The Old Normal

I miss the quiet pockpock that used to come from the tennis courts over the back. People still came to play until a week ago, but many were older, and I think it’s since been closed. For a whole season, perhaps—along with the sailing, which, although about as socially distant as it’s possible to get once you are out on the water, still involves risk, and would therefore likely be called unnecessary by the authorities. I wonder what people will do.

I am not given to outdoor pursuits myself, except, as my children will tell you, very long and aimless walks which invariably take us far further than we really wanted to go, because I have a misguided belief in my own sense of direction, and when we follow my nose, we usually end up having to follow a kind stranger back to civilization after falling several miles off the beaten path.

I’m conscious that despite my denial of the human requirement for physical activity, alone or in company, it is likely that it is building, slowly, in a corner of my mind that normally looks after itself, and will at some point become overwhelming, forcing me out of the house, and not just out of the door but propelling me for some distance until I have gone so far that I am forced to take a bus home. I recognize this pattern; I shan’t even be aware that it’s happened until I’m five miles along the road, walking uncommonly fast. (The mothers at school always tell me off for this … “I tried to catch up with you but I couldn’t!”)

It happened last about fifteen years ago. I’d been left; the man who was my little boy’s father had disappeared. I wanted to find him; I needed to, but I didn’t know where he was, and oh the pain. I walked, and walked, and walked, into the woods and the rain until it was clear that the path I’d taken was not going to end, and I’d gone out of reach of phone signals and such, and it was starting to get dark. So I did what I hate doing and turned back, and I got even more lost until finally I found my way home, completely exhausted. How silly; but how necessary. I’d worked off the pain, and now it wasn’t my heart that hurt, but my body. For a while, at least.

The transfer of pain is perhaps a more common reason than we imagine for taking exercise. I’m hopeless at running, and had never really managed it ever before a couple of summers ago, but that was the year when I nearly went mad, and I had to do something. As it happened, the reason I almost lost my mind was a runner, and I suppose it was an act of ironic rebellion that I decided to take it up too. He wasn’t going to win. I would claim, or reclaim, every right I could, including the right to those things I’d never wanted to do before, because he had taken away some of my most valued freedoms. He wasn’t, I said to myself as I breathlessly cut through the scrubland over the sea, going … to … win. And he didn’t, though one summer of it was enough. I’d proved that I could do it if I wanted to; it’s just that, in the end, I didn’t.

I have spent most of my life indoors. Well, for a long time, at least. Discouraged from a burgeoning flair for games—being an unfashionable teenager, I didn’t belong with the sporty girls, and it was equally unfashionable within my family to like sport—and discouraged in general from being near other people, because I wasn’t any good at it—I adopted an indoor lifestyle. For years in my twenties, I would sew, read, paint and write, not seeing anyone if I could avoid it. That was when I didn’t eat for four years. Once I started to eat again, and fell in love—I’m not sure which caused which, because they happened at the same time—I did go outside, and, what’s more, I got a motorcycle. But it was solitary riding, without due regard for safety, only for the grinding, roaring energy of the machine, which paralleled that of the man I loved, and I didn’t really care for anything else. It became my comfort and my workhorse, and I felt my limbs indistinguishable from the frame, the engine, of the bike. We merged, and it made me strong; I felt that I had taken on the properties of the iron, the aluminum. I got a job at a workshop and stank of oil, my ragged jumper sleeves frequently soaked with paraffin from the parts washer. I was in heaven, but somehow still alone.

Later after I had children, I found myself in a new town, without friends, and once more I stopped going out. There was nowhere to go; I didn’t belong, and I wasn’t welcome. At least, that is how it felt. And so for years, now, I have been indoors nearly all the time, reluctant to go anywhere, to the point where it is not unusual to find us without food in the house. And still I need to be forced to go out.

My son finds all of this much harder than I do. He is sixteen, a child and a man, a caged beast without recourse to his friends, to his vital social essence. He is trying hard to do what is right, though. At the start, still somewhat in denial, he would occasionally sneak off to wave at a friend through their window, shouting up at them in the manner of Romeo to Juliet in what I think was a form of social stockpiling. Of course, I was cross.

But walks by the sea don’t cut it alone. He needs people, the one thing he isn’t allowed. Their absence is painful for him, while for me it’s normal, if not a relief. But I find that I miss them, too—his silly, but really very sensible, large, noisy mates who would come and occupy the top bedroom, singing and playing their guitars; I like to imagine I wouldn’t complain now if they could only come again, but I expect that’s overestimating my own tolerance. He still drums, louder and faster than before. He needs the exercise. I used to mind, but I don’t now, at all, unless I’m working.

I think for some people (young men in particular) the value of a negative action is hard to grasp. His instinct is to do, to fight, to prove himself against a threat. But instead he’s being asked to stay still, and hide from it. To call it counterintuitive would be to understate the problem. Perhaps thus the initial refusal among young people to comply with the rules. They had something to prove, and who can blame them? Until the tipping point was reached between a vehement determination to show invincibility and the fear of becoming ill—or at least arrested—it would have seemed entirely right to push back against instructions. They needed to take positive action in some way. But now, I think, they understand.

I was selfishly concerned that the lockdown would bring people into my world—that they would see how I live, and perhaps come to like it; that more would end up working from home permanently, and I’d no longer have the distance I so crave … or something like that. I haven’t put my finger on the fear, yet, but perhaps it is like that of islanders who find themselves inundated with fleeing city-dwellers in search of a remoteness that for them is much more than a temporary refuge; it is their way of life.

I am apprehensive of the time when society is allowed to fire up again, and I am afraid that we will all have become so accustomed to not going out that it will be a physical and psychological shock when it happens. We will do things wrong, for a while, as we adjust. Our frame of reference is already shifting—has shifted—so that the moral metric we used to apply to actions is now applied to a far smaller spectrum. Instead of asking what, of everything, is good or bad, we now ask which of these things is good or bad. In time we will lose our perspective; it is vital that we make and maintain clear rules quickly, before we forget what is “normal.” Or we might never get it back.

I dreamed early this morning that I was in a shop, buying food, choosing things to buy, and there were people around me, and it didn’t matter. Dreams like this have become routine. I think that even those of us who over years and years have learned that staying in is better, not to mention safer, still need to keep some company—or at least, to cherish the prospect of it. I hope that, one of these days, we will be allowed to go out again, although some of us will only dream of going out and not, actually, leave our homes. After all, other people need the freedom more than us, and there may not be enough of it to go round.

Susanna Hoinkis is a freelance editor who lives in southern England, and writes when she needs to, though she would not describe herself as a writer. Her interests are few, but aside from an obsession with punctuation and syntax, she likes cats, gardening, and listening to music.

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