Red Rosa

8th April 2020

I'm beginning this entry on a sunny morning, just before I turn 30. It will be written in chunks, and so - unintentionally? - it may come out as a leftover of reflections without much coherence. But I invite that, it feels like such a relief. At least, it'll respect the temporality of thought, feeling and language that, I've come to realise, has lately been hindered by the discontinuity of pandemic messaging over whatsapp.

This morning, I had some informal interaction with neighbours across the road (I overlook their garden but it's several yards away, so it feels like a sufficient distance to be committing any form of - visual - trespassing). From my window, I politely observed the young woman in the garden, a man joined later - I think they're a couple. I believe they could see me. Before his arrival, she was lying on a bench, ruffling some papers and writing. And I almost wanted to shout to her and say, 'read it out (to me)', 'share it (with me)'. She had her headphones on, and I wished she stayed like that, silent and writing. I later heard her voice, and everything changed.

The other day, I got on my bike in an effort to go somewhere, seeking some direction of travel and, perhaps even, a connection to place that was unrestricted. When I came upon Trafalgar Square to find it completely empty, I was tempted to get my phone and take a shot. I couldn't. Doing so would have only further confirmed the unreality of that experience - the turning of this moment into a scene that needs to be pictured because strange and peculiar. It would have distanced myself from it, and I think that evening was the first time I'd experienced anything like a connection or feeling of presence.

Other times, when I've gone outside of the house (it's starting to dawn on me), I've felt perhaps more confined than inside. My complicitous self-policing, and the policing of other bodies, make walking a very territorial affair, even if it's just around the block. It's the slow sinking into a regulated mode of moving about space. I don't want that. It's like rather than occupying space I am skirting around it. And yet, when I tread along a bit further, make it to the canal and hear birds, their deafening song is a welcome disruption. Like I can again see/hear/feel something, and the space around me dissolves.

10th May 2020

Is it possible to forget the colours? I found myself staring blankly at the yoga mat, this Sunday morning, amazed by the sickly bright dull orange pink, like a cut-out on the ground, with no subtleties of tone. In vain, I tried to remember the textured surfaces of things, but nothing came to me. Not long ago, I was made aware that I’d also forgotten the sight of the warm spring sun: when the first heat wave struck, I struggled to lift my eyes above the ground. The light was painful. I walked along with T and R, and pretended not to notice, instead I made some inane comment about the beauty of yellow flowers by the road side. They were also bright yellow, too bright (is it possible one becomes hyper-sensitive in isolation?). In a flash, I was taken back to my 15-year old self, watching The Time Machine (2002), based on a novel by H. G. Wells of the same name, where in a speculative future humans have evolved into two different species: Eloi, who are harmless and vegetarian and apparently live in harmony with nature, and Morlocks, who dwell undeground and feed off Eloi. I recall being struck by Jeremy Irons, who plays one of these light-fearing Morlocks, inspired - it is said - by Wells’ own early life amidst Victorian basements and underground servant quarters.

Soon after waking up, I got a scent of summer (my taste seems to have sharpened unlike my vision), even though the air is cooler.

Perhaps this eruption of memories has been brought about by a mixture of the vagueness about the future and the intensity of the present, in all its rich monotony.

I think R, with whom I live, dislikes my presence in the mornings. We move about the house in a choreography of mutual evasions; it feels infantile but also like the only domestic way through this pandemic.

17th May 2020 I’ve been having nightmares this week. Not all Covid-related, though this morning in my half-awakened state I thought I wasn’t breathing properly. Nonetheless I felt calm, maybe knowingly as this wasn’t the first time Covid entered my dreams. When it happens, it’s now a familiar dread. I wonder if we/I will get habituated to the feeling of this fear until it’s just another part of life. Or else, how will we engage with other bodies once lockdown is over? It’s difficult to consider ‘returning’ to a world without touch: now our hands always entertain the possibility of infection, as the one body part we’ve been instructed to strictly observe and contain. How will we relearn the language of bodily affection? My other unpleasant dream this week was about housing. I only recall an image of a flat, a kitchen in disarray, me having to leave, and a shadow of uncertainty (the place was actually quite dark). Now I live with T and R, but this is only temporary. I got affected a few weeks ago at the realisation that the communal living situation we’re currently in (we cook and eat together almost every night) is due to end soon. For all intents and purposes, it’s a parenthesis to their pre-conjugal life. I’ll need to make other living arrangements. This, together with the prospect of my job contract ending in half a year, unsettled me a bit. Of course everyone does what they must, but it hit me, how - eventually and ultimately - such caring relations in the home are circumscribed to the couple format, and any communalism that precedes is a temporary stage. Also, I suddenly recalled catching a bit of conversation between T and R one day in which T defended ‘the family’ as the site of care amidst the ravages of capitalism. A wrong diagnosis, if you ask me, for I shall subscribe more to what Donna Haraway says “make kin, not babies”. A few days ago, I started going back to the food bank, just to help out with whatever is needed. From the times I’ve been there, it seems most of the volunteers are of my generation (kids from the 80s and 90s), middle class, physically strong, and possibly doing this kind of work for the first time. I’m guessing some of them are currently furloughed, which has freed up time. Apparently one of them had a big job in the show Flea Bag, and the conversation just seemed so painfully privileged. So, I hear about all the solidarity of this ‘unprecedented’ moment (that horrible word, for it is both unprecedented and also not unprecedented), and I suspect it won’t be long-lasting. I’m rather pessimistic. How will these forms of charitable work translate into a more sustained activism, ready for the big fight that - surely - is awaiting? Anyhow, at the foodbank there’s something gratifying in the orderly and repetitive job of filling crates. Just getting the job done. I will try to keep going for as long as I have mental energy and physical strength. I’m really not engaging with the news, except occasionally and very selectively. I didn’t even watch Boris Johnson’s ‘stay alert’ bullshit. But I did read this article by Naomi Klein and felt desolate. So maybe this withdrawal is for the best.

