I was volunteering at what turned out to be the last face-to-face outing for some local elderly people when the phone call came in. My old friend Al had died. Not from Covid-19, he had been well and active. He had been found in his armchair after returning from his usual Sunday bike ride. A heart attack, we were later told. A quick, peaceful end for someone actively involved in his community. Al was 81.
He had lived in our village until about 18 months previously, when his family circumstances changed. He always loved being near the sea and in his new home, he could walk along the shoreline and feel at peace. A gentle, quiet man.
On the Friday two days before Al died, our Prime Minister announced new guidelines to the country — from Monday, outdoor gatherings would be limited to 500 people, indoor ones limited to 100. Not compulsory, just a recommendation.
On the Monday, however, after football matches had gone ahead with crowds of spectators and an especially large international church gathering had taken place (the church run by a friend of the Prime Minister) the proposed guidelines came in and were immediately made mandatory. Added restrictions on social distancing would be factored in so in many cases, the indoor limit of 100 was not going to be possible.
I spoke to the management staff of a nearby club. This is an entertainment venue in our country where meetings can be held formally or informally; receptions, conferences and classes. They also have gaming machines (a source of revenue) a couple of licensed restaurants and a bar. They were allowed to have a maximum of 100 in each room, but they had to allow four square metres per person. This meant some of the smaller rooms were limited to only twenty patrons.
I had a meeting at that club, the day before Al’s funeral. With four of us in the meeting, we had no difficulty with social distancing. Up in the restaurant where we took a break halfway, the usually bustling place was empty. We were outnumbered by the staff. When we left a few hours later, it was at a time when people would normally be gathering for dinner. We were the only customers in the place.
We drove to the funeral, unable to socially distance in the car so friends drove in separate cars. My husband and I planned to arrive early, so we could go in to the chapel even briefly. We expected there to be issues with social distancing. At a funeral we want to hug one another, to offer comfort or receive it in return. But here, no touching.
When we arrived, the TV news was there, filming. We had been warned. They were very respectful and paused to let us go inside.
Inside we could see that the pews had been marked with a gaff tape X on the seats to indicate where we had to sit. The pews were alternated; two Xs in this pew, one X in the next. Two after that. The pews with two Xs had seats at opposite ends. The single X was in the middle. So we sat, checkerboard fashion. This way, the small chapel could accommodate just over thirty people.
Many of Al’s family were not permitted to travel for either health reasons or distance. They had sent their own messages which were read out. The funeral was being live-streamed with the link available for several weeks.
I wanted to reach out, to squeeze my husband’s hand, to touch the shoulder of my friend Mary who sat alone in the pew directly in front. No comfort permitted.
We listened to Al’s favourite music, we watched the slide show reflecting our lives intertwined. The minister of Al’s new church spoke. Family gave the eulogy. Someone read that wonderful passage from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22, To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heavens.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. How true. (Quotes taken from King James Version (KJV)
The chapel window looked out over the sea. I remembered when Mary and I had walked around the chapel with Al while he pointed out his favourite spot for a morning swim. He’d showed us where he went to community classes. We’d had a cup of coffee at the nearby cafe, sitting at a table in the sunshine with many other people sitting nearby. He missed our village but had made a new life for himself.
Outside the chapel after the funeral we did elbow bumps or fist bumps, somehow seeming too light-hearted for a funeral. Plenty of hand sanitiser flowed along with the cups of tea and fruit cake. One friend of Al’s told us of the coping strategy of ‘biffing distance’. If your outstretched fist can reach the outstretched fist of another, you’re too close.
That evening we had a more informal social distance wake for Al, at his favourite place on our local beach. We had music playing and I wore a swimsuit under my dress. We raised a glass to Al in the sunset and I threw off my dress and went for a swim. The saltwater was warm in the evening, refreshing. I thought of Al, who had died before the restrictions had interfered with his life. Al, who had loved the beach, a regular swim and riding his bike. And his music.
We kept our distance from one another and took ourselves home afterwards, to wake to a new world order in the morning. Funerals limited to ten. Weddings to five.
The next day, the clubs were closed. Cafés and restaurants closed except for takeaway. Schools to remain open but keeping students learning at home if possible was recommended.
Every day, it seems, the goalposts get shifted. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been getting thoroughly overworked.
And all through it all, the one thought comforts me — Al never knew, and will not have to endure it.