When Winter was Coming

A year and a bit ago, I was on the way back from Skipton from a few days away with my parents. We were in some form of lockdown, or some kind of tier system, that meant I was allowed to leave my area but not allowed to have anyone in my home, and I’d moved from almoooosssst enjoying (or at least not completely hating) lockdown to being in Quite A Bad Place. The trip was mostly all above board because for our activities we only went on walks — outdoor things! — and stayed in a hotel where all our living quarters were separate. I think we weren’t really supposed to eat in a restaurant together— that I was allowed to go to a restaurant but not with anyone— but I’d spent the ten days previously self isolating from my bubble, and also from everyone else, and I really, really, really needed it.

On the way home, my parents dropped me back off at my house and at that point all the rules felt pointless enough after sitting in a car together that I invited my parents in for a cup of tea and to use the loo before they drove the rest of the way home, which was defo a Rule Break.

I should also say at this point that I hadn’t had a working bathroom light for about five months.

In my defence, it wasn’t like a light bulb change, it was the pull-mechanism, which was definitely out of my ability to fix and didn’t really feel like an emergency enough situation to get someone out to fix it in the middle of a pandemic (if my mum ain’t allowed in my house then I don’t want a stranger). It had gone in the summer, so it hadn’t felt like such a big deal. And I’d been living alone, so I’d been operating an open bathroom door policy and the only challenge with that was feline related. It was, like, illegal for anyone else to be inconvenienced by this. Except, of course, my bubble. We rotated around who cooked Sunday bubble dinner, so about once a month I ended up sending them up to the bathroom with a torch, and it was broadly funny if, yes, not ideal.

But I figured if my Dad was in the house he might as well fix my bathroom light. 

I should also say that when I bought my house, my uncle came round and checked all my electrics were safe and replaced my fuse box. At that point, he said he’d come back to label my fuse box, but I never arranged it. 

I should also say that my house has — or had, now, I suppose (spoiler!)— an alarm system. When I purchased the house they wrote down the alarm code on a bit of paper with the phone number for their gardener, and left it pinned to the notice board. I used the alarm for about two weeks before I decided it was highly annoying and sacked it all off.  I kept that piece of paper for three and a half years, before I had a pandemic inspired clear out and thought “I’m never going to hire a gardener” and threw it out idly. Two weeks after that, I had the vague thought of “that piece of paper has my alarm code on” and didn’t really follow the thought through to completion.

Back to last year.

Dad goes “I need to turn the fuse off to change the string on this light.”

I say “ah.”

The conversation then goes a bit like this.

Dad: Which fuse is it?

Me: I don’t know.

Dad: Okay.

Me: Also, if you get the wrong one, the alarm will go off.

Dad: Okay.

Me: And I don’t have the code.

Dad: Oh.

We look at each other.

Me: Never mind. I’ll email the alarm company and get the code and I can live a bit longer without a bathroom light.

Dad: No, no, I’m sure I can do something.

Me: It’s fine, Dad.

At this point, my father goes to my alarm and starts pressing buttons to “disable” it while I google the alarm company, find their contact details and send them an email, and my mother drinks her cup of tea.

During the length of one cup of tea, my father has managed to make my alarm make a loud beeping bee-beep noise whenever someone moves in either the living room or the kitchen. Bee-beep it goes as I walk to where my dad is now prodding more buttons. Bee-beep it cries as the cat runs away from my mother. Bee-beep it says as I ask my Dad just how he has achieved this.

Me: Dad, please leave it and go home now. 

Bee-beep.

Dad: But I’ve made it worse.

Bee-beep.

Me: Well, yes. But I think there’s still capacity here to make it worse.

Beeeee-beeeep.

Dad: I can fix this.

Me: I really can live without a bathroom light, Dad.

Dad: I suppose it only makes a noise when someone moves.

Me: True, but I do have a cat, so this could be all night.

Dad:  …

Alarm: bee-beep. 

