Everyone has lived through their own pandemic, but one entirely common experience is that memory of the last time we inhabited the world without fear or restriction. Depending on where you are in the world or what you do, this will have happened at a different point in the first three months of 2020. For many in Europe and America, where we were late to catch on to the severity of the virus and the necessity of isolation, the one year anniversary of that final excursion into what is now The Before is passing around now.
My own last day was 9 March 2020. It was a Monday, the first day of the week that would end with Tom Hanks testing positive for Covid-19 and America cancelling all major sports fixtures. The work I did was entirely unmemorable, so I went back through my email to check up on myself — I did revisions on this piece for Granta, it turns out, and I filed an article about the rise of multi-language podcasting that would publish the next day. I also sent some pictures from our weekend dog walk to my mother in law, and I was interested to see now that this one could have been taken at any point since then. This is pretty much all I have done when going outside in the last year. Things have changed a lot, and also not really at all.
It was the evening of that last day that lingers in my memory. My husband is an academic and he had arranged to take a group of students to see a screening of Brief Encounter at the Philharmonic in Liverpool. Mid afternoon, he messaged me to say there had been a drop out, so I tucked the dog up with his favourite treats for the evening and took the train into the city just as it was getting dark. We sat in a coffee shop and shared some food, and then waited in the lobby of the concert hall to give the students their tickets as they arrived.
Nobody was wearing masks. There was no hand sanitiser, or marks on the floor for social distancing purposes. The usual pre-event bustle was all around us, with people rushing in to pick up tickets, find their friends, and get to their seats. This seems absurd to me now, given that we had already been reading the terrible news from China and Italy for weeks, and the fact that my own father was only just recovering from a mysteriously terrible flu he seemed to have caught from a fellow charity volunteer who had just returned from visiting family in Wuhan. And yet.
I love Brief Encounter. I love the music, I love the accents, the trains, the clothes, the food, the flimsiness of the doomed romance. I even love the “thank you for coming back to me” bit at the end, and anticipate it eagerly throughout like it’s a big showstopping finale. I have been multiple times to Carnforth station, where much of it was filmed in 1945, to visit the little museum on the platform. Eating cake in the refreshment room there again is quite high up my list of post vaccination priorities.
On that last evening, I enjoyed the film all over again — seeing it on a big screen in the acoustics of a hall built for orchestral performance is a pleasure that far surpasses squinting at a small laptop screen. It was a sold out show, with an audience mostly of elderly people. I try not to dwell on that too much, given what we know now about mortality rates.
After the film, we lingered by the door again to make sure that the students found their transport back to campus safely. While we waited, I chatted to one of my husband’s colleagues who had also been in the audience. That conversation is where I now draw the line of before and after, because after my blissfully unaware evening the virus did intrude then, as it has every day since.
The person I spoke to then was supposed to be attending a conference in America the coming weekend, and was feeling unsure about whether it was safe to fly: the news was concerning, but if they didn’t go the funding for a larger project they were running would be withdrawn. I agreed that they probably shouldn’t travel, and then thought little more about it as events overtook us in the following days. About a fortnight later, my husband mentioned that this colleague had gone to New Orleans for the weekend after all, and upon their return had immediately gone off sick with Covid. They are only now coming back to full time work after a year of illness.
At the end of that evening, though, I didn’t know that that would be the last face to face conversation I would have without thinking about whether I was two metres away from the other speaker or not. We walked back to the car in the freezing March wind and drove home, not knowing that over a year later we still wouldn’t have driven back into the city yet. I haven’t watched Brief Encounter since then either, and I don’t know when I will again.
I asked in last week’s newsletter and on my Instagram what you did on your last day. This is what you sent me.
Greeting the return of my daughter from her London job. She’s still here!
I work in STEM education, so we celebrate Pi(e) Day every year. Last year, we held our Pi(e) Day on 16th March, which unbeknownst to us was the final day that we would end up working from the office. That afternoon we were told that we would all be working from home for the next little while, and we haven’t been back since. It wasn’t quite normal since we had modified Pi(e) Day with Covid precautions, which included serving the pies while wearing gloves, instead of our usual serve-yourself method, and making everyone take the pie back to their desks instead of chatting while we ate. But it still sticks in my brain as the final “normal” thing that I got to do before everything really changed.
Last normal trip out — a Pizza Express and the Harlem Globetrotters at the Leeds Arena on 4th March.
