The last time I

by Maria on February 18, 2021

The one-year anniversary of the last time I met a friend in a café is coming up. I’m glad it was such a good one. I met the marvellous Francis Spufford, occasionally of this parish, for a coffee in the British Library. I had a flat white and a kind of cake/biscuit hybrid that came in a plastic wrapper, and was energetically reassured by the person at the till that there was no mistake in my bill of almost eight pounds. (A café scene in Fleabag comes to mind, when Phoebe Waller Bridge charges twenty-five pounds for a plain tomato sandwich and the exasperated customer just says “London!”) Astonishing to think of now, but we sat at a table in the atrium – inside, no less – surrounded by other tables of people, near the main entrance, with people walking past, breathing, every moment. We talked about the pandemic from China then ravaging Italy, and how people in the UK and elsewhere didn’t seem to believe it was coming for us. There was a stillness and strangeness in having our eyes turned, horrified, to the east in that weeks-long moment when so many, and all the UK’s leaders, put their fingers in their ears and sang ‘la la la’ to the storm that irresistibly propelled them into a future to which their backs were turned. (My apologies to the angel of history.) But even then we knew the fascinated horror was all for naught. We agreed that a lifetime of reading science fiction, especially my favourite sub-genre, post-apocalypse, gave us at most a two-week head start on everyone else in understanding the gravity of what was about to happen.

Denialists always overcompensate. A month later, I started a blog post about increased troop movements in London and the government’s denial that the army would be deployed to enforce a blockade which it also denied it was planning to impose (as Westminster-adjacent Whatsapp groups fizzed with warnings to leave the city by midnight or be trapped in the capital of disease for months). My post was to be about the actually quite strict rules of engagement, and how the army would likely be just in the empty city centre to prevent looting and take the strain off the police. I never finished the post as I came down with covid myself.

I see from my planner that a week before the café expedition I’d already had my last cinema outing. Another good one – the very upmarket Victoria Curzon to see Parasite. We went with another couple and, oddly enough for February, sat huddling outside for a drink because one of the party was a smoker.

My last restaurant was in early February. I didn’t eat but had a couple of glasses of wine with activist friends at a pub quiz. Thinking about it now feels a little overwhelming. We were packed into a narrow downstairs room, talking, laughing, moving around, and – shudder – touching each other’s hands.

Half of the engagements I had in February I didn’t go to anyway, for the usual boring health reasons. A book launch, a pub gathering of friends over from Ireland for a football match, a reading by an American feminist in Brighton. (Surprising / not-surprising to see how utterly blue-stocking my social calendar was when I had one.) In early March I have a calendar entry “Oxford?” for something policy-related. By then, it seemed weird and wrong to unnecessarily take a train. (Although in the parallel universe much of the country seemed still to inhabit, skiing holidays were taken, race meetings went ahead, dad-rock bands played at what we soon came to know as super-spreader events.)

The week before lockdown was finally announced, I went to see a friend at his NGO office in Farringdon. We were the only people in the building. There were few on the street, even fewer on the Tube. London locked down many days before the government finally pulled the pin. That was my last in-person work-related meeting. Again, a really good one. We were fizzing with ideas, none of which came to pass. We said goodbye on an empty street and wished each other and each other’s families luck, like it was the eve of war.

Then March, covid itself for a couple of weeks. It seems histrionic now, but back when there were no tests and few good numbers on how many people ended up in ICU, we only knew the disease lingered, withdrew, and then in the second or third week might return quickly and overwhelmingly. That was into April, when sirens were going 24/7 and the newspapers reported people dying, choking for breath on their kitchen floors, seven or eight hours after they’d called an ambulance. Not great times, to be honest. A few days into the virus, worrying about the two-week dip and feeling quite well one morning, I went down to my computer and put the most recent copy of my will and a file with all my logins onto the desktop, then wrote the passwords out in hard copy and left them on my desk.

Time got weird at that point. The whole past and future self thing, and the way when a major event intervenes, or just the passage of enough time, we don’t remotely seem to be the same person, before and after. How the ghosts of our alternate lives move alongside, almost close enough to touch. How thinking ‘I feel weirdly, horribly unwell but by no means dangerously so, but in a week I could be dead, or locked into a vast un-nursed dying room at the Excel Centre’.

