Covid Chronicles

We share the winning entries from TMIK's very first writing competition

Back in March, acclaimed novelist Francesca Melandri published a letter from lockdown Rome in the Guardian. One of our readers, Fabia McDougall, responded from lockdown in London. So we challenged our readers to write their own response for our competition…

We were bowled over by the responses to Francesca Melandri’s letter submitted for the competition! In the judge’s chair, we had none other than Alexandra Shulman, author and former Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, whose brand new book Clothes and other things that matter has just been published. Check it out here.

Now (drumroll please…) we are delighted to announce the winners!

Top prize goes to…Georgia Bronte!

Huge congrats to Georgia, who is a journalist currently on furlough. Her entry was a love letter to the stranger she’s been in isolation with:

“Neither of us could have imagined it but our plot – or at least, a lengthy first act – was being written for us long before we arrived at our first date. 

“While politicians scrambled emergency summits at unsocial hours to hold back the inevitable tide of infection, you were booking flights for work; I was asking my friends to make me a profile on a matchmaking app. 

“My first and only experience of online dating was and still is you, and our five-weeks-and-counting-long date. Our two-week milestone felt closer to two months, our romance fast-forwarded into a fraction of the time it would have usually taken. ‘Only you’, said my dad, ‘would require a viral pandemic quarantine to find someone that makes you happy.’ It wasn’t a requirement though. It felt written. There had to be some beauty to be found in this, somewhere. 

“On the walk from the station to the bar my boss called to say that I couldn’t come in to work anymore. The risk of picking up infection on the journey across London was too much of a risk to take. I said it was okay, that I understood, and hung up. I’d seen this coming. This had happened in Italy and it had felt like a snapshot of a dystopian alternate universe, not a few hours on an aeroplane. Both would soon be equally unattainable.  

“There had to be some beauty to be found in this, somewhere.” 

“Bills and rent might be a problem next month, but you were sitting at the bar waiting for me for an hour and a half, and when you looked at me I put them out of my mind. A problem to deal with later when the date would be over and I would go home to semi-normality, sans-employment. You were a perfect stranger, and in that moment our reality was rose petals, the dirty world of infections and job cuts an irrelevant afterthought.

“With nowhere to go to the next day, I woke up in your bed. After that, after my having known you less than 12 waking hours, the pace of our storyline accelerated tenfold. A 5pm dispatch from the Prime Minister told the nation to Stay At Home. We were too hungover to go anywhere else anyway. Next, my housemate, just a 10-minute walk away, contracted the virus. I couldn’t have gone home if I had wanted to. Days turned into weeks, and in the four walls of your flat we became each other’s worlds.

“You have been able to keep working from your home office, your life ‘after’ still functioning like it was ‘before’, just with more video calls. At the same time, you have watched my writing jobs dry up as companies have furloughed swathes of the workforce, and you have seen me shrink my vision and ambition as the world around me closed in. You have helped me put my aims away safely, ready to be taken out again in the future. With your kindness it doesn’t matter so much that the pinnacle of my achievements at the moment are baking new varieties of banana bread.

“Neither of us can imagine what is written to happen for us next month or the month after. The dispatches can’t predict that far into such an uncertain future.  We will continue to laugh, bake bread and drink wine and act like we’re married. There’s a whole lot of love to be found in quarantine.”

In second place is…Amelia Granger!

She writes movingly and beautifully of lockdown in London with her Letter from the pandemic:

“Living in a flat in a city used to make me feel rich. These sets of rooms were valuable because of their proximity to crowds and culture. But now, living in London makes me feel poor. The crowds have dispersed, and culture is being livestreamed on Zoom, which makes it not really culture, just a pale imitation and equally remote from everywhere.

“I’ve lived in cities since I was 18 and old enough to choose. I started out in New York City, flitting between parties, jobs and versions of myself, easily disguised in the massive crowds. Then San Francisco, where I grew older and calmer. Cities made my life dynamic and varied, with a beginning, middle and an end to each chapter. Now I’m looking at rentals in Wales. In Southend-on-Sea. Who cares? All we need is a big, cheap house with a garden for the toddler and enough extra rooms to have home offices, to hide our messes from each other and to sulk in when we’re angry.

