25 April, London, UK

By Ian Burns

It is an awful day as Britain sees the death toll pass through 20,000. And we know that is ‘only’ of those who have been hospitalised as COVID-19 cases. Deaths at home, and the growing concern, probably scandal, regarding care homes, means we are contemplating many thousands more. Awful too, that as the number was published, I shrugged metaphorically. It is becoming ‘normal’.

What is normality? And dare I diminish any one of those deaths? Let us say that ‘on average’ each of those deaths left behind a parent, or children, or siblings. Probably five mourners for each death? That may well be an under-estimate. So, with an accurate death count and using the probably low multiplier of 5, we have a country where 150,000 people are newly adjusting to the grieving process. Nothing normal for them. The dictionary unhelpfully suggests normality is the state where everything is ‘normal’. But I cannot give sense to ‘normal’.

I do think, though, that I am adjusting to what was once abnormal. It is normalising, at least for me, and I suspect for many others. It is not just communal clapping on a Thursday night – do we not now think that is more normal, than not? – but many other little things. My supermarket visit is a walk. Once it was a drive in a car to a larger, cheaper, store, but these days getting into a car feels somehow subversive. It seems to invite persecutory eyes, and a policeman to wave one down and ask if the journey is “essential”. Now, I walk down the middle of the road, treating London like I own it and turn a corner to join a queue. The point is I am expecting the queue, and I am completely unfazed by it and unsurprised by it.

The sun comes out, as it has done today, and the city is bathed in perfect spring light and warmth. The trees are heavy with blossom and budding with new leaf. And I stay inside, without thinking that is at all odd. I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I have a straggly corona-beard. Most of my life I have spent clean shaven. In my youth, it was because I was embarrassed at how unimpressive my wispy facial hair grew, and in my working days, beards were highly inappropriate. I did reward my face with some ‘rest time’ at weekends and have a little stubble growth, but until a redundancy and a trip around Europe two years ago, beards and I were unfamiliar fellows.

Now, I am considering how long it should be as I move from a simple hirsute face-frame to something like an Edwardian king. It reached a point where shaving it would have been more trouble than growing it, and so my ‘normal’ is now not shaving, after decades of daily-application of a blade to my face. ‘Normal’ now is more cooking than eating out, or eating prepared meals, and not using the recipe book, but ‘playing’ with what is in the fridge and the cupboards. Not all combinations are, or will be, roaring successes, but they have only to please me, and be edible. So far, so good. Kitchen time and creativity are my normal, now.

I think of friends, and when I do, I think of face-time or of Zoom. I no longer think of a pub or a bar in which we can meet, or of what food the particular friend prefers to eat. Somebody once quoted to me “I didn’t want normal, until I didn’t have it any more”. I wish I knew where that came from; so, apt. My normal is now a daily online chess game with my son. Over the past fortnight or so, we have only missed a couple of days’ play. And I felt that missing a game was abnormal, not the fact that we had constructed this important element of our daily structure, and an expression of our love for one another.

So, I sit alone, not unhappily, but not sure I feel normal, admiring a sun I am not feeling on my skin, listening to birdsong, and appreciating the lack of car noise, and telling myself that seeing a government spokesman announce hundreds of deaths for which we have no answers and few plans, is not something I can allow to feel normal. I did a quick search of quotes regarding ‘normal’ and this, celebrating what is not normal, helped me have a smile:

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.  – Maya Angelou.

Whatever lies ahead of us, smiling must always feel normal. But I am thinking of those grieving currently.