The Corona Chronicles: Week 41: Film fantasies

So, after our brief ‘Born Free’ uncaging at Christmas, we find ourselves back in national lockdown, stuck in our own version of ‘Groundhog Day’. And whilst cinemas remain closed for the foreseeable future, our personal screenplays continue, with a variety of genres on offer throughout the day.

With both my husband and son now at home, it feels like I’m in an arty French film. You know, the worthy type, with its worldly insights and skilful camera work panning in on the main character who’s consuming a peach in real time. Sadly, worldly insights in our house are limited to teenage grunts and middle-aged moaning, and my current storyline consists entirely of people either eating or demanding food. Let’s face it, this category is less ooh la la excitement and more mon Dieu boredom.

Grunting Teen hankers after an action movie. He’s not impressed with this black and white silent version of life. He wants a return to a 4 D cinema experience with full Dolby surround sound. Unfortunately, with gyms and climbing walls closed and contact with non-household members a distant memory, he’s now become a reclusive cave-dweller. Or possibly an extra in a period drama. For once again the streets are becoming nineteenth-century quiet, with those new-fangled automobiles being replaced by two-wheeled transport or lycra-clad legs.

At least, this lockdown, the schools seem better prepared with their in-house entertainment. It’s a daily musical medley of maths and media studies, choreographed by chemistry and produced by PE. The downside is that accessing online learning through a mobile phone has become impractical, so the holiday-we-never-had refund has now been spent on a laptop.

This adds further fuel to the Nearly-Beloved’s evening litany of complaints in front of the box of horrors. He is a particular fan of the Zombie Apocalypse nightly news with its fear-inducing death count. Sci-fi images of Covid-19 flash in front of our eyes but there are no Guardians of the Galaxy coming to our rescue just yet.

The whole situation is a bit of a thriller actually, getting the viewers wondering. Who is the perpetrator of this pandemic? Who is violating the viral code? Who has released the new variant? And where the hell are the good cops when you need them?

What we want is a decent Western, gun-toting, vaccine-carrying hero to ride into town to save us. But what we’ve got are some cartoon characters, so badly dubbed from the original version that their words and actions are never in sync.

No wonder then that my film of choice is always a mood-lifting romcom. Oh, to laugh at my troubles and be swept off my feet by a knight in shining armour. Obviously, this is as likely as a politician’s promise. But at least I can draw comfort from the fact that we are not in a war film. No bombs or shells are exploding around us. And though we may be under house arrest, that’s got to be an improvement on a prison camp.

There may be no A-listers in this current performance and it certainly isn’t going to be a box-office hit. But sometimes films are so bad they’re good. Besides, I always choose one with a happy ending…

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Week 40:New Year’s resolutions

So, we’ve waved a not-so-fond farewell to 2020 and embraced 2021 with a flurry of anticipation and snow. The fizzled-out fireworks in the garden have been removed, as have the festive decorations. But to be honest, I’ve not quite recovered from the excitement of it all. My arms are still aching from the sustained hugging of Darling Daughter and Super Son-in-law and my throat is still sore from the excessive amount of talking to non-household members from the comfort of my sofa. Now, however, New Year weariness is kicking in, with the realisation that no magic wand has yet transformed the Covid landscape. Restrictions are still in place, albeit of the Tier 3 not Tier 4 variety, and I feel hungover with anxiety rather than alcohol at the thought of a continuing Groundhog year.

Still at least Grunting Teen is ‘well happy’. He’s succeeded in winning several snowball fights with his father and is delighted by the government’s decision to postpone the start of the school term. The Nearly-Beloved is also pleased. He’s finally managed to get his money’s worth on all that ‘sensible waterproof footwear’ he’s bought his son over the years. He’s now wearing the size 9 gortex shoes that never made it out of the box, whilst I am cosy in the size 6 walking boots that complained their way through one enforced hiking trip then remained silent for ever more. Grunting Teen, in his size 11 fashionable trainers and jeans with more holes than denim, doesn’t seem bothered by his unsuitable attire and claims to feel ‘cool’ rather than cold.

I, on the other hand, can’t shake off the icy feeling that’s got a grip on my heart, as I read about rapidly rising infection rates, slow-moving vaccination programmes and a soon-to-be-overwhelmed NHS.

‘Are you alright, mum?’ The teenager surprises me with his show of concern. But the Nearly Beloved just rolls his eyes.

‘It’s January,’ he explains. ‘Your mother always takes a nose-dive after Christmas.’

And he’s right. The super-virus is not to blame, for once. You see, I always feel melancholic at the start of a new year. But my usual remedy is to meet up with friends for hot chocolate and even hotter chats, warm up in a sauna and steam room, or browse the web for my dream summer holiday. None of these are possible this January.

