A written piece by Benjamin Graham- a writer, editor, copywriter and freelance journalist based in Edinburgh. He moved to Scotland from Durham a decade ago and never left. Currently working as a copywriter for an organisation in Edinburgh, he has been working from home since March. This written piece attempts to articulate his own thoughts on living and working in the time of Covid.
What day is it? Brain’s foggy. Sleeping pills are such a cop-out. Like asking to have the sides put up at the bowling alley – they’re just a temporary solution to stop you falling in the gutter. They keep you just within the realms of a legitimate routine. But what does that mean, for you, for confronting the real reason you squirrel away into the wee hours, typing feverishly, or more likely, watching the same series you’ve seen a hundred times, pouring another glass, doom-scrolling into endless oblivion?
So why do you do it? Who knows. That’s too much for today. Too much for this lockdown. Too much for any time really.
The wine was a bad idea too. Just a little treat you said. But one goes down so quickly. The second was a decision beyond your control. Coffee will help. Coffee solves all problems. Or, at the very least, helps you shrug off the heavy cloak of sludgy sleep-haze. As the bitter, earthy scent fills the kitchen, you try to conjure a panorama of the origins of the beans – picked on some hillside in Turkey, Ethiopia or Bolivia. You ignore that, as they’re the product of a well-known coffee brand, they were more than likely picked by tiny hands, too small to grasp at a future.
You physically resist the urge to work from the bed. It’s too much to blur the already faded line between work and leisure. You compromise with the couch.
The last drops of diphenhydramine drip from the back brain down your spine and – like layers of clouds unfurling and pulling back from the sun – your mind brightens, albeit to a lighter grey. It’s a Wednesday. You’re on with the marketing team in ten.
You adjust the screen and look into the tiny camera lens. First video-call of the day. At least your self-esteem is kept in check by the regular confrontation of your own puffy moon face, projected back at you like a lunar mirror from the video-call screen. It’s the angles – nobody looks good from this angle.
It’s on. Smile. Say “Hello, how is everybody?” Feign enthusiasm. “What’s everyone been up to?” Put more pep in your voice. It doesn’t matter that you already know the answer. This is life now. A series of rhetorical questions posed to the same 2D faces; pleasantries to prop up the illusion of functioning. Run down the clock. But the clock never stops. It just resets every day. Sisyphus at his desk job.
Check the phone again. Which one is it this time? The rabbit hole of Twitter, where you can get lost in a cesspit of sardonic squabbles? Or the kaleidoscopic vacuity of Instagram, like watching a circus procession through a keyhole? Two minutes of paddling in the pool of the Blue Bird and you’re bewildered, despondent. You wade through petty spats between strangers; poorly constructed political insights; boujee brunches; meaningless memes built entirely of in-jokes; it’s all too much.
You switch to the news apps. They’re not much better. It never stops; the onslaught of new news. Simultaneously infinite and fleeting, ancient and immediate. The terminal onset of Brexit. The bloated, putrid corpse in the Oval Office. The giant, ever-present threat of environmental collapse. Don’t forget the man of the hour – the silent shadow that invades people like a parasite. Too alien to be real, too primitive to exist in this time of science. No wonder the Amateur Covid Detectives on Facebook think it’s fake.
There’s something in that. Tweet it out. Tell the world. They’ll hear you, appreciate your candour. You can already see the RT’s rolling in. People will quote your insights in arguments. They’ll elevate you; up through the digital ceiling, to a new plane. You’ll probably get a column in The Guardian off the back of this.
OK focus, focus. Part of working from home involves, regretfully, the need to actually do some work. Type something, anything. There, how long was that? Check Twitter. Bask in the adulation of metrics.
Idiot. The counter hasn’t moved – you thought that was so funny too. But it was try-hard. Angry but impotent. Just another penny, dropped in the ocean, the ripples subsiding so fast the waves flowing over it become a casual shrug. It didn’t even register as a tremor. No tidal wave of validation today. Nothing will come to sweep you from this room.
You delete the Tweet.
Lunch. What combination can you conjure today? Take your time, get involved in the process. Be mindful of what you’re consuming. In truth, you’re just grateful for the distraction. You drink it in greedily while staring into the cool light of the fridge.
You said you were going to cut back on carbs. But the hangover – just a distant storm front this morning – has gathered as a mass of black clouds over your head, and your stomach is flapping in the breeze.
No, you think, better to throw whatever combination of close-to-going-off the fridge holds into a wrap and wolf it down. Finish earlier. Sort your life out by dinner. Live happily ever after.
What was that she said? You weren’t listening again. This meeting can’t go on any longer – it’s two emails at most. At least you’re in here, keeping your white-collar dry. Not on the frontlines like the others.
Staring at the white page you can see sterilised walls. Humans wrapped in plastic bags, weary faces behind repurposed visors, hands chapped from the endless friction of alcohol rubbed between palms. In the background, you hear the sound of ventilators.
How did it come to this?
Do you work from home?
