On being ‘elderly and vulnerable’ in a pandemic

Image above: Rainbow from the window of Barbara’s flat

It’s a pandem, and all stations panic

Text and photogrpahs by Barbara Chandler

Today, Tuesday, I will get my second Covid jab, thanks to the admirable enterprise of the local doctors who are selflessly running the large Chiswick vaccination centre. It’s within the 12 week window, with a week to spare.

Will it bring some sort of “closure” to this dire year of medical muddle, missing-out and multiple miseries? Here’s hoping – I do feel so much more positive about things now. Looking back, memories, events and unhappystance whiz into the pin-sharp automatic focus of a high-spec digital camera, not necessarily in any particular order.

There was the blind cramping fear at the beginning, watching the triple whammy of those ugly TV lecterns with their yellow fringe of disaster-scene tape sitting in a vast swirly sea of Wilton c1970. We were now to be “locked down” without a decent logo – not for weeks but months.

There was the inelegant scramble to find masks and the new power potion of hand sanitiser – what on earth was that? Well, not anti-bacterial handwash as I discovered to my discomfort. It had to have a very high alcohol content, and no, vodka would not do. We put in orders on the internet and eventually something limped through …from China – but wasn’t that where it all started?

And could the virus spread on Amazon cardboard? Bank notes? Lettuce leaves? An internet crawl said not likely, but the pundits continued to dish out the panic. Best to wash the lettuce in very mild disinfectant and rinse thoroughly. Really. But I became horribly hand obsessed, swiping lift buttons and communal door-knobs with some alcohol wipes I had also squeezed out of the internet.

 

I triumphed with three advance bookings on ASDA – Waitrose and Sainsbury’s had long since thrown in the bookings towel. But one van just didn’t turn up. They may have simply gone away as the entry system of our block has been dodgy for many months. And they were unaccountably incommunicado.

So I switched to Iceland – no need to be snooty – and found out just how cheap things could be. And how nice – when they missed a delivery, someone at the end of the phone sent the stuff out again the same day. We supplemented this with some high-fresh fruit and veg from Covent Garden, now in surplus thanks to universal cafe collapse. Their guys bothered to ring before scarpering. We left them tips on the doormat until the coins ran out.

We’re pretty elderly, and my husband has had heart trouble so I went into “shield” mode right from the start – but who knew really what that weird verb with no object meant in the early days? So I registered with the NHS for a “supporter”. The rest was silence.

I switched to a Hounslow help service and a wonderful woman immediately rang – she’d be happy to collect our prescriptions. “Where are you based?” I asked. “Three floors down,” she said… and duly looked after us for the duration. Nothing if not neighbourly…. and cheerfully adding emergency milk-runs and an arcane request for a packet of Paxo to the relief rota.

Now, finally, at this late stage, we are getting calls regularly from many pleasant people (different each time) “checking up” on us. I fielded one just now. I say we’re really through the worst and I thank them (it is indeed very considerate), and they say they’ll ring again soon. It seems churlish to bat a “don’t bother.” When I did get into conversation with one woman, she said she was actually phoning from Surrey. Tricky for the milk, then.

We went out on daily walks, methodically clocking the sinisterly-silent streets of Chiswick where a growing rash of rainbows was taped to windows and chalked on pavements – and a heart on the bark of a tree. Some people still there then.

VE day in early May was blisteringly hot and residents in a posh road opposite had a sort of socially distanced street party in deckchairs as their front gardens are rather big. Inexorably my nail gel peeled away. Weekly, clapping was duly observed but who could hear it save our smug selves?

All sorts of chancers suddenly discovered the Gunnersbury Triangle, which I have patrolled for solo solace over many, many years. The strangers seem to have dropped away now.

My sister in Australia sent us a cream tea – well, it came from a local hamper outfit – and we took it the river, sat on a bench, spread clotted cream on scones and jam, opened a small bottle, and sent her an email with photo attached. Even more elderly, she is distraught: “I shall never see you again.” Lockdown is a multi-faceted life crusher.

Then came freedom, with the summer lift-off. I timidly crept to the little Co-Op opposite Gunnersbury station. Here I was in an indoor public place for the first time in months. Cold sweat, heart pounding. Oh God, there’s a man without a mask. On exit, punctilious protocols: saturation of sanitiser, mask unhooked with near contactless care, and instant binning.

Gradually I got more confident…indeed perhaps a little Covid cavalier. The tubes were virtually empty, surely not too much of a risk, and I went to the Royal Academy, avid to catch the end of Picasso/Paper.

Sitting on a chair outside a café in Piccadilly, I was amazed – if not appalled – at my own audacity, and at the empty seats and street. And, in a breakthrough moment, ordered tea. The bill seemed rather small. “Eat out to help out, madam,” admonished the waiter gravely. Even in Mayfair. For a single cup.

Vanity triumphed and I went back to the nice-nails Chiswick Beautique a few doors down, and over to Ken-the-hair in Changes, West Ealing,

I took my younger daughter and grand-children to Andy Warhol at the Tate, where everyone wore masks and was very well behaved. Plenty of high-ceilinged space. My elder daughter drove up from Dorset and we bagged a table in the garden at the back of the Chiswick Fire Station.

We actually thought of going away for two or three nights and made a tentative booking, then lost our nerve and cancelled… besides it was so terribly hot. The landlady was painfully polite more in sorrow than in anger. What a horrible thing to do to her.

It couldn’t, didn’t last, and the autumn in my mind is a jumble of terrible tiers and lousy lockdown – I couldn’t honestly tell you accurately what happened when. I know we managed a trip to our other daughters in Bath and Devon, booking separate accommodation, and meeting (more or less…) out of doors.

We were Airbnb virgins and surprised to find that “Barbara and Ben did not put their rubbish out” was a black mark on the communal comments, when the owners of really quite an expensive property never came near us all weekend, despite their incomprehensible central heating controls.

We must have been relatively unfettered on the run up to Christmas as I did a High Road shopping report for this Calendar, only to see all “my” shops taken out of commission the very next week. And some items on my list sold out before I could get back to buy them. As a long-standing hack, I filed my weekly home design pages to the Evening Standard right through the pandemic, plotting virtual events, paint shortages, garden gizmos, on-line décor sessions, and everything else we could think of.

My daughter came up from Dorset again, and we exchanged gifts in our vast underground car park. I slipped her a cup of tea from a Thermos – here’s one I made earlier. Why is it “social-distancing” when it is manifestly so unsocial? Same goes for social media, I suppose.

Christmas Day was a doorstep rendezvous (rule or not rule – who knew) and some rather unsuccessful video calls. Cooking Christmas dinner for two certainly beats peeling a mound of spuds and the food is wonderfully hot. Merci for the small mercies.

Then, wham bam Boris puts the boot in yet again. This time I was more frightened than ever. I really had been a bad girl and would be punished accordingly. But if I was, it was asymptomatic (another long word we’ve learned to trip).

After the first jab, when I think I was squeezed in on the back of a cancellation, euphoria gradually lapped in and around the rocks of angst. It seemed odd that people waiting were complaining about the queue. Now I’ve even booked the nails and the hair. Which brings me back to where we came in.

Barbara Chandler writes for the Evening Standard Homes and Gardens pages and lives in Chiswick. She has written features for The Chiswick Calendar on retail over the past year. See more of her photographs @sunnygran

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: A year of the pandemic – How has Chiswick fared?

See also: Remembering those the pandemic has taken – David Stewart

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