Spring is coming, the roadmap out of lockdown is here, and the faint signs of an End To All This can be seen, in smoke rings, on the horizon. I scan the list of freedoms with impatience: schools, if you must, parental visits in parks, fine, fine, but when will I get to see my girlfriend indoors?
If you express some level of frustration with lockdown life, the worry is that you will be taken for someone who believes the right to spread plague is enshrined in the Magna Carta or that society took a wrong turn with the suspiciously foreign antics of Louis Pasteur. I am keen neither to catch Covid nor give it to others. That said, it has been illegal for me to hug my girlfriend since March and I’m starting to go mad.
Just before the Nicer Lockdown last year, the one where we made exciting breads and doggedly stuck to our daily exercise regimes, Matt Hancock suggested that couples who had not yet moved in together might want to consider doing so in a hurry. Leaving aside that, at this point, there was a week left to arrange it, there was also a vague feeling that all this would be over soon. Stoicism and self-denial would see us through.
My girlfriend and I — in our forties and thirties respectively — both continued to live in rented houses in Leicester with comparative strangers. We waited for the day we might be allowed to visit one another. Bubbles were out of the question, as both of us had housemates and indoor mixing was banned. Pub visits, trips to the shopping centre, office life: all were permitted and then abandoned. But with the exception of Christmas Day (when, although it was wonderful, we were somewhat restricted by the presence of her family), visiting each other’s houses has been off limits for the past year.
Around the country there must be plenty of stories like ours: lovers ten minutes up the road and yet miles from each other’s lives. Whether due to financial constraints, the housing shortage or old-fashioned fear of commitment, there are plenty of couples who hadn’t got around to living together when Covid struck and are instead living with housemates. For anyone in this situation, lives have been put indefinitely on hold, apart from, as is currently allowed, shared strolls at a careful distance. Kissing is now a crime. I appreciate that things might have been harder for, say, those fighting in the second world war, but I now understand why characters in 1940s films pour themselves a drink whenever they enter a room.
I meet my partner for our socially distanced stroll whenever we can both find the time. Conversation is limited. Neither of us has been up to much. We feel the need to hide how rotten everything is and instead indulge in wild conversational positivity. It offers a troubling insight into the failure of words: they are no match for a squeeze or a kiss. We have both had our first jabs (me for health problems; her for frontline work)but normal life is still a long way off. I envisage a situation where all of my household is vaccinated and yet visits are still banned until May.
Most homes, after all, contain at least one person who rather likes the idea of restrictions. Covid has been their dream come true, and as a result, a new puritanism has taken hold. Try suggesting that you miss drinking with friends, let alone having sex, and see the scolds congregate. We are being encouraged to judge each other’s lifestyles and choices. I’m a fairly tolerant, pleasure-loving chap, but lockdown has brought out my inner Cromwell too. Friends who casually mention forbidden hook-ups with strangers or speakeasy-style dinner parties momentarily make me wail and gnash my teeth. Still, pleasure is, on the whole, better than its opposite. I can’t really judge the wild romanticism of those who have broken the rules in order to choose the happiness of their partner over the safety of others. Love is nothing if not the delusion that one person is more important than abstract others.
While I would certainly choose to rescue my girlfriend from a burning building before I would my housemates, I’d rather not harm my housemates, if I can avoid it. So instead I look forward to the day in May when separated lovers can rediscover the bodies that have grown a year older, that have suffered illness and isolation, the day when all the sundered couples can start again, shell-shocked and exhausted, but able to touch at last.