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This report is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Letter from Trinidad
on Lockdown before the Plague
Vahni Capildeo
The most intense period of lockdown which I experienced occurred before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Similar experiences will hold good for many who are not publishing commentaries on the pandemic. The lockdowns which have been their everyday remain unvoiced. In my case, I had decided to return to Trinidad for five months, as it had become clear that my mother was unwell. She has many family and friends who look out for her. None of them lives with her. They know her through her online presence and very occasional appearances, a wiser and persevering version of a nineteen-fifties or nineteen-sixties girl, daisy-voiced and coral-lipsticked, beating them at WordBlitz, bright and brushing off pain.

A few years ago, she had not brushed off the pain when a mysterious skin reaction raised itself on her limbs for some weeks. She had asked around – family and medics, family medics – and been fobbed off with talk of allergies. Allergies are the new elves. They commonly yet mysteriously sour the body, the way the Fair Folk used to turn the milk. My mother was some weeks into this light layer of suffering when I visited that time. I asked her whether she was putting anything different on her skin. Yes, a lovely gift of body cream from a kind friend. I looked at it. Unable to read the lettering on the bottle, she had been moisturizing with body wash, rubbing a harsh perfumed cleanser into her skin. The chemicals were meant to be rinsed off. Instead, they were soaking in. She needed an eye test and treatment for her sight. The ‘allergy’ scowled and slunk away. Apparently, nobody else had asked about or looked at what items were new on her carefully tended bureau.

All this to say that in 2019 I did not feel confident about remaining four thousand miles away while she had a scheduled hip replacement. In the event, the operation had to be performed as an emergency. I shall not write directly about the several things that went wrong, through no fault of the surgeon, over many weeks. I promised myself never to write directly of that illness of hers. The relevance to lockdown is that during most of those months, I slept on a fold-up chair in her hospital room, with no breaks. I lost twenty pounds of weight in about two weeks; and developed high blood pressure, still unregulated. By policy, visitors could not pay for extra meals. Even if the on-site café did not run quickly out of its home-cooked food and shut early, I could not have got there. Less than good things were happening night and day amidst the machines which companioned us in the room, and someone had to keep an eye.  If there were time, I could have walked along the side of a speedy highway ribboning the desolation of coastal reclaimed land to get to the food court in the mall, but there were other reasons, especially for a female, not to do so. I learned to wait.

There is nothing unique about this experience, and much that is privileged in such a form of lockdown, where a loved one is receiving treatment and is allowed to have a family member constantly present. Pandemic or no, direct and indirect lockdown has been and will continue to be part of many lives. In a strange, shadowy way, I was lucky to acquire a taste for indoors bitterness before it became a world flavour, and learn how to synthesise it into a kind of sweet. Sitting up from my fold-up chair-bed, I could look across the hospital parking lot to the sea of the Gulf of Paria. Waking up in the same place day after day had a kind of novelty. Apart from the life and death exigencies of the immediate environment, and apart from not really leaving the room except to hassle nurses or top up coffee from an emptying machine, this was like a holiday in Trinidad. I had books.

The precarity of current academic hiring in the UK, and the structural insanity of the creative economy under disaster capitalism, meant that a ‘normal’ working week for me might mean five hours of standard-fare train travel to talk for an hour or two in one of the cities where I was fractionally employed or had a freelance gig; a night in an itchy hotel with a toxic kettle (booked by myself as cheaply as possible, since no per diem would have been supplied and travel expenses, if included, would be reimbursed eventually, not paid upfront); before sunrise, five hours plus journey back, with the train north often breaking down; then perhaps the same the day after, and the day after that. Compared to this, ordinary carer lockdown in Port of Spain, although wearing me out bodily in situ, was restful for some part of my brain that had not known how deeply jangled it was from being worn out psychologically by displacement. I learned to appreciate small stillnesses, and to know what huge chaos can tear on a sudden through a room that then is no longer the same.