“I’m wall-crawlingly anxious and fist-eatingly bored”

“I’m planning our escape for a time after lockdown is lifted, maybe in July or August – but who knows where we’ll work by then, or how much money we’ll have? All I’ve got to go on are the images in my head: a hammock in a sun-dappled garden. A place where I can plant the seedlings I’m cultivating in the hall closet, with their green tendrils that curl longer every day. Soon they’ll be too big for the empty yogurt containers I’m using as plant pots.

“I don’t want to break the law by taking my son to the park twice in one day. But I can’t listen to him crying all afternoon, every afternoon, for the foreseeable future. And I don’t want to leave the city. But I’m wall-crawlingly anxious and fist-eatingly bored, as mute and numb as if my post-partum depression had never lifted.  

“So, the suburbs? Is that where people go when they miss the city terribly, but they’re still in the city? When the city has nothing left for them? London isn’t there anymore to provide a structure for my story – I can’t say, ‘It was when I lived in London that my life turned upside down’, because now I live in my flat, not London.  

“Anyway, who knows if there’s anyone left to tell my story – our story – back to us. Wherever we live, it’s outside the confines of any stories now. It’s no longer clear if anything we do matters, or what it means to be rich or poor. All the academics have been sent home from the universities and the journalists are being made redundant as their papers fail. We’re waiting in our bunkers, protagonists without a setting or an arc, all disconnected and equally remote, like the National Theatre play over Zoom, like the applause in the dusk, like the astronauts in the International Space Station who returned home unqualified to say what it means to be alive on Earth.”

And in third place…Alice Toby-Brant

We loved her piece which brilliantly conjures the mood swings of Corona and she told us she found cathartic to write:

“Today I was scared, I went to the supermarket and there was no food on the shelves. No bread, no flour, no rice, no pasta, no toothpaste even! I was angry at the people I saw holding 2 x 24 packet rolls of toilet paper, selfish bastards I thought as I passive aggressively glared at them, wishing ill on them. Then I wondered if they were buying these extra things for neighbours or relatives that are vulnerable and can’t leave the house. I congratulated myself on my restraint shown by not confronting them. 

“Today I bought too much rice, too much pasta, today I was scared and I reacted badly. 

“Today I felt good, I worked in my garden and started long forgotten projects that I’d had a passion for many years ago. Today I investigated how to learn new skills, French, Night Photography, wine tasting! Today I meditated and felt calm. Today I was able to help someone else feel calm too. Today it wasn’t a lock down it was an opportunity, it was a chance to do something positive, today it was a good day. 

“Today I thought anyone that chooses to have kids must be a God dammed moron, like the earth wasn’t a complete state before all this happened. Today I wondered why you would consider bringing more people into this already over populated mess of a world. 

“Today I thought anyone with children as fucking beautiful. To focus on something outside of yourself so completely and to love in the most unconditional of ways. To find loving that way is as easy as breathing. Today you are the strong ones, you are the ones I wish to imitate. 

“Today I was hopeful the dolphins would stay in Sardinia”

“Today I was tired, today I ignored my passions and projects and escaped into an American sitcom. Today I sat, I was bored, I was resistant, I wallowed, I felt hard done by and sorry for myself. 

“Today I despaired at whether I would ever hug my family again, ever see my friends in real life. Today I surmised that if and when this all ended people wouldn’t have changed. The rich would still ignore the poor, politicians would still lie and twist and carve out a tale of the truth that suits their narrative. Today I thought human nature would win and prove us to be the worthless beings we are. 

“Today I was hopeful, that the dolphins would stay in Sardinia, that the children in Beijing would continue to breathe freely. That we would learn the lessons we are being taught and that we would see a real change in how we treat the world and how we treat each other. Today I thought human nature would win and prove we are blessed and courageous, kind and community spirited and in this together. 