Grunting Teen interrupts my descent into darkness. ‘You need a New Year’s resolution, mum,’ he tells me.

‘Oh yeah, sonny. What’s yours then?’ asks his father.

‘I’m going to focus on what needs to be done. I’m determined to work hard in every school subject,’ our boy announces. ‘And no, PS4 is not on the core curriculum, dad, before you crack that joke. Again.’ he replies.

I raise an eyebrow in my teen’s direction as he explains.

‘See, I’d usually just leave it up to the last minute and cram for my exams. Which is fine, as we are supposed to be sitting GCSEs. But they told us that last year too. And look how that panned out! No, better to be on the safe side and in the teachers’ good books.’

He smiles at me with a maturity I’ve not noticed before. Perhaps he’s coming out the other side of adolescence? Maybe sensible footwear might not be that far off…

I smile back, determined to take on board the lesson he’s just taught me.

‘What are you doing?’ asks the Nearly-Beloved as I scrabble through the kitchen cupboard.

‘I’m looking for that old thermos,’ I tell him. ‘I’m going to heat up some of that Gluhwein we never got through because Christmas was curtailed, ‘then I’m going to meet up with my friends for some spicy wine and even spicier conversation as we sweat it out on a stomp through the woods. And when I get back, I’m going to research my dream summer holiday… of 2022.’

Yes, my New Year’s resolution is to focus on what needs to be done.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 39: Dear 2020

Dear 2020

I regret to inform you that I, along with many others, won’t be sorry to wave you off.

After all, you’ve not been the easiest of guests and you have most definitely outstayed your welcome!

With your apparently normal behaviour, you trick us into complacency for the first three months. Playing the part of a run-of-the-mill year, you offer us up our usual stay-at-home-pay-the-credit-card-off dry January, renewal-of-socialising February and summer-holiday-planning early March. But then you go skiing, don’t you? And, of course, you have to go off-piste, bringing back a souvenir of the most unwanted kind.

Queues, panic-buying, face-masks, hand-gel. These are what you carry home in your suitcase. And once Pandora’s box has been opened, we all know the lid can never be forced on again.

Still, you are contrite. You do try to make amends, gifting us a community spirit, with your Zoom meet-ups, WhatsApp street groups and we’re-all-in-this-together sense of unity-in-adversity. Online yoga, weekly quizzes, learn-a-new-language in furlough land – our days are full, and every Thursday we clap our appreciation.

For a while the unseasonal warm weather and the novelty factor mean you almost seem part of the family. And with a Strict Mum mentality at the helm, we toe the line, sing Happy Birthday as we wash our hands and feel that if we all do our bit then we’ll get that pesky virus under control in no time. But then the toddlers start having tantrums. They’re not used to the word ‘no’ or waiting for a reward. They want instant gratification. They ship Strict Mum off to New Zealand, leaving Fun Dad in charge.

Fun Dad loves a good wheeze and a jolly caper. He likes us to let our hair down, eat out and go on the razzle. He doesn’t want to be the bad guy, telling us off when we book our eye-test at the local castle instead of Specsavers. So, when it all goes pear-shaped, he looks to the north for a scapegoat and puts us indefinitely on the naughty step. But unlike Strict Mum, he doesn’t realise that fairness is the key to compliance. And Strict Mum always spells things out so clearly, whereas Fun Dad’s explanations are often confusing and make no sense.

And you 2020, quite frankly, just encourage him. You give us a heat wave so we all rush off in unmasked hordes to the beach. Then you pile on the autumnal gloom, grey skies and freezing rain so that the temptation to ‘just come inside’ becomes too much for some. And when a magic vaccine promises to save us all in time for Christmas, you throw in a mutation and a foreign maybe-no-deal diversion.

Fun Dad has been doing his best – although, to be honest, he could do a lot better, and he doesn’t look as if he’s having much fun anymore either. He’s tried to rally us for the festive season, promising us a traditional sugar-filled Christmas. But you’re not playing ball, 2020, and he’s had to backtrack from Diet Christmas to Christmas Zero. So, the whole nation is fed up with you now, 2020. You’ve pocketed all the decent cracker gifts and your jokes are rubbish. We need Strict Mum to come home immediately and boot you out.

She’ll be disappointed that we didn’t always rise to the challenge, that we didn’t get your coat and gloves on straight away and march you out of the door. But she’ll be understanding. She’ll ask us what we’ve learnt from the experience and how we can move on.