Dad: Googles ‘how to disable a burglar alarm’.

Approximately two minutes later, Dad plunges us all into darkness and, obviously, sets off the burglar alarm.

The cat, who at this point has only met me and my bubble, streaks off upstairs to hide under my bed.

Mother comes to hover in the kitchen and say “Andy…..”

Dad is now trying to use the light of his phone to disable the burglar alarm. 

The alarm continues.

I frantically go back to googling the alarm company and discover that their emergency phone number isn’t staffed on a Sunday evening and optimistically try their “emergency pager” which does, of course, absolutely nothing.

The cat trembles.

The alarm shrieks.

Dad fumbles in the dark with a pair of wire cutters.

I frantically look over old WhatsApp conversations to see if I gave the alarm code to my old lodger in those two weeks I used it, but I’ve got a new phone since and I lost nine months of back up because I didn’t want to pay 78p a month for more cloud storage.

Dad finds the ‘right’ wire and says “aha!” triumphantly. For a moment, we are plunged into blissful, glorious quiet…. And then the alarm starts from outside.

Dad looks at us. We look at Dad. The cat continues to hide.

Dad, somewhat madly, declares “there must be a back up wire!!” He runs to the front door, flings it open (and the alarm volume racks up as the door opens; inside, Mum winces) then he comes back in and yells “your bedroom!” and runs to the stairs holding his wire cutters aloft.

I follow to watch the continued destruction of my home.

Me: Dad, do you know quite what you’re —-?

Dad: It’s in your wardrobe! (Flings open door to my wardrobe) Quick, check it lines up!

I dutifully open the window to the outside, am immediately deafened by the alarm and confirm that I can see some wires that purport to be something to do with an alarm on the other side of the wall of my wardrobe.

Dad triumphantly cuts another wire.

Nothing happens.

The alarm continues.

Dad says “I don’t understand it.”

The alarm blares. I blink at him. None of us ask the question “what did that wire do then?” because it does not feel like the right time to ask. We walk back downstairs, defeated. Dad says “that should have worked” as the alarm screams bloody murder.

Mum asks me if I have home emergency cover. The alarm has now been going off for twenty minutes and this all seems worth a phone call and an emergency engineer, so I head back upstairs and dig out my folder of paperwork, my policy number, and am halfway through listening to the spiel about how having an emergencies on a Sunday being more expensive, when the alarm stops.

We all look at each other. Breathe.

Dad says “It must have been running through the emergency battery.”

I say “Hmmm.”

Dad says “Done you a favour, really. Would have been a nightmare if that had happened when you were on your own.”

I say “Hmm.”

Dad says “How about that bathroom light, then?”

I pointedly remind them both of the time, send them on their way and assure them that I can live without a bathroom light. 

And the moral of the story is: never break local lockdown rules.

At the very least, it’s loud.

(And actually, Dad turns out to be right. The alarm company get back to me a number of days later and tell me they’d have to send out an engineer if I don’t remember the code and less than a month later we have a power cut in the middle of the night and I’m woken up by someone else’s burglar alarm feeling oddly smug).

(And yes, I have since fixed my bathroom light).

*

Winter was hard last year.

I didn’t write this story down then both because things were just so long and because I didn’t really believe I should be talking like breaking lockdown rules was okay, when I believed in their purpose and soooome of the logic. I self-isolated for ten days either side of my questionable ‘support bubble swap’ and I was always cautious and only really pushed the edges or broke the rules when things were really getting to me, but I’m not going to pretend I was a rules-saint.

