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Tuesday 30 November, 1:49pm
Friends are everything. When life is ‘normal’, ie when coronavirus is not hanging over us all like a giant storm-cloud, you inherently know your mates are important but they’re somehow seamlessly integrated into the humdrum routine of your everyday life and you don’t particularly notice how much they mean to you. You text or WhatsApp or you chat on a Sunday night, you meet for drinks on a Friday and then hook up with partners or bigger groups for the odd dinner or general purpose knees-up. You go to the movies and the gym and the theatre and enjoy long walks in the Dales together (we do here in Yorkshire anyway, we’re so lucky to have some of the nation’s finest countryside on our doorstep). If you’re low, you know your mates will be there - and you do your best to support them as much as they support you. They’re friends because they’re in the foreground of your busy life, represented in technicolour when the rest are merely monochrome.
But at times like these, when we are forced to confront those really heart-stopping circumstances that require the suspension of all normal activity, true friends become a social life-support mechanism. Often it’s illness that brings the value of true friends to the forefront of your consciousness, but right now the strong bonds of all our friendships are being tested by a global crisis so shocking that it has blown all the usual expectations out of the water.
Our social life is the glue that binds us to our friends. So when some unknown and malevolent power blows a whistle compelling us to stay home, it’s positively frightening. A hush has fallen, suddenly and with very little warning. The streets in which we live, the pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars that are our stomping grounds lie silent, forlorn.
It’s like we’ve stumbled into a cowboy movie when the baddie has just ridden into town. As we dive under proverbial tables, clutch our children tightly and batten down the hatches, our friendships are being physically shut out by this dreadful, merciless, indiscriminate enemy called coronavirus Covid 19. Six months ago we’d never heard those words and now they’re etched on every heart across the globe.
But we’re resilient, we humans. We’re good at adapting and we’re already in overdrive and asking the right questions as we battle to retain as much normality as we can. How do you keep friendships afloat when you’re all stuck in your separate houses and can’t meet? How do you nurture relationships when all the usual routines are suspended? How do you mark birthdays, stay in touch with grandma, keep that fitness class going that you all love so much, meet for coffee when the coffee shops are closed?
Every social grouping is remote right now and there’s a sadness in that. But we are strangely upbeat. I sense a collective understanding that now, more than ever, we need to bolster one another, keep our spirits up, give ourselves reasons to be cheerful, hang on to hope.
So that’s what friends are doing at the moment, they are nurturing one another, finding time to listen in the midst of humdrum domestic incarceration, making space to call old friends, checking up on aged relatives, reaching out to worried adult kids, reassuring little ones.
As I languish in total lockdown at home (how I hate that phrase ‘underlying condition’), I could name all my wonderful friends and itemise the myriad ways in which they are supporting me right now, but that would feel almost reductive - because it’s their combined energy that’s the real game-changer. Good friends are like horsepower; harness us in a common aim and our power to make things happen is awesome.
I love my friends, I always have. They have never not been there for me. Through frequent surgery and challenging treatments they have stood firmly beside me. As I’ve recovered they have encouraged me every time, and when I’ve clambered back to full health after every setback they have been there to cheer me on. We meet every Saturday morning for coffee and probably disrupt the peace and quiet of our favourite café with our cacklings and our political rantings and our relationship updates and our workplace gossip and our family tales.
Their friendship is a lifeline at the best of times, but especially so right now, with my kids all grown up, one in North Yorkshire with her own family and two in London with their girlfriends. The pain of not knowing when I will see them again is unimaginable, as it is for millions of families across the world.
We should be proud of our friendships and their power to ease that pain. In the midst of all this horror, we remain unbeaten. Instead of Saturday coffee and Friday night drinks we’re doing things virtually. The coffee club continues thanks to Zoom and tonight I have a cocktail party booked online. We watch ballet and theatre and even opera together and then share critical reviews afterwards. We dance collectively to Jarvis Cocker’s outstanding Saturday night Domestic Disco on Instagram. We are doing live streamed yoga, pilates, circuits - and now some of us are even making medical scrubs for local doctors who have run out of kit. One friend brings my paper, another wrangles food from my favourite shop, yet another delivers my prescriptions and magazines. All these goodies, poignantly left on my doorstep or placed carefully so I can wave brief hellos from my back door as they hover at the garden gate. Everyone suggests books to read. My sister emails me gardening advice because I am a terrible gardener but reckon now’s the time to improve, and she is brilliant at anything to do with soil, plants, wildlife and flowers.
In the midst of this global pandemic there are green shoots of hope. As garden birds sing out across Britain in celebration of our newly restored natural environment, they are showing us that we humans can make good things happen as well as bad.
So right now, as I dig deep, counting the days through this seemingly endless lonely lockdown and dreaming of the sunny uplands that will one day come again, I feel closer to my friends than ever.