Thursday 16 April 2020

From my window

After a frenetic few days organising cat food deliveries, farm shop groceries, arranging flowers to be purchased for our wedding anniversary, planning Easter goodies, painting the garden shed and fence panels I am having a couple of days R & R.

At the top of our house we have a light, bright guest room where not even the internet penetrates. No sky+ box installation leaves the room removed from tv adverts, news bulletins and the general hum of live broadcasts.

Opposite me are my father’s tomes from his days in WW2. He served in signals in the eighth army under Field Marshall Montgomery. Three titles stare out at me ‘Monty’, ‘Monty’, ‘Monty’. My father was always safe in the war as he was in armoured cars with a driver. But at the end of hostilities, in their swing round to Berlin, they were diverted to Belsen. He was part of the liberating army.

My jumpiness about when the next food delivery slot will appear in this time of corona is nothing to the dreadful sites he must have witnessed. He recalled people had been reduced to rag dolls. All muscle tone gone. Too weak to move, and like a child carrying an unanimated toy, each dying body had to be lifted gently by a serving soldier to a quiet place as their spirit left this earth. Dad never mentioned the stench, the smell of death, just the face masks and DDT. And his hatred of racism.

After the war dad took his degree, deferred through war service, but succumbed to pneumonia when he started his MA. He’d always had weak lungs and after serving in the big arenas: El Alamein, Salerno, D-Day and encountering Belsen, doing an MA on top of an active mind but a weary body pushed him too far. He never finished his Masters. I have two. An M.Ed. and an M.A. One of them is for dad.

Today I am resting. The cat has been fed and I will make brunch when I feel more like being active in the kitchen. We have a treat in store. The Fine Cheese Company is a lovely band of people who are delivering their goodies this afternoon: the basics - milk, artisan bread, butter, cheese and crackers but they also have a chef from Hyderabad to delight us with his paneer tikka masala. 

Unlike the poor souls who suffered in the war or, today, are sick from c-virus or overwrought from loss of earnings or enforced self-isolation, I can relax. From our light, bright guest room I can see a horse chestnut in full leaf, a luminous, pale blue sky and next door’s chimney pot. Someone, somewhere has work. I can hear birds in the trees and, sporadically, the sound of a power saw cutting through timber. 

Evita, the dog next door, has just been let out and is now whimpering to be let in. Our cat hardly ever whimpers but even he, with his panther-like grip, pushed open the sitting room door when I came upstairs with my morning cuppa. He didn’t want to be on his own. But I closed the door on him.
I wonder how long it will be before he discovers the roof tops once more and climbs through the window in the guest room. He can be strangely affectionate and, when he decides, he likes company. Most of the time he is like Greta Garbo and wants to be alone. Self-isolation is no hardship. Providing, like me, he gets his food.

In the guest room sunlight is glinting on old jade-coloured glass bottles unearthed by a detectorist decades ago. Next to it, on an apple-green wooden window ledge, sits an emerald glass sea horse. It was given to me when I was twenty-one by my school friend. I wonder what has happened to her.

All I have to decide, now, is when I will take up position on the sun lounger and do some reading. Self-isolation, while we have space, food and beautiful weather can be a time of peace, for some. Let’s try to remember those who are less lucky.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Churchill’s Greatest Fear

If the last four weeks have taught me anything it’s that relying on grocery deliveries seems an easy option but that reliance can, in reality, be anything but straightforward.

After lockdown owing to the c-virus pandemic I was advised to stay home. My husband is unwell with an unrelated condition. But if I’d carried on shopping as I was, in queues, outside and inside the stores, I was risking picking up corona virus. 

Supposing I got sick my husband couldn’t look after me and he’d be very likely to catch it as I have to be his carer - at least in the mornings. Instead of going out and shopping, therefore, I exercise indoors, do the garden and all the cleaning and prep our food.

Three weeks ago Sainsburys sent me an email saying we had priority booking for a delivery slot. That was a huge relief and I duly placed my order. Since then nothing. Absolutely no delivery slots for us for the foreseeable future.  We had another delivery booked with Asda and that was great but Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco have offered nothing. And now Asda slots have all gone too.

Thankfully I have extremely supportive neighbours who get what we need when they are out shopping but my waking hours seem preoccupied with placing grocery orders, emailing local butchers and greengrocers, waiting for a cheese shop, market stall holder or wholefoods shop to get back me, waiting for a delivery, paying by BACs, ordering from farm shops, finding delivery slots and planning when our next big online shop should be.

I’m sure in the panic buying of a few weeks ago folk must have purchased huge fridge freezers otherwise where could they possibly have stored their bulk purchases? Perhaps they have large kitchens and garages too. We have none of those. We do have two under counter fridges and a mini fridge plus a freezer but no extra storage space. Planning where to store our groceries, ensuring we eat the longest-stored items first and making space for a new order requires a spreadsheet! I have a chart where goods are listed and tallied then crossed out when cooked and used. My greatest fear is running out of, say, milk, Fage Greek yogurt or blueberries, porridge oats, fishcakes and vegetables. The basics.

