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IF WE STOP (2) // Zahra Dallilah & Julie Tomlin

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

In a series of numbered written dialogues Call Centre correspondents Zahra Dallilah and Julie Tomlin respond to their own prompt: If we stop: Flourishing. Nourishment. Lockdown.


Flight. I couldn’t stay in London alone in my flat.

I had spent days that built into weeks, months and then years in isolation that wasn’t imposed by the pandemic, but came to be when I was in thick, heavy grief, when I lived in my own social bubble. Even when I was with people and when loneliness gnawed at my guts and the one person who could make it better wasn’t to be found.

The choreography of lockdown, its immanence, the trips made and meetings held knowing that they were likely to be the last, the cancellations. The decision to cut a visit to Lancaster short and get an early train home found me sitting on a bus talking to a friend, telling her through my tears that I didn’t know if I could cope with going back to my flat and being alone for who knew how long?

Every day was make-or-break in those weeks. It was all to play for as suddenly we knew the day-to-day decisions, that made up the management of life, were this time to have lasting impact. Choosing lockdown wisely governed so many decisions with much bigger impact than how that time was spent.

Having savoured the experiences of life coming back again, of having life beyond the walls, I couldn’t find a way into the possibility of aloneness again.

Perhaps, I thought, I could decorate, pack up my things, get ready for the move I had already decided to make? But how long would that take? And when I was back, getting a taste of working alone at my computer, rushing out to the park, to walk, to see green, to smell spring and pick nettles whose tonic was more appealing than ever, my whole being seemed to rebel against the imposition, the restriction, the boxed-in-ness of this routine.

I know I was not alone in being alone, nor was I alone in being without outdoor space; so many of us were drawn to the common, the park, the outdoors suddenly being more precious and sought after than the hottest summer day.

Public space that the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg sees as imminently sellable is the lung that we draw breath from in this loud, busy city. And when it began to slow, before it stopped, people piled in, walking, stopping before they were moved on.

I was staring down the barrel of a shit tonne of time. And I was terrified of that time you know. A plain with no edges can feel like suffocatingly unstable ground.

I knew I couldn’t do it. There was guilt, about being able to get out. Friends had said I could go and stay at their no-longer-functioning conference centre and there were acres to walk in, kitchen gardens to work in, and lakes to swim in.

There was shame, about not being able to cope, about not being up to the challenge. I lived out both scenarios in my head, wondering if I had it in me to endure the aloneness, to eek out a life in my flat, in the park, perhaps on my neighbour’s allotment.

But although leaving came with no heroic narrative, it left me feeling conflicted and complicated, about leaving behind the suddenly unreachable people I loved, about having an opportunity to escape when others didn’t. I couldn’t ignore the feeling in my gut. It was telling me to go, loud and urgent, it was telling me the words that I sobbed to my mother, that I couldn’t do it again and that was that.

Amazing the clarity that a global pandemic and a national lockdown can offer.

Thinking about what it takes to park shame and doubt and move without heroism but in basic responses to what’s right for self.

It makes me wonder what that heroic narrative in our heads is? Like the pizza chain owner who believes his life’s work is to make the world better - are we too often sucked into a conception of self as the (s)hero and rescuer of our settings?

Image: Andrew Wilson



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