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BBC, Radio 4,

From Our Home Correspondent

Noses to The Glass  

By Jane Labous

Producer: Simon Coates


From Dorset, Jane Labous reflects on how she coped with early isolation with her young daughter in response to Covid-19 and the lessons she is drawing as a single parent as the experience continues and develops.


I can count on one hand the other human beings I have seen since Thursday 11th March, the day I decided, amid ever more alarming news about Coronavirus, that I’d take measures to isolate with my young daughter.


Normally, our week is hectic with my work and her nursery; swimming lessons, play dates, trips to the beach or farm park, cafés, tea shops, kids’ birthday parties… In the course of seven days we might see nursery teachers, numerous friends and often my parents. As a single mother bringing up a small child all alone, I’d thought I knew loneliness well. I realise now that these social interactions kept me sane.


Now, there’s none of that. On day four there was the parcel delivery lady who confessed that she kept bursting into tears. That was when it still felt safe (imagine…) to open the front door. On day 14 there was the farmer’s son dropping off a vegetable box. On day 17, the postman waved through the kitchen window. And on day 26, our friend Helen in plastic gloves brings much-needed groceries. My daughter and I put our noses to the glass, hello, hello. 


I discover her solemnly explaining to two dolls that there is a virus, and we have to stay at home to keep everyone safe. She has seamlessly grasped the concept of now and ‘afterwards; her new phrase is: “Mummy, when this is over, can we…” In the second week I quell my anxiety by digging out the garden borders. Together we plant seeds; tomatoes, onions, leeks and carrots. It seems a practical way to face up to an uncertain future. But at night I wake feeling a visceral sort of panic, my dreams full of dangerous crowds and the invisible threat of the world outside our front gate. I worry that I’ll get the virus and there’ll be no one to look after her. I am her protector. The thought only strengthens my determination to see no one. The risk for the two of us is just too great. 


Still, there have been over the weeks some fleeting moments of fiery, unforgettable connection. Our elderly neighbour hears my daughter crying, texts to ask if we’re okay. The following morning, a kids’ magazine comes flying over the fence and lands on the lawn. My mother, as vivid on screen as she is in person, reads stories over the internet, holds up words to practise phonics, plays schools. On our doorstep, a ‘homeschooling survival kit’ left by Val up the road. On Thursdays I glimpse my neighbours in their doorways for the NHS clap. Fireworks from a nearby street flare up to the sky like Mayday calls. We’re here, they signal; we’re all still here.


Today is day 35 of our isolation. At 7am I wander out to the front gate to listen to the deep, cushiony silence you wouldn’t normally expect in urban Poole. Normally… Then a police helicopter roars into view, cutting through the peace. It circles overhead, nose glinting in the sunlight. I wonder what it’s doing, what it’s looking for.


Later, I can hear people in their gardens; the clatter of watering cans, the rumble of a lawnmower, the faint pump of dance music and someone doing DIY. Later still, the drifting smell of barbecues and cannabis. The high pure trill of a blackbird amplified in the stillness. Indeed, life itself seems amplified by these strange, isolated days. I find myself noticing with greater clarity the sun shadows on the wall of the house, or my daughter humming as she draws pictures. The blossom flowering on the plum tree and the leaves unfurling on the pear. Today my Echium is about to flower, and I think to myself that it’s typical of this melodramatic sub-tropical plant that it should choose to bloom for the first time in the middle of a global pandemic.


It seems unbelievable now that I should have allowed, even in that first week, a food delivery to arrive without wiping everything down with soapy water, then dipping the fruit in vinegar. That we should have ventured outside without masks and a bag containing antiseptic spray and several pairs of plastic gloves. Or that the day did not culminate at 5pm with the government’s daily news conference and its uneasy dystopian vocabulary: social distancing, underlying health condition, flatten the curve.   


Now, on the 35th day, this newest of worlds is almost becoming routine. Nobody knows how this will end, and the other side of August seems ever more unreachable. On the other hand, I have come to realise over these weeks that I can control my own journey through this. With each new day, my inner strength grows and flexes like a muscle. Gone are regrets about the past and worries about the future; in their place is sheer steely focus – on acquiring food (and the ever-elusive self-raising flour), on keeping my daughter healthy and entertained, on surviving. I am tanned from gardening, strong from yoga. Even better, I am at peace with our contained little world, at peace with myself.


And so my small girl and I wake every morning and smile at the sun; we sing and talk and make cheese scones with that precious self-raising flour; we do victory dances in the garden because the seedlings have grown a little taller. Daily, we meander through the spring meadows of Dorset, chewing on pieces of grass, spotting wildlife, savouring the fresh air. And this evening before bed, as we do every evening, we will tell each other the good things about this day, this short splendid day of frost and sun; because that – well, that is all there is. 

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