Immediately prior to the quarantine, I lost two aunts within a week of each other. So my last real day was a Monday. I was off work for my aunt’s funeral and I remember going into the funeral home with hand sanitiser everywhere. We went to my aunt’s church where they fed us and we spent time reminiscing. I remember riding back with my parents to Ohio (we were in Indiana) and getting messages from coworkers that we were being sent home to work from home the next day. Our governor announced the quarantine and I had to rush into work to get my computer and supplies to work from home. I felt so surreal because I had been barely paying attention to the Covid news — one aunt was in the hospital for several weeks before she passed and my other passed right before her funeral.
It was a small consolation that we managed to have both of their funerals and grieve together before the shutdown. Many people didn’t get that opportunity.
Finished work early, got the bus home, met an old friend in our local pub for some drinks.
Met my new boyfriend’s sister, cuddled a dog in the pub, and had my first Morley’s.
I think it was the Saturday before NYC shut down and my partner and I went into Manhattan to get glasses which was just an evolving failure (wrong locations, Warby Parker’s flagship store in SoHo when they had a HUGE anniversary party) but we wound up wandering around and getting snacks and drinks at different cafés because it was one of those early spring warm days that happen in New York in March, and it was great. The next day I went to a women’s soccer game with friends in New Jersey which was fun but also I remember a lot of announcements about being careful because of Covid and I remember wondering if going was a mistake but also there was so little information and so much confusion I dunno what I could’ve done differently with the information that I had.
Went on a date getting burritos and watching Little Women in the movie theatre.
In the pub playing pool with old uni friends before stumbling home eating chips, glorious.
I was on spring break from law school and knew I had boatloads of studying to do, but I blew it off to join my dad for a day of jeeping in Moab (a couple hours’ drive). I’m so glad that I did. We hiked to Corona Arch (partially as a joke and partially because I’d never been), and then spent the day enjoying the beautiful scenery and each other’s company. He’s a doctor and leads a youth group in his church congregation. On our way home, he got a series of emails postponing and then canceling the youth camp planned for the next month. That’s when we knew that things would be quite different, but I’m so glad we spent that time together because I haven’t seen him in months.
I went to a second run theatre by myself to see Little Women. A man sobbed when Beth died.
Visited my godson who had just been born. Didn’t even think to wear a mask on the train!
I went to Florida for vacation with my mom and sisters on 7th March. Things were normal when we got to our condo on the beach, though we were reading the news with various levels of alarm throughout the week. By the end of the week, we saw people selling toilet paper for $5 a roll on the side of the road as we drove to the airport. I didn’t have a mask so on the plane ride home I wore my jacket backwards and pulled the hood up over my face every time I was near people. I got home on a Saturday. On Sunday 15th March, my fiancé and I went over to our friend’s house so that she could marry us. I needed to get on my fiancé’s health insurance sooner than we were actually planning to get married (September 2020, now postponed) so we were having my coworker/friend sign our marriage license. We stood 6 feet apart in her living room while she signed the document and then we left and that was the last time I saw her. So I guess the last normal thing I did was get married?
I flew back from Hong Kong without telling my parents, who were at the time stranded on a cruise off Cape Horn, and waited in the house for them to get back.
Cancelled our wedding, which was not fun.
My office declared work from home on 13th March when they heard news of the situation worsening. The second week of the month is generally busy on account of three birthday celebrations. Last year — maybe as a last hurrah or an almost farewell — I spent time with most of my friends. (I stay with my family, so there was no fear of missing them.) On the day before I started quarantining, we went to a lovely café with not-so-good food. The birthday girl gifted us roses, which was a pleasant and weird surprise. We played with a couple of dogs who happened to visit at the same time. We left with smiles on our faces. And as the days went on, the flowers wilted.
Headed to London for a conference, went for dinner after, stayed in a hotel where, amazingly, they gave us free wheatgrass shots to help protect against Covid, and then went for my last brunch the next morning. I miss brunch.
Went to see King Creosote at the Barbican.
I was working from home on 17th March while I wait for the car to be repaired. My parents were visiting to play with their granddaughter. An emergency work meeting was called to say they were closing the site. I sheepishly headed downstairs to ask my dad to drive me to the office to get my chair, monitor and peripherals home. He spent the journey teasing me for fussing. I was expecting a few weeks of this though and wanted to be comfortable.
I went minigolfing with ten (!) friends. We were laughing. Corona felt too far fetched a concept to be real.
I found it really moving to read through all of that and imagine you all doing your last things. I’ll be back with a regular newsletter next week, and in the meantime, don’t forget that if you ever want to talk to me about something you read here, you can just hit reply on the email and it come straight to my inbox.
Until next time,
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: get my article and podcast recommendations in The Browser, listen to my murder mystery podcast Shedunnit, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram.