‘All of Life Ahead of Us’, by Anna Hope

Posted on 20/04/2020

How We Live Now is a series of pieces about these uncertain times, in the spirit of what the Guardian recently called ‘thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of life under altered circumstances’. Lucy Mangan was referring to Meg Rosoff’s classic novel How I Live Now, the inspiration for our title.

‘All of Life Ahead of Us’, by Anna Hope

I am in Manchester, living with my parents. Life is expanding and contracting. Some things feel very far away right now, like my daughter, with her father, two hundred miles away from me in Sussex. Some, like my dad, are closer than they have ever been.

My father is critically ill, with a neurodegenerative disorder he has been suffering from for years. He falls often. He has fallen on my mother, who has suffered several breakages in the last year. They have outside carers who come in every day, but each visit from a carer now carries a risk from the virus. I am here because my three siblings and I have decided on a rota, taking it in turns to live with our parents for two weeks each, for as long as it takes, for as long as no one can go to work, for as long as the children are away from school, for as long as the government tells us we must stay confined to our homes. For as long as the virus continues to take hold.

Before I was here in Manchester I was living in Mexico for the winter with my family, researching my next book. We were living in a small fishing village on the edge of the jungle where the colours were bright and the little shops were full of ripe papaya and mango and the restaurants served fresh fish. In mid-March we cut short our trip, to come home to our families. We changed our flights, staring at pictures online of British supermarkets with nothing on the shelves. It felt right, but crazy too somehow, as though we were deciding to fly back into a war zone. My husband and daughter arrived at Heathrow wearing Mexican bandanas tied round their mouths instead of masks. They looked like they were here to foment a revolution.

We manage a night at home in our house – our daughters’ fourth birthday – before I unpack and repack and my daughter and I leave for the north. The plan is to isolate for two weeks, first in the house of my sister in Manchester, then, when it appears that I am virus free, I will move in with my parents. My husband will then drive and collect my daughter and bring her back home to Sussex.

Before we leave our village, I drive to the nearest farm shop and buy chicken and chicken carcasses and three litres of olive oil and brown rice and chickpeas and many many other things, too many to name, and the only flour they have, which is buckwheat, and which I have no idea how to use. I am panic buying, I know, and at the till I cringe as the man rings through each item with what feels like terrible slowness. I have just arrived home, I want to say. I have been away for months and there is nothing on my shelves. I am going to stay with my parents. My dad is ill. But I say nothing, and besides, I know this reasoning is only half true – I am shopping to feel safe.

I drive north in our battered old van in the middle of the night. My daughter sleeps in the back while I listen to the radio, BBC Radio 4. At 1am the programmes finish and they play the shipping forecast and end with the national anthem. I have never listened to either and this moment feels both comforting and strange. I think of a poem I know, by Carole Ann Duffy, Prayer, which ends with the couplet –

Darkness outside, Inside, the radio’s prayer,
Rockall, Malin. Dogger, Finisterre.

My sister lives in a small house, in a terrace of houses in Manchester, in a working-class neighbourhood close to the centre of the city. The houses are Victorian, over 150 years old. From her little kitchen at the back you can see her yard and beyond that the back of the house opposite. We spend a lot of time in this kitchen, she and I, cooking, eating, hovering by the fridge. We boil the kettle often and offer each other tea. I think of the women who have lived in this house before my sister, who have stood in this spot in this kitchen, women who have weathered wars and more and survived and offered each other solace and tea, tea, tea. I think of women now, locked up with men who are violent, or children who are unhappy, or both.

We are two women and three kids under six, cooped up together in this little house. Sometimes things feel crazy, but inside the house things are generally okay, and the kids play well or do a little schoolwork, or watch Disney films, but outside things are weird. They look the same but they are not. We go to the local park and our kids scoot away from us as kids do, and we yell at them to come back, that it is not safe, that they are not allowed to climb on the rocks, or the climbing frame, or go close to anyone else, or do anything other than scoot, close together and not deviating from the path. We all must stay close together. Sensing our unease, sensing the panic just at the edge of our voices, they disobey, or simply forget, as the spring air and the scent of freedom rises in them and they put their feet to the ground and go. Away from us. Escaping.

Sometimes, in the morning, my sister and I do workouts to YouTube while the kids watch cartoons upstairs.

Sometimes, in the evenings, we drink too much, my sister and I.

On Thursday evenings we go outside the house with the kids and stand at the front door and clap loudly for the NHS. Most of the other people in the street are also standing in their front yards, clapping too.

I move in with my parents. When I left for Mexico my father could still walk unaided, just, but now he finds it hard to perform the simplest tasks. I help him to walk and we shuffle one foot, then the other, to the stairlift, to the wheelchair, to the chair in the living room from where he can see the TV. It often feels as though his body wants to fall to the left and it takes strength and stability to hold him. Sometimes it takes half an hour to move from one room to the next. I wonder how my mum has coped all this time. Sometimes, thinking of the months I was in Mexico, I am awash with queasy guilt – I should have been here all along. I give him a shower in the mornings and he sits on a special fold down chair while I wash him. Before coming here I have worried about this moment– will we both find it excruciating? But in the end it is fine. I chatter away about anything, about my research into indigenous tribes in Sonora in Mexico, about 19th century land rights. After his shower we drape him in a towel like a prize-fighter.

Outside the house, spring is coming. There is blackthorn blossom on the trees and the magnolias are out in the front lawns. Inside the house, the heating is often turned up too high. Outside the house, the world is lurching rapidly into unknown territory; the Prime Minister is in hospital, a great friend of mine, a nurse, tells me that there are young nurses fighting for their lives in the hospital in which she works. Inside the house, life is slow. My rhythm matches that of my parents’ and we move slowly, slowly through the days. Lifting the spoon to feed my dad, making sure he has swallowed before offering some more. I remember when my daughter had to be fed, the temptation was often to feed her too quickly, to get it over with, to move on to something else. To do that now would be to risk my dad choking to death. My dad weathers these indignities with, it seems to me, a kind of heroic dignity, and as I watch my mother, the thousand little acts of care and attention that it takes to move my dad through the day, I am overwhelmed, with love, with respect. Sometimes I wonder if there would be anyone to do this for me.

My father’s greatest pleasure, always, was to read. He read more, and more widely than anyone I’ve ever met. He would call me up in the middle of the day and tell me I had to read the new Richard Ford, or Samantha Shweblin. But now he can no longer manage to track the words on the page, and so he listens to audio books or my mum reads him articles from The Guardian. Sometimes now, in the afternoons, I read to him too. We read Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, a book we have both read several times. The best parts are the parts in which Hemingway describes walking through Paris. I know my dad knows the routes like the back of his hand, and so, as we read, we are no longer in the living room in Manchester, and he is no longer confined to his chair and we are no longer confined to the house and there is no longer a pandemic outside the walls, but we are walking together down the Rue de l’Odeon, to Sylvia Beach’s shop, on our way to borrow Turgenev and Dostoevsky and we are young and Paris is cold and beautiful and we might be hungry but we are happy and have all of life ahead of us.

I miss my daughter. The weather is fine, in Sussex, and my husband sends pictures of her in the garden, dressed as a superhero. He is building her a den from old offcuts of wood. They tell me they will hoist a pirate flag on it when it is done.

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You can read others in our response-to-crisis series – from novelists to historians, from pictures to poetry – at the How We Live Now main page.

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