And when we actually reflect, it may be that, given time, we’ll think of you with fondness, 2020. For you are the year that’s forced us off the treadmill of life. You are the year that’s introduced us to a different way of working and studying. You are the year that’s demonstrated that a Fun Dad way of living isn’t sustainable and that Mother Earth needs some stricter rules. You are the year that’s shown us that abundance is not about material wealth but about the riches of family and friendship.

And you are the year that’s taught us the virtues of patience, kindness and compassion.

That said, it really is time for you to leave now. Bring on 2021!

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 38: A Corona Christmas

Despite the government Grinches cancelling Christmas at the last moment, the festive spirit is still hanging on in there. Tomorrow, for the first time in three months, I will finally be allowed to hug my daughter as she steps foot inside our house. No more huddling under umbrellas in the park – at least for this one-day amnesty. Who knows what will happen after that?

So, for now, we’re keeping up the tradition of watching a seasonal film. Just, this year, it’s in virtual-togetherness. The Nearly-Beloved has put down his choices on the family WhatsApp but he’s outnumbered as usual. Girl power is in the ascendance here, Super Son-in-law has been well-trained to agree with his wife, and Grunting Teen’s vote has been discounted as not serious since he’s permanently got one eye on his phone. So, Love Actually is the movie of choice yet again, despite mutterings from the Nearly-Beloved that Hugh Grant’s Prime-Minister role is totally ridiculous. Although, personally, I think he makes a very welcome change…

‘Oh, I’m feeling so Christmassy now,’ Darling Daughter texts, ‘and looking out of the window, the houses round here have really gone to town on the decorations. I love to see all those outdoor lights.’

I look daggers at the Nearly-Beloved. He believes Christmas should remain firmly inside and a wreath on the front door is as far as festive fun is allowed to go. No fairy lights in the trees for us. But thankfully Super Son-in-law’s passed the rigorous pre-marriage test of essential lighting etiquette and their garden is ablaze with winter wonderland magic.

I console myself by dipping my hands simultaneously into the boxes of Roses and Quality Street before texting back. ‘You’re right. People have made a real effort this year. There’s not been much to look forward to, so it’s a welcome distraction. It gives me a lot of pleasure seeing their fancy displays.’ I throw another evil look at the Nearly Beloved who tries to deflect the criticism by mounting an attack on his son for not paying close enough attention to the film.

‘We watch this every year dad,’ counters Grunting Teen, ‘can’t I go and play on the PS4 instead.’

There is a shocked silence at this break in family tradition until his face reddens and he stutters by way of explanation, ‘it’s just that ‘you know who’ has finished working now and can hang out with me…’

The silence deepens and I can feel a lump rising in my throat. ‘This film always makes me cry,’ I mumble.  The Nearly-Beloved uncharacteristically reaches out and gives my hand a squeeze as I wipe away a tear. He shifts uncomfortably in his seat. ‘I’ll make a cup of tea, shall I?’ he says in his hurry to leave the room.

‘Mum?’ Grunting Teen asks again, this time with more urgency.

I put on a brave smile. ‘Yes, well, off you go love,’ I tell my teen, ‘and let him know we’ll speak to him in the morning.’

For this is my Lost Boy, my older son who we haven’t seen for over a year now. Working abroad and quarantine restrictions have made it impossible to meet up. And I rarely mention him because it makes my heart hurt too much. So, like many other families this Christmas, our turkey dinner will be noticeable for its absences. Last year there were eleven of us round the table. This year there will be just five.

For a moment I’m overwhelmed by sadness. But hearing the ping of another message and the laughter coming down the stairs as my two boys connect over the internet, I’m so grateful that, despite being apart, we can still find ways to be together. We can focus on what we are missing or we can focus on what we have. And as I imagine giving my daughter the umpteenth hug of Christmas Day, I realise that I’m very lucky. There’s an awful lot of love actually

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 37: Decoration dramas

Our festive decorations are finally up. Due to a certain someone’s reluctance to embrace the Christmas spirit, we are the last in the street to deck our boughs with holly. However, the finished results look rather splendid.

As usual it’s been a real family collaboration. This is always a surprise because not everyone approaches this task in the same way.

Take the Nearly-Beloved. He is all in favour of a strict tree etiquette that neither I nor Grunting Teen adhere to. Given his way, our family Grinch would ban tinsel, keep baubles to the bare minimum and demand strict non-melting visa requirements of any chocolate snowman, robin or reindeer. Every year he tries to steer us towards his carefully packed selection of tasteful red and gold ornaments. But we know better and have already raided the cellar for the tried and trusted bag of family favourites.

