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3:AM in Lockdown 21: Tomoé Hill

By Tomoé Hill.


36.5, 36.1, 36.4: these numbers are my mornings now. Before I do anything else, I take my temperature. It’s a new routine that reminds me that any old one may well be obsolete. Looking out of the window, it seems almost paranoid to think anything has changed — things appear as they always had been, almost. Almost is control but not quite. Not quite is the same as nothing, sometimes.

Isolation, or what most people would have considered it until now, has been a way of life for over fifteen years. I only went from home to work, or to buy groceries most of the time. Socially, well … I wasn’t. As an asthmatic child, I spent such extended periods confined or not allowed to be with other children, that it shaped how I functioned — or didn’t need to — with others, or very few. The child grew up to be a woman who enjoyed silence more than voices, but still learned to care from a distance.

You would think I would be in my element now. But I’m not. The chorus of art/literature will save us rings false to me. Distance might save us. Competence and cooperation might save us. Empathy might save us — or at least help us reshape our concept of what it means to function in a normal capacity. There was a line in an old spy show — I think it was Danger Man with Patrick McGoohan — where a character says something like cynics are secretly the most romantic. I’ve always remembered it because as an undeniable one of the former, I’ve wondered about the excess of empathy I also seem to hold. Why it seems so contradictory, yet natural. Why people who are the most vocal about it seem to be the ones who have the least.

I can’t write — or maybe I just don’t feel it’s necessary. I haven’t been able to for a month or so, bar some very minor edits. Nor can I read, at least in the way the literary community regards reading. Agatha Christie and the collected Raffles stories are about my mental speed. I don’t want to read Camus or Tsvetayeva, Orwell or Woolf. That’s not to belittle others who can do one, the other or both, but what there is of my concentration is mostly distributed between carefully disinfecting incoming parcels, cleaning, making sure that our weekly source of groceries is still open, worrying about finding toilet paper online for my 70-something mother in another country, and how I can help the people I care about and others who are being forgotten. It’s only early days, but it already feels like forever.

The other week I laughed, remembering I’ve been in contention for a writing prize since January, when I was told I was a finalist. I’d forgotten until I received an email updating status: still going forward, just waiting on the judge. Two months ago, I was thrilled. I’d never stuck out submitting to anything like that, you see. Lack of self-confidence meant I pulled everything I entered. Now it seems less than minor — a lot of things do, but perspective always seems to come along when it’s no longer of use. I’m cynical enough to find this funny. I suppose that’s a sign I’m still functioning in the right way.

I realise I’m writing this. I almost said no — not sure why I said yes, other than I thought it was important to show that feeling useless and helpless and not having anything faux-spiritual or strong to say right now is as valid as anything else. There’ll be time for creative productivity later, or maybe there won’t. Either way, I refuse to pretend turning out a pretty sentence is the pinnacle of importance for me right now. I’ve been trying to parse why, if the isolation doesn’t bother me, I’m reacting the way I am these days. The best I can come up with is the people immediately around me: neighbours, people outside the window, for the most part are treating this as a joke. For someone always made fun of as too sensitive, observing lack of empathy in others at a time when it is vital to wellbeing — if not life itself — has the effect of paralysing loneliness.

There’s a vintage Twilight Zone episode called ‘Time Enough at Last’, where a meek, browbeaten man who only wants to read finds himself the last person on earth. Briefly ecstatic at the future holding nothing but time for himself and books, he accidentally breaks his glasses — destroying his opportunity. Now feels like a proverb in the making: put in the position of each of us being a ‘last person’ of sorts in our isolation, do we use this time for ourselves or for others as much as we are able, so that we might all come out of this with enough at last?

This morning I was 36.1 again. As I sat on the ledge of the bath, waiting for the electronic thermometer to beep, I forgot myself for a moment and thought that it might make a good story opener: a world where salutations are our daily temperatures. But we’re pretty much there, and besides, the agents and editors are going to be inundated with terrible Ballardian variations for a very long time. Advice? I’ve never been the type to provide sound bites. I find them pretty cheap, and we’ve got enough between the cut-rate, Flannery O’Connoresque digital preachers holding panic revivals and the blue-tick platform writers with their self-indulgent plague diaries and armchair diagnoses right now. About the only thing I know from all those years of solitude is that it prioritises what’s needed — important — at that point in your life. That’s probably worth remembering, and more useful, in the days to come.


First posted: Monday, April 6th, 2020.

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