No, I live in my office.
Ha ha ha, how sharp. Write that down. Remember that for the next unprompted, entirely original conversation you have with a stranger.
Paper over the cracks. That’s 90% of working from home – maintaining the illusion of action. The Potemkin portfolio. You send some emails, check the work group chat for updates. You try to offer some big announcement – something that might make today feel like a day of progress. You muster something about, “Making real progress on the new ad campaign.” It’s enough. Nobody cares anyway.
Press-ups, sit-ups, squats, leg-raises, tricep dips. You were supposed to do them every hour on the hour, but you only just remembered. Now it’s a welcome distraction. Check the clock again as the final grains of the hourglass cluster and clot in the central canal. Time slows to a halt.
Take your mind off the deadlines, the stultifying inertia. The workout feels like a flash of fire in your bones – a frenetic burst of energy akin to a sleeping cat triggered to flight by some perceived threat. What must your muscles think you do?
3, 2, 1. That’s it. Close the laptop. Take a moment to reflect. Did you do everything you wanted today? Ha ha ha. Might as well ask an addict if their can of Coke is satisfying their cravings. Still, just as they say at the meetings, another day done is an achievement all of its own.
Now the second battle begins. Enjoy your government-sanctioned daily walk? Or commute to the sofa and shift your eyes to the bigger window? You pull out your phone to look at the weather app. Half an hour later and you’re still scrolling Instagram.
The streets are dead. People pass in silent contemplation. Outside, the sunbeams that tantalised you all day through the window have absconded, replaced by a mute murk under a concrete sky.
Still, you love this time. You follow the river through the town, walking on auto-pilot, lost in your own empty head. This is your time. Free from everything. You could walk for hours. You consider what would happen if you just kept walking. What if you stayed straight on the path? What if you could break free of this orbit, pull away from this plane, and scatter into the universe? Be done with this place, this routine, this life. Yeah, right, and where would you go?
It’s good to dream. But dreams are just that – visions of paths you’ll never tread. And those visions appeal precisely because you’ve never walked them. Without thinking, you cross the river and walk back the way you came.
Dinner. You consider ordering takeaway again. Once every two weeks is the rule and you can’t remember the last time you did. You spy the takeaway boxes in the recycling. Oh yeah, three days ago. Damn.
But cooking really is a passion. Five years working kitchens around Edinburgh convinced you of three things:
Being able to cook at your own pace is a luxury
Eating well is one of the few things you’re ever going to commit to
You are incredibly lucky you don’t depend on cheffing as a sole source of income
You check the fridge. Bollocks. You pull at the few threads of mental energy and stitch together a dinner plan. This is probably the best thing you’ve done today. And within three minutes, it will be gone.
Why are you so exhausted? Your back aches and your eyes are coated with a sheen of light from the laptop screen. You think of the kids picking coffee beans in 40°c and feel a sharp pang of shame. Then again, they say the more you do, the more your body produces energy. Ergo, the less you do, the less energy you have. You make a mental note to start your exercises earlier tomorrow.
Netflix, phone, repeat ad infinitum.
Sleeping pills. You’re going to wean yourself off them soon. Just not tonight. Because while the monotonous routine of 2020 is both exasperating and exhausting, you don’t dare disrupt the cyclic rhythm. The moment you stop numbing your mind into sweet unconsciousness, you fear, is the moment this tenuous balance gives way and it all comes crashing down.
You get into bed early – ostensibly in the hopes your horizontal status will woo your body into embracing the semi-coma.
You pick up a book you’ve been half-reading for three months and stare at the words. Not reading, per se, but working through the motions that come with reading. You return to sentences several times, aware that you’re not actually absorbing the meaning behind the words. It’s a fitting mirror, you realise, for how you pass through the world these days.
Lights off. You fight the urge to check your phone and start scrolling. Today was hard. And you hate that it was, because of all the jobs in this dried up little island, yours is probably one of the easiest. Because you know a hundred people would kill to have your job. Because you know within twenty years you’ll look back on this time as a time of unparalleled abundance.
You wouldn’t last a minute in the real world. You’re the General’s receptionist, ten miles behind the frontline, worried about getting the print right on the latest edict for mass suicide.
Men and women are lying on gurneys, chest’s rattling, haggard lungs pulling in artificial breath; reduced to the status of vessel, victim, statistic. And you whine like a starved dog; about back problems, about workloads, about purgatorial routines. More than anything, you complain because it feels like vocalising the powerlessness – powerlessness we all feel – will somehow make it recede. Like shining a light into some dark corner of the room in the belief it will drive the shadows back. But it only illuminates them – makes them bigger, brighter and more solid. You can only turn off the light and hope the spirits will occupy their own corner.
You can quiet their voices; with Netflix binges, with various substances, with the silver-glow window. You fall asleep listening to a podcast, made by someone who has it all figured out. At least this way you can’t hear the voices of the spirits. Nothing good will come to hear their words now. Besides, there’s always tomorrow.