24th May 2020

This week Percy Ingle reopened locally. I discovered it during one morning run, seduced first by the sweet smell, which forced me to stand outside in awe at the previously-empty window, now stocked with luscious cakes and bountiful treats. This scene threw me back to another conversation a few days back with my friend H - carried out remotely of course. He described being struck by the endless frozen shop interiors, all still lit, that populate the Highgate area (north #London). The lifelessness of this sight made him think, he said, of walking into the house of a dead person and shuffling through their former possessions. It made me wonder, or hope, that a certain life perhaps continues in those things, as collectables without an owner.

Anyhow, I haven’t yet figured out how one thing led to another, but H and I started sending each other voice notes mid-way through the lockdown (my positing of ‘the midway’ suggests that there is a known endpoint, which is illusory but itself telling of my need to create a future closure). What began as 4-minute messages between H and I has evolved into 17-minute extended accounts of life, a bit like the pandemic notes that other diarists write, though less edited. It took me a while to ease into this non-synchronous form of communication (a week can pass before he sends his response, and vice versa). But I agree with H, as he stated once, perhaps “we’ve invented a new genre”.

It was my dad’s birthday today, and we had a long conversation - him, my mum and me (well, mostly my mum and me). Unlike with others, I’m used to talking with them via whatsapp, so the medium hasn’t got in the way of talking, and my conversing style doesn’t feel so garbled. As for others with whom I hadn’t learnt the talent of remote conversation, it can be a real struggle, especially when it’s several people. We talked of the easing of measures in Spain, where they live. Despite this, my mum has barely gone out, at first she said she was scared, now I think it’s more dread of my dad giving acrimonious sermons to passersby who aren’t keeping with physical distancing. Moral civility was a tall order when I was growing up.

I’m trying to commit to writing semi-regularly because T has asked me to. I don’t know if I’m doing it to please him (which seems odd to say, especially as I know he’ll be reading this), or because I know, in the end, that it’s a good thing. This pseudonym I’ve chosen for him is actually inadequate, and I see now he should in fact be R, as a favourite pastime of ours during this pandemic has been his unflinching efforts to produce the (for him) unpronounceable Spanish “r”. It’s a precise exercise of tongue placement and sudden quivering motion which, for all his attempts, nearly always results in a flabby French ‘grr’.

The food bank on Friday - well I’m with the same bunch, three girls two of whom exhibit an aloofness that irritates me, and then there’s a really nice guy whom I’ll call N. We often work together. His manner is a bit dishevelled, but we get on. There was lots to do this time as a big delivery arrived from British Gas and Tesco, who are making weekly (I think?) donations. There’s quite a bit of lifting involved, weighing the incoming stock and sorting it out before it goes into the different boxes. There’s two kinds of boxes, for individual households and for ‘families’ (for 3+). Households of 2 get two individual boxes. There’s a whole assortment of goods that go into each box, but more interesting perhaps was sorting through the donations made locally. I will just list a few that made it into the ‘extras’ category: a ready-made pina colada can (surely much needed in the midst of a pandemic), individual packets of porridge oats (couldn’t you just bring a full box?), unusual spices (did you want to get rid of these?), and dear me, one of those inflight packs with blindfold and earplugs (!)

8th August 2020

Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d been holding steadfast to my seat, like everybody else. Then came the opportunity to fly out of the country, “for a holiday”. After many deliberations with my parents, and the quiet urging of my mother - in her pleading tone, in the “you won’t have to quarantine when you get back, you know”, “we may go into another lockdown in the autumn and what if you can’t make it “home” for Christmas…?” - I booked a flight at only a week’s notice. Unsure of what “home” was, but decidedly aware that - whether here or there - it had been ruptured at its core about halfway through lockdown, I accepted the conflict of taking what at the time seemed like both a necessary and irresponsible decision. I could catch the virus, a worry that gradually heightened as my travel plans transmogrified into a long voyage through various towns of Hesperia with my friend S, making me - and her - potential super-spreaders.

