Last week, my partner Andy got The Letter. It’s been sent out from the NHS to all “shielded people” with health conditions that dramatically raise their vulnerability. The message effectively states that they cannot go out for 12 weeks, while everyone living with them must now observe rules so strict they resemble a gameshow where you undergo something profoundly arduous to win a car. In this case, however, the prize is “not catching Covid-19”, and it’s fair to say I have seldom felt so responsible for someone else’s wellbeing.
I’m not the “sod it, let’s have a barbecue” type – but until recently, I was just trying to follow the general advice for households: Be sensible, without being overwrought. I’d wear gloves but not a mask to go shopping, and we were still sharing a bed, hugging, and failing to measure a strict 2m apart on the couch whilst watching Homeland. Now, however, all that has changed.
As the virus marches on and the death toll rises, it’s become clearer just how vulnerable we all are – particularly those with underlying conditions. Andy, 48, has auto-immune illnesses including ulcerative colitis and asthma. They don’t generally stop him living a fairly normal, if limited, life, unless he has a (completely unpredictable) flare-up, which means taking immune-suppressant drugs so system-weakening, he could probably catch a distant waft of diphtheria left over from 1852. When it comes to the world’s most infectious and virulent disease, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
We live in the rural and isolated West Highlands, in a small cottage, while Andy runs a large holiday rental home, about half a mile away. Usually it’s booked throughout the year, but as of a fortnight ago, it’s been lying empty, as travel restrictions mean none of our guests can come for the foreseeable. It made sense to move up there, where we could have separate bedrooms and a bathroom each, so I wouldn’t breathe on him during the night, and we don’t have to touch the same taps.
In fact, we can’t touch each other at all.
We’ve been together six years, so it’s not as if we go around with our hands in each other’s jeans pockets canoodling like teens, but we do like a regular hug or kiss, an arm around the shoulder on the sofa, even a hand-hold now and then. I am constantly reminding myself not to touch his arm, or put my hand affectionately on his waist as we pass in the kitchen. It feels both counter-intuitive and deeply lonely to be unable to comfort each other at such a difficult time.
“Oh come on,” said a few friends on Facebook, when I posted about our new circumstances. “That’s a bit dramatic! Surely you don’t need to go that far – you can obviously share a bed...”
But we can’t. I need to know I’m doing everything in my power to shield my partner from this bloody virus that could kill him. People often say “it’s a life or death situation,” but until recently, they’ve rarely meant it. Now, they do.
I’m also desperately missing my family. My grown-up son, parents and my ex-in-laws (who are definitely family) are all back in Manchester, and four out of five are over 70. Not being there to do their shopping and look after them is painful and guilt-inducing in equal measure, and while I’d normally go down every two or three weeks, like everyone else, I have no idea when FaceTime will again become real time. So for now, it’s just Andy and me.
Being at the holiday house – which feels rather like acting in a strange Art film, with its huge modern windows and fantastical view down the loch to the mountains – we see nobody at all, and daily life revolves around disinfection. I can’t make Andy a cup of tea, as it means touching the kettle, so he makes it, then wipes it down. We’re not even supposed to eat together – the letter recommends separate dining rooms, but we’re compromising by sitting at either end of the long kitchen table, like a pair of haughty old aristocrats. We cook using separate pans, I get my cutlery out, then wipe the drawer handles with antiseptic, and he gets his own. When I return from walking the dogs, I take my boots off outside, wipe the front door handle, wash my hands in violently hot water and Dettol hand wash and leave the spaniels in the utility room for an hour so Andy doesn’t forget and stroke them. (We don’t know how long the virus lasts on fur, but they can’t stay in there forever.)
Of course, we are aware of how immensely lucky we are to have access to two houses, even though we’re losing money. And of course, we have considered me living alone at the cottage for three months – but so far, we both feel the impact on our mental health would be so bad it’s not worth it. That may change.
The main danger, of course, is the need for food. I am currently shopping for both of us (with entirely different diets), and Andy’s parents who live nearby. As per advice, I can only go once a week. We live 16 miles from a small supermarket, and going there now resembles a solo Arctic expedition of the 1900s. I put on my mask and gloves, dodge round the aisles like a game of Frogger, trying not to get breathed on, then visit two newsagents and one garage shop in the hope of loo roll (absolutely no chance). Back home, I leave the shopping outside, put my ‘supermarket clothes’ in the washer, shower, change, put on new gloves, separate the shopping for his parents, disinfect every pack with Dettol wipes, wash fruit and veg with soap and water and disinfect the bags.
I then spend the next few days worrying that I’ve somehow inhaled the virus at the checkout, despite everyone’s best attempts.
Luckily, we are so isolated we can still go for short walks - standing well over two metres apart. Though now, experts think the virus may be transmitted by talking.
“Well, if I’m standing anywhere near you, you’ll just have to stop talking,” said Andy today. “You may notice me doing that a lot.”
We may be alone and afraid – but at least he can still make me laugh.