Without wishing to sound like an episode of Poirot, I remember well what I was doing on the evening of 20 May 2020, when more than 100 people were invited to a BYOB party in the prime minister’s garden, “to make the most of the lovely weather”. While they recovered from an “exceptionally busy period” with, it might be presumed, laughter, companionship and their own bottles of wine, I was at my house. Like them, I, too, had a glass of wine, although I had drunk it by myself. I had then gone for a walk around my block where I had bumped into a friend out on his “daily permitted exercise”. We spoke a little, at a distance of more than two metres. He offered his condolences. I thanked him and returned home, alone. 20 May 2020 was the day I buried my sister.
Like those assembled with their bottles in Downing Street, I, too, had broken the government’s existing guidelines, implemented to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, in a familiar garden. After my sister Karina’s funeral, I had gone to my mother’s house. It was a baking hot day and, while the circumstances didn’t really allow me to “make the most of the lovely weather”, the sunshine did permit me and my other sister, Kirsty, to sit in our mum’s garden, at the state-appointed distance from each other, and recall the many joys, as well as strains, that Karina’s life had brought. There were three of us in the garden, from three separate households, one more than was permitted. It might not have been exactly to the letter of the law, but we reckoned it was the least our grief would permit.
Luckily we could remain physically, if not emotionally, distanced from each other. Karina had died of Covid and we felt we should take the best precautions possible to prevent the disease’s spread. We sat at three different points in the garden, on familiar garden furniture in the most unfamiliar of circumstances. We didn’t hug, didn’t allow ourselves any of the consolation of physical touch: we thought it would be safer that way. Physical contact was, after all, what they had instructed us to avoid. For 48 years my mother had fought to keep her disabled daughter happy and alive. For 48 years, whenever Karina had been ill, my mother had slept in hospital chairs for weeks on end, gone days without sleep, sacrificed her own health for Karina’s wellbeing, driven by a love that only a parent can know. And now Karina was dead. And we couldn’t hug each other. It was bleak, yes, but then it was a time of incomparable global uncertainty. An unparalleled, unifying swathe of sadness had devoured us all. Pain like ours was tearing through families the world over. So, in some ways, it felt like we were all in it together.
A couple of hours earlier, we had driven in separate cars to the cemetery in which my father is buried. Two gravediggers stood by a fence as we watched six strangers, wearing masks and latex gloves, lower Karina’s coffin into a freshly dug plot adjacent to his. A priest, somewhat concealed behind another gravestone, invited me to speak. I attempted to hold back tears as I gave thanks for the extraordinary role Karina had played in our family. A tinny speaker played Abba’s Thank You for the Music, the lyrics a little drowned out by the rustle of the willow tree above. We threw some earth on her coffin, got back in our separate cars and went back to my mum’s for a slice of chocolate cake on disposable plates. I had brought my own. Our story was just one of thousands similar happening up and down the country. We were, we consoled ourselves again, all in it together.
That evening, as I walked alone, the streets were piercingly quiet. How sad it all is, I thought, how devastatingly sad. And yet, what consolation there is in seeing and hearing these manifest absences; silences that speak of self-denial and mutual respect. The sepulchral pallor that my corner of London had been bathed in was the result of a shared commitment to rules, designed by them, to keep us, our loved ones and our wider society safe. I walked past my neighbours’ houses; friends numbed by screentime and family dynamics, unsure how long this would all last, no access to society beyond their phones, windows open to mitigate against that lovely, lovely weather. I couldn’t help but feel grateful that my community was taking the deaths of people such as my sister as seriously and profoundly as I was. Their confinement spoke of a silent but wholehearted sympathy for families such as mine. They knew, they felt too, that we were all in it together.
Well, not all of us, it turns out. Not them.
Just under two miles separates my corner of London from the garden of Downing Street. I am, today, haunted by the tinkling of those glasses there on that sun-drenched night, the echoing of their thin laughter, the stifled chuckles as they practised their imagined denials and, most perniciously, the leadership that encouraged it to happen. Their actions feel like direct assaults in the face of my family’s, and all of our shared national, tragedy. To me, and I’m sure many others, the revelations of the manifest and repeated failures of those in power to understand, empathise or show solidarity with what the people of this country experienced during that time have released from the body politic a stench so toxic that I can’t see how they will be able to put it back in the bottle, no matter how desperately they try. They can’t point the finger anywhere else this time, can they? After all, they brought the bottle themselves.