“There is no handling this well or handling this badly, there is only today. This is me, these are all my today’s.” 

Special mentions go to…Ashley Gedraitis

With her Dispatch from SW5:

“We’re supposed to be in Italy. Sicily, actually – sipping fresh lemonade and eating olives and some fish dish I can’t pronounce. I had ordered a new straw hat, optimistically. A fedora. A silly thing you can only ever wear on holiday and the other 51 weeks a year it disappears to a remote corner of your wardrobe to collect dust and some other unidentified substance coating your forgotten things.

“But instead of the sea, we have a concrete jungle view – a Lego city of Georgian white chimney blocks. Instead of the saline air, a stale but oddly clean London breath.

“Our entire world.

“I fell in love with my flat 6 years ago – rough around the edges but with the aid of Amazon Prime and Farrow & Ball, it feels like me. It fits me. It barely fits my husband, and our dog, but when you have the rest of London as a playground, it works. When that playground is closed, you’re fighting for a turn on the swing set. We have literally stepped on each other’s toes. Was it always this small, this tight, this cramped? Has that corner always jutted out that way? Has that shelf always been a bit too full? Have the walls always been this thin?

“Yes. But we never noticed, when we could get out and play.

“Instead of the sea, we have a concrete jungle view”

“The highlight of my week is a trip to Waitrose – yes, Waitrose. Because if my only joy is going to be food, I’m paying 15% more for the fancy smoked hummus. And the queues are shorter.

“My friends are making lists of the things we miss, the things we’ll rush back to once lockdown is lifted. Arms open, romance film, slow motion style. What will you embrace?

“Fighting for a seat on the tube; filling my handbag; dealing with a double booked diary; a picnic in the park; my weekly pub quiz; chatting to other dog owners as the leads entangle.

“But actually – my friends. I’m going to squeeze my friends until kingdom come. And we’re going to laugh and cry and reminisce. And tell all the same stories we have told over Houseparty. And recount all the same memories we have lived over lifetimes. And we will pretend that nothing has changed, that we will pick up where we left off sometime in March and the world hasn’t changed since then.

“But it did, didn’t it? The world is smaller and scarier. And the people [men] who run it are equally so. And yet people, normal people, are bigger and kinder. And from my tiny London window I watch that small world, full of big people, making grocery deliveries to neighbours, keeping 2 meters apart to cross the street and clapping for our carers every Thursday.

“I watch London go quiet but the world grow louder. Like another act is about to start.

“Maybe I’ll put on my fedora.”

And…Ginnia Cheng!

“Dear Francesca, 

“I’m writing to you as a citizen of the West, but a daughter of the East. 

“I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade. My family is from Hong Kong, where on the 25th January – exactly one month before Italy locked down – schools were ordered to shut, many businesses closed and supermarkets ran out of essentials across the city.

“The West looked on in disbelief. I cried in fear of lives lost but mostly for liberties forfeited, as my family prepared for a then unheard-of reality. Stay indoors, they were told. Homeschool your kids, protect your elderly, forget your material needs.

“I fielded probing questions from well-meaning (and ill-intended) friends. ‘Isn’t it undemocratic? Why are they panic-buying toilet paper? Is it true they eat bats?’ 

“Three months later, as I write this, the UK has over 120,000 cases of Coronavirus, and over 16,000 deaths. Hong Kong has just over 1,000 cases and four deaths. No, that wasn’t a typo. Four

“As the pandemic crept over to our part of the world, suddenly it was my family asking the difficult questions. “Why isn’t your Government doing anything? Haven’t they seen what happened in Italy? Surely it can’t be true that your first world healthcare system is soon going to be crippled?” 

“Why are they panic-buying toilet paper?”

