In my very first post, I talked about the anxiety I felt in the days leading up to lockdown. I mentioned that I was doing ok until the very last week. In part, this is because I refused to give into the frenzy of panic that had taken over the world in the most absurd way: panic buying. All of the sudden, supermarkets were like war zones, toilet paper was a good as precious as gold and people were buying quantities enough to clean the butts of a whole legion with dysentery during World War II. What I didn't understand was the connection between Corona Virus and toilet paper. Some wire got crossed there because no one knew by that point that one of the main symptoms of the virus was severe diarrhoea. Videos from supermarkets across the world were shocking; in the US, one man had a trolley sky high with packs of toilet paper. In France, a lady sneakily snatched two packs of toilet paper from another customer and both of them ran like the devil in what I can only describe as an embarrassing race between Mario and Luigi if they were both slow and smashed into all the obstacles in their way, only to never even make to the exit. The last straw was a video from Spain of two women packing throwing all the packs of toilet paper on the shelf from end of the isle to the other. No one stopped them.
Soon, an unclassified underground system of communication must have developed because people were flocking to supermarkets around the same time every day in the hopes of getting the toilet paper that arrived with the first day's delivery. A few times I ventured the supermarkets on my way home from work to confirm this outrage. I remember the young city workers staring amusedly at the shelves turning to me and shaking their heads: "Hope you didn't need pasta either." I actually started laughing and texted my partner to avoid supermarkets until further notice, we had enough of everything but I'd go fetch a few bits first thing before work the next day. I told my mom, who of course told me she told me so, and that to never step into a supermarket again. Words I patiently ignored of course because I wasn't scared by then.
On March 19, the day before my business closed, I finally gave into the slight anxiety telling me to buy certain essentials before they ran out. I walked to ASDA first thing in the morning, around 6:30 am, to find that everyone had my same idea. By that point, thank god, supermarkets were starting to limited the amount of units per item to three per customer but the queues were horrendous, trolleys were bursting and I wasn't wearing any gloves or masks. I texted my mom, who naturally cursed my living demons and reminded me over and over again that supermarkets are the main centres for contamination! She was right of course but what was I supposed to do? I have to admit I was tempted to leave, but then I looked at the patient staff filling up the shelves, the lady at the self-checkouts making sure everyone was respecting the limit, the cashiers touching all the products as they scanned mountains of trolleys after trolleys. I even remember the guy in front of me, who had just come for a humble purchase of two packs of nappies. Not a single one had protective gear at the time, and they had families and babies to tend to. They had many more responsibilities that I did. So I told my mom that if they could be here without any protection so could I. She cursed my self righteousness: "Enough of that heroism crap and get out of there."
I finally made to the check out, but I had to call my managers to tell them I was running late; I'd been queuing for almost 40 minutes. That same weekend, when we were already safe at home, we went to the small Tesco close to our house after a run. We had run out of chicken and beef. It was a beautiful sunny day and the lockdown measures that had been imposed allowed us to spend one hour outdoors to maintain our health. We were feeling more positive; we were at home, our families were safe and we were at least able to breath fresh air and destress ourselves. We felt great. Then, as we made it towards Tesco, I looked through the window to check how busy it was, only to find the shelves of meat were completely empty. I felt a complete sense of desolation and tears ran down my face.
It took me just a few minutes to calm down; my partner chose to ignore my tears and went in. Men are always practical you see? And after all, we weren't the only ones in that situation. So we made do with what we could find; we got vegetables, we found some bacon, canned chilli, lots of charcuterie and, better than anything, LOTS OF CHEESE! (You'd think we'd be fat as cows but actually we've never looked better thanks to all the sport we've had so much time for.)
The best moment of that first week of quarantine was when met one of our neighbours on our way back from a run. He is a lovely, elderly, gentleman called Jim who greeted us cheerfully. We stopped to ask him if he needed anything and said he was more than fine. He also told us about his story:
His wife had had several operations and had a delicate health condition that confined her to the monotonous journeys between their bedroom, bathroom and living room. Fortunately, he said, she was strong enough to curse the living hell of the virus that doesn't let her go outdoors, which meant she was fine. Jim was a war veteran and his brother was actually buried in France, close to where my partner is from. When we told him what we did and he learned I worked at the Tower of London, he told us that when they were children, they learned to swim in the Thames just outside what is today called Traitor's Gate. It was a free space back then, and he remembers the enemy planes flying over London to bombard the building just behind the White Tower, which miraculously still stands to this day. But what had shocked him more than anything in his late years was the way people had reacted to a situation that to him was nothing knew, really. "Back in war time, there was rationing. None of this panic buying, we were told exactly what we could get and got in trouble if we disobeyed!"
From then on, we became practical. One day, on my way back from my ballet class, I saw two off-licenses, one right next to other, that had stacks of toilet paper pressed up against their windows. I went in, got one pack of nine and asked the owner if by chance they had any rice or pasta coming in. Indeed, they had all types of rice and even told me he had a pack of ten kilos of rice that he couldn't wait to get rid of. I asked if he could keep it for me, and he replied that if I bought the pack of rice, he'd save me two packs of spaghetti next time he got them in. True to his word, the next day he had keep all three aside under my name. I was thrilled, though as soon as I left the shop I felt like someone had drawn a giant red bulls-eye on me; I was a lone girl on a dark road with two packs of spaghetti and a pack of ten kilos of rice in what seems like a period straight out of "The Walking Dead". And running with a pack of ten kilos of rice is not easy; in fact I had cramps in my arms and shoulders for days. I got home sweating and red faced, my partner laughed at me and my mother told me that ten kilos of rice was an exaggeration. I ignored them because that pack of rice was my symbol of survival, a response to quiet my anxiety: I knew we couldn't go hungry.
We've been buying from them ever since. We started shopping in places we never went to before, changed our habits and we remain loyal to the shop keepers who work hard to provide what they can for us. In times like these, and for those of us who have nothing to complain about, everything is about perspective. We have to listen to people like Jim, who've lived through far worse and survived.