:: Buzzwords Archive: May 2020. Click here for the latest posts.

3:AM in Lockdown 68: Russell Persson (published 31/05/2020)

The Giant Sloth of North America
By Russell Persson.

Looking back as upon the stretches of tiles who in surface become our maps the ones skipped our lost or never laid ashlar. Filling in these pauses with the measurements of others — books nearby and raw footage of space and seas and some of it untrue. The place our unquiet eye leads us. Or bored or somewise unsated we take a few slow steps and decide to learn about geologic time and how the moon came to be.

On geologic time there were the periods of heavy bombardment. Millions of asteroids and debris impacting earth which at the time had not yet cooled and was itself a ball of molten minerals. There is also the giant impact hypothesis. Something planetish the size of Mars hits earth head on. Some believe there was an ocean of magma. What would become the moon spun off from this collision and became debris that orbited earth and over centuries coalesced. There is today no consensus on the details.

On extinction events apart from what this season visits us we sift a full catalog. Permian-Triassic or the Great Dying brought about it’s possible in solo or in a clutch of pulses some drawn in oceanic methane yet some hold to account the Siberian Traps. Eighty three percent of all genera extinct and this was the end of the Paleozoic Era. Two hundred million years later an asteroid eight miles wide impacted earth near what is now the Yucatan and this is the theory of Alvarez. Almost eighty percent of all plant and animal life erased. The Mesozoic Era came to an end and teleost fish with it, so many of them sequential hermaphrodites.

The giant sloth and the camels of America. Giant armadillos weighing two tons each and American horses, mammoths, oversized cave lions and rodents the size of bears. The giant sloth reaching a height of twenty feet and weighing eight tons. These all exterminated over the course of about a thousand years after evolving and thriving on the continents of the present-day Americas for thirty million years.

Crossing from Siberia to Alaska and south past melting glaciers into North and then South America. The Holocene. An interglacial period of the Cenozoic. This is the original migration of humans from Africa to Asia to North America. Making many of ourselves. Moving on to settle in continual moving. Gathering and killing what was nearby until that too was gone. Continuing East to the wetlands of Alabama and south to the deserts of Central and South America, the jungles of Central and South America. Here in our blink.

Over the course of fifty million years of mutation and selection brought about the horse. The horse was then killed off in one millennia. On the arrival of humans, homo sapiens. On this the fossil record is not ambiguous.

Columbus and his boats who on false math augured into an unknown continent. He called them Indians even so and so began the first of four exterminations of the inhabitants of North and South America. Violence and disease against which there was no natural immunity.

India, once an island continent, moving inches a year toward Asia and causing on its arrival the upheaval of the Himalayas.


Two hours of an afternoon on the front porch. There is a breeze. Three tall sycamore trees near the house and growing through the railing of the porch is a honeysuckle vine and climbing up the front porch column is a Cecile Brunner rose bush that has started to bud. On each new rose bud are twelve or twenty aphids about the same shade of light green as the buds. The blind dog this afternoon moves from one spot of sun to a spot of shade and back again every ten minutes or so. There is often an afternoon breeze here. The wind chimes at the far end of the porch are almost too loud this afternoon. Three birds are on the lawn eating dandelion seeds. Four birds, sparrows maybe.


Australia, unconnected to any other continent, left to its own millions of years of disparate evolution. Mega fauna, unlike any other on the planet, killed off to not return coinciding with the arrival of Asiatic homo sapien. And so the homo sapien — a sentient plague, a cloud, the summary of five hundred million years of vertebrate radiation.

The measurements of others. Two hundred and forty thousand miles from earth to the moon. At an average speed of ten thousand miles an hour a ship can arrive in near twenty four hours. Three men. Weightless. Hours earlier on land in Florida.

After any period of even general research into the history of mankind it becomes clear that our earth is under no pact to let us in on why we exist at all.


There was a time when time began more recently. Before the Enlightenment, when sacred time led us to believe the beginning of our history was in the Garden of Eden. This was later revised to Armenia, where it was believed Noah and his boat came to rest after the flood. And floods were understood to be the cataclysmic events that marked the primary epochs of human history. If there was a flood and this flood killed off all mankind, including any written record of their existence, then this new postdiluvian world must be the true origin of civilization. There was a time when it was believed the earth was about six thousand years old. Calculations were made by biblical scholars who looked deeply into the passages of the old testament to determine how many years had passed since the creation of the earth. It was not until the Enlightenment when it was proposed that the earth was much older than previously imagined. Based on calculations of the cooling of molten metals, Kelvin proposed that earth was roughly a hundred million years old. This number also lent credence to the theories of Darwin and Lamarck, giving the once unfathomable spans of time required by these theories the millions of years to play out.