At this point, I’d been spending time with other human beings, in the flesh,  for about five hours a week (Foodbank; a walk; bubble dinner). For us in Bradford, it was month seven or eight of lockdown, there were the early rumblings of Christmas being cancelled and I absolutely didn’t believe that things would be any better in January, either, and everyone had zoom fatigue, and hanging out outside in the cold fatigue, and I just started to feel isolated and vulnerable and tired. I’d start just crying at my desk in my study and not getting any work done when I tried. I was really frustrated at myself for not being able to work effectively,  because I pride myself on good work ethic and productivity and getting Stuff Done, and I was paralysed looking at emails and staring at the screen in my study alone and crying.  Every time my lovely workplace was asking us to think about things that would help our mental health, all I could churn out was every daylight hour that I could see people outside I’m supposed to be working and it’s illegal for there to be anyone in my home. And taking longer lunch breaks just meant more time in the evenings staring at the screen and willing myself to work. I hadn’t done anything fun in months, because even when some fun things were allowed in the summer for most of the time they were only allowed as a household. It was too dark to go for anymore walks and we’d done sitting in the park in the rain for hours on a Saturday and I was lonely, and sad, and my parents said we could go to Skipton for a few days —- leave Bradford!!!! — and I thought about having more than two hours of social interaction with a real life human being and I said yes, and then the rules changed again and that meant I probably should have gotten them to change our restaurant bookings to outdoor picnics to make it rule compatible, but I did not, and when I got back I thought to myself you’ve had your company now, that was your nice thing and then I went into hibernation. 

I put hope in a box, stopped making plans, stopped trying to wrestle with my emotions and ride the corona waves, and accepted mediocrity. 

And it was okay.

It was better than the alternative, which was sharp and painful and kept inspiring all these ugly emotions that I didn’t like, like jealousy, or this feeling of being entitled, or wanting and longing things. I felt less crippled by it all when I just gave up and settled for existing in my empty house with my cat.

I passed the time. I did some painting. I had a week off work on a week that they upped the lockdown rules — again — and I went for two walks with other people and spent the rest of the week doing a paint by numbers and watching Supernatural and hermitting enough that I stopped looking at or answering my phone, and I didn’t actually hate it. I think I could probably sink into being a social recluse pretty easily, actually, even though it would be terrible for me. I had to drag myself back into communicating with other people for work again and it took a lot of effort and I felt a lot like I’d rather sit and paint and be, which was strange, because six months previously I’d been properly, properly scared of taking a week off alone in my house.

I made myself an alcohol advent calendar and my dad bought me a cheese advent calendar and I don’t even remember putting up my tree on my own, but I guess I did, and I half-watched the news and told myself I didn’t have any hope and absolutely didn’t think about Christmas.

And then they said we could have Christmas.

And then they told us we couldn’t.

That was a bad day. 

Once again, I’d been trying to minimise risk, so had already been self-isolating from my bubble for over a week the day they cancelled Christmas. I had been going into the office a few days a week because it meant I actually did something, but I’d cut out that, cut out foodbank, cut out walks: hadn’t seen a person for a week. I was sat on the floor of my front room wrapping up Christmas presents and then I turned on the news and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed from my gut and remembered why I’d set aside this ‘hope’ thing in the first place. 

It worked out okay, for some of my family. We made a new plan. I swapped bubbles to my parents again and my parents came and picked me up and drove me down to my childhood home for a few days. I got to see one of my besties for evening walks around the village and came back and watched TV with my parents, greedily drinking in company, and being around someone else, and someone doing things for me. I’d been so so tired of doing everything for myself. Bubble dinners were such a blessing because it didn’t mean another meal purchased and cooked for and cleaned up by me. My mum did my laundry and I hugged her a lot and I cried over the amount of cheese she’d bought for all of us that now we couldn’t all eat. We drove back up to mine on Christmas Eve, and I’ve never been so pleased to have them in my house. Making cups of tea. Deciding what to put on the tv. Playing a board game or just talking to me over breakfast.

It really confused me, actually. I hadn’t really had any social interactions that weren’t intentional or purposeful for nine months. I had, like, work meetings. Specific social video calls. Walks. Bubble dinner. Then my mum was half chatting to me as she pottered around the kitchen while I was trying to drink my morning coffee, completely baffled that she couldn’t tell that I was clearly busy with my coffee, swamped, not prepared for conversation.

