Laura Donald reflects on invisible health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I live in a Glasgow tenement building whose inhabitants pride themselves on their neighbourliness. Often I mute the residents’ WhatsApp group, sometimes for as much as a week without anyone noticing, to escape the chat about overflowing bins, the offers of leftover veg, and the ensuing flood of messages about how nice it is to live among neighbours who send messages about how nice it is to live among neighbours who send messages about how nice…
Occasionally Fran, the sprightly and sociable female component of the older couple on the second floor, will send a message to the group, asking if any of we fit, young things would mind volunteering to do a physically demanding communal job – scrub the moss from the slippery back steps with sugar soap; collect grit to coat the icy front steps; dig through the shared garden’s rock-hard earth so that she can plant out whatever she’s been nurturing on her windowsill. Instantly a neighbour replies – they’d be happy to help but the week they’re having at work means it would have to wait until Sunday. A second neighbour chimes in to say their looming deadline means they might be free on Saturday, reducing Fran’s wait by one vital day. A third neighbour makes their offer – they’ll do the job tonight, if they get home from the office before dark. Just as the gavel is about to fall…neighbour number four swoops in with a winning bid – the job will be done when they return from their run in an hour’s time!
The excitement of the good-deed auction generates a further cascade of messages about how nice it is to live among people who look out for one another. I mute the conversation, wishing I could mute my flat’s creaky floorboards that are bound to give me away. I spend the rest of the afternoon keeping my distance from the windows and, when the time comes to collect my daughter from school, listening at the door to avoid bumping into anyone on the stairs. How could I explain my simultaneous presence in the building and absence from the list of volunteers?
One day I cross paths with Fran while I’m unloading shopping from the boot of my car. I’m thanking my lucky stars (the ones currently crowding my vision) that I got a parking space right outside the front door. I’m trying to remember which bags I packed with items I can leave in the car for later. I’ll come back for them once I’ve recovered my breath and eyesight. Fran, in a friendly and conversational way, I hope, comments on how lovely it is to be young and fit. She has to get her shopping delivered nowadays, she says – she can’t carry it all the way to the top floor anymore. I smile and nod and don’t mention that I struggle to make it up to her floor without shopping, or that the last time I got shopping delivered I nearly killed myself, shifting so many heavy bags in quick succession while the driver loomed over me, impatient for the return of his delivery crates.
My heart failure lives secretly among my neighbours for eight years before coronavirus threatens to move in and necessitates a confession. Intoxicated by social media’s stories of community spirit, messages are flying between flats at an unprecedented rate, arranging a rota of volunteers to collect shopping for Fran and her husband, leaving the bags at their door in order to preserve, chutney-like, our elderly neighbours. It’s the early days of the virus: the schools remain open, although my daughter no longer attends; social discomfort still overrides the advice to talk from opposite edges of the pavement; the government and media endlessly conflate vulnerability and old age. That’s why, when I (a healthy-looking thirty-something) back away from neighbours in the street, they continue to move closer, pouring tales of crowded supermarkets and public transport into my ear.
Soon my awkward silence on running the supermarket gauntlet becomes too much to bear and my muting the WhatsApp conversation only results in a neighbour appearing in person at my door to talk face-to-face about what we can, collectively and communally, do to protect the building’s vulnerable residents. I answer noncommittally but am privately persuaded it’s time to come clean about my own vulnerability.
As the volume (but not the pace) of the well-meaning neighbour’s footsteps fades, flight by flight, back to their own flat, I post a message to the group chat explaining why, I’m afraid, I won’t be able to help with the supermarket runs they’re planning. The secret is out. I can’t take it back. But before I have time to regret or even to doubt this disclosure, my confession floats up, up and away, replaced on the screen by a myriad of messages reorganising the rota without me in it.
It’s a few hours later (by which time, for safety’s sake and without prior planning, I’ve left our home, building and city) that I receive a direct message from Fran: “Laura, we didn’t know about your condition,” she says, “and we are both very sorry to hear it.” That evening, as my daughter and I settle into our temporary accommodation, another message arrives. It’s Fran again, asking how I am and telling me that she’s getting everything ready for a night of reading in her cosy flat that was, until today, two flights of stairs away.
Laura Donald is a Wellcome Trust funded first-year PhD student in English Literature/Medical Humanities at the University of Glasgow, with co-supervision from the University of Edinburgh. Laura is researching post-1980 written representations of chronic heart disease. You can find her tweeting @_Laura_Donald and blogging about books and hearts at Hearty Tales.