In fifth grade, when I was ten years old, for extra credit I baked a mixture of flour and water in the oven after putting it into a baking tray and pressing grooves in it with my finger. When it was cooked I painted in those grooves with blue paint to look like irrigation canals and next to those irrigation canals I painted green lines to indicate the food crops being nourished by the water diverted there. This was the cradle of civilization. Sumer. Mesopotamia. The Fertile Crescent. Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Where civilization began, or so. There was no mention of African humans or how at all humanity appeared in Sumer. Looking back it seems even then, when I was ten, there was a kind of sacred or mystical quality to the cradle of civilization. Echos of bible study must have filled in the cracks for what was missing in the narrative I received. But none of us ever mentioned that out loud and our teachers never said as much. Men with robes, camels, walking across vast landscapes of sand and dunes. This must be where the bible left off and where our school books picked up the story. In Sumer, with men pressing small shapes into clay tablets and diverting water from rivers off to where the crops were grown. It is believed, from the results of the most sophisticated scientific methods of dating potsherds and human remains, that Sumer was first settled about seven thousand years ago. This cradle of civilization.


The parietal art inside the Grotte Chauvet is estimated to be about thirty thousand years old. Shark teeth and ancient mollusks and trilobites have been discovered on mountaintops. Potsherds. Lithics. Debitage. What these are are gussied-up words for garbage. Coprolite is the word for prehistoric turd. There is a reason why midden heaps are so important. The archeologist carefully brushes away the dirt to uncover one more piece of broken pottery, one more obsidian chip left behind from the building of an arrowhead, tiny bones of what was eaten, thousands of shells carefully separated and examined for clues on how they might have been used for something at all other than nothing and charcoal tells the story of what fuels cooked the flesh of what was run off cliffs to death. The bones of infants decorated by intricate costume jewelry and the crushed skulls of scoliotic elders. The story of a people and their deeds sung through the vibrant record of garbage. What’s cast off defines us. What rots becomes our message. What remains after we’ve consumed all there is to consume within our practical reach, an unimaginable shelf of trash that sings the odd story of a typical human. So we continue, and we bury our brightest stories for them only to be misread by the next.

3:AM in Lockdown 67: Nicholas Royle (published 25/05/2020)

Lockdown Alphabet
By Nicholas Royle.

My symptoms included anosmia — loss of sense of smell — along with headache, dry cough and temporary mild fever. The man on the other end of the 111 phone line, in the first week of March, wasn’t impressed, being more interested in whether I’d been to northern Italy in the past fortnight. It wasn’t his fault. When you’re working from a script, the script needs to be right. He didn’t think I had the virus, so neither did I. There was nothing anywhere about anosmia being linked to Covid-19. Not a word. And then there was. My wife found a single page online about anosmia being widespread in Iran. It still took weeks for it to be acknowledged as a symptom anywhere else, and then only anecdotally. The UK government didn’t add it to the list of officially recognised symptoms until the third week of May.

While everyone one else on my Instagram feed was baking their own sourdough bread, we were freezing sliced loaves, in case we needed to self-isolate, since we still thought we probably hadn’t had the virus. This meant I could resume collecting bread ties from supermarket loaves, a practice suspended when I had started regularly dropping three or four quid on sourdough loaves from artisan bakers.

Boxes of the Belgian-owned Mexican lager have been piled high in Aldi, right by the multipacks of Peach Coke, more knockdown than lockdown. On my daily walk, I came across a box in a skip. The skip was full of books, maps, photographs and a medium-sized cardboard box bearing the legend ‘Corona’. A label indicated it had and might still contain negatives, but equally I wondered if it might not also somehow contain the virus. The wet markets of Wuhan were a smokescreen; the virus orginated in a semi in Heaton Mersey, cooked up, perhaps, by the late owner, a retired teacher. I took some books, maps and photographs, but I left the box marked ‘Corona’.

Dominic Cummings
On 27 March, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings was filmed running from Downing Street following the Prime Minister’s diagnosis with Coronavirus. I thought, I can do that, and handed my phone to my wife.