Another lesson from non-pandemic lockdown was what it means to be lonely. Living alone by choice in another country, with always a train to catch, a dear friend to try to meet for coffee in the railway station, another missed delivery of books, another safe walk up the hill to the little post office under silver-violet Caledonian skies, I had lost touch with loneliness. Day by day, I felt no misery; I was both worn out, and stupidly happy. Every instant seemed springy with possibilities of encounter, thorny with tasks undone. Loneliness, I realized in Trinidad, was linked both to leisure, and to expectation. In that pre-coronavirus isolation, I had a sharp and deep draught of loneliness. Did this somewhat immunize me to future desolation? I have found so, since we began to isolate against the plague. On social media and in the press I see people with healthier family situations begin to run mad from lack of access to their more richly interdependent lifestyle, known as normality.

There were two specific occasions when I felt lonely, in that rainy season of rehearsal for indoor living. One, after the main hospital period was over: Christmas day. It is better not to speak about that. The other was during my mother’s first major surgery. They said it would take an hour to ninety minutes. I settled in to correct the proofs of Odyssey Calling, my pamphlet from Sad Press. Looking for spaces, moving punctuation around, was sure to keep my mood ticking over and my breathing even. Time was up and the proofs were done.

I began to feel cold; not the post-traumatic cold that radiates from the core, which I once had for about four years, but what I call cold around the edges. I had felt – I feel – a lift shaft of such cold opening upwards from my shoulders after my father died, in 2003: too much space for access to the ancestors, no insulation from preceding generations. Similarly, child-sized cold flits at my side, pressing close now and then; the child or children I had longed for but was bullied out of having. Sometimes a chilly ring whistles around the third finger of my left hand, and I remind myself that I would not again lose my freedom. Waiting without news of the surgery, though, brought on a general cold, outlining me as if it were tailor’s chalk, and I fabric for cheap suiting.

My mother’s elder sister, unlikely to travel, rang briefly. She was concerned: who was with me? Who was waiting with me? Did I have food? A cousin, a thousand miles away in Jamaica, rang and asked the same things. Till then, in my normalised foodless isolation, it had not occurred to me that anyone would do any such thing as wait with me, or that I might need or want or like or miss it. I considered myself and had been existing as an adjunct, a spare and unemployed child, not a visitable person; happy when visitors came to my mother, but not calling – not yet – on my own arts-world or Catholic-school friends. Till those two sympathetic phone calls, I had congratulated myself on the easily mobilized adjustability of my non-interdependence. Newly unnerved, I asked the nurses what was happening. They did not know. I texted family, medics, medics in the family. They had asked other nurses, who also had no word. I went back to waiting; but I had done my proofs, and now I was aware that nobody was waiting with me, and nobody had brought me food; and I became lonely. Leisure. Expectation.

It has always been my habit of thought to reach for stories. Maybe this dates from a childhood of playing alone a lot, or maybe from conversation with persons whom I did not know were literary – or were they religious? I searched my memory for a story to wait with. My dead historical friends, my friends of the world of books and old buildings, my animal, tree, and stone friends, so often had been the best-and-onlies.  The verbal part of my brain drew a blank; but the image-making part of my brain presented me with a scene. I am not sure how far this occurred into the waiting, which would extend closer to four than three hours, rather than the projected hour to ninety minutes. The white and aqua, glass and blood-dirt of the sickroom with its flat, sea-front view yielded to a hillside in warm, dark colours. I fell into that interior and found myself under a bigger sky. Other people were there, waiting. Who? What story was this?

I was astonished – as a non-Christian – to find my traveller’s interior compass had shifted, and decided that the destination at which I was to disembark was the foot of the Cross. Women were waiting there. They really knew about waiting. I felt no less lonely, but the loneliness had a different quality. It drew tears; warm, human ones. Since then, the image has not returned with such disturbing vividness. However, lockdown in that ordinary time and lockdown in this extraordinary one have changed their quality – it is impossible to say how – but it feels easier to wait, in a kind of transtemporal connexion to the most intense waiting there ever was.

This report is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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