The view from quarantine (coronavirus diary, part 3)

the view from quarantine

Each morning for the last 14 days I would step out onto the Juliet balcony of the Airbnb apartment we have been confined to, and crane my head around to where I could take in a slice of an ocean view. I can just make out what looks like a very lovely promenade winding along the edge of this small Mediterranean island while trying to figure out what the odd little sculpture is in the distance; A rabbit? A cat? I can’t tell.

There we were, for 14 days in a little bubble. Sometimes it feels that life is just a process of moving from one bubble to another. Only a few weeks ago we were in our settled little suburban London bubble, with trivia nights at the local pub and choir practice on Wednesday nights. In the mornings sending Margot off to work, and Sasha off to school before shuffling down to the coffee shop to do a little writing before tucking into work. Maybe heading into town on the odd weekend for a movie. One life of a million possible lives. A fine life, a perfectly acceptable bubble to float around in.

Then moments later we are on a plane – another timeless little bubble – and then a taxi, and then into this 2 bedroom apartment in Selina, Malta, looking out the at a row of windows, little portals into the worlds of strangers: The small children playing on the balcony outside what is possibly home daycare? A man taking a caged bird out for some sun and air for a few hours, and then back in again on some schedule I can’t quite figure out. The guy coming out for a smoke and talking on his phone each morning. The woman cleaning the windows with almost religious devotion, as if endlessly washing away a crime scene. Here we are all cohabitating in our own little universes, tightly wedged together but light-years apart. What do they make of me I wonder? The pale foreigner typing away at his computer until late into the evenings.

It always astonishes me how quickly we can jump from one universe to the next, and how quickly it seems like the previous universe can become almost like a fiction, a story we need to re-enforce with WhatsApp calls to friends and evening streams of BBC news over the VPN; reassurances that we didn’t just dream that last 20 years of our lives, that we haven’t always been here doing our daily 50 laps of this apartment.

I wouldn’t presume to compare this experience to of quarantine to being in prison, as some have done, because that is absurd. But maybe it’s fair to say I feel I’ve had a gentle taster of the effects confinement, a hint of how it plays on your mind, even after a couple of weeks. It isn’t normal for humans to live in isolation, and that’s probably why it’s one of the most time-honoured means of punishment.

I also can’t complain about our effective house arrest; if it was a punishment it was of the self-inflicted variety, a consequence of our decision to grab one of the last flights still going into Malta to join my wife who is working down here. Two weeks of quarantine, and then we would be all be reunited as a family, to see out this viral storm in a small country that has wrapped itself in its little bubble, shields up against the outside world.

As for the experience, the time passed, because that what time does. Sometimes I was lost in work, sometimes I was ready to climb the walls. It’s not something I wish to repeat yet I’m aware there are likely more long stretches of isolation facing all of us.

Last night I slept horribly, in spite of it being our last day of lock-in. I kept waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming I had caught the virus, being told that I was infected, watching as men in white boiler suits and gas masks bolted the doors shut and told us we would have to stay in here indefinitely. But then, paradoxically, when I did finally pull myself out of bed this morning I found myself strangely apprehensive about leaving the apartment, even after just a couple weeks.

It wasn’t for the fear of being outside. Possibly it was more the transition or maybe, as illogical as it sounds, just a vague sense of not quite completing whatever unspecified journey it was I was supposed to be on. It was that of leaving something unfinished and the time inside being meaningless. But then I guess that’s the nature of all our fears as humans, that we can’t satisfactorily account for our time.

During a family road trip a few years ago we stumbled across the gloomy but fascinating Dartoom Prison Museum. HMP Dartmoor is a positively bleak, centuries-old stone encampment in the middle of the Devonshire Moors, and the museum gives viewers a glimpse of the institution’s history. It features dusty old photographs, creepy mannequins wearing victorian prison guard uniforms, and display cases holding various improvised weapons confiscated from prisoners over the years. Most interestingly though is a collection of prisoner’s arts and crafts, including a meticulously crafted model of a cathedral built from matchsticks.

I had this vision in my mind of model’s creator who, upon being told he was due for early release, pleads for just a few more days to put the finishing touches on the model. There is this thing we have as humans, this need to finish things, to see a story through to the conclusion – to watch the film through to the end regardless of whether or not we are actually enjoying it.

So last night I stitched together this photograph, a picture of my bubble, pulled together from 30 separate picture. I spent far to much time touching up the image in photoshop to make sure there were no stray edges or missed details. A clean and finished representation. Somehow it was really important to finish it, to complete this story, record the experience of this bubble, before moving onto the next one.

The buzzer rang around 9 am. There was Margot to collect us. She took me down to introduce me to the lovely landlady who owns the apartment but whom I’d never seen, before stepping out onto the brightly lit street. We walked down along the promenade, winding our way towards the peninsula, passing along the way that strange sculpture (a cat as it turns out), as we headed towards the next chapter of the story.

Stone sculpture of a cat in Sliema, Malta

Stay safe everyone. I hope you are coping with whatever isolation you are facing and there will be lovely walk along the water in your near future.

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