Edward St Aubyn
My friend and colleague Rachel Genn recommended the Patrick Melrose novels to me. I’d been aware of them, and the TV adaptation, but I hadn’t dipped in. Now, I know that Edward St Aubyn should really appear in this alphabet under S, just as Dominic Cummings is more C-word than D-list, but Never Mind, which just happens to be the title of the first Melrose novel, and there it was in the RSPCA shop for a quid a few days before lockdown, so I thought I’d give it a go. He writes brilliantly at the level of simile and metaphor, but, oh my God, the point of view. It’s all over the place. No more Patrick Melrose for me.

Fondant Fancy Roulette
Maximum number of players: eight. Take one box of fondant fancies. While everybody closes their eyes, open the box and take one fondant fancy per player. All players may now open their eyes and see who has won (drawn either pink or yellow) and lost (drawn brown). I’ve heard yellow described as lemon, but pink is no more raspberry than brown is chocolate. They are, in our house, and will always be, yellow, pink and brown.

Giles Gordon
The novelist, short story writer, poet, anthologist and agent would have been 80 on 23 May. As a long-time fan of his work, I decided to spend the month of May reading — in some cases rereading — all of his novels and short story collections. So far, by the date of Gordon’s eightieth birthday, I have reread his first two collections and his first three novels. I have just started reading the fourth novel, a sequel to the second novel. This means, once I have finished the fourth novel, I will be left with two novels, neither of which I have read before, and the third collection, which I am looking forward to rereading. Then I have a piece to write about Gordon for the Brixton Review of Books with a deadline of the first week of June. I should really be writing that rather than this.

Apparently some people have had an issue with lockdown and being unable to visit the hairdresser.

Second track on Joy Division’s second album, Closer, released 40 years ago this year. I didn’t use quotation when I assembled a short story, ‘Disorder’, out of the lyrics to Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, and I’m not going to start now. But the opening line to ‘Isolation’ perfectly describes the emotional state of many people since mid-March. See ‘Joy Division’ below.

Joy Division
Appropriate lockdown listening. See ‘Isolation’ above. The fortieth anniversary of the death of singer and lyricist Ian Curtis fell on 18 May.

It was late in the evening when K realised he hadn’t changed out of his pyjamas all day.

Normally I spend part of my time with my wife at her place in London. Not since 23 March…

… during which period we’ve been locked down at my place in Manchester.

A lot of publishers have been negatively affected by lockdown. Some may not survive. My small press, Nightjar, has been OK. We publish short stories as signed, numbered, limited-edition chapbooks and sell them direct from the website. There’s no issue with profits being down, because there are no profits. To reduce losses, during lockdown and before (and after, if there is an ‘after’), I hand-deliver orders within what I consider to be walking distance, which has increased during lockdown.

One-way system
My local Tesco has become home to a piece of site-specific immersive theatre. After spraying your basket with disinfectant you follow the one-way system, trying not to enter any 2m box while being mindful of any queue building up behind you. When you reach the end of the store you find that aisles 14 (Nappies & Wipes) and 15 (Health & Beauty) are both north to south, so that, if you go down 14, it is impossible to enter 15 without breaking the rules and incurring wrathful glares from actors playing self-righteous shoppers. However, even if you decide to go without the paracetamol or moisturising cream that is all you really came in for, you still have to enter 15 to join the queue for the tills. What to do?

Phil Neville
I walked to Altrincham, to deliver a Nightjar order, a (long way) round trip of some 18 miles. Approaching, on the other side of the road, when I got to Hale Barns, home of footballers, was a runner. Black top, orange shorts, tanned legs, white socks, black trainers. Looks a bit like Phil Neville, I thought. It was Phil Neville.

I remember seeing a photo online, back in early March, of people queuing for a bus or to enter a supermarket in Finland. They were standing two metres apart. How ridiculous, I thought, how utterly bizarre. Now, if I walk straight into a supermarket without waiting in a queue two metres behind the person in front, that’s bizarre.

Golfers stopped playing golf and golf courses returned to the people. I’ve enjoyed walking where I’m not normally permitted to walk. I found a hidden pond surrounded by trees in a corner of a local golf course where, in just ten minutes, I saw goldfinch, robin, blackbird, blackcap, goldcrest, chaffinch, blue tit and wren.

We’ve watched The Sopranos from season one to season six. It’s a strangely unsettling experience to believe in and grow close to certain characters and follow their various stories and, every so often, be reminded that their way of life is founded on brutal violence and murder.

