By Maggie McShane
Ah remember when the Covid came
Creeping stealthily across the map
Distance high. Numbers low.
Western complacency a welcome trap.
But the news stories niggled
Though hidden in quiet spots
Drowned out by Brexit braying and baying
Celebrity noise and insta spots.
Mentions of illness here,
A bat, a market – there.
Wreathing round the footnotes of the press
Whispering across our easter holiday plans
Til I said, ‘nae flights for us this year, let’s have our break here.’
Spoken with embarrassment- a quiet fear,
not worth a name.
Sensible precautions drying in the spoken word,
shrivelling to foolishness.
But the tickets stayed
Days went on as before
With school, work, lunches and shopping
The stories trickling faster with no sign of stopping
Numbers building, until like a wall, they couldn’t be ignored.
But still we sighed and moved round them, clambered over them,
Protected by our crumpled maps,
our schooldays stats,
The history of our lucky strikes.
The murmurs lapped nearer.
Family in Italy – tales of lockdowns and soldiers.
Then bodies … bodies?
piled high in other foreign streets.
Friends returning from skiing, stuttering, skipping beats,
dripping snow and stories … and a wee cough
‘Och it’s nothing. Just a cold.’
The superspreader stalked headlines,
Even as doctors ushered them home
with waving hands and a whispered plea
Failing to test their bodies, their mind, their blood, their resolve.
Passing a padded padlock with a fortnight’s key.
A gush of numbers then
carried across the water by air and by sea
Then appearing from nowhere like Macduff at the feast
Confused by his wandering
or Hamlet’s faither
stalking about waiting to be recognised and heard
But it was hard to understand their voices
At least for the high heid yins
Who drowned them out with
wines and breaks and
wrapped themselves in flags
speckled with surety.
We talked about it amongst ourselves.
No quite believing that we could escape by
dint of our paper borders or ignorance.
Whispers of discontent sucking at our souls
Questions creasing our heads as we turned
From maps to government speeches,
From numbers to wines and wishes
From steady advances to flimsy flags
From cases to breaks
Like Judy Murray at a tennis match
Egging on our kids’ survival by dint of sheer force of will
But aware we could be called into play
At any moment.
And I’m no that good at tennis.
It’s no ma game.
No quick enough at guessing the next move, the next strike ..but
I chose my side before the government did.
One last lunch with a brother, a sister and the wee yin.
One last event, a church wrapped in faith and smoke and sanitiser
No handshakes! We couldnae touch skin but we could all coorie in.
Seeking comfort in normality – banality the balm of troubled times.
And then we jumped – out.
Out of the office,
the world outside.
Oh, we hovered for ages but we could see the wave edging closer,
The water lapped our toes.
It wasn’t a spectre anymore but a solid threat,
It twisted and turned from if to when, from maybe to aye.
It trickled from person to village to town
Upstairs and downstairs like wee willie winkie in a droplet dressed gown
Banging on the windows
Seeping through the locks
Do we have enough beds?
It’s passed the time to talk
About saving and funding the NHS
Instead ghost hospitals sprung fully-formed
Sentinels guarding impossible cities
Leaders’ promises dripping from diseased mouths.
Spreading. Spreading. Spreading.
Aye…. it was here and we didn’t wait to be told
We didn’t defer to official lines, we didn’t stay behind the ropes
Instead we jumped them – two at a time or made of elastic
We weren’t going to be held or tripped
Or cosseted by the lies of tv clowns
Who spoke of wars and robbers whilst turning on their lights and unlocking everybody’s doors
Everybody’s… as though we couldn’t stem the tide so no point sifting sand
So we waited. We waited in the hoose
With a fort of home schooling worksheets and a battalion of Zoom calls.
Nae evacuation for our weans…
Where would they go?