Weird how non-contiguous any of this seems. I can’t believe I ever talked to people in cafes. But I can’t believe that I, personally, will ever die, either.

In April I started a piece about why we just can’t believe our future selves:

For weeks stretching almost into months the letters from our future arrived. From Wuhan, Busan, Taipei. We dismissed the first ones. Strange things happen in China. More came, from Venice, Bologna and Bergamo. The closer the source of the letter, the later the hour, and the more directly and urgently it addressed us. ‘We are your future’, people wrote from tiny apartments overlooking canals and historic fountains, from hospitals spilling over into morgues; Heed our warning. Don’t do as we did. And hurry, for God’s sake, hurry.

But however we tried, most of us didn’t believe. Not really. Such things happen in other countries, to other people. Such things do not happen to us. We let the hour grow late, failing to order essential supplies, to calmly organise our withdrawal from normality and to even think about how we might ultimately return to it, because the gap between knowing and believing is far wider than we’d ever needed to notice. But it was all there for us to see.

“We’re Italy, in a month’s time,” we said as we joked about whether to shake hands before business meetings, “That’s us in two weeks.” As late as last week, the Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote a letter to the UK, describing in pitch perfect detail what our lives will soon be like and how it will feel a month into lockdown. We sit quietly waiting for the peak, bracing ourselves for the worst, but secretly we believe the killer will pass by our own marked door. It isn’t real, not until it happens to us.

Never finished that one, either. Didn’t work for a couple of months post-covid, couldn’t read long form adult fiction till September.

In late April when I went out again, Sainsburys was bare. Aisle after aisle emptied of food. Nowhere to buy fresh vegetables. I’ve not been alright about food since then, to be honest. Having been all-but-vegan for a year or more pre-covid, I now eat all the meat, all the time, all the dairy, all the sweets. Anything I can squeeze my fists around. And there’s no need, really. The two-week head start my science fiction reading self gave in January meant we had enough in the store cupboard to last until May. But it’s quite a deep and seemingly long-reverberating shock, to awaken after weeks inside and walk in a weakened state through an apocalyptically empty city, unable to find food. Mustn’t exaggerate, though. Our lovely cornershop guys kept us going, often sleeping in their store room to avoid the long journey home. I’m weaning myself off the fear of insufficient food, now. And to be fair, I don’t want to pathologise too much the general feeling of eating whatever, whenever. Food is the most reliable pleasure.

Now, my life is right-sized, it feels. I don’t RSVP to 50% more events than I’m able to attend. I’m in Ireland, designated shopper and my parents’ link to the wider world. We came over in August and I’ve done three full two-week quarantines since, for various reasons. What was unimaginable is now normal. I see my parents and one sister, and otherwise talk in person only to the shop assistant when I go into town once a week to buy food. We have good walks within our 5k permitted zone, which is richness beyond measure. Ed’s back in London on the other side of a de facto travel ban, but we’ve been apart for longer and with much less ability to communicate.

My ideas of time and novelty (more intertwined than I’d realised) are now synced up with those of the nineteenth century English novel. Journeys are exceptional and risky. Family members go years without seeing each other. Weddings and funerals are attended by no more than a dozen. Visits, when permitted, are counted in weeks, not hours. Every snippet of news into our tiny social bubble is dissected repeatedly like a letter from Jane Fairfax, and previous snippets gone back to and nibbled on weeks later when they seem fresh again. We eke out TV dramas like serialised novels so we’ll have something to look forward to, and now pause the programme to discuss the motivations of the characters, and a special meal is the highlight of the week. The only thing I’ll say Jane Austen / George Eliot etc. got wrong, and very wrong, is how much time we spend talking about the dogs. Their sex lives, habits, socialising and the many ups and downs of their health make up about half of our total conversation.

