In the absolute night silence of Covid-19 London, I stopped to listen to the beating of my heart. There were no planes over head, no buses nor cars, no one talking nor shouting in the street outside. Just an infinite quiet, broken only by the thub-thub of my own chest. For a moment, I was doing nothing, I wasn't elated or thoughtful or anxious or unhappy. I wasn't anything. I just existed. If I'd been on fast-forward my whole life, now suddenly, I was on pause.
I've always been desperately anxious about time. I feel I've had one eye on the cascading sand timer my whole life. I grew up with a father with motor neurone disease and I remember from very early on being aware with horrible clarity that he might die any minute. Of course, he thankfully went on to live for many decades more but we didn't know that, and so we lived on a very different basis, of the only time being now. Time seemed like an unfeasibly precious resource, as though it were a rare mineral only mined in teeny quantities on the Moon. While this attitude has many upsides, it also makes a tyrant out of time. Filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of blistering activity on a ceaseless basis really does leach the joy out of life sometimes. It's like living with a ticking metronome. Only when I am completely lost in a book does time stop for me.
Until now, that is. The very simple phrase 'take your time' suddenly has meaning for me. I've taken my time to do all sorts of things with variable, life-affirming results. I've baked loaves of bread, dense enough to build a wall. I gave my son a fairly decent hair-cut and then with a rush of enthusiasm, moved onto the dog who ended up with a mullet and now seems puzzled when I look at her and burst out laughing. I've worked as a volunteer on a Covid-19 project with a group of utterly brilliant and dedicated experts in their fields – with wicked senses of humour. I've had long chats with friends and family. My favourite was about a mouse in Paris who likes to eat meringue crumbs. I even thought of writing a story about the mouse, who is sharing a friend's lockdown, until it got quarantine fever, attacked a cheese plant and we decided it we didn't like it anymore. I'm helping my son – who has autism – to complete his college course and enjoying it enormously. We are doing pilates together. Time has finally become my friend.
I think we all want to believe we will be able to carry over the lessons we learnt from Covid-19 into life beyond. I am not so sure. Maybe I will backslide into bad old habits, the moment I am given the chance? But I hope that something will linger. I've loved the expression of community identity, how people in my local area have come together. I'd like to see that live on, that we care for and look after those around us and value community over status and naked profit. I've revelled in the clean air, the surprisingly clear water of the nearby River Thames, the spring flowers, bird song and the quiet skies. It feels like the renaissance of nature itself, as though the planet is starting to heal. I'm deeply encouraged that there is a flight to quality effect on the public, embracing science rather trusting misleading, unsubstantiated opinions such as conspiracy theories or heavily biased polemics. So a cleaner, quieter, more supportive, more rational planet is what I hope we have once, Covid-19 is over, presuming, that is, we are lucky enough to have the prospect of a future ahead of us. That in itself looks like the greatest luxury – a future and a heart which still beats.
Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.