I flew to M, where I met S, and so our road trip began. Before we got into the car, I knew from her kind demeanour that I could trust S as a driver in the meandering roads of Hesperia. I took great pains in my co-piloting operations as interpreter, entertainer, car DJ, map-reader and documentarian. Jokingly, I once said we were like Thelma and Louise, a film I hadn’t yet seen, and her face grew serious: “you don’t know what happens, do you, better not say that“. But except for some minor travails in the ins and outs of highways, we swept through the mountainous ranges at calming speed, absorbing in gulps the overwhelming thrust of freedom and movement, which made us excitable at any trivial sight or stranger. Once outside the car, we would sheathe our faces with masks in the electric heat, only taking them off in bars or restaurants. S had a habit of asking any local a precise sequence of questions: “Are you from here?”, “What is your favourite spot in this town”, “What is your name?” I found it interesting that the name question would come third, as if that presumed a gesture of intimacy that one had to build towards, and which I had to find ways to translate without seeming invasive or impolite. Once, at the “Bar of J” we found out about the home-grown tomatoes from L’s orchard, a waiter there, and she directed us to P's grocery, to which we hurried the following morning to buy those luscious tomatoes and, of course, ended up buying also local prunes, honey and olives. I hadn’t talked to this many strangers for a long time.

We finally got to our destination, B. As we arrived it seemed to me this place had always been in the waiting, and perhaps my sense of ease came from the salty sea breeze which prickles the skin in strangely soothing ways. It was of course also the knowledge that I would soon see my good friend D, a poet. We were to stay in a late-19th-century flat owned by D’s family - once the 'humble' lodgings of a Marquis where D now welcomed friends for seasonal stays, mostly in the summer. The mythologies around this dwelling had grown over the years and our arrival did little to keep them in check: it was first the smell of soap and tiles and wood, and the light shimmering through the various stained glass windows, dated to 1926. The living room, which occupied the entire chamfer of the building and looked onto a square on two (maybe three?) of its sides, was the most precious part of the house: in this light-filled space, you could hover over the wood wainscoting - which must surely have been oak because it looked solid and dark - and take in the buzz of the town while feeling sheltered among plants and heaps of books of philosophy, literature and arts that lay in a haphazard but organised fashion. There was also D’s library and art study, which one of her friends and ex-lover, M, was arranging in old bookshelves. I was curious how M was categorising the books, but she didn't seem to have clear criteria. M had taken to this task during D’s departure with her partner A, and they’d be back in a few days. At night, we got badly bitten by mosquitoes. I didn’t feel comfortable in this atmosphere of privilege, but neither did I feel uncomfortable - I must admit, perhaps because the house itself seemed like another character of this fictional road trip story, and I could treat it as such. Everything was so removed from life as I’d known it over the past months that I was swayed by all its eroticism: everyone I got to know was either D’s lover or ex-lover. So, by this point, I might have even forgotten we were still in the midst of a pandemic, had it not been for the persistent use and daily washing of masks, and my continuous reminder to S to pull up the mask when outdoors, as it often slipped her mind. I realised this because of the condemnatory expressions written into people’s eyes as we strolled; you really can see a whole person’s expression in their eyes.

S eventually left, in good timing to avoid the 2-week isolation period, and I remained in B for a little while before going to see my parents. For a few days, we were two Ds and two Ms: D, her two ex-lovers D and M, and me (M). D and M ex-lovers had begun and affair during this time, and it was pleasant to see the tentative ebullience of caresses and gazes. I had unwittingly missed this touch - or even seeing it - and once back and in self-isolation, I’ve had symptoms of withdrawal.

On the plane back to where I am writing from, I jotted down some notes which I’ll share here as extracts (dated to 1st August 2020):

“I’m sitting on a plane, seat 10A, no-one is sitting next to me. The flight is blissful…”

“…the view from my window is punctuated by the sea and the border of the peninsula - water etched into the land; the land from this view is geological and is not bound by the geographical markings of the nation.”

“I forgot, until I ate my homemade cheese baguette that I was wearing a mask, so used have I got to it now, except for the faint smell that still reminded me of T, with whom I slept with last night.”

After landing, I wrote to T: “There was a strangeness of knowing I was literally flying into my own confinement, perhaps that made it somewhat unreal.”

A few days after, alone at home and self-isolating, I was brought back to the physical closeness of T, but also of D, M, S, my parents, and even the strangers I serendipitously encountered during this trip. It was as I was watching Live Flesh by Almodovar (1997). There is a scene in which E, the main character, returns home after a night of love-making with V, whom she expects never to see again. As she goes into the shower, she smells her various body parts, chasing the smell of V that's settled there like a second skin. It's a short but visceral moment, cut by the simple turn of the shower head, which washes off all of V's sensory traces.

Coming back felt a bit like that.