I look back a final time, close the front door and cross the street, rolling my bulging suitcase and carrying my bedside lamp, careful to not drag the cable on the ground. The orange leaves dot the pavement, marking the start of the new school year and the end of our summer of family shielding. With our daughter returning to school and my safety bubble bursting, it is time to shield alone.
I drape a special blanket over the back of the sofa and prop our family photo next to my lamp on the bedside table, creating domesticity within a generic white-walled box. I hang my clothes in the closet and fill my fridge with single portion meals. With time, it becomes more personal: I ask for my plant, and water it on my husband’s schedule, talking to it as if it were human. I gradually fill my second-hand bookshelf with novels, gifted by friends to distract me from the monotony of my days. I light candles, fill scrapbooks with art, and buy special soap online that smells like my favourite spa.
We create routines. Little ones that now feel normal but that I hope will seem incomprehensible in some distant future. Groggy from broken sleep, we text, clinging to the threads that hold us to each other and our common but distant lives. I’m brushing my teeth. Just boiling the kettle. How did you sleep? Sorting Willow out and then I’ll start breakfast. We start WhatsApp video. I know our girl has arrived when I hear the clanging of the dishes as she unloads the dishwasher. I see half faces and hear broken conversation. We cut our fruit, take our vitamins, drink our tea. She leaves to dress for school. I say goodbye. We click End and there’s deafening silence. A household, split down the middle and trying to hold itself together with digital chatter. Together, but not really.
I look out the window where I can see the top of the house and watch the lights come on, telling me he’s in his office. Sometimes he sees me. Sometimes I wave. In the evening I walk over and join them for dinner at the garden table. Cooking used to be my job. Now it’s his and he does it well, bringing out meal after hand-cooked meal, in cold, in drizzle. We string outdoor lights and buy a garden heater. I use the torch on my mobile phone to see my food and use hand warmers when I can no longer feel my fingers. Our neighbour calls concerned. You’re going to freeze. When does this madness end? I tell her I don’t know. When drizzles become downpour and rain becomes snow we reluctantly cancel and move our meals back online.
I move to a new flat, same building. We reluctantly take a lease, and my heart hurts when I sign the forms. The view is the same. Climbing up the stairs, I carry my bedside lamp. My friend goes around the charity shops and sends me photos of plates and pyrex dishes. Jelly glasses 50p each. Hangers? Drying rack? She helps me fill this new place with what I need to get through my days.
Christmas comes. Days become shorter and I hang twinkle lights around my window as a nod to festivity. I get to go back to the house during the school holidays but I can’t settle there, I feel like I’m a foreigner with an accent who can’t blend in.
Days accumulate and become months. Eventually I stop referring to it as “the flat” and sometimes call it “home.” I feel guilty and a little lost as the words escape my mouth but I can’t stop the shifting perspective any more than I can stop the passing of time. The days get longer again and I open the windows, letting in the crisp spring air.
I put on my running shoes and close the door of my flat, crossing the street wearing my mask and headphones. I text I’m here and then wait in the garden for her to appear, dressed in her school uniform for the last day of classes. I keep my distance, take my photos, hope I’m far enough away that she doesn’t notice the sadness in my eyes. It’s been a full school year, one with new friendships, homecoming dances and Halloween parties. I have witnessed it like a stranger through a mask and a screen.