The last time I ironed was late July. The last time I wore make-up was… today, for a zoom thing, and after looking through the contents of the make-up bag, genuinely unsure if it was mine or its unfamiliar products had been left behind by someone else. The last time I wore a dress was Christmas day, and I took it off after the presents because it’s too tight.

I mostly don’t think about what I miss. My mind makes those thoughts into cul de sacs almost instantly. Occasionally, I’ll hear something on the radio and my eyes prick as I remember what it was like to sit up close to a string quartet. I crave food made by someone I don’t know constantly, but I’ve more or less learnt nothing satisfies that craving, so best not try. I have so much. I have my parents so I have human touch. I have my parents, unlike the four different people I’ve written condolence notes to just in the past month, and several more last year. One friend went through the torture of knowing his dementia-suffering father was locked in a care home that sick hospital patients were sent back into, late last spring, infecting his father who died with no palliative treatment and no family. I don’t know how you make peace with that, or if you should.

The last time I was in a pub was, I don’t actually know. Probably late 2019. The last time I was in a library was possibly July but probably last February.

There’s so much I don’t miss but suspect it’s because I can’t afford to. Apart from a vicious little squall of depression over mid-winter, I am remarkably content. A walk is at least an hour and often over two. I’m working again. Finishing one vast years-long project and getting into the concluding part of another. I don’t have to do all the professional and social things that tired me out, so am making steadier progress than I ever have. Even so, it’s been striking how energy levels are a bit like the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy. Turns out I did net just a bit more energy from going out and seeing people, and wonder how much of our thinking and working through ideas comes from the buzz between us, not out of the heads of each single one.

It’s going on so long, now, that we’ve pulled too far away from the people we were before – both by sheer volume of time and the discontinuity of major events. I know I’ll look back on this winter as one long moment, like the monotony of school days with little to distinguish one day from the next. When Ed was in Afghanistan I wished for as few remarkable days as possible, because a long blob of near identical ones feels shorter in retrospect. But these past six substitutable months I’ve never been more aware of the seasons, of the length of sunlight and disposition of the tides. I was glad to be closer to spring 2022 but couldn’t join in the general delight that January was over, that 2020 was done. I’ve lived the many monotonous days of a much smaller life before, when I was ill, and there is more in them than you’d expect. I also don’t ever want to deny any of the days I have lived. This time may not evoke nostalgia in some busy, novel future, but it feels deeply lived-in and amply sufficient. Those disconcerting days of a year ago, when we were suspended between a past already accelerating away and a frightening future that turned out even stranger and longer than imagined – I’m glad I’m no longer in-between, wind-milling my legs before the freefall. I live in a long, slow now, now. It’s quiet here. I like it.



Russell Arben Fox 02.18.21 at 1:15 pm

This is brilliantly written, deeply sad, and–I think at least–very wise. Thank you for sharing, Maria.


Lynne 02.18.21 at 1:20 pm

Maria, it is always so nice to hear from you. Your piece feels like a long, newsy letter from a friend. At several points I wanted to respond, but short of writing a letter back, it’s hard to know what to offer of my own last year, so I’ll just say, “Thanks for writing.” It’s nice to know you are still out there in the world.


oldster 02.18.21 at 2:10 pm

Beautiful. Thank you so much.
This in particular strikes me as the heart of humanism:

“I’ve lived the many monotonous days of a much smaller life before, when I was ill, and there is more in them than you’d expect.”

That’s why we care about a farmer in India, the seamstress in Vietnam; that’s why we study the lives of workers building the pyramids of ancient Egypt. We know that every one of the billions of human lives that is or has ever been “had more in them than you’d expect.”


kingless 02.18.21 at 2:58 pm

A year ago, my wife and I flew across the US and visited my aunt in LA. Almost no masks, a few jokes about the virus and the times to come. We had fun. I sure do appreciate reading your account, the parts that sound like our pandemic experience as well as the parts that don’t. Thank you.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.18.21 at 3:37 pm

“The whole past and future self thing, and the way when a major event intervenes, or just the passage of enough time, we don’t remotely seem to be the same person, before and after. How the ghosts of our alternate lives move alongside, almost close enough to touch.”

I don’t know how you managed to so precisely express my state of mind.


