When this all began, we used to watch the television news with a sort of horrified awe. We couldn’t believe what we saw, night after night. What on earth is going on? People in China, calling out from high-rise flats to one another. Italian cities, alive with music and song as people sang from balconies across the street. “What is this word ‘lockdown’?” we wondered. “What does it mean?” It now seems like another era, that innocence. We all know what lockdown is. One of the best things about it is that, like the Chinese and the Italians, we too are opening our doors and windows to sing or speak to our fellow human beings.
Before Covid-19, I was on nodding terms with two people in my small central-London road. No, actually, only one. I am now on first-name terms with about 10 separate households. We watch out for one another; we have keys for each other’s front doors. We help out with things and we have a laugh. When my computer broke down, at least three households offered to help fix it and one neighbour lent me a new charger. When our garden looked like it was getting out of control, the chap next door hopped over the fence and lopped branches off our tree. Who would have anticipated that during lockdown we, in London of all places, would be getting out musical instruments and singing to one another in the middle of the street? But that has been the case, and I am not alone. It has been the case across the nation.
It started with the weekly “Clap for Carers”, when people came out of their front doors at 8pm every Thursday to applaud those working in the National Health Service and other key workers. Then, it was only a matter of time before someone organised a weekly meet-up, with drinks. We brought plastic cups out of our houses, beers and even cocktails mixed up in giant plastic juice bottles. I started to look forward to Friday night drinks as a regular event.
I had moved to live in this tiny London street after my marriage collapsed, and at the beginning of our neighbourliness I was worried about what people might think about my situation; I discovered that nobody minded at all. Quite the opposite. They were sensitive about my position, welcomed me and my partner, smiled whenever my children turned up and were nothing but positive and friendly. Even when a national tabloid thought it would be fun to write a knocking piece about the fact I was getting divorced, and living in what it called “a rented love-nest”, nobody minded. Nobody cared, but in a good way.
One day, Mario, one of our new friends, went off to the coast for a fishing trip. He caught more than 40 large fish. I saw him that night arriving back, hot and tired from all day in a boat. Then I watched him going from door to door, giving fish to everyone including us. That night my partner and I ate delicious fresh fish. It was simple and yet extremely meaningful. The comradeship we had shown each other in sharing drinks and song extended to sharing food. If the plague that has landed on us seems almost Biblical in its wrath and spread, so did that gesture of care.