Tits and other small birds have finally started visiting the bird feeder we hung from a tree about three weeks into lockdown. The first device we got, a cheap thing from a local hardware shop, should have been sold as a squirrel feeder. Everything about it seemed designed to encourage and provide sustenance to squirrels. They emptied it in about half an hour, ultimately by turning it upside down. We replaced that with something resembling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that we bought off the dark web. The squirrels soon worked out they couldn’t get anywhere near it and it hung disconsolately for a couple of weeks until a robin paid a brief visit, followed by a blue tit. Since then there have been a couple of sparrows. We’re playing a long game.

At Manchester Metropolitan University we’ve been teaching distance-learners online for years, so had a bit of a head start.

Vanishing Point
I read Antonio Tabucchi’s short novel Vanishing Point while walking from Didsbury to Denton and back on the Fallowfield Loop delivering another Nightjar order. An existentialist mystery story, beautifully translated by Tim Parks, it’s full of lines like ‘Faldini has the face of someone who has spent his entire life addressing letters to distant countries while looking out across a landscape of derricks and containers.’

Wild garlic
I picked so much it’s a wonder there was any left for anybody else. I made soup, pesto, salad and risotto, and they were all, if I say so myself, delicious.

The only story idea I’ve had during lockdown is one that will work best told in the second person. Always disconcerting, second-person narratives are well suited to these ‘strange times’. Is the author writing about you, or about some imagined third person whom he or she is addressing and into whose world you are granted a privileged perspective? Or about an everyman or everywoman figure that could be you but could be anyone? The use of the second person is just one of the puzzling elements in Giles Gordon’s experimental crime novel Girl with Red Hair (1974) and Ron Butlin uses the device to make the reader empathise with his protagonist at the same time as creating distance between you and him in The Sound of My Voice (1987), while Alison Moore uses it almost as dazzle or distraction in her short story ‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’, in which she’s equally interested in the identity of the owner of the voice that addresses the ‘you’ of the story.

I’d taken part in a number of Zoom calls, meetings and events before someone — one of the guests on David Collard’s excellent A Leap in the Dark — explained that as well as choosing between gallery view and speaker view, you can also choose to ‘pin’ the video of anyone attending, which means you can watch them, in close-up, even when they are not speaking. It’s a voyeur’s paradise. When you should really worry is when you realise you’ve pinned your own video and are watching yourself. See ‘You’ above.


3:AM in Lockdown 66: Des Barry (published 23/05/2020)

Wagtails and Minuets
By Des Barry.


At this time of year in Australia, the position of sunrise from our balcony window drifts north-east as winter approaches. Before the sun appears through the sparser branches of the trees above the rooftop horizon, it lights up the sky in pale pinks, in orange and blue. I tend to wake up around 5.30am so I usually see the dawn. This early, the path along Port Philip Bay and the low grassy area beside it, aren’t so crowded with runners and dog walkers. If I can get in a walk, and the weather’s calm, I can breathe in the watery space and stillness; or if it’s stormy, I can breathe in sea spray and wind. Doing the same walk every day, makes me appreciate the changes in light, in temperature, the air on my skin. The presence of Covid-19 in the world makes the enjoyment even more acute especially when, at the age of sixty-five, I’m just about in the demographic that seems to have less chance of surviving the virus should I get an acute case of it. I’ve been in lockdown since March 3rd.

I’d flown back to Australia from the UK on February 28th. In London, there had been talk about Coronavirus in Wuhan but nobody seemed that worried about it. I’d been in London for about six weeks. I’d also been in Madrid for a week or so: to the Prado for the Goya exhibition; to the Thyssen-Bornomisza Museum to revisit the Expressionists; a day in Toledo on a pilgrimage to all the El Greco sites. Nobody was worried about Coronavirus. My friend Diego said, ‘One day a virus will wipe out humanity. But not this one’. We laughed about it. I felt fit, and even surprised, that I hadn’t been sick for even one day. On the previous year’s winter visit to Europe, I’d had flu for about three weeks. In Britain, I heard that for most people, the illness was like a mild version of the flu.

As a resident returning to Australia, I was waved through immigration and customs. Apparently, travellers from China and South Korea were being tested for Covid-19 but nobody from anywhere else. Back in Melbourne, getting over jetlag, I got a haircut, went to the dentist, caught up with friends. Then my throat became sore. I thought nothing of it at first. I went to an event with about four hundred and fifty people. By the next day I could hardly talk. I developed a persistent dry cough. I still felt fine but by now the general social anxiety level was rising. I thought I should call the government Department of Health hotline… mainly for reassurance. The nurse asked me where I’d travelled and a lot about my symptoms. Some of the symptoms she asked me about sounded terrifying. I didn’t have them. At the end of this long interview, she said that it I didn’t need a test. I should just stay at home, take paracetamol and drink plenty of water. I thought, yeah, I’m right. It’s just laryngitis.

