Much to my delight my grandfather has removed his dental bridge. He has always found it uncomfortable and now the informality of isolation has settled in he has an excuse not to wear it. The ladies, who normally surround him during lunchtime at his residential home, are confined to their rooms so his Hollywood smile has retired to a glass of water by the sink. Each time I FaceTime him, our signals connect and I am greeted by his gappy smile. He grins into the camera like an adorable hillbilly and we stay like that for half an hour, chatting about politics, family members and the ongoings of our daily lives.
Before isolation swept through Europe, eventually ending up on our little island, the pair of us would put the world to rights over the phone, normally as I walked back from the tube to my North London flat, or dashing to meet friends. My grandad would always be in his favourite red chair by the living room window, watching the comings and goings of the world beyond. Now our playing fields are levelled, both of us contained within the confines of our homes.
It makes perfect sense to crave the closest available forms of human interaction in times like these. Seeing my grandad’s face on screen, rather than hearing his voice alone, feels significant. As primates, we are social beings made to interact. In fact, I often look at my own family and think we are not dissimilar to a congress of orangutans, shrieking, grooming and consoling one another, often through physical encounters. Once this physicality becomes forbidden, us mere mortals only desire it more.
Yesterday, my best friend celebrated her 29th birthday. Normally this would mean friends gathering for an edition of ‘Champagne Friday’, a tradition concocted by her mother and always living up to its namesake. Outside on the crowded terrace, cigarette smoke would curl around increasingly loud conversations and there would be a hearty rendition of happy birthday. Bodily contact would be a given, especially if we all piled into taxis and found ourselves sardined on a lively dance floor. This year, I had a bouquet of 30 tulips delivered to try and compensate, the hugs and kisses on ice for at least a few more weeks.
It is only when these social occasions come and go, I realise the drought we are in. It’s no surprise friends are deciding to move in with their current paramours. Love in the time of corona is a whole different ball game. While big frothy weddings are postponed for the foreseeable future, fledgling relationships are flourishing, both parties clinging to their government issued allowance of intimacy.
I find myself living in the digital age’s version of a Jane Austen novel, sending clandestine messages as my sleepy chaperone watches Antiques Roadshow beside me.
Even flirting, now only possible through limited channels, feels a thousand times more electrifying. Words have always been the way to my heart, so sending notes carefully edited to solicit the most scandalous reply is my favourite occupation. I find myself living in the digital age’s version of a Jane Austen novel, sending clandestine messages as my sleepy chaperone watches Antiques Roadshow beside me.
But man shall not love by WhatsApp alone. In this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, tells a particular story of Archie Cochrane, a medic during the Second World War. Cochrane found himself caring for a Russian patient who he misdiagnosed as having an agonising form of pneumonia. The soldier writhed with pain, but there were no drugs to be administered. “I finally instinctively sat down on the bed and took him in my arms, and the screaming stopped almost at once,” Cochrane explained highlighting the astonishing capability of human contact. “He died peacefully in my arms a few hours later. It was not the pleurisy that caused the screaming but the loneliness.”
Easter Sunday, normally sees my family gathered elbow-to-elbow around a dining table, eating an incinerated leg of lamb courtesy of my mother’s old school English cooking. One family member will have a choking fit from too much mint sauce and another will fall into a chocolate egg induced sugar coma. After lunch we succumb to the sofa, squashed together complaining about the lack of seats. Next year, when we can gather together again, personal space won’t seem as necessary.
Easter Sunday this year is the day one of my most treasured friends is due to become a father. I will not be able to rush over to meet his baby girl and hold her tentatively in my arms. Neither will I be able to stare at her hopefully podgy little face in the flesh and decide whether she looks more like her mum or her dad. It is likely my first encounter of her will be on FaceTime, her perfect downy head and baby smell evaporating through the WiFi connection. But for now that will have to do. After all, if interactions with my grandad are anything to go by, gummy smiles delivered through an internet connection, are much better than nothing at all.