‘Oh, where’s that glittery dinosaur I made in Y3?’ asks Grunting Teen, forgetting his adolescent cool and rummaging with childish glee through our cherished heirlooms. His father rolls his eyes and in a desperate attempt for elegance over nostalgia he tries to wrestle the sparkly stegosaurus out of his son’s hands, muttering ‘You’re not seven anymore and it’s not very Christmassy, is it?’

‘Daaaad,’ objects our six-footer, grabbing onto his treasure for dear life, ‘this always goes on the tree. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it!’

‘That’s right, dad,’ says a muffled voice. The Nearly Beloved springs back in shock, scanning the room for the spirit of Christmas past. But it’s only Darling Daughter, not a Dickensian ghost.

Tier-3 restrictions means she can’t be here in person of course – at least not until the day when the country will be given their long-awaited get-out-of-jail cards. But as a lover of all things festive and a seasoned decorator of a minimum of three trees each December, she’s determined not to miss out on her quota. So, she has logged on to join in the fun over Skype. I position the screen carefully so she can monitor her father and report any transgressions, such as his earlier shoe-shuffling of Elvis-Santa under the sofa.

As Grunting Teen and I randomly hang bells and angels on branches then haphazardly swamp the tree in multi-coloured spangle, Darling Daughter alerts us to covert operations.

‘Daaad,’ she warns, ‘stop taking off the decorations as soon as mum puts them on. What’s wrong with you?’

‘What’s wrong with your mother, you mean,’ he replies with yet another eye-roll. ‘What she’s doing makes no sense. The lights are all bunched up at the bottom. The tinsel is a complete disaster. And any normal person knows you should grade baubles with small at the top and large towards the base. It complements the shape of the tree that took me so long to trim into submission.’

Ignoring him, I place a huge papier-mache elf on the second highest branch and step back to marvel at the masterpiece. ‘Oh God,’ mutters the Nearly-Beloved, covering his eyes. ‘Not that abomination. I thought I’d consigned it to the bin last year.’

‘You did,’ I smile, ‘but I retrieved it just in time.’ With a lump rising in my throat, I try to explain. ‘I know it’s a bit tatty but I just love it. Don’t you remember the kids begging us to buy it?’

‘No,’ he replies, ‘what I do remember is refusing to buy it.’

‘Oh, that’s right,’ laughs Darling Daughter, ‘we persuaded mum to go back and get it. You can’t beat a good elf.’ And she oohs and aahs in happy recollection as I parade a chipped glass swan, threadbare owl and slightly unravelled silver stocking in front of the screen for her approval.

After the bag is finally emptied and Grunting Teen has lifted me up to place the star on the top, we stand back to admire our handiwork.

Darling Daughter signs off with an appreciative ‘I can’t wait until the 25th. It looks great.’

But the Nearly-Beloved sighs. ‘It looks like someone’s thrown up on it.’ Then he sighs some more as I stick shooting stars, sleighs and snowflakes onto the window panes and wind up the dancing turkey and laughing penguin.

Exhausted by all the effort, Grunting Teen retires to his PS4 whilst I head off to the kitchen to make a cuppa. On my return, the Nearly-Beloved springs to my aid, looking rather shifty. ‘Have you been messing with the tree?’ I ask, noting that the lights seem somehow more uniform and the tinsel straighter, whilst the swan and owl have migrated north and the elf is now hiding under the lower branches.

We eye each other up for a moment, then nod a silent truce as I retrieve Elvis-Santa and turn him on full blast.

As usual it’s been a real family collaboration.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 36: Glad tidings through your letter box

It’s Christmas card season. This week there’s been a steady trickle of festive cheer landing on my doormat. Time to get the magnifying glass out and hone the detective skills in an attempt to decipher signatures written in hieroglyphics and work out who the mysterious ‘Bren and John’ might be.

The Nearly-Beloved denies all knowledge of them. ‘It’s from a couple,’ he says with the astuteness of Hercule Poirot, ‘so it’ll be one of your friends. Blokes never send cards if they can help it. And certainly not ones with cute birds on them, unless they’ve got a Santa swag bag and…’ – he grins in anticipation of his cracker joke punchline – ‘are ‘robin’ a bank.’

In my family a male reluctance for correspondence is certainly true and for years I was conned into writing all greetings to my in-laws in the false belief that my other half was dyslexic rather than just plain lazy. As for Grunting Teen, when I ask if he needs any cards to send, he looks at me in bewilderment. ‘Write? With a pen? Then post it? Are you living in the Stone Age? I’ll just send a meme round on Insta.’

Maybe this is the future now. Virtual messaging. E-cards. But for me there’s a certain thrill about opening a hand-written envelope and wondering what you’re going to find inside. I mean, let’s face it, all cards are not equal.

