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Virus diary: Free after self-isolation, I find myself in a new ...


Virus diary: Free after self-isolation, I find myself in a new prison

I felt sad at the difference I saw when I went out on to the streets again

Jacqui Venter
Jacqui Venter has emerged from isolation to a very different world.
No more normal Jacqui Venter has emerged from isolation to a very different world.
Image: Supplied

Jacqui Venter, 46, is a South African digital product manager living in London. As the infection rate spirals in the UK, she was instructed by her doctor to self-isolate – in case she has Covid-19.

Last week, on day 6 of her self-isolation in a tiny studio flat in Soho, her doctor gave her the all-clear.

Day 6: My last day of isolation

953 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in London.

I got in touch with my doctor today because I’m feeling as fit as a flea.

What the doctor thought were flu symptoms turned out to be as prosaic as serious hay fever.

It had stopped raining for a few days, and spring is meant to be on her way. She had her fluffy, pollen knickers out and I hadn’t noticed her airing them on the washing line. I feel like an idiot.

The Berwick Street Market, usually a hive of food stalls and stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
That was then The Berwick Street Market, usually a hive of food stalls and stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
Image: Jacqui Venter

When I emerged – properly – from my flat to go to a pharmacy in Oxford Street to pick up my routine prescription, our great street eccentric had risen from his sun lounger of yesterday and was patrolling the street jovially; laughing, yelling at the odd person he knows and singing songs to unknown passers-by. “Relight my fire!” he sang at one, “Because I neeeeeed youuuuu ...” 

He was clearly missing the company he previously so enjoyed when he used to hold centre stage and prop himself up on one elbow on a bollard. Always on the right leg. Like a horse when it falls asleep. Regaling.

“Eh, why you want to go all the way down there, innit?” he presented. “Go to Soho Square! There’s a pharmacy there!” he performed, enjoying his own rhyming. I told him that mine was a prescription that needed to be collected and he allowed me to go, keeping his watchful eye over me as I went.

I took a short walk along my street, and felt very sad at the difference I could see between the start date of my isolation and today, a mere five and a half days later.

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When I had disappeared indoors, all the shops were open, the cafés were open, the cocktail bars were heaving, and the revellers were puking. Hairdressers were colouring, funky clothes were making their way onto the bodies of cool people and records were being selected after careful consideration. Ironic fast-food outlets specialising in salted beef sandwiches, toasted cheese or German sausages were doing their usual lunchtime trade and the market in Berwick Street – of course – was a veritable feast of sounds, smells and colour.

Today, all but a few of the shops are closed, the restaurants and cocktail bars have closed on the government’s recommendation, and the streets are clean. And empty. The market, save for three stalls, is almost closed.

Oxford Street is usually packed with pedestrians and vehicles. Now it appears abandoned as Londoners stay indoors.
Shut Oxford Street is usually packed with pedestrians and vehicles. Now it appears abandoned as Londoners stay indoors.
Image: Jacqui Venter

Transport seems to have shut down too. Scooter and motorcycle bays are empty because riders aren’t coming into Soho to work. There isn’t a taxi cab in sight – neither the Uber drivers nor the London black cabs are anywhere to be seen. There aren’t enough passengers to argue over, and argue they do. The Knowledge vs Google Maps. Maps in your head or maps on your phone. The debate is Biblical.

Even the London Underground – The Tube – is running a reduced service and travel is only for essential journeys. I saw one bus in Oxford Street. One bus! There are usually queues of them from one end of the street to the other – from Oxford Circus to Hyde Park – and you can hardly move a bicycle in between them.

I walked past some posters on a building site wall advertising gigs that will never happen, shop openings that will probably not happen – at all – and Agent Provocateur's latest swimwear collection.

How could that even be relevant right now when Londoners can’t fly anywhere to bathe in them? Or at the very least, swim at most gyms? How is any of the fancy stuff in shops relevant when we can’t buy it, show it off from within our homes or parade it on our bodies?

A friend of mine thinks that as a society, we are going to move away from buying stuff and move towards building a sense of community. Ordinarily I’d tell her to stop kissing her family with that lying mouth, because even now, the health advice is social distancing. But she’s right. We need people more than we need stuff. But we also need to stop catching stuff off people right now. These are lonely times. It’s hard not to ruminate.

