not to stand in their way. Let local councils and communities deliver.
Our thanks to Breadshare, Claremont Food and Wine, Crombies, Something Fishy via Schop, Beerhive, Spitaki, Cafe St Honore, l’Escargot Bleue. And it’s good to see Ballachulish Hotel has plans for summer bookings.