:: Buzzwords

3:AM in Lockdown 37: Rachael de Moravia

I Capture the Castle // The Castle Captures Me
By Rachael de Moravia.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy…

I’m sorting out boxes of books in the garage in preparation for moving house. I find my old copy of I Capture the Castle and slip inside to leave it at the foot of my daughter’s bed. It’ll be a surprise for her when she next goes upstairs: she’s currently riding a skateboard on her belly, doing slalom on the drive, navigating the boxes I’ve been unpacking and repacking.

I first read Dodie Smith’s coming-of-age novel in my early twenties and regretted not knowing about its existence as a young teen. I imagine my daughter as Cassandra in the book: level headed, generous of spirit, a meticulous chronicler of haywire days. I see myself as both father and mother: father, an emotionally-stunted writer suffering writer’s block who spends his days reading murder mysteries; and eccentric mother, who roams around the castle grounds at sundown wearing nothing but boots, so that in the dark her lower legs fade into the night and all you can see is a female figure, moon on skin, floating across the parapet, down the lane, over the fields.

I open boxes, pick things up, turn them over in my hands, consider their heft, and wonder why I’m doing this since the weight of these things bears no relation to their value. I remind myself of their origin — gift, tourist tat, impulse buy, meaningful memento (mori, mori, mori…) — and try to decide whether to keep or not. The indecision gnaws at me.

We are in transit: we’re leaving this house but we’re not yet in the other house. There’s a stay-at-home order in place, but I’m in the wrong home. We’re trying to get away but we feel we have no choice but to stay.

I haven’t captured the castle; the castle captures me.

Two days before lockdown starts, we complete on the house and I get a call from the solicitor to say the money’s cleared and the keys are being released for me to collect.

The motorway is almost deserted. I arrive at the house and the selling agent waves to me in his rear-view mirror. We’d laughed awkwardly and bumped elbows last time we saw each other, but this time we decided to remain distant, carefully choreographing this dance on the phone before execution. I am parked behind his car. He gets out, places the keys on the doorstep and climbs back into his car. I approach the house with a pack of antibacterial wipes, pick up the keys and wipe them, the door handle, and my hands.

He calls out congratulations! and good luck! and with some unspoken acknowledgement of the strangeness of this moment, we, a pair of near strangers, wave goodbye to each other like it’s our last day on earth.

I let myself into the house. If I were two people I’d carry myself over the threshold. They’ve left us a little wooden box stuffed with shredded tissue paper, and inside I find a packet of shortbread, a trial-size jar of Nescafe Gold Blend, and a pair of matching bone china mugs. One mug is chipped, with delicate nicks at regular intervals around the lip and the base, like a flint arrowhead carefully knapped, even around the edges, sculpted into razor-sharp scallops. The other is smashed to pieces.

I scratch these thoughts onto the back of an A4 document envelope with an inch-and-a-half Conté pencil (sharpened with a knife by my father years ago as an apprentice draughtsman) which I find at the bottom of my handbag along with half-a-dozen kirby grips and a couple of odd buttons.

I write this standing by the kitchen sink, during a pandemic, on the back of an A4 envelope that contains my life insurance policy.

I brought a prayer plant with me and I stand it on the windowsill. This is the first time I’ve been alone in weeks, since we took the children out of school and decided to stay at home. I sit on the stairs in the empty house and breathe in the quiet. I am the epitome of isolate. I want to stay.

On my way back from the new house I shop for family who aren’t leaving their homes. It’s one-in, one-out at the supermarket and the queue snakes around the car park, following the faded one-way arrows painted on the tarmac for traffic. I wipe down the car door handles, steering wheel, blinker stalks, handbrake and gearstick, and I wipe the trolley before I go in. I wear blue Marigolds, keep my distance from people trying to keep away from me, and touch as little as possible. There are stacks of fresh, warm hot cross buns at the checkouts. I wipe my debit card and bin the gloves when I leave. I do my car decontamination routine again, just in case. The rest of the world seems unchanged.

My round trip takes several hours as I drop bags of food with my great uncle and aunt in their nineties, my parents in their seventies, and my sister who is immunocompromised. They smile and wave and mouth their thank yous through the windows.

I cut open a box that was still heavy and taped shut, untouched after moving into this house last summer. It’s a box of photos in frames, wrapped in sheets of newspaper less than 12 months old but from a different time entirely. I look through the portraits and group shots; parents, grandparents, siblings and their families, all smiling and hugging, standing close together, arms around each other. The picture frames seem like doorways, portals to places where we were once all together. If I just knew how to open them we could walk through the frames and see each other, be close again. It hasn’t hit me yet quite how this distancing is working itself into my heart.

I’m exhausted by my excursion into the outside world. Lockdown pace feels harder to navigate and outside stimulus is overpowering me. I feel like I hardly keep up with life at the best of times. At the worst of times, it feels like bombardment. I try to reword this thought to avoid war similes. This is not war; it does not discriminate, it is not a man-made conflict. There is no battling here. You don’t live or die based on your will to survive. My husband — who has been to war — says there is no comparison: in war the hospitals are full of those with lost limbs and shrapnel holes in their bodies. The air is full of shrieks of pain. Pandemic air is death in and of itself. Hospital corridors carry measured voices. The wards are quiet bar the hissing of pressured air and the beeping of monitors. Humans are remarkably quiet when drowning in their own fluid-filled lungs.

The children talk about how funny the words “curdle” and “gurgle” sound.

I wash my hands (for the fourth time this morning) at the kitchen sink. The children talk about how funny the words “curdle” and “gurgle” sound.