There’s the carefully chosen, individualised card with its heart-felt message and expensive packaging. This is usually reserved for the newly-in-love, although sometimes reappears many married-years later if it’s been discounted on Christmas Eve at the local garage.

Then there’s the ubiquitous charity box sets, favoured by the majority. These cards spread the love both to the receiver and those in need. In general, it’s best to stick with local or well-known charities to avoid eyebrows being raised at less conventional good causes, like my maiden aunt’s ‘retired jockeys’ fund’. And the rule of thumb is to err on the side of simplicity rather than sequins and sparkles, unless you are aged seven and love glitter glue.

Gone are the days when I used to force the children to make home-made disasters or try and improve their literacy by writing ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone in the class. But the bumper pack of 200 cards from Poundland 2011, gathering dust at the back of the kitchen cupboard, still comes to the rescue when the neighbour you’d completely forgotten about sneaks a last-minute yo-ho-ho to you on the day itself.

Others are better prepared. Their cards arrive promptly. Elderly relatives with time on their hands have sorted out their lists well in advance, saving a fortune by posting everything in November. Not for them the bank loan to fork out for a sheet of eye-wateringly expensive first-class stamps or the realisation they’ve missed the overseas deadline by weeks. They’ve already roped in the Scouts for local post, whilst I’m reduced to bribing Grunting Teen to do the neighbourhood rounds.

And of course, what you write is as important as the card itself. It can be the chance to catch up on a year’s worth of news from those ‘friends from the past’ that you no longer have anything in common with. At least, in that respect, Covid has been a leveller, making the smug round-robin briefings not so smug. When I learn of the safari to Namibia cancelled, cocktails at the Shard postponed and the 2nd home in Portugal unvisited, for once I feel I’ve done well. My pandemic year has still managed a weekend break in Scarbs, drinks down the Broadfield and a flying visit to my mum-in-law in Wales. 

But whatever the contents, it’s just nice to be remembered. A thoughtful message can warm the heart and even just a traditional greeting and a signed name show the receiver they’re not alone or abandoned. In this year of enforced distance, a Christmas card is like a hug. Whether displayed on your mantelpiece or hung on ribbons down your walls, it’s like being surrounded by friends who’ve taken the time and effort to think of you. Who knows, you might even experience an ‘aha’ moment on Christmas Day when you realise that ‘Brian and Jean’ hadn’t forgotten you after all.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 35: The elves are early

I/t’s Christmaaaaaaas!  Well at least for me it is. And for a significant number of the population too, it seems.

I’ve held off as long as I can in deference to my ‘bah humbug’ husband. He froths at the mouth if anything festive greets him before the day itself. And woe betide any attempt to steer him towards present buying before Christmas Eve and his last-minute shopping blitz at the local petrol station.

In fact, he was delighted by the recent lockdown as he didn’t have to be assaulted by a winter wonderland of tinsel and snowflakes in the shops. But he did stomp through the door the other day, raging and pointing at the neighbour’s window. ‘They’ve put their tree up already’, he stormed. ‘In November!’

And whilst normally I share his attitude that an out-of-season Saint Nicholas is not to be encouraged, I am secretly delighted the elves have been working their magic early this year and bringing us some much-needed joy.

Local radio has already canvassed its listeners to jump-start yo-ho-ho jingles. So, for the last few weeks, as soon as Grunting Teen and his Grinch father leave the house, I’ve been jingle-bell-rocking around the kitchen in my Santa hat and reindeer sunglasses. And it appears that my daily wailing of ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ has finally paid off with the announcement of a five-day festive amnesty.

I had resigned myself to a not-so-merry turkey dinner in our lockdown trio but, if all goes well, at least two more family members will be able to pull a cracker with me. Grunting Teen, whilst keen to see his sister in person, suddenly seems concerned that I stock up on supplies since there’ll now be competition for the pigs-in-blanket and tins of chocolates.

As for other, more vulnerable loved ones, the jury’s still out on what’s best to do. We all yearn to see our relatives. It’s just we have to think carefully of what we want to give them – a much-needed visit or the gift of covid… Maybe the British public are not quite as gung-ho as we’re led to believe. Maybe, judging by the premature queues at the post office, they’re concentrating on spreading the love, not just over one day, but over twenty-five.

For 2020 is the year that the advent calendar has come into its own. It certainly has for me. If face-to-face meet-ups are increasingly difficult to achieve because of our doors being closed, then at least we can open some windows and bring a breath of fresh surprise into our lives. Will today’s highlight be a sprig of holly, a red-breasted robin or the prized, beaming snowman?

Grunting Teen may well roll his eyes and tell me I’m being ‘lame’ but the moment he’s hoovered up his second bowl of cornflakes, then he’s rushing to open his own number 3 and demolish the chocolate wreath inside.