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Ukulele Wednesdays, a loosely organised group of jolly, musical eccentrics in London – who have more than once flash-mobbed Trafalgar Square – had an online jamming session yesterday. They experienced a few technical difficulties, but I’m sure they’ll get it right.

The sign outside my chemist. South Africans are not alone in suffering stockouts at pharmacies
Outage The sign outside my chemist. South Africans are not alone in suffering stockouts at pharmacies
Image: Jacqui Venter

People are having isolation pub sessions as they sit in front of their laptops with homemade cocktails. We’re having office drinks this way tomorrow night to keep alive that Friday night feeling, where London office workers realise they have lives they actually want to live over the weekends.

Well, we can do the pub part of that ritual. What we’ll do with the weekend will be an open question.

Who will we be allowed to be with – in person? The NHS website is recommending: “Do not have visitors to your home, including friends and family.” That is going to be tough.

You see, I may live alone, but I’m usually not alone at all. I know people in this unique street, and they know me. The Antipodean coffee shop downstairs, my friends in the opposite block of flats, the Turkish restaurant below, the market traders outside my front door, and MyPlace.

It is called MyPlace, but it's actually my place. My living room. I am hugged and kissed when I go in there. They know my name, how it is spelt, and my favourite brunch, cocktail and coffee. I’ve spent days there. Sad and solitary afternoons after the end of my marriage, wondering where things went wrong. Joyful evenings there getting merry with the colourful locals, and staff, whom I adore. And nights flirting with lovers and new acquaintances. It’s been a year of love and fun.

But yesterday, MyPlace closed their doors, temporarily they said. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. Given the transient nature of restaurant staffing, I hope I will see all my darlings again.

There would also be no more tasty spinach omelettes with cheddar for now. So I needed to buy groceries while I was out.

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I went to Marks and Spencer, which was full of people and full of food. There was still no toilet paper. I watched in horror as people lifted items off the shelves, examined them with their bare hands, and put them back down. This is normal behaviour in any supermarket, but today I was very aware of it. The supermarkets in suburban areas are bare, but here in Soho, where you can only buy what you can carry, we are OK, it seems – for now.

When I got home, I sanitised everything.

I washed my flat keys twice in the basin, my hands twice after that. Using the anti-bac wipes I bought, I wiped down the soles of my shoes, the sleeves of my jacket, and the handles of my reusable shopping bags. I wiped down every single packet of food I’d bought and I took my time, washing my hands in between. I wiped my mobile phone three times. I even wiped inside my jacket pockets in case I’d transferred something I’d touched into my coat.

After that flurry of activity, I realised I was alone again. I had cut myself off from the world again – seemingly at my own choice. Not self-isolation this time, but self-imposed isolation.

What would I do to pass the time other than work?

For entertainment, I’ll savour the wicked joy that is Marc Rebillet, an American electronic musician who has always improvised songs in the moment for his fans. He is fast becoming my guilty pleasure. Marc has been performing this way on YouTube for years and in his live streams, callers give him a topic and he composes an impressively skilled song for them on the spot. It’s usually beyond lewd, or deranged, but he’s a weird genius who doesn’t mind performing live in his bathrobe. Many women have offered to have his children, and though he really isn’t a classic looker, he is strangely sexy.

I do have to wonder if this is going to be a big part of our new form of entertainment – and socialising. Playing the ukulele with a jigsaw puzzle of online musicians’ faces, or laughing maniacally at Marc from our living rooms, with our families or housemates.

In the real world, outside in the street, the tough-as-nails folk at the Middle Eastern wrap stall didn’t sell a single wrap today. Not one. I said goodbye to my friend, promising to stay in touch.

One of them said: “I’m still going to the gym. I mean, come on people, let’s go!” He’s a nut job from a military family. “If the army gets here and people start looting, I will take it seriously.” 

Then he said, with mad eyes: “I have to drink this coffee. I love it! Or I’m going to kill him,” gesturing towards the other guy. The lack of daily sales had obviously been taking its toll; they had been arguing.

He looks very healthy in his insanity, too full of vigour and good looks to be ill. So maybe his approach is right.

I hope he is right. I hope we use madness to stay on the right side of madness.


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