A week later the government of Victoria mandated tests for any traveller who’d returned to Australia from anywhere in the previous fourteen days. I called the local hospital hotline at 4pm. I was at the hospital by 5pm. I was met at the testing center by triage nurses who took my temperature, checked my heart rate, and sent me for the swab test. There weren’t many people in front of me. The doctor asked me questions about my symptoms. She gave me the swab test — deep in the nose and the back of the throat. She told me I’d get the results in 48 hours. On the way out, the nurse who took my final form said it might take 72 hours to get the result. I was out of the hospital by 6pm.

Back home, I checked the government website. Because the labs were busy, it might take five days. I was now concerned that if I had the disease that I might have spread it without knowing. I wasn’t worried for myself because I still felt relatively well. It was a relief when I got a text message five days later to say that the test was negative and I didn’t need to self-isolate any more. Mostly I felt relief that I couldn’t have infected anybody in those early blasé days. Now I became aware that, when I tested negative, it meant I could still get the virus. And that I’m still in a relatively high-risk age group.

Now, when I do those daily walks on the sea shore, I’m acutely aware of each small change in the everyday routine: a wagtail that dips and bobs around my feet for about twenty meters along the shrub-line; the social distancing minuets; the mindlessness of the huffing macho joggers; a woman runner in a tense state of high anxiety, her eyes fixed on the screen in her outstretched hand; the man who lives in a camper in the car park who calls a good morning to me. Back in the apartment, I have to look at the Internet. I worry about my friends in Britain.

It took me two hours to get tested in Australia and I’m a civilian. I’m horrified at the complacency and sheer fucking cruelty of the British government that still refuses to test frontline medical staff. That there isn’t enough PPE for them. I’m horrified at the media’s sycophancy and lack of responsibility. I’m horrified that the British public feels the government is doing a good job. I’m horrified that so many of the people clapping for nurses and doctors voted for the party that cut the NHS for ten years, a government that continues with its clusterfuck of incompetence. Or worse, in its thrall to a right-wing accelerationist and its own disaster capitalists who are already making billions of pounds as they prey on failed businesses. From this distance, a vast number of imbeciles in Britain seem to be revelling in a dance of death that’s like a version of Dad’s Army painted by Hieronymous Bosch… comically hideous… and dangerous to my sane friends and family, to thousands of innocent people of all ages.

To keep my own sanity, I buy groceries once a week, I cook good food, I eat with my partner. Because I can. I’ve lost five kilos by healthy eating. For the past four weeks we’ve been watching one episode a night from the suitably gothic seven series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: the Jeremy Brett version. I’m still having trouble deciding what to read. Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller was the last novel I read and I’m reading Homo Faber slowly so slowly. But a breakthrough came this week in being able to write again: a full first draft of a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction in ages.

While Australia is getting this epidemic under control, Camus’ The Plague comes to mind, inevitably, to keep things in perspective. When the plague is just about over, Dr Rieux’s friend, Jean Tarrou, gets sick and dies. I’m aware something like this can happen to anyone. Can happen to me. We live in extraordinary times, present to the cruelty and compassion of this incredible world we live in. Faced with the real possibility of my own imminent death, I reflect on a life that I’m happy to have led: people, places, fuck-ups, books written and read. I’d quite like it to go on. Lockdown is fine.


3:AM in Lockdown 65: Charles Leitner (published 22/05/2020)

So Fondly Do They Sing
By Charles Leitner.


What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?
Many races, many people, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes.
Seeing stars sometimes.
– D.H. Lawrence

The city is quiet and the nights seem to have been returned to the rats and rabbits. The train cars are all but empty. Except for a handful of passengers, they roll along mostly on their own. Steady. And like the factories still churning, they are a good reminder that modern civilization in some form still continues.

Near the hospital, there is a man returning to his shift. He looks tiresome and worried. He holds a cup of coffee in his hand and trudges solemnly through the entrance revolving door. There are drives waiting along the streets. Patiently sitting idle, scrolling through the endless confines of the internet.

