These sheep can hear the rustle of a lunch pack from a kilometre away, and think nothing of sticking their heads under your arm to grab an apple or a cheese sandwich. They sometimes give birth up here too – you sometimes see the most delicate of lambs leaping from rock to rock.
But this year, I am finding that I have become extremely nervous about going anywhere new, even as the country is being urged to come out of lockdown, and I am wondering if anyone else is feeling the same. I have gone from intrepid traveller who went off to Borneo only a few months ago to someone who is feeling ill at ease at the prospect of a trip to Kentish Town this afternoon, just a few tube stops from East Finchley.
In some ways, this fear is perfectly reasonable – I have no confidence that Covid-19 is under anything like control. It will mean going on public transport, something that I’ve been avoiding. I haven’t technically been shielding but I do recognise that, at 60 years old and with a genetic propensity to developing deep vein thrombosis, I am at more risk than some other people. Since I travelled to Weymouth for Dad’s cremation, I haven’t been further than the High Street and our local woods. But in the absence of anything like sensible guidance, we in the UK will all be having to make our own risk assessments over the next weeks and months. For me, there are dangers associated with staying in while my world gets smaller and smaller, just as there are risks in going out. I do not want my world to shrink to the point where I only really feel safe at home. I want to travel again and to explore my city once the dangers posed by Covid-19 have reduced to a manageable level (whenever that is). But I need to be able to make short journeys without having palpitations, and so, mask on and social-distancing radar in place, I shall do this little trip, and then later next week I’ll be doing some others.
My Mum became, to all intents and purposes, housebound for the last few years of her life. A trip to the doctor’s surgery became an event. Dad was no longer really capable of driving safely. And so, her world shrank and shrank. She became terrified of going outside. Once, we went to a local DIY store to buy tiles for the wet room that they were having installed (neither Mum nor Dad could stand up in the shower anymore, and it was too small for a seat). Mum had a full-blown panic attack, felt dizzy and breathless and had to sit in the little office with a cup of tea to calm down.
‘All the walls seemed to be coming in’, she said, when trying to explain how she felt.
Dad, meantime, announced that he liked sitting in his reclining chair and watching endless re-runs of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ because it made him feel ‘safe’. If he had a doctor’s visit on the calendar he would worry about it for days, checking the date and making sure that transport was in place. I remember him sitting in his chair, tapping his fingers endlessly as if playing some Mozart piece. When he came home after an appointment he would tumble into the house like a rabbit disappearing into its warren – in fact he had more falls tripping over the step on the way in than in any other place in the house, such was his panic and his relief at returning.
And so, one of the first things that occurred to me when ‘shielding’ was announced that there was going to be an epidemic of something like agoraphobia when people were finally allowed to go out.
I am lucky – I am feeling trepidation, but I have no doubt that I will push through it, however uncomfortable I feel. This is not the same as the real panic and distress that my Mum and Dad felt. People who have been shielding for months and who are truly vulnerable to the virus may well need support if they feel that they want to start venturing out. We must not underestimate the effect that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, on people’s mental health. I feel as if our society is fragile, with divisions between those who have seen or experienced Covid-19 first hand, and those who still think that it’s ‘not worse than the flu’. Some people will bust out and go to the pub at the first opportunity that they get, and others will continue to shield, terrified of the implications if they get the virus, and sensing that the world is full of dangers. Plus, with 65,000 excess deaths in the UK alone, with jobs lost and businesses ruined, with hopes dashed and plans in tatters, we are a nation of mourners, and we are raw and exposed and full of grief.
If ever there was a time for being gentle with one another, for being kind, this is it.