As for canny marketeers, they’ve obviously cottoned on to our craving for a daily dose of pleasure to counter this year’s sombre mood. A new era of advent calendars has hit the high street. Nativity pictures and confectionery are no longer enough to lift us out of pandemic pessimism. But give us miniature beauty products, handcrafted marshmallows and artisan teas and the world seems a brighter place full of mind-teasing puzzles and pocket-sized perfumes. Yes, everyday can be Christmas now.

But something’s not quite right.

I’ve done my online orders and all that’s called for is to click and collect once local shops have re-opened. But why then is there no spring in my stocking, no brandy on my pudding? For as much as I hate having to brave the usual madding hordes in Reindeer-retail-land, I miss the bustle and excitement of browsing the shelves in search of that ideal gift for that special someone.

Returning home, with my Santa-sack over my shoulder, the boys are caught unawares.

‘What? You’ve been gift-shopping. It’s not Christmas Eve yet, is it?’ panics the Nearly-Beloved, hurriedly checking the closing times of the nearest garage.

‘Mum, why haven’t you got any snacks in these bags? And why have you bought baby books, jigsaws for little kids and make-up sets for tweenagers?’ asks Grunting Teen in confusion.

What neither of them realise is that the ‘Cash for Kids Mission Christmas’ is on, making sure that no child in South Yorkshire goes without a present from Santa. You can donate online or, like me, enjoy a nostalgic wander through toy-heaven before handing in your stocking fillers at the nearest drop-off point. Because, after all, this is the true spirit of Christmaaaaaaas!

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 33: People-walking

Since the latest restrictions, I’ve got a new occupation. I’ve become a ‘people-walker’. This entails meeting an assigned non-household-member at a pre-arranged spot and participating in exercise and conversation.

To be honest, the exercise is minimal and mostly involves some feet-stomping and a fair amount of arm-waving and hand-rubbing. As long as it staves off the cold seeping through my bones then it’s bearable. At least it gives me a chance for a chat and catch-up with some fellow lockdownees.

The take-up for walks is quite impressive and I’ve already had to create a waiting list so that everyone gets a fair chance. But, of course, I have to prioritise my regulars. Darling Daughter is my favoured client and has a lunchtime slot where I hop in the car and drive across the city to deliver her a virtual hug and a lovingly prepared sandwich. As we shiver the length of Hillsborough park, we bemoan the men in our life and discuss the latest paso doble on Strictly.

I can’t go for long without seeing my besties either. So, we have a rota system, swapping walking partners daily to make sure we all stay in the loop with each other’s news. Not that there’s much to report about this Groundhog Day we’re currently stuck in. On this coronacoaster there are times when ‘people-walking’ seems like too much of an effort and that’s when I find myself ‘being walked’ instead. All it takes, when you’re feeling down, is a friendly face to pull you back up, reminding you to laugh at life’s absurdities.

Luckily, ‘people-walking’ is a flexible operation, especially for the furloughed, who can fit into any daytime slot. The still-working are trickier to accommodate. Pre-9am my brain hasn’t yet started functioning and I find myself just nodding and smiling sympathetically. But, on the plus side, I’ve now gained the reputation of being a good listener…

Post-5pm I’m all lit-up but unfortunately my sunny disposition goes unseen as we stumble along woodland paths in the dark, fumbling our way to safety with the torches on our mobiles. Better to march past the shops, making wish lists, in the hope that, come December, we’ll be able to send some Christmas cheer local traders’ way instead of via Amazon.

And unlike normal walking where beautiful countryside and spectacular views are of prime importance, ‘people-walking’ isn’t concerned with the surroundings. It’s not nature we’re missing but the freedom to meet with those we love.

In fact, ‘people-walking’ seems to be the latest trend. Go to any open space and you will find it littered with ‘walking-pairs.’ You can tell immediately they’re not home-sharers by the fact they seem pleased to see each other and are talking animatedly across the 2-metre gap. And although they’re ‘getting exercise’ they’re definitely not ‘exercising’ as their focus is on talking rather than walking.

Neither does it matter what the weather is like. When the rain is falling, the woods are full of co-walkers sheltering under the branches and, in the dense fog, high up on the hills, happy twosomes narrowly miss bumping into each other. Then, on the rare occasions when the sun breaks through the clouds, friendship-duos spring up everywhere as far as the eye can see.

