The Corona Chronicles is published on Mondays and Fridays every week on Telegraph.co.uk. To read previous installments, click here
Thursday April 16 – Day 24 of Isolation
Awake. Suddenly horribly wide awake. My sleep has been so rubbish during lockdown, it’s as if my subconscious processes all the anxiety in the night that I manage to suppress during the day. That’s not quite true. Every so often, I find myself having a little weep over nothing. Over everything, maybe; the whole damn thing. Like it’s Izzy’s birthday tomorrow and we were supposed to be going to Harry Potter World. She’s been so excited since we booked in February. (God, February feels like it was in another decade, not two months ago, doesn’t it?)
Even before she could read, my youngest modelled herself on Hermione Grainger. Now, my darling Izzy, witchiest whiz of obscure facts about the wicked Covid-19, is going to become a teenager not with her two best friends in her favourite imaginary world, but with her boring, self-isolating Muggle family. How am I supposed to make that magical?
Hang on, there’s a blue light. I can just make out a flicker of its rotating beam through the gap in the bedroom curtains. So that’s what woke me.
“Wake up, there’s an ambulance.”
“Next door. Oh, God, it must be Ellen. WAKE UP!”
Not Ellen. The slight figure I can make out under the shroud of wrapping on the stretcher is Dennis. For one terrible moment, I think he’s dead. Ellen is following her husband making this awful sound, like an animal caught in a trap. “Den, Den,” she wails. The paramedics, I think that’s what they are, look like spacemen. Can’t see either of their faces. You’d think our neighbour was being abducted, not taken into hospital.
With a whooping wail of siren, the ambulance departs. I get as close to Ellen as I can at our shared wall, instinctively leaving distance between us. “Den’s got the Covid, Carrie,” she says, “can’t get his breath.”
“Dennis is so strong,” I say, and I mean it. A London cabbie for 52 years, he drove us home from the hospital when I had Izzy 12, no, 13 years ago. “Lovely little lady you are, incha,” he said to the baby, still a rosebud in her shawl. Izzy adores Dennis.
“Should’ve been me,” Ellen says, “I’m the one that’s got cancer.”
“Don’t be silly. Have you texted Linda to let her know?”
Ellen nods. “I told her about her dad, but she can’t come here to be with me, can she? Specially not now.”
There is a squeak of gate and suddenly Robert is there, by Ellen’s side, his arm around her shoulders, guiding her gently back into the house. What on earth does he think he’s doing? After more than three weeks of eternal vigilance, of me painstakingly wiping every damn doorknob and surface with special anti-microbial wipes and us all washing our hands every hour. After all that effort to “Save the NHS”, my husband just embraced Ellen who lives with Dennis who’s just been rushed to hospital with the same coronavirus against which I have been furiously, feverishly building this Fort Knox of immunity.
Robert stands naked in the bedroom. “Sorry, darling, I put all my clothes straight in the machine so that touching Ellen...”
“No, it’s OK, you did exactly the right thing.” I haven’t liked my husband this much for a long time, just as I wonder if I’ve lost him.
Right. I’m damned if Izzy is going to miss out on a party. While she’s in the garden chatting to Ellen over the fence, I set the rest of the family the top-secret task of recreating Harry Potter World within these four walls. Chloe jumps at the idea, says she and Paolo will make Diagon Alley in the sitting room. As the implausibly good-looking Italian boyfriend has mastered English, but only in the present tense, I had lazily assumed he was a male model or something else of purely decorative value.
“Paolo’s studying architecture, Mum, he can make a stage set, no problem,” reports Chloe. Harry says he will do a flying car and even Robert has agreed to stop working for a while and do wizard hats and wands. Meanwhile, I am making a Hermione cake. Try to picture Prue from Bake Off in one of her vibrant kaftans and Liquorice Allsorts necklaces, smiling encouragingly at me and saying in that molasses voice: “You can do this, Carrie, darling.”
“Do you think Dennis is a goner, Mum?” Izzy has just come running in from the garden and is frantically Googling something on the phone, which was her advance birthday present. I marvel at the blur of her busy thumbs. I’m still texting with my forefinger.
“No, of course he isn’t, sweetheart.” What am I supposed to say?
“Ellen says Dennis is a goner,” Izzy says furrowing her brow as she brings up several graphs, “but she doesn’t understand morbidity statistics. She just thinks because a lot of old men die of corona that Dennis will, too. See, here it says it’s an 11 per cent chance of dying with the virus if you’re over 80 years old. Even if you’re in hospital, like Dennis, there’s still a really good chance of getting better. See, Mum, see!”
There is a pleading look in Izzy’s hazel eyes I haven’t noticed before. Until now, I thought my daughter’s obsession with covid was a bit weird, but now I understand. This is her way of mastering her fears. Me, I pour myself a glass of red at 4.55 to steady myself for the daily death toll. (Have you noticed wine o’clock gets earlier with each passing week of isolation?) Izzy, like her heroine, Hermione, believes that if she has all the knowledge at her fingertips, she will be able to make a spell that drives out the bad and protects the good. Like Dennis. “Expelliarmus!” Isn’t that the one?
“That’s brilliant, love, really great news. You go and cheer Ellen up. Ask her if she needs anything, OK?”
As I blend the chocolate butter cream and add a dab of cochineal to make the russet of Hermione’s hair, I find myself sending up a prayer. “Hello, God, Carrie here. I don’t ask You for much but please don’t let Dennis die on Izzy’s birthday. We’re slightly struggling with the festive mood as it is.”
The lockdown is extended by another three weeks. Keep Calm and Don’t Carry On! Dominic Raab is announcing it on TV. The PM’s stand-in stumbles over some of his words. Well, you’d be nervous if you had 60 million people looking at you and asking: “How the hell are we getting out of this mess, eh?” Says there are five tests that must be passed before we can start to relax the restritions. Blimey. They make finding the seven Horcruxes in Harry Potter and destroying Lord Voldemort’s soul look like a piece of only slighty burnt cake.
Friday 17th April – Day 25 of Isolation
The postman, previously just Dave, now a superhero braving plague-ridden streets, delivers Izzy’s cards. Robert plonks a curly red wig and witch’s hat on the birthday girl’s head and we lead her into the sitting room which clever Paolo and Chloe have turned into a quaint, shop-lined cobbled street. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is playing on the TV. Chloe flings open the shutters. On the pavement outside are Isla and Olivia, Izzy’s friends. Both in witches’ costumes, they are grinning broadly and pointing their wands at the window.
Jumping up and down with delight, my baby directs her wand back at them. At least Izzy will never forget the year she became a teenager. She waves at Ellen, who is by the wall holding a present. Hang on, is Ellen crying. Please, God, let it not be bad news. “Expelliarmus!”
Read previous chapters of The Corona Chronicles at telegraph.co.uk/coronachronicles