A man on the subway wears what appears to be a mosquito repellent mask. He grows nervous each time someone boards. After only a few stops, he departs.

There are postings on churches, bars, and restaurants, saying they’ve closed for now, but the construction still continues. The great machine is still ticking. The noise from this division of labor has become a fitting alarm for those who now work from home.

The nights have gone and turned to wonder, the mornings just the same. The daylights creeping fingers are welcomed by the birds. They don’t seem to mind the change. At the waking hours of the day they can be heard singing back to one another. They call out:

I am here.

You are there.

We are near.

So fondly do they sing. To know that we are still among the living is such a beautiful and bitter thing.

The sun has come and it seems now spring comes with it. February’s winds have gone away and now grows our desire to crawl out from the bleak confines of winter’s hollow. As the weather warms a deep anxiety awakens. We want to go out. We want to spend the first days of spring in the parks and bars listening to music in our sundresses and warm weather attire.

I am able to chat briefly with my neighbor. We talk with one another from our balconies. He is below. I am above. After a moment we decide it is ok and he joins me on my own. The city is beyond us and the lights still glimmer in the dark. We drink beer and talk quietly, trying in our own right to make sense of something which makes little sense at all. Something beyond any layman’s control. It appears we have both acquired a touch of angst, but we are trying to withhold it. What a terrible grim uncertainty brings.

He makes a joke about him and his girlfriend considering their options. He wonders half-heartedly if they’re going to need to buy guns and I make a lame reference to Warren Zevon. We both try to divert from the topic.

He is from Turkey and lives with his girlfriend. He moved here nearly five years ago with his mother and father and has been working a job in IT at Harvard. He is lucky. At least for now, he is still able to work.

A few nights ago, I am able to sleep with the windows open. The air was even and damp from a few days of rain and I felt a bit more at ease listening to the soft churning of the world. A night lark called from a distance and I could hear it as it fluttered across the moonlit sky. Though I could not see her, it is an accompanying sound in a world gone somber and quiet.

The nights are still. There are a few clouds which streak across the sky and cover what little light the moon provides. The hotels have gone dark. Only a few rooms are lit. An oasis in the blackness of their façade.

In the morning, children play in a sprinkler. Their laughter has livened the corner of the world I have found myself in. Where construction cranes swoon against the sky and the cars, barely a whisper along the highway, pass in ever dwindling numbers.

Spring showers have arrived. Lightning and the rolling thunder. It is starting to feel more and more like the days of old. When there was nothing but hemlock groves. When everything at night is silent except for the chatter of the natural world. The thunder booms and across the sky mist has turned to fog and the long building spires are now masked in an abundance of molecules.

I think to myself, this is not so bad, but then I walk past the hospital again. An ambulance driver takes a break for a smoke. A gurney rests vacant outside his van. There is no rush to put it back in again. That means more patients. That means more pressure. That means more bodies.

There are several television crews waiting down street. The producers stay warm in their cars as cameramen set up a shot with the hospital entrance framed in the background. An anchorwoman applies makeup in her rearview mirror. She’s in her mid-thirties and pretty. This could be her big break. This might make her career.

Outside a nearby clinic, the congregation of bums has not dwindled. The destitute are in bright spirits. They are happy just to have made it through another day. They seem to mock the other walking dead. They seem to think, hell, what took ya’ll so long. Welcome to the damned party.

My mother and father are in lockdown like the rest. “Can I tell you a good story?” she asks him.

“Sure,” my father says.

“Ok,” she begins. “So just the other day, there’s this man…”

“Is this a true story?”

“Yes. It was a woman’s birthday on his street. She’s ninety. Everyone is on lockdown and because of her age she mustn’t go outside. She can’t do anything.”

My mother is in the middle of making surgical masks out of my father’s old T-shirts. The iron is steaming and as she tells her story, she waves the thing around and small puffs of water vapor spout into the ceiling like smoke signals. They reach the ceiling, scuttle about, stretch, and dissipate.

“So this man decides it might be nice to give this woman a proper celebration. Proper in today’s sense, that is. So with white chalk he draws a handful of circles on the street outside of this woman’s window. The circles are each six feet apart. After he is finished, he calls on a number of neighbors to occupy the spaces he has drawn and they sing to her happy birthday.”

She goes back to work ironing the cloth on the table. Her hands move slow and the iron snorts as it runs over ripples in the white linen.

“Isn’t that just lovely?” she asks.

“Yes it is.”