I feel grateful and guilty for feeling grateful that my children are off school. I love that they’re home with me, like those pre-school days when we had nowhere in particular to be and time was our own. Those days, like these, were long and intense and frustrating and wonderful. I grieved when each of them started school.

For someone with a busy family life who carves out space enough to spend time alone (travelling, walking, working at the kitchen table), a full house is sensory overload. My house is suddenly full of voices. Across the table from me, on his work laptop, my husband has a three-hour meeting with two dozen people in four different time zones. I can’t hear exactly what they’re saying but the cadence and lilt of their disembodied voices leak through his headphones into the kitchen. He receives phone calls at the same time, muting one and then the other and again and again. My brain reconfigures all this into white noise so I can prioritise the voices I need to hear: voices with bodies. At bedtime I sing lullabies.

I make a list of things we’re running low on. Writing a shopping list helps me feel.

At the same time I’m dismantling the growing list of things I’m told I need to help me through this: pop-up blogs; celebrities performing in their homes; non-celebrities performing in their homes; ashtanga yoga for toddlers; podcasts; voices from across the shut-down; reading groups; podcasts; writing prompts; quarantine goals; podcasts; poetry clinics; sourdough loaves; podcasts; make your own yeast; dig for victory; learn to crochet; teach yourself how to teach mathematics to children; “bored?” “too much time on your hands?” “stuck at home with very little to do?” “write that book!” “inspire!” “uplift!” “create!” etc. If the virus doesn’t get you, toxic positivity will.

The world is more online than the online world of three weeks ago. Our lives are suddenly smaller, so we are driven to live our smaller lives in excess. As we give up our physical freedom, we offer up our digital lives instead, compelled to share the evidence of our buying, reading, making, producing, living, coping, along with evidence of our failure to do all these. We post pictures online as proof of life, and the unspoken undercurrent of all this tugs at me, threatening to pull me under: if you don’t exist in public, you don’t exist at all.

The irony is not lost on me as I sit here, in the kitchen sink, writing a lockdown diary, grist for the content mill.

The children are playing nurses and doctors. They’re winding lengths of old crepe bandages around each other’s arms and legs. They’re trying to stick yellowing gauze squares on each other’s faces with micropore tape that lost its adhesiveness years ago at the bottom of the first aid kit. The sofa is hospital.

Those twin waves of gratitude and guilt come back every time I acknowledge how privileged we are. Our income seems secure for now, we have enough to eat, we are able to keep in touch with our elderly and vulnerable who are taking steps to look after themselves as best they can. We have the luxury of working from home in this crisis. It feels absurd to be considering moving from one home to another.

In the outside world online, I see photos of those who are without homes sleeping in car parks with social distancing boxes marked out on the concrete.

I find an Arden Shakespeare edition of Romeo & Juliet, a numbered school copy I should’ve handed back two decades ago, in the bottom of a box I thought was empty. “A plague on both your houses,” I say to myself over and over like a curse as I’m wrapping and packing plates to take from my one kitchen to the other.

My youngest starts waking with nightmares. At bedtime I sing lullabies and I hug him for a long time, pressing my face into his hair. I hold him close so that my glasses press against my face and leave an imprint of my eyelashes on the lenses like a bird that’s flown into a window: wings spread, every detail of feather-spray imprinted on the glass, knocked unconscious if not neck-broken dead.

In the weeks preceding lockdown we’d been selling bits of furniture we’d been dragging around the world with us for nine (work-related) house moves. Items: various, surplus to requirements. We needed the cash, and we wanted to simplify our lives, taking only the most useful and beautiful (as Ruskin suggests) to the new house. It has a small footprint and there isn’t much storage. So for the last couple of months we’ve been sleeping on mattresses on the floor, shoeboxes for nightstands, living out of suitcases. The children think it’s fun, like camping indoors.

In the midst of all this, I get head-hunted by an academic recruitment agent who asks me to apply for a position as head of a postgraduate writing programme in London. Our new house is a couple of miles from a mainline station to Paddington and I can’t believe how well this would work out. She is attentive and checks on me several times to ensure I’m going to apply. She tells me they have only three or four “viable” candidates and the Deputy Vice Chancellor is extremely keen to talk to me. I work diligently over long hours on my CV and application, take a phone interview, and as the reality of the pandemic starts to hit London, they invite me to a video interview rather than travel in for the day. By now the country is encouraged to work from home and lockdown is looking likely. I hear nothing from the recruitment agent or the university. Teaching staff taking industrial action leave picket lines as a precaution, and the following week campuses are closed. I take their silence as an end to our discussion.

Politicians are coming under fire for breaking the stay-at-home directive and visiting their second homes in the country. This isn’t like the evacuation of children during the war. The countryside doesn’t want city folk flocking to their quietude, bringing sickness. ICU beds are few in rural towns. The Welsh tourist board, Visit Wales, runs a campaign to stop visitors from urban areas invading the countryside after record numbers descend on (or rather ascend) Snowdonia: “Visit Wales: Later” they plead.

We cancel the reservation for the van we were hiring to move ourselves over the Easter weekend, unable to justify the risk in travelling from the city to our new village.

I’m back in the garage sorting out boxes. A mouse has got into a box of books and I check each volume for damage. The only one that’s been nibbled is Finnegans Wake. My great uncle calls and I take a break, sitting in a fold-out camping chair, flecked with dry red mud like blood spatter, on the drive. I can’t say our move has been postponed indefinitely, I tell him, because at some point in the next few weeks we won’t be able to afford to stay in this rented house any longer and we’ll be forced to break the lockdown, and ship the children and all our things to the new house. Stay put as long as you can, he says, and we’ll come for tea in your new house when this is all over.

Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.


First posted: Friday, April 17th, 2020.

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