Whatever the temperature, park cafes are doing a roaring trade in take-away goodies. Darling Daughter tactfully suggests buying lunch there – a change from my usual corned-beef fillings…

The strange thing, though, is that most of the pairings are female. The masculine lockdown psyche seems to be pining for competition rather than conversation. Men don’t appear to enjoy ‘being walked’. Instead they opt for a rather uncompanionable front-wheel-to-back-bumper cycle ride or a jog with the lead runner shouting over-the-shoulder encouragement to the lesser athlete trailing behind. Sometimes it’s lone males who can be spotted, punching the air, then punching in their scores on their Strava dashboard.

The Nearly-Beloved rolls his eyes at my invitation for a walk, preferring to fall through the door red-faced and panting. But he’s beaten his last week’s record, so at least he can die victorious now. Grunting Teen is a different matter though. He’s struggling without his stress-busting climbing so surprisingly agrees to accompany me for a jump over the rocks on the Sheffield-side of the Peaks.

It turns out that walking-talking is quite therapeutic too. He doesn’t have to make eye-contact with me, so it’s much easier to off-load his worries about GCSEs and his lack of preparedness to take them. Just as well he clambers out of earshot to the top of a boulder as I’m hinting that the PS4, not only the pandemic, may be partly to blame for his mock results. But I don’t want to bring his mood down, after all there’s enough going on in the world to do that already. Just then he loses his footing, executing a paso doble that would win a judges’ standing ovation, and ends up in a peaty pool.

All thoughts of exams immediately leave his head as he re-emerges black and dripping like a moorland bog monster. Thank goodness I have my camera and he still has his sense of humour. He’s lost his teenage cool but at least he’s given his mum a good laugh. Yes, ‘people-walking’ is definitely to be recommended.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 32: Family film night

Now that we are back in lock-down with no free-time activities to escape from each other, I have reinstated family film night as a way of bonding with my loved ones. So, this evening we’re in the middle of our usual discussion about what to watch. I’m all for a rom-com but the boys are having none of that and are fixated on the latest action movie. This is given a firm, female veto.

‘Oh, look – Pulp Fiction – that’s a classic,’ says Grunting Teen hopefully until the Nearly-Beloved reminds him, ‘It’s rated 18. Your mother’s not allowed to watch those.’

I shudder at the memory of a bloody zombie apocalypse and instead suggest an interesting indie film. The teenager is not impressed.

‘It’s in French. And it’s got subtitles. I’d have to read everything. No way! There’s nothing on here that’s worth watching. Can’t we look on Prime instead?’

‘And pay for the privilege?’ gasps his father, ‘As if I don’t spend enough on my monthly subscription…’

‘Oh, this is taking ages, dad. You’re so useless at scrolling through! Pass me the controller,’ demands the teen, wrenching it out of his father’s hands.

Within seconds the Nearly-Beloved starts objecting.

‘Slow down! You’re not giving me time to read anything.’

‘But it looks boring dad. How about this one? Contagion? Mm, maybe not…’

I sigh and repeat my usual film-night mantra. ‘If you don’t choose something soon, it’ll be time for bed. I’m going to put the kettle on and when I come back, you’d better have found something.’

On my return, a compromise has been reached. I raise my eyebrows at my son.

‘A thriller? Complex plot?’

‘Muum! I’m not stupid. And anyway, it’s the only one dad agreed to,’ he replies, pressing play.

‘Hang on – how do you know the password, when we’ve set parental controls?’ I ask.

He rolls his eyes. ‘Duuhh!!’

‘Okay. Enough messing about. Let’s just get on with the film,’ begs the Nearly Beloved.

‘Snacks first,’ says Grunting Teen disappearing into the kitchen.

But it’s worth the wait. Popcorn, prosecco and a lead actor who’s easy on the eye.

The story’s well-scripted too, with enough red herrings to keep our GCSE genius on his toes. ‘How come they’ve arrested the doddery pensioner,’ he asks, ‘when it’s obviously the ex-wife who committed the murder?’

‘No, that’s to put you off the scent,’ I explain, ‘he’s been set up by that corrupt American politician and his sidekick with the dodgy, Old Etonian hairstyle.’

‘Just stop!’

We turn to look at the head of the household.

‘Can’t I ever watch a film without you lot talking over it? It’s no wonder you can’t follow the plot. If you listened, you’d know it’s the step-son with the artificial leg.’

The one with the Dominic Cummings fashion sense? Surely not? I sense no evidence for his claim. But as he’s paused the film, I take the chance to nip to the loo.

The Nearly Beloved grumbles, ‘Seriously? Can’t you even sit through a two-hour film without a break?’

And the teenager seizes his opportunity. ‘Mum, bring in some crisps on the way back.’

Returning with more refreshments and ignoring the mutters of, ‘It’s a film, not a 3-course meal,’ I sit through a nervous hour as the doddery pensioner comes to a sad and sticky end.