My mother watches as I wrestle with their dog. She is still busy making her masks. “When I am that old, will you care for me like you do that dog?”

“Not a chance,” I say joking.

My mother and father have just entered the twilight of their lives and are soon approaching the point where we dip beyond the horizon, like falling suns, towards whatever lies behind the great beyond. They would rather enjoy their time with friends and family. Of course, they are thankfully with each other, but there is little to discuss. Like most everyone, they would rather speak about far different topics. Like sport, film, literature, art, or poetry. They are not reclusive creatures like the writer they had borne. They yearn to be among one another laughing all about, surrounded by those they’ve gone and made close.

We are starting to hear more frequent sirens. Even in a city, the blaring sound seems to come more and more. Sometimes two or three begin to call at once and you can tell by the way the sound reverberates across the cities concrete, that they are moving in opposite directions. They are signaling the growing panic. Panic which seems now to cling to us like lice to a stricken mutt. We can’t seem to shake it and it grows stronger by the hour.

There is not much anyone can do. Although there are still some of us out working in the fray, most are feeling helpless and afraid. There is little we can do except wait for the passing of the storm.

There are words flowing forth from other places in the world. Endless reports of news and rumors of what it is like elsewhere. News of bodies being burned in the streets of Ecuador. Buzzards flying overhead. Graves amass once more at Potter’s Field. Coins of Judas still being paid. Rumors from China of apartment doors having been welded shut with their tenants still inside. They are left there, imprisoned in the tiny worlds of their own creations, left to wait for this all to pass.

Here in America it is much different. This Great American Machine cannot be burdened to a halt because of such terrible death. It seems to have been this way for some time. Today’s American mind wishes not to be hindered by the dead and dying. Death comes still, barely, like a whisper. Murmurings of a friend who has succumbed to this disease. A son, a daughter, a mother or father. A husband, a wife, a neighbor or colleague. The dead seem to disappear and fade like a silent breeze through springtime leaves. Their names go along as well and soon become lost in the bowels of the ether, and in the growing sections of the paper’s obituaries.

It is late now and time for me to go home. Along the bridge which extends over the River Charles, a string of subway cars rolls by. There is not a single soul inside. It appears the train has ferried its final worker bee, that diligent nine to fiver, over to the other side. As I bike back to my apartment I think to myself, after all this I wonder if those chalk circles will make it through all the rain.


3:AM in Lockdown 64: Monique Roffey (published 21/05/2020)

By Monique Roffey.

As I write this, the UK is coming up to the end of its fifth week in lockdown. I will be fifty-five tomorrow, 24th April. At high risk, with asthma and a rare autoimmune illness, Churg Strauss Syndrome, I’m glad I made it to this age. However, in these times the subject of age has a much edgier significance. Thank God, I’m not nearer 60, is a quiet thought. Better odds. At least I’m blood type O, etc, etc. All these selfish and self-shoring up thoughts have come and gone, and come and gone, and I’m not necessarily proud of them. In short, what are my chances of survival? From the outset, I knew what catching Covid-19 could mean. I’ve seen what my NHS medical files look like, huge stuffed tomes wider than a hand’s grasp. I know how weak my chest is, how, daily, I rely on my inhalers to get by. When, mid-March, news of lockdown was imminent, I acted fast and bought myself a nebuliser. When it arrived from Amazon weeks later, I felt a little more secure. Now, they are impossible to get hold of. Asthmatics, worldwide, know that Covid-19 is a perilous threat.

However, early March, I came down with a cold. It seemed to slip inside me in a dream one Sunday night. I dreamt my cold. It didn’t arrive like normal colds, in my throat, lots of sneezing and then a clotted head for days; sodden tissues and bleary eyes. I was conscious of its arrival, during slumber, a strange and magical experience. No sneezing. Days later, I experienced a cloying sore throat. Worried, I cancelled a reading at Essex Lit-fest. They understood. I dialed 111 but I was told unless I’d been in direct contact with someone from Italy or China, I had no chance of getting this virus. That was March 5th. Ho ho. It’s usual for me to not shake off a cold. This one lasted a month. I had bouts of fatigue, too. I catch almost anything going around. So I’ve been trapped in a double bind: wondering if I’ve already had the virus, mildly, and living in mortal dread of catching it. Actually, the mortal dread has worn off. You can’t live at such a high pitch of fear for weeks. Something like acceptance has replaced this, a letting go. Also, hope. The longer I don’t get this, the more likely I will receive good NHS care; early on there was talk of ‘triage’. A friend had blithely said, “Mon, if you get this and end up in hospital, they’ll take one look at your notes, and bump you off”.