We saw my sister, brother-in-law and niece on Christmas Day and it was a good day, even if we missed Scotland sister et al and it was hyper-intense, all our Christmas joy condensed into one day (and actually my parents had formed a childcare bubble with my sister to help with brother-in-laws shifts, so we ended up taking niece out for the day etc in between, so really we were very, very blessed).

Whenever my parents leave after Christmas, I’ve always been ready for them to go. They’re brilliant but they’re a lot and they hit my house like a hurricane, taking up all the space, invading (sometimes setting off alarms), and usually at the end of the festive period I’m ready to have my house back. 

This time, I cried for a few hours after they left. Not big ugly tears, this time, just a few, slow tears. I knew it would be a while till I saw them, but I think I was crying more because the respite from the constant-aloneness was so lovely, and made me realise how tired I was.

It’s so exhausting to be alone every hour of every day. For anything to happen you have to dredge up the energy or the motivation or the idea. You can’t just piggyback on someone else’s evening plan. Watch their tv show, or sit and chat and waste time. 

And then I went back to hibernation. Me and my cat and my lack of hope and eventually spring came, and I was thirsty for it like I’ve never been in my life; longing for the arrival of the snowdrops, drinking in every new bluebell, revelling in every day the weather got warmer. I planted things in my garden and watched it all come to life again. Me and the world and my soul and my hope. 

I think we’re being unfair to ourselves if we don’t accept that these things have left scars and don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re all really, really tired. 

Housemate and I were celebrating our quarterly Christmas back in September (fully incorporated into our schedule these days) and were midway through our festive breakfast, when this Christmas song came on our playlist that I’d listened to a lot last year, and I just started crying there at the breakfast table. Hello, trigger.

This wave of hopeless, listless, exhaustion just came slap bang out of nowhere and slapped me round the face, clogged up my throat, and I had to sit there and sit in my grief for a moment. 

I’ve changed some things about how I live my life, since lockdown. 

I have this new rule where every other weekend is a ‘home’ weekend to stop myself getting so tired, so under-introverted, and I’m trying to listen to my body more, and I grow things. Spent half my Sunday the other week digging up the remains of my chard, kale and leeks, to put my overwinter plants in the ground. I practice sabbath (badly) and I changed jobs and I (think) I’ve worked out how to get the best out of hybrid working. I’m trying to spend more time being creative, less time wasted. I drink less coffee, but buy more nice coffee. I have my beautiful Bertie, now, and he’s the best change of all.

I finished redecorating my front room on November 30th, then immediately dug all the decorations out from the loft and put up the (first) tree, and me and housemate put on a Christmas playlist, and I made mulled wine, and we hung up decorations on the tree, joking about whether she could be trusted with the tree after the 2019 fiasco. I like scrubbed together decorations attached to memories, so we hung up the Christmas macaroons baubles I bought with my friends at the hilariously middle class Harrogate Christmas fair, and I hung up the bauble with my name on that I got in primary school, the multi-coloured disco balls from secret santa and the decorative fork with-a-middle-finger-up declaring “2020” that one of my best friends made to commemorate last year.

(We exchanged gifts sat in the bandstand of a park, armed with a flask of mulled wine, sixteen blankets and a couple of bottles of Smirnoff ice because “if we’re going to drink in a park we might as well reclaim our youth.” As it turns out, most of us don’t like the stuff anymore, but there was a certain something about shivering with cold, smothered in anti-bac, singing Christmas songs at anti-social volumes in the park, together).

As we were decorating, that song came on again. I watched housemate hanging up the felt gingerbread from my sister’s wedding, and looked at where Bertie had yet to shrug off his Christmas hat, and to the advent calendar that my Mum had given me the confectionery to fill a few weeks ago when they came over to help me strip wallpaper. 

And that time I sang along instead.

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