But then we also need cat food, washing up liquid, bin bags and yes ... loo roll, and that other rarity: flour and yeast. If I can’t go out food has to come to me. If there isn’t an available delivery slot what to do? 

During the second world war Churchill wasn’t as scared of the Luftwaffe, the German army or Rommel as he was of the 
principal strategy of the enemy in the Battle of the Atlantic. The German tactic was to attack shipping bound for Britain to restrict British industry. The nation would be left starving if food didn’t get through, forcing the UK into submission. Foods were mostly imported into the UK and to our allies from the USA and Canada - crossing the Atlantic. 

In 1942 The Combined Food Board was set up by the UK and the USA to help get food to the Allies. Churchill feared enemy U boats more than any other tactic the Germans could use against us. 

I quote from Wikipedia:

As a small island country, the United Kingdom was highly dependent on imported goods. Britain required more than a million tons of imported material per week in order to survive and fight. In essence, the Battle of the Atlantic involved a tonnage war: the Allied struggle to supply Britain and the Axis attempt to stem the flow of merchant shipping that enabled Britain to keep fighting. From 1942 onward the Axis also sought to prevent the build-up of Allied supplies and equipment in the British Isles in preparation for the invasion of occupied Europe. The defeat of the U-boat threat was a prerequisite for pushing back the Axis in Western Europe.

Food or starvation. Victory or defeat. Atlantic convoy or the U-boats. This constant worry was Churchill’s greatest fear.

The securing of food delivery for me, now in 2020, is one of the stresses of the c-virus pandemic. We are lucky enough to live in a large house so that in lockdown we aren’t on top of each other. Our neighbours couldn’t be more helpful, the weather is lovely and we have a large garden to relax in and to work on. We are not cramped, short of money nor space but our little local shop has shut for the month and we can’t just ‘pop out for milk’. And that uncertainty of milk supply is a stressor.

Every meal, food order, space in our fridge, freezer and cupboards has to be planned and noted. Never have so many thoughts of food penetrated my waking hours so deeply. As soon as I find one outlet who will do a delivery any subsequent slots are quickly gobbled up by other hungry households. Then I have to find another store to take my order, my payment, my address and make a delivery    date.

Thankfully we have local butchers, greengrocers, brasserie and pub who are all delivering here. But we can only buy what they offer. It’s not the same as doing your own shopping. 

We won’t go hungry but heaven help you if you have special dietary requirements. Of course it’s quite right that essential workers and the very vulnerable have easy access to groceries. I am fit enough to walk to shops. But I can’t drive, tut, tut, which means shopping daily - more often than our government would like. Am I vulnerable, caught in the middle, over-thinking it or worrying unnecessarily? The lack of Sainsbury delivery slots has shaken me somewhat. The old familiar ways are gone, temporarily at least. 

Adapt and survive. It’s been a changing world since covid-19 made its first attack.

Hunger, weaken then surrender. A war of attrition. That was Churchill’s greatest fear. 

Sunday 12 April 2020

That was then

It was four weeks ago today that we sat eating birthday cake, went for a swim, clinked glasses of fizz and mixed with guests in a swanky hotel on the Jurassic Coast. Our friend, who lives in Devon, presented me with a huge bunch of birthday roses. My sister-in-law agreed with me that the lockdown practices in China seemed OTT. My brother, our driver, relaxed on the huge sofa in the hotel lounge and supped Peroni with my husband who was fighting post-surgery depression. And he was chatting and improving the more he mixed and got out and about.

After we’d filled up with a sea food platter and chef’s chocolate cake, specially ordered, we sang ‘When I’m 64’, my roses were taken to the hotel’s cool room and we all went for a jolly walk on the prom. 

I remember my hands were raw from the twenty-second washing routines as, back then - March 14, the breeze was cool, our fingers were chilled and we needed scarves and coats for a walk by the sea.

Now, in the small hours of April 13th, our worlds have shut down. My husband has retreated, like a crab into its shell, into depression. My sister-in-law is working from home and my rose-yielding friend - a marathon runner who can barely sit still, has vowed to stay in his house for three months. He didn’t mention that at my birthday do. But he must have been planning it. He thought my idea of going for a swim was risky. I thought he was over-cautious.

I don’t now.

I have failed to secure a supermarket delivery for the foreseeable future. Thank goodness I stocked up very well at the farm shop on the way back from Devon and with my subsequent Asda and Sainsburys orders. 