‘Oh, look out!’ I shout to the ex-wife, ‘Fake-tan-power-grabber is going to pounce with that knife any minute!’

‘Mum, honestly – you’ll wake dad up,’ says the teen, pointing at his father who’s snoring contentedly in the corner.

The suspense is killing me. I’m on the edge of my seat. Surely it can’t be the ex-wife?  Although she does have a hint of steely Nicola Sturgeon to her… There’s only ten minutes left to the closing credits when our eye-candy detective reveals the true culprit, proving he’s more than a pretty face

No way! The step-son. He used his artificial leg to hide the murder weapon.

 ‘Mmeeurgh – what?’ The Nearly Beloved wakes up as if on cue.

‘I was just saying, sweetheart, that despite missing half the film, you still worked out whodunnit. Well done.’

My husband avoids eye-contact and all becomes suddenly clear. He’s had insider knowledge. This hasn’t been a fair contest.

‘You’ve seen that film already, haven’t you?’

He looks shifty. ‘Might have done.’

I smile. Maybe the outcome was clear to him but a surprise to others. Just as well then that, even in these most unpredictable of times, I can still exert some control over my life.

‘Well at least we won’t waste hours choosing next week’s film,’ I tell him. ‘The rom-com it is then.’

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 31: Finding the sunshine

This week my inner toddler has a full-blown tantrum at the latest lockdown restrictions and has to be sent to the naughty step to calm down. The trouble is she doesn’t like these strange, new rules and she certainly doesn’t like the word ‘no’ or ‘can’t’.

I mean why can’t she play with her friends anymore? After all, the grown-ups around her get to hang out with theirs. The Nearly-Beloved goes to his Covid-proof office every day where he enjoys civilised conversations with colleagues. And even the teenager gets to exchange daily grunts with fellow adolescence-sufferers. But Toddler-Me is home alone tapping on the computer in the internet-ether with not even a zoom call to break up her routine. It’s got so lonely she’s gone and found herself an imaginary playmate to chat to during her coffee breaks.

By the time the boys come home, she’s desperate for some spoken interaction. But ‘When’s tea?’ and ‘Can I have a snack then?’ is the most that Grunting Teen offers before he disappears to his fetid cave. And for some reason, the Nearly Beloved seems more interested in his FB feed than recounting his day.

He zones out at tales of a solitary trip to the supermarket and the fascinating discussion instigated with the cashier about the political correctness of avocados. Such a pity a queue was forming…

And complaints that mental health is suffering due to lack of human contact are not taken seriously enough. The Nearly-Beloved points out, ‘You can still meet up outside,’ ignoring the fact that today’s forecast is 9C with freezing rain.

But there’s only so much rolling around on the floor and weeping a girl can do so I’ve had to give the toddler a talking to. ‘Time to focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t,’ says the Zen-enlightened version of me from that inner place of wisdom I rarely visit.

‘You can still get a takeaway with household members,’ she reminds us. Inner toddler rolls her eyes. What? With those two witty conversationalists? Zen-Me smiles serenely. ‘At least you won’t have to cook.’ This is very true. A chef-prepared dinner would definitely cheer us up. ‘And then you can donate some of your stockpile of tins to a foodbank,’ she continues. What a great idea. No more corned beef surprises for a while. Everyone will thank us for that.

The toddler wipes away her tears and nods hesitantly. Zen-me is on a roll now. ‘You don’t even have to move from the sofa. After all, it’s the time of year to snuggle up with a hot toddy in front of Strictly and Bake Off. Then you can organise a friends’ zoom get-together to discuss the contestants. Far more interesting than avocados.’

The toddler’s coming out of her paddy. Yes, there are things that she can do. But, wait a minute, On-line meet-ups just aren’t the same as face-to-face. Her lip starts trembling again. Luckily Zen-me has it all figured out. ‘Look, after all those substantial takeaways, and evenings snacking, you’ll be more than happy to go for companionable walks.’

The toddler needs more convincing. It might be warm and sunny in Zen-land. But this is Sheffield. In November. However, the road to enlightenment is layered with thermal underwear, thick sweaters and waterproof trousers. It turns out there’s no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing. And where there’s a will there’s always a way.

My inner toddler has finally calmed down and is busy drawing. With newly-found Buddha serenity, she reveals her picture of a wonky orange circle to remind us – if you can’t find the sun,then be the sun.

And when Grunting Teen and the Nearly Beloved appear, with stoic stomachs, for their evening meal, there’s no corned beef in their surprise. ‘I’ve donated all the tins,’ I tell them, ‘We’re getting a takeaway tonight.’ And the beams of delight on their faces light up our Corona darkness.

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