“So you’re right – I eat. Out of frustration at being trapped inside, out of resentment at the powers that be. How ironic that the countries valuing liberty over safety – your beloved Italy, my dear home, Great Britain – are seeing more freedoms curbed and lives lost than was ever needed had they acted sooner. That here in our democratic paradise, you and I are still confined indefinitely, while those in authoritarian regimes are starting to break free.

“You’re right – I’m glued to social media, absorbing any information I can about The Outside. My online presence reassures my family that I’m alive, as they beg me to return to Hong Kong, where life is returning to normal. 

“You’re right – I wonder, constantly, at the consequences of an extended lockdown. Three of my best friends were victims of domestic violence, and I cannot fathom the horror facing those who are currently truly trapped.

“Most scarily, you’re right – I laugh. How ghastly that I’m having fun with my partner, while the numbers of those infected and dead continue to grow. How absurd that I’m connecting with friends I haven’t spoken to in months, now that I can’t see them. How alarming that I delight in the weekly applause for healthcare workers, because it’s more interaction than I’ve ever had with neighbours. 

“I’m terrified that lockdown will continue indefinitely, but even more terrified of what we will return to after it lifts. We’ll have regained our freedom, but we’ll be trapped in a world where trust in the rules holding societies together will have shattered. Though I hope for all of our sake, we’ll emerge with a stronger trust in ourselves and each other.”

Plus we cannot forget Fabia McDougall…

Whose letter from lockdown in London prompted our competition to begin with:

“I am replying to your letter from Italy, one woman to another.

“We eat it is true, often and especially when we are not hungry for the comfort that tasting something familiar seems to give. Although online yoga, breathwork and inspiring talks help.

“My sleep has been ropey for quite few years – it’s actually got much better because I realise the futility of worrying. I didn’t stockpile, but my ex-husband lives abroad and kindly arranged two Tesco deliveries for my children and I.

“I ask what’s happening to democracy and note the increasing powers of the state, but many of us are spotting them and questioning them, and our situation is making more people think about what life and community is about and what’s important to them. Online social life is something you can take at your own pace – and even missing the people you love can be tempered by knowing you’re not alone in this feeling. There are many who felt the loss of loved ones sharply in pre-virus life too and now they are not alone in this feeling. Not only do I wonder what is happening to those people who can’t stay at home because they haven’t got one, but also of those who are now locked into one that might be a place of abuse and from which outside life was their only escape.

“I’ve felt vulnerable before on the streets at night, at the moment I like to believe we really are all in this together and this aloneness on the street might not feel so vulnerable? Is society really collapsing or is it just changing? Does this crisis not in fact make us more aware of the need to help each other and those who are as vulnerable or more vulnerable than we are.

“Perhaps I’d make appointments to see friends or lovers in supermarket queues if any lived nearby. I question that because then I’d just want to be close to them, share a coffee or hold them, but in fact I’d worry that if they were out too I could be infecting them. That social media exists and Zoom and Skype make me grateful.

“The true nature is always there, but I still think it can be shrouded in times like these, the fearful people become more so and those who are open and kind stay that way. Only with a helping hand can people’s fears be appeased.

“The literati still write, but their veil of a writer is slipping and they are standing there more vulnerably showing more of themselves than in their previous literary offerings.

“The boat in which we are all sailing is indeed very different”

“This is an opportunity to see how the world can heal itself, but also an opportunity to find different ways of living and helping others to do the same. The hospitality industry – in fact all industries, cleaning ladies, sex workers and other members of black economy workforce will all be hit hard – some harder than others.

“Singing from balconies and online can be uplifting, ecstatic dancing – actually any dancing by yourself or with others; reading. Really an activity that takes you into the present moment and away from worries and fears of illness, poverty, loneliness or poor mental health.

“All people, not just the elderly will be making decisions that you might want to question, but the greatest gift you can give them is the freedom to choose how they want to live or die.

“The boat in which we are all sailing is indeed very different and indeed always was – and it’s not just money or class that makes the difference, but also knowing you are loved and feeling connection. Fear has always been there it’s just that there are many more of us meeting it, differently – and at the same time.”