It felt like we were embarking on a new adventure. It was late March and Boris Johnson had announced that Britain would, in response to the threat of Covid-19, be going into lockdown. Life as we knew it was about to grind to a halt. I would be working from home as the British Library was closing its doors. My wife Bridget, a speech and language therapist specialising in autism, would also no longer be able to work in schools and have to work from home. Our children – Laila, eight, and Ezra, three – would not be attending school or playgroup.
Lockdown was potentially terrifying – no one knew then what the impact of the pandemic was going to be – but my initial response was that it could perhaps be good for our family. There would be a pause in the daily struggle of trying to wake the children, get them dressed and fed in time to run to the bus stop so they were not late for school. Working from home and the shops being closed meant we might save some money. The biggest upside without doubt, however, was that the lockdown would give me the chance to spend more time with my wife.
In India there was no escape from each other, and travelling was a thrilling and romantic adventure, as well as an audacious way for two people to get to know each other. We spent all our waking and sleeping moments together. We travelled from Delhi to Bangalore to Rajasthan, sat together on trains, opposite each other in beachside bars and slept together in cheap guesthouses. I look at photographs from that time and what strikes me, aside from how time has really beaten the crap out of me in the intervening years, is that we looked so scintillatingly alive – the future was excitingly unwritten.
I got one thing right: lockdown did mean Bridget and I spent more time together than we had done since our Indian adventure. In every other respect my hopes turned out to be hopelessly optimistic.
The quantity of time I spent with Bridget increased but the quality dramatically diminished. She and I were both trying to work while we attempted to home-school Laila and give Ezra the continual attention he expected. The effort of doing this meant it felt like we had less time rather than more. The prospect of watching The Godfather trilogy again and making any headway with the pile of books on my bedside table was exposed as a laughable fantasy. The days were long and exhausting with the children often not asleep before 9pm. By the time they were in bed, we were left with the job of cleaning up the wreckage of the day. Bridget and I were both too frazzled and irritable to manage any more than eat, tidy and collapse into bed.
The contrast with the last time we had lived so intensely together was brutal. In India, we had felt completely free to go where we wanted and when we wanted. In lockdown, I felt imprisoned in my house, unable to venture much further than my local park. In India, I would learn something new about Bridget in every conversation. Ten years later we know pretty much all the other’s most cherished war stories. Each day was different in India, but in lockdown, I felt trapped in a domestic remake of Groundhog Day: each day the same as the one before and after.
In pre-pandemic days, Bridget and I used to have date nights where we could hire a babysitter, dress up and go to a restaurant. During the lockdown, I remember waking one morning and realizing it really didn’t matter whether I ironed my shirt or what I wore because, like every day, I wasn’t going to be leaving the house. Bridget and I were technically spending all our time together, but in reality, we were like ships passing in the night – in the mornings she would be in one room working while I would be with the children and in the afternoon we would swap. I was living with my wife, but I still missed her.
I have heard some say that we will look back on the lockdown with fondness. That we will reflect on how it was a time of a global reset, recognition of what truly matters, and the chance to spend more time with our loved ones. There were times, early on, that I do now look back on with fondness. The sheer amount of time I spent with Laila and Ezra often felt like a privilege, as did the mornings I would take the children to the local park to allow Bridget to work. Children don’t remain children forever and so to have had this stretch of time to see them was a gift, of sorts.
It was sometime in the middle of May, with both of us at our wits’ end, that we decided we couldn’t take it any more and that we would take advantage of the fact that Bridget is a key worker and put Laila back into school. A fortnight later, in early June, Ezra also returned to playgroup. The change was remarkable and instantaneous. We suddenly had mornings of peace and tranquillity in the house. Bridget could attend Zoom meetings and not be in tears. She could join the sourdough baking craze. I could begin working on my new film script and book – and my biggest hope for lockdown began to be fulfilled: I got to spend quality time with my wife.
Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt, but I think it is more accurate to say that familiarity can invite invisibility: we no longer see someone because we see them so often. After 10 years one knows most things about one’s partner, but to see Bridget in action in her job, without Laila constantly trying to Zoom-bomb, was a new experience. To see my wife on the phone talking to the mother of a child with autism, offering her support and expertise with empathy, was to see a new side to Bridget that reminded me of why I had fallen in love with her in the first place.
I knew Bridget as my best friend, my wife and the mother of our children, but to witness her in a professional context made me respect and love her in a whole new light. As Bridget and I prepare to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, we are not the same people as the unmarried, childless couple who travelled across India 12 years ago. If the thrill of then was the sense of the story unwritten, the joy of now is that we got to write our story together and to add two gorgeous albeit exhausting chapters to our tale. The adventure has only just begun.