You would think, with this vast Corona-cloud hanging heavily over our heads, that our minds would have no room for those trivial concerns that so often preoccupy us. Now, surely, is the time for us to ponder more weighty matters: mortality, spirituality, faith (or lack of it).
I find myself incensed by a particular type of journalism: a spread on lockdown fashion in one newspaper had me shouting with rage. It seemed not just daft, which would be fine — we all need distractions — but so wilfully blinkered that it felt callous.
You’re telling me to shell out £200 for fancy track-pants so that I can look chic for Zoom meetings? What if someone stuck inside with small kids at the top of a tower-block reads that? As it’s hard to socially distance in a small lift, maybe they can’t get out much, but it’s ok — surely they’ll be consoled by reading about a pair of trousers equivalent to their food budget for a month?
I now can’t watch the news at all. I dart in and out of the BBC website twice a day, as if looking quickly will make it more bearable, like glimpsing a horror film through interlaced fingers. I have become like a Victorian wife, relying on my husband to absorb the full brunt of it; then he offers me morsels, as if feeding an invalid (I still have a raised temperature after over two weeks).
Sometimes, I watch a couple of minutes — displaying the TV listing guide on the screen, with the news reduced to a less alarming, tiny rectangle in the top-right-hand corner so that I can’t really see it. Now, they are talking about a shortage of coffins, interviewing someone with a foreign accent. But where is it? It doesn’t look like Italy or Spain. Maybe somewhere in Eastern Europe?
At least it’s not here. It can’t be here. The reporter continues. It’s Birmingham. It is here! It’s us. We are the developed nation with not enough coffins, not enough ventilators, not even enough basic gowns and visors to protect NHS staff. We can no longer tell ourselves, “well, at least that couldn’t happen here…” This is the nation that will make others shake their heads and say, what a shambles.
Mostly, my head whirls with a maelstrom of disturbing thoughts like these, but one small shallow concern continues to bother me, and checking in with friends, I know I’m not alone. My sister and I lower our voices to talk about it on the phone, competing on whose is worse. It’s our grey roots.
We both have dark hair. Or, rather, since we have both been dyeing our hair for over 20 years, our identity is brunette. I don’t want to be walking around with dark chestnut hair and a shrivelled face in my 80s, so I know that, between now and then, I am going to have to let it go grey.
But my plan was to have an orderly transition, perhaps chic silver streaks in among the dark as a waystation en route to grey. I am doing it. Definitely. But not yet. I’m not ready. It’s like the first day I took my son to nursery, wondering if he was ready for such a big step, when what was really bugging me was — was I ready to let him go? My mother looked radiant with her silver hair, but she had beautiful skin and well-defined cheekbones.
I’m short and chubby. My hair needs to be an asset, not just a head-covering.
Since lockdown, both husband and son have had DIY haircuts. Leo, aged 16, actually asked me to cut his hair. It was looking a tad bouffant. I did my best, using the kitchen scissors, and he deigned to say it wasn’t bad. But a day later he said he wanted to shave his head. To pre-empt this, Larry ordered electric hair-trimmers online.
Having seen just how cut hair can inveigle itself into the tiniest of crannies after I cut Leo’s hair in the kitchen (how did it get in the hinge of the oven door?), Larry sensibly trims it in the garden while I’m out for my walk. I come back to find that my lovely son had been replaced by someone on day-release from a juvenile detention centre. It’s not shaved but it’s very short. On a dark night, I might cross the street to avoid him. I feel bereft, as if he’s suddenly grown up without my noticing.
When Leo dresses in a olive T-shirt and combat trousers, I accuse my husband of having signed up our darling little boychik up for the Israeli army because his Israel tour was cancelled.
No wonder my incoming grey hair is freaking me out. With news stories about running out of coffins, and still with a high temperature, I don’t need additional reminders of my own mortality. Every extra millimetre of grey feels like the grave is extending its sinewy talons towards me. Yes, yes, I know I will go grey. Yes, yes, I know I will die. Just not yet, please god, not yet.
Claire Calman’s latest novel, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, will be published on June 4. It is now available to pre-order from Amazon and other outlets.