Mother is in a light brown raincoat and a faded Dior headscarf, clutching a shopping fibre bag printed with the smiling faces of her grandchildren. She’s obviously decided to go out to the shops. Old habits are reasserting themselves, like weeds in a garden.
‘Do you want anything at the shops?’ she asks.
My wife, son and I are chewing in different corners of the kitchen. Cows in a field. It’s lunchtime.
‘The lock down is still in place, mum. You can’t go out,’ I say.
‘Yoghurt?’ she asks.
It’s hard to know if she’s asking a second question or just misheard my reply to her first. She doesn’t wear her hearing aid often, so a misunderstanding is most likely. Clearly, she’s forgotten that going out is dangerous, possibly deadly.
If she goes out and contracts the virus, the chances of her getting referred to hospital for treatment are currently slim, according to her GP. She would be a low priority in any competition for medical resource. A possible victim, if that’s the right word, of triage.
‘The Government recommends you shouldn’t go out at all, at your age unless it is essential.’
‘I thought I could go shopping if I have a special note. Or did I hear that wrong?’
‘Do you have a special note?’
There’s a brief pause.
‘I went out more often during the Blitz, you know.’
We’ve had several discussions about the Blitz, the War and the parallels with Covid-19. Mother’s conclusion is it’s only those who didn’t live through the War who talk so frequently of the parallels. Working a large cud of homemade vegetarian sausage roll to the side of my mouth, I reply.
‘It’s frustrating. I know.’
‘When will it end?’
I shrug my shoulders. This seems to be the 64-million-dollar question which no one has an answer (or not one they want to share, at least). She looks down to the floor and, for a moment, is motionless.
‘I don’t care. I’m going out.’
She wants to shop because it is her way of exercising. She wants to buy something because it’s her way of making a contribution to the household economy. She wants to get out to prove to herself she’s still independent, in some small way. Most of all, she wants to do…something. Anything which would break the dull cycle of ironing and movie repeats she’s trapped in.
‘You can’t go to the shops because other people are there. But how about a walk to the shops? Or up and down the street?’ asks my wife.
I’m surprised she is suggesting this. She has been the most conscientious of us in following government instructions since February. Sometime in the last minute, though, she’s decided the psychological benefit for Mother of getting out of the house, if only briefly, far outweighs the remote chance of her contracting covid-19.
‘Yes, that would be nice. I’ll just go up and down the street once. Maybe twice.’
‘Shall one of us come with you?’ says my son.
‘No. I want to go myself. It’s lovely and sunny.’
My son opens the door for her. I watch her paused in the doorway, like an astronaut hesitating in an airlock. The sharp sunlight may have dazzled her or she’s just steadying herself before plunging into the street. But she’s paused there for a few seconds. Suddenly I am reminded of the image of Captain Oates, at the doorway of his frostbitten tent, heading into the Antarctic blizzard. Should I stop her?
‘I’ll watch her from the front wall,’ says my son.
A while later, she comes back in. She’s happier and looks around the sitting room to see if the ironing board is up and a full basket of laundry nearby.
‘Is there any ironing to do?’
‘Is the Pope a catholic?’ I smile.
‘Time to keep calm and carry on ironing, then,’ she says.