There was nowhere untouched, uncoughed, unwelcoming to its spread
The waves hit
Again and again and again
Catching those friends fae school, that neighbour of yer ma’s,
Tumbling over faces on a New York Times cover
Names stretching for miles
As our leaders sheltered behind ‘goods’ and ‘bests’
Whilst people stood in the streets to respect those taken to their rest.
And we clapped. Oh how we clapped.
Thundering against the swell.
Our palms calling out to nurses and doctors, the NHS.
Nodding to neighbours, at the weekly service.
Coloured half-crescents scrawled as halos and hung from glass
The new mark on the door, saying we cared and we’d been here before.
But mair times, we hid.
We hid fae the shops, the waves, the people, the queues
As all the time the water seeped through our shoes.
We were drookit …
wi worries and questions and masks and sanitiser and anti-bac.
We sung birthday songs on normal days
And negotiated every personal contact in a befuddled haze.
We wore masks and gloves and showered and scrubbed
Our hands turned red and raw
And our faces?
Scrawled pale and dry and sore.
Catching vitamin D with bone-white claws
Phoning and WhatsApping our IT-illiterate maws.
Waving through windows
Shouting ‘cross streets
Like the wean in the rhyme
But rulers tied our feet.
Our apocalypse…our phony war
The barrage of experts dropping truth bombs
Elected eedjits batting them away wi” aplomb
‘Go to work, don’t go to work’
‘Stay at home, don’t stay at home’
Their doodlebugs of nonsensity
Whining round our heads and screens
Whilst we hunkered down wi pasta and toilet roll,
risotto, gin and beans.
And we played. Oh how we played
And we walked. Oh how we walked
Breaks squeezing in for air and exercise.
Protecting ourselves, holding chickadee dear
The garden, the kitchen, school’s new frontier.
We bent ourselves into yoga shapes
and tied ourselves in knots
Marking phases on our fingers
Adjusting to our peaceful, cosy den.
Knowing there was no right one to let in.
Watching movies on the wall, singing with Hamilton’s clarion call
Satisfied?Helpless? We paddled on through the murk
Our sit-in … on lectures, festivals,
wisdom and workshops dispensed online
Moved from biding … to ‘enjoying’ the passing of time.
The whispers changed as the tide fell
As we gathered pieces of the broken shell
Of our old pre-pandemic lives.
We could hear the siren call of better days
Of working, schooling and living in more local ways
The waves had washed the blueprints clean.
We held their sodden, sinking structure in our hands
Twisting and turning an origami of a different future.
Damp with possibility.
‘But there’s no time for that’
The ones at the top rushed to return
Pushing and pulling, back on track,
shouting the people were holding them back
From racing ahead, climbing and counting their hill of beans.
Whilst we looked around at society’s fraying seams
Peering at their odd light show of dazzling denial
Thinking they were draft dodging the coming trial of their missteps,
Their faulty calls, their false fawcett let the water scale the walls.
We cradled our little paper bluebird crafted with our stories,
We stopped arguing the toss
And as we splashed drookit wi tears and science and silence and loss
Drookit wi ideas of different leaders, different learning, different lives …
Different offices, housed at home
Different transport, different care
As they passed towels to dry the deaths away,
Mopping up questions with blazers and ties of other people’s children
Watching the beans, the bones, the un-tended headstones
Their contempt dripped from their pores, slipping round ankles
Hauling people to shore
But we stood there,
And whispered of more.
Maggie McShane is a writer, editor and PR. She has worked on numerous award-winning campaigns and was the winner of PitchPerfect 2017 at BloodyScotland.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself drawn more to poetry than prose. The brevity and tightness of the form and its emotional intensity seemed better equipped to address the ever-changing reality that we faced. Lockdown also meant reconnecting with locality and the Scottish words and tongue of my home and childhood.
Whilst politicians’ discourse was dominated by a push to return to what had preceded, community and academic discussions were dominated by a yearning for change. That ‘dream’ of old ways being washed away is an integral part of the legacy of the pandemic, academically, emotionally and psychologically.