I’ve worked mostly from home the past twenty years, writing novels, editing and teaching online, so I had, at first, thought lockdown would be okay, psychologically and emotionally. I assumed I’d cope better than most. But the enormity of what this new virus means, its existential scope, has meant that lockdown hasn’t been at all easy. I’ve been constantly distracted, unable to focus much. I’ve slept erratically. There have been mood swings. Most of my friends have reported the same. I live without a television, but the news has been so compelling, especially in the early weeks, I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4 on the hour. I’ve been constantly searching the Internet for more than what we are being fed, trying to see if a long shot view is possible, trying to read what science is available for the lay reader, and trying to work out who to trust.

Since those early days of lockdown, I’ve also made a will. I’ve decided who gets what, should this virus take me. I’m single and childfree. I reckon if not now, when? This is the time to do this. I also wrote down what kind of ‘after party’ I’d like after my cremation. I’m a Buddhist, so no church please. Only now do I realise how important this is. Imagine being buried in a coffin and having a service in a church! I needed to tell people; no, certain procedures would really not be appropriate. Not for me. Please. Burn me and celebrate my life. No one wear black. I even chose who would officiate the party and where. Sadly, none of this will count, should I end up sick enough to die from this virus. I’ve watched nurses on Channel 4 clips talk of the end of death conversations they’ve had with those in ICU. Covid-19 deaths are heartbreakingly lonely. So are Covid-19 funerals. As a high-risk person, facing possible death has been ‘the thing’ of lockdown, or maybe mostly the early weeks. @HighRiskCovid19 is a hashtag I’ve used a lot, and I was part of a short film for Huff Post. Like all the other high riskers, I’m already ill. I live a more or less normal life, given essential and ongoing medication. When I finally received ‘the letter’ from my GP, I had to sit down. Go away. I went for a very long walk in the spring sunshine. Can you refuse to die? I think that’s how I’ll beat it. Utter denial. I watched Covid-19 survivor Pink, also an asthmatic, on Ellen, say that she’d done many mad bad things in her life, and “to go like this?” I get that too.

Actually, I have found some solace. Pandemic, a Netflix docu-series is outstanding. It puts the average person, the non-virologist, in the picture with what we are dealing with. Filmed in 2019, it follows several teams of scientists around the world, as they search for a way to stop what has now happened. I now follow some of these scientists on Twitter. They’ve been the few credible voices I now want in my life: Dr Jacob Glanville (@CurlyJungleJake) and Sarah Ives (@sives54), as well as pathogen preparedness expert Dr Syra Madad (@syramadad) currently overseeing New York’s response to the disease. These three scientists have been my go-to people in these weeks. They upload data and papers I feel I should read.

Like many, I’ve been watching the Tories have the rug pulled from under them; “profit is less important than life” says Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian. The Conservatives, as a group ideology, are having such an obvious failure in terms of human principle. It’s taken this, a frigging global pandemic, to hurt them. Capitalists need workers, but how can they capitalise if all the workers are either ill, dying, or locked indoors? Covid-19 is a leveller. The Tory press have even turned rogue. Murdoch has slayed Boris in the Sunday Times and his shoddy approach to the virus early on. Piers Morgan has also turned leftie, savaging Hancock and co, on live breakfast time TV. A friend of Trump, he’s laid into Trump too. The NHS, limping and barely standing, is now a cherished pillar of our society. The first Thursday we all clapped I was brought to tears. Middle class, living in the East End, my neighborhood is edgy at the best of times. These days, I feel more bonded with my neighbours. To date, £28 million was raised by an ex army Captain Tom Moore, walking laps of his garden, great except that the NHS isn’t a charity.

However, these shifts in POV high up are what has kept me hopeful in all of this. Surely Boris has been somewhat humbled, what with being saved from the jaws of death by the NHS, being tended to so tenderly by two immigrants? In his speech to the nation after he left hospital, he mentioned the word ‘love’ twice. But no one believes he might have softened. As a co-founder of XRWritersRebel, I hope, post Covid-19, we will see a new green deal and a substantial change towards how mankind cares for the planet. But for now, lockdown is best managed one day at a time. We face many more weeks of it, and, for those of us who are high risk, maybe many months. Tomorrow will be a good day. I will turn fifty-five.