Stan Papoulias reflects on the bodily practices of disinfection during Covid-19 lockdown. This autoethnographic text posits the lockdown as a rupture in the fabric of the everyday in which the relationship between present and past is destabilised, and sets up the body as a haunted site, with actions and rituals (in this case hand washing and the smell of surgical spirit) as carriers of embodied memory, of family secrets and their attendant affective load.
London, April 6th 2020
Washing my hands now carefully, fingers interlaced, thumb cradled protectively and insistently, ensuring lather gets all the way up beyond the wrist. Rinse. Repeat. Then the tang of surgical spirit as I tilt the bottle on a swab of cotton wool. I rub it methodically and thoroughly on the packets of food and the bottles of wine I just brought in from the supermarket. With each movement, Covid-19 lockdown London is undone and that other place-time, which is always here too, sharpens to life. Athens, the seventies. For twelve years, between the age of six and eighteen, from the cusp of childhood to the end of adolescence, the same ritual ended our family visits to my gran – first weekly, later monthly. Smelling rough olive oil soap and surgical spirit as I stood arms akimbo and legs spread wide in our small bathroom, like a caricature Vitruvian man as my mother methodically disinfected me. Arms soaped to the elbow, then skin swabbed roughly with cotton wool soaked in surgical spirit, rubbed over every crevice and cranny. I first, my father second. On the mosaic floor of the bathroom, a plastic bag with our contaminated clothes. For me, a woollen, grey pleated skirt and a polyester blue blouse. They were cocooned in the bag for years while I travelled through adolescence and grew out of their size. The blouse faded and frayed, and a safety pin came to hold the skirt together over my growing body.
Don’t they suspect? I wondered. Can’t they see we wear the same clothes every time we visit? That we never accept food or water? Sometimes, the cotton wool invades my mouth – depending. If grandma’s carer insists, as a gift to her, that I lean over, place my cheek on her mouth so she, my grandmother who stares blankly ahead and has forgotten how to kiss, can have some small piece of family to comfort her. Then that kiss has to be undone. Just in case, you can never be sure, open wide, in goes the swab swirling inside my cheeks, my eyes watering.
Covid-19 has made this contagion live again under my skin. I know the movements too well. I know how to disinfect better than that how-to hand-wash video with the black paint that has gone viral – it misses out the forearms. And it misses out the surgical spirit. That spirit’s absence from UK shelves is a long-time joke among the Greeks: the English don’t know how to clean. Surgical spirit: οινόπνευμα. The word’s familiarity conspires against the memory of its origin. In lockdown London as the familiar is made strange, I realise: οινόπνευμα,οίνο-πνεύμα, wine spirit. Is this why I drink prodigious amounts of white wine? Am I practising homeopathy, hoping that one spirit will chase the other into oblivion? If you drink pure ethanol, you go blind. I tried once, in my aunt’s bedroom, just one drop. I didn’t go blind. If you drink wine, you forget, except the rituals of wine spirit cannot be forgotten because they don’t live as memories but instead are held, undead, in the body.
Wine spirit and rough-hewn soap were my mother’s weapons in her rituals of disinfection. They warded off the ghost she called cancer which she conjured up lodged somewhere deep in my gran’s body long after the doctors said she was in remission. Wine spirit and soap to keep her only daughter’s body from harm. Demanding the sacrifice of other bodies: that of my gran’s live-in carer, who must never be told about the cancer or she would leave, and those of the carer’s own daughter, and of her daughter’s daughters. Their bodies for mine. Don’t speak, don’t tell: nobody must know. A story of class and servitude, as spirits did their daily dance in our house, gorging on guilt. Cancer, disinfection, dementia, radiotherapy. As I tipped into adolescence, these coalesced into one tangled story, each bringing forth the other. My mother’s guilt for having abandoned her mother in hospital quarantine for days during her radiotherapy; my gran’s bad fall down the stairs; the cancer itself; the wasted body in gran’s armchair who remembered me long after she had forgotten her daughters. Guilt, sickness, fall. Which came first? Which trailed the others in its wake? And, always, the smell of wine spirit marking the weekly rituals, precise and thorough. The same rough-hewn soap which cleansed me healed my gran’s bed sores when made into a paste by the carer so that she would live on. And live on she did, after a fashion, for fourteen years. Peasant wisdom. Violently modernised peasants, the lot of them! I said to my Greek friend in Brighton, ten years later, gleeful in my contempt. As if modernity ever comes without violence. How could they think that cancer is contagious? I have nothing to do with your ghosts. Aroint thee, witch! Maybe their dread of cancer held its own secret comforts, a name and rituals to exorcise the spirits. But the spirits do not care for your beliefs. They are here now, in London, as I, older than my mother was then, swab the packaging of yogurts, and the oranges, and the bottles of wine. Especially the bottles of wine. A spirit for a spirit. Then, as now, disinfection does not ward off the ghosts: it multiplies them.
Covid nineteen. What does it mean to live among the ghosts when those who passed them on are long gone? My grandmother died some thirty-four years now. In Greece, bodies are often buried twice to be laid to rest. After the flesh disintegrates, the bones are exhumed and cleansed by family, anointed in wine and placed in an ossuary. It is thirty years since my mother exhumed her mother. She told me that her mother’s hair still settled white-yellow around her skull. My mother held her mother’s bones in the end, even though she could not hold her living body. A belated act of tenderness. It is two years since a grave digger exhumed my mother’s body while I waited, safely out of sight. I granted her no tenderness.
I scrub my forearms in the quarantined present. When disinfection doesn’t work, there are other ways to stop the spread. No one else gets infected this time round: I’ve made sure of it. I am the last of my family and their ghosts die with me.
Stan Papoulias is a Research Associate and Assistant Director of SURE at King’s College London. They are an academic and long-term user of mental health services who trained and worked in cultural studies for many years. They are interested in the use of participatory and visual methods in applied health research and in conceptualisations of subjectivity & experience.