Despite my husband being classed as vulnerable and myself as a carer, despite being emailed ‘You are a priority shopper please book your delivery slot now’ there are no more slots to be had. I am, therefore, following the advice of my super-helpful local WhatsApp group and using smaller shops for my deliveries. One farm shop will deliver a veg box, a salad box, a fruit box, a chicken or meat box, blueberries, chocolate, flour...yes flour, yeast, butter, eggs, milk, muesli, latex gloves and black bin bags.Even toilet roll but, strangely, no kitchen roll.

And they are delivering on the day I want.

A market petstall owner has just texted me, at midnight on Easter Day, note bene, that he can deliver Whiskas Delight for our fussy cat plus Gourmet tins of expensive food for our biting, clawing, semi-feral feline. Another shop on the other side of Bath can put together a smaller order of fruit, milk, eggs and bread to tide me over until my big farm shop delivery arrives. And next door have shut down their brasserie and given us left over cheese, tomatoes, lemons while they fill in copious forms to get some money back from the government. Their staff are furloughed and our tiny corner shop has shut for a month, maybe for ever. No dashing out for a pint of milk, washing up liquid or packet of biscuits now. Everything has to be planned and ordered.

Kind friends and neighbours will add milk, bread, chocolate, kitchen roll, laundry liquid, stamps...yes they found some, and cat food to their orders for me. An even kinder person, who has become my helper since lockdown, brings me her homemade ice cream. She even trudged up the hill from town for me with 4 bottles of screw-top Prosecco Frizzante and tins of red kidney beans in her backpack and a tray of bedding out plants held aloft, in the heat of the Easter weekend. On foot. After queueing. Her partner bought flowers for our wedding anniversary to ease my husband’s troubled depression. This is beyond the call of friendship. This is goodness. I pay them for the groceries, and more besides, for the effort they go to on my behalf. But this is the kindness of neighbours.

I have been advised to stay in. If I got sick Richard couldn’t cope with my illness nor would he eat well, I’m afraid, and he’d conveniently forget his meds. If he got sick the trauma of being in hospital again would set his mental state back by six months. So I am staying in. I cannot risk introducing a deadly virus into our home. Nor the disruption if we only got it in its mild form. I believe the clinically depressed can have an impaired immune system. It’s just not worth the exposure. 

I have my keep-fit routine and we have a large garden to dig, plant, water, weed and feed. And I can walk out at night, when it’s really quiet, to truly stretch my legs. Richard is more like himself by midnight.

When groceries or flowers or wine are left by the door we hear the loud knock or ping on my phone. I collect the goodies from our step and I plunge it all into soapy water or spray with disinfectant. We don’t know, because of a lack of testing, who has touched all these items before they crossed our threshold and whether the handlers are passing c-virus, unwittingly, on to us.

Every morning I use cilit bang or flash to wipe over surfaces: taps, handles, the stair rails, electric plugs, switches, remote controls, knobs, dials, buttons and loo seats. Then I feed the cat, assemble Richard’s meds and something edible and light for him to take with them and a cuppa for me. 

The new day starts. It feels as if it’s always been like this. 

In between times I have super neighbours who will shop for me for kitchen roll, in one case, slug pellets in another, a third neighbour has bought milk and classy chocolate. But, because my rather ill husband got anxious about not getting flowers for our wedding anniversary on Easter Saturday, my new WhatsApp helpers went to Morrisons early to make our anniversary complete and my husband happy. They didn’t have to. They wanted to. And they gave us a ‘Happy Anniversary’ card. They barely know us but it doesn’t matter. These are great acts of kindness and I will make it up to them.

On top of these neighbourly acts I followed another friend’s advice and have made a small order with a totally plastics-free whole food group. They too deliver and I look forward to ‘safe’ paperbags of dishwasher powder, dried blueberries ( now I’m running low on fresh ones) more muesli, dates, sweetener, chutney, lentils, dried kidney beans, whole food snacks, dried apple rings, cocoa powder and chocolate drops. Now I can bake sugar-free flapjakes with whole rolled oats.

I have yet to find an outlet who will deliver Fage Greek Yogurt. But I’m working on it. Like the Queen of Sheba the world can come to me. I won’t be going to a smart Devon hotel, swimming and admiring the shoreline, any time soon. Since before Good Friday it’s been hot in our larger-than-average garden. I’ve painted the shed and new fence panels with Cuprinol Shades. But it was so warm yesterday, Saturday, I got dehydrated, and started seeing the flickering lights of a migraine attack. I’d gone too long without a drink of cold water.

Today it’s cooler. Greek yogurt is the only item I can’t readily get delivered. Perhaps one of my neighbours will add it to their shop. But I don’t want to push their kindness too far.

It was four weeks ago that we sat eating birthday cake looking at the view over the ocean. People were chattering and laughing in the background. The bar was full, but not heaving. And we sang 

‘Will you still need me,
will you still feed me
When I’m 64?’

That was then.