In 2020, the world as we knew it came crashing down.
It started with flames.
Wildfires swept across Australia. The rest of the world watched helplessly, horrified by the satellite images which began to emerge. Huge stretches of land, engulfed. Forests, communities, habitats, all wiped out. It became known as The Black Summer. It was the worst bushfire season the country had ever known, and the scale of the damage was hard to fathom. 72, 000 square miles. 6000 buildings. 34 human lives. Immeasurable disaster to the native wildlife.
For many, the images etched in ur minds took on an apocalyptic and prophetic tone. This is not over yet! The world screamed, in vain. We should have listened.
Murmurings of a mysterious illness began to ripple. A virus, which seemed to have originated in China. The news filtered into the Western countries in drips and drabs, but the governments did not seem overly concerned, and so the rest of us followed suit. Rumours of a rising death toll were hushed away. This was a foreign disease. It would not reach the rest of the world. Until it did.
In March 2020, a global pandemic was announced. For most of us, the word pandemic had rarely entered our vocabulary. The prospect of how to handle one put everyone – world leaders included – into territory which had never yet been chartered.
It’s strange thinking back to my final day in the office. An emergency meeting was held amongst the senior team, as we discussed how our system could be operated from our homes. Our belongings were packed. The fridges were emptied and temporary homes found for the plants. I made my way down the steps, chattering away in incredulous tones as my colleague walked me to my car.
“This will all be over in a few weeks. “I reassured him, disconcerted by the nostalgic way he had parted with the building. I couldn’t comprehend that we wouldn’t be back any time soon. Within days, I heard that same colleague had taken unwell. He had contracted Covid, and was taken to intensive care. A week later, he passed away.
I wish I could say that reality had hit then, but in truth, I’m still waiting for it to come. In a situation so unnatural, I’m beginning to wonder if it ever really will.
Of course, in some respects, we haven’t been able to grieve as we should because all of the rituals we would normally follow had been taken from us. At the time of my friend’s death, funerals were restricted to immediate family only. Crossing households was out of the question, so there was no opportunity to get the team together and share our thoughts and memories in person. We couldn’t hold each other. We couldn’t cry together. We couldn’t fully acknowledge what his passing meant. Zoom has its merits, but there are times in life when a screen just won’t cut it. This was one of them.
Then came the fear. If this could happen to someone I had sat beside for 40 hours a week, for 5 years of my life, it could happen to anyone. There was nothing mythical about this disease any more. It was here, and it was dangerous.
The world went into lockdown. Businesses closed. Our beloved theatres sat empty, with only the ghost lights to fill the auditoriums. Travel bans were put in place. We were restricted to our homes, only to leave once a day for essential reasons. Socialising in person was banned. Wildlife crept into city centres. The streets were bare. Shelves were bare. Cupboards were overflowing with needlessly bought supplies of pasta, flour and condensed milk. Not a roll of bog roll to be found.
Stranger than fiction? Yes, maybe. Only I was never really a fan of sci-fi.
Five months down the line, and of course, we’ve seen progress. In Scotland, the infection rate has dropped, and deaths remain low. Many restrictions have been lifted, with shops and hospitality back up and running, albeit with new rules in place. Schools are set to return.
The anxiety, however, remains. The virus has been suppressed, but it’s not gone away. With every restriction that gets eased comes the risk of a new spike. With each spike comes the risk of further lockdowns. The inevitable truth remains that until a vaccine is found and distributed, we are still very much at risk. Life remains on hold.
As time has wound on, I’ve found myself struggling with a particular ache. It’s taken a while to recognise where it stems from, and truth be told, I worry that admitting it in the midst of the crisis is a little crass, but here goes; I miss travelling.
I miss the thrill of having a block of dates in the diary to look forward to. I miss the fun of researching. I miss wandering down unknown streets and listening to foreign chatter and absorbing the sounds and smells of somewhere new. I miss coming face-to-face with a new culture. I miss seeing people interacting and enjoying themselves. I miss not being afraid.
I understand this could all sound pretty frivolous. There are absolutely more important things to worry about. I understand that for many people, travelling at all is a luxury, and that the places I want to go to will still be there, and that it will, will, WILL happen again.
I know all of this, but there’s a guilty little part of me that can’t help but feel sad.
This pandemic will affect everyone differently, and we will all have personal losses. For some people, that might be the loss of a job. For others, it’s being separated from their parents. For some, it’s the closure of their favourite coffee shop, not being able to go to the gym or be in the throngs of a crowded gig. Of course, for too many people across the world, it’s the literal loss of someone they love.
We are all grieving. We’re grieving the situation, and we’re grieving for the things that have been taken from us. Need we be hard on each other too? No. You know why? Because it’s shit. Really, really shit. And not just regular shit either, but colossal, stinking, horse-has-just-done-a-big-steaming-pile-all-over-my-new-white-carpet shit, with a rotten cherry on top. And it’s ok to say that. And it’s also ok to need to take a moment to shout out all of that from the rooftops, without the worry of a fine from the Function Properly Polis.
What we can take from this experience is an appreciation of what those things mean to us. To cherish the good times when they come again, and to never devalue something that brings you joy…unless that thing is going on rampant killing sprees. Or kicking puppies. Or artichokes (seriously, does anyone actually like those?!).
I’m struggling because travelling is something which enriches my life. It takes me out of my elements, and out of my comfort zones. It keeps me active, connected with the world and, importantly, it fuels my writing. These are all things that make me who I am and keep my mental health well.
Should I apologise for missing those things? Should anyone? I’ll leave that one with you.
To finish on a high though, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s important to look not at the things you can’t do, but the things that you can. I’ve always advocated the fact that there is adventure to be found, no matter the budget, the timescale or the distance covered. International travel might be ruled out, but local travel is not. Whether it’s venturing out to a part of your hometown that you’ve not been to in years, or heading off into the hills with a tent and a bottle of cheap prosecco, there are always places to go, experiences to be had, and memories to make.
I’m going to make it my mission to explore every inch of Scotland while I can. The trips abroad will happen again. After all, it’s not the destination that makes the memories, it’s the journey you take.
Stay safe everyone. Take care of each other.