Liz Williams 02.18.21 at 5:44 pm

Ah dearest Maria always knows how to write about it. It, always it, that she nails precisely on its head.

But how does one work out what day it is? I only know because I like the Monday bin-man and the every other Tuesday garden rubbish fellow who comes along in his truck.

I just said to my girls today I feel like Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennett (at least I only have three not five to be dealing with) when the postman comes or Mr Yodel or DPD or Hermes. There is a clunk of the garden gate, the dogs vaguely note the different air and we rush, quite pleasingly, to unpack what we need. Or don’t need but have still ordered. Crestfallen if it’s not our turn for a delivery.

I grew up in very isolated rural Australia. The local greengrocer made his trip once a week from town with the rolled up sides of his van hiding parsnips (God forbid it would ever be avocados or raspberries). He handed to my mother a flipped up bag of potatoes or onions…you know how it is when someone deft can roll over a paperbag without it splitting? He would then round our willow tree with some precision and head off back up the long dusty drive.

And the black and white mail bus would come out each day threading a line between two distant small towns to deliver bread (that gorgeous white high top one slathers butter & Vegemite on) or dog feed or whatever one had ordered from the vet. Antibiotics for an injured horse, a prescription from the doctor for winter croup or summer allergies or a damaged limb from getting knocked over whilst drafting sheep, a newspaper with obituaries and the price of steers at auction.

But mostly we lived alone. Alone on the farm. Cold in the winter; hot in the summer. Endlessly looking for rainclouds to fill the tanks and troughs. I don’t ever recall looking for something else like a solution to isolation except calling up our three miles away neighbour with a shotgun to come and kill the snake that thought it wise to drink from the garden tap. My mother passed on her terror of snakes to me. And I never learnt to use the shotgun.

I wonder why isolation is so difficult to deal with now? It’s not like it’s anything new. Is it that we can’t control our interventions with the world and, for me, that somehow I can’t just pull up to the airport and fly to wherever I want to go or am required to be or feel is my right?

Enforced isolation makes libertarians of us all. That is a good thing. We’ll work on that after this wretched plague is under control.


Kenny Easwaran 02.18.21 at 5:55 pm

This week in Texas feels surprisingly like those strange weeks in the middle of March last year. At least, for me, in a house next door to the health department, where we still have continuous power, and the water hasn’t gone. The biggest difference is that last March, the weather outside was so inviting and warm, and it was the fear of the virus that kept me indoors, whereas right now the danger out there is so much more viscerally obvious, with all the sidewalks and streets coated in a layer of ice.


Trader Joe 02.18.21 at 8:17 pm

Each person’s pandemic is what they make of it and thanks for sharing yours.

I must admit I’ve circulated about a good bit more than described here – meeting for drinks in outdoor settings, socializing by phone/video regularly and supporting restaurants via takeout at something like the same pace as I’d previously dine out. There are clearly things I’ve missed not least of which is the knowledge of what you could have done even if you didn’t do it (i.e., I could have gone to the cinema, to the concert to the game even though I only rarely do any of these).

These were my choices and no more right or wrong than any others. I know of few cases and (thankfully) no deaths among near acquaintances and such things shade heavy on both perception of the present and outlook for the future. My optimism tells me we are nearer the end than the beginning – the analytical side of the brain perhaps less sure.


Doug K 02.18.21 at 10:51 pm

that was beautiful, thank you..


Bart Barry 02.20.21 at 3:51 am

The last time we were together, the daughter and her husband, the wife and I, was March 13 of last year. We sat in a sparsely populated restaurant, knowing why it was near-empty, talking with nervous concern about the impending wave of illness so clearly on its way.

A three year old left his parent’s table to stand staring, curious, transfixed, at the three year old girl playing at another. I remember wondering if it was safe, if it was healthy, for the two kids to be meeting. This was a Friday. By Tuesday all of Northern California had shut down.


Barry 02.20.21 at 5:19 pm


Thank you!


MPAVictoria 02.22.21 at 2:49 pm

Beautiful piece Maria. Thank you for sharing it.

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