As Carrie Bray gets sent home for her own safety from her job on the railways in northern England, she makes do in self-isolation with improvised provisions and Fifi the cat. But far from shutting her off from the world outside her window, lockdown brings to mind all that is at stake out there, and the better country that could be.
So, this is really happening. I was sceptical at first, I’ll admit. After all, we’ve just had four years of Brexit scaremongering, from both sides. Prior to that it was the millennium bug that was going to turn your washing machine rogue, so that it came upstairs in the night and strangled you. Journalists do have a tendency to cry wolf, lion, witch, wardrobe... whatever sells copy. But this is happening.
Last time I worked this train, a fortnight ago, it was full and standing. I struggled to get to my control panel. This morning no one is standing and there are seats free. There are far fewer suits, more overalls. The people who can opt to stay home, already have. I do an announcement to say I won’t be selling tickets for health and safety reasons. No-one complains. There is a quiet understanding. A collective unease. Nobody wants to be out.
'I decide to improvise with a cheap bottle of perfume. God knows what it smells like, but it’s 70% alcohol, and the best I can find.'
After my shift I try to obtain some hand gel. As a train guard, I’m touching hard surfaces in public places all day and handling cash. There is none to be found. I decide to improvise with a cheap bottle of perfume. God knows what it smells like, but it’s 70% alcohol, and the best I can find. I also get some white vinegar. I don’t know how effective that is, but the residents in plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire, who self isolated in 1665, left money in a bowl of vinegar for the people who brought them food. I don’t mind smelling like a chip shop if it keeps me, and others, safe.
Photo by Carrie Bray
As I unpack my strange shopping, my work phone rings. I’m immediately worried. This is very unusual. There’s nothing to do from home in my work. It’s my manager. She tells me that as I have underlying health conditions, I am to stay home for at least three months. I’m shocked. But I’m also very lucky, as I will be getting paid. I ask if I can still go for walks, still go shopping... She tells me it’s just to keep me safe by taking me off trains, but I’m not to go out to pubs or the cinema. I ask how many of my colleagues are in the same position, though not their names, for confidentiality. (Although we converge on Facebook later that evening.) Somehow knowing there are others makes me less lonely. It also means I’m officially vulnerable, despite usually being known as formidable. This takes some getting my head round.
I go back to replenishing my work bag, but now I’m emptying it instead. I realise how much I enjoy my job and the social contact. I no longer have to wash my uniform as priority. It can linger in the wash basket.
I worry about whether I can see my family, my friends and my boyfriend. I am so glad to have Fifi, my cat. Her conversation is limited, but she’s a presence and a comfort. That night I hesitate before pulling the blinds down, because once I do that, then the outside world is shut out and I am shut in.
'That night I hesitate before pulling the blinds down, because once I do that, then the outside world is shut out and I am shut in.'
Five days later the official lock down begins.
The rail network I work on is usually at full capacity. There is talk of lengthening the platforms, adding carriages. But perhaps it is not at capacity. If this has shown us anything, then perhaps people need to use transport more responsibly. Clearly there are people who could do at least some work from home. Do the trains need to be packed? Do roads need to be gridlocked every morning and evening? And do we need to keep on building snazzy office blocks? Is there a solution for companies to share space by working remotely, more often? I live in the flight path for Leeds Bradford Airport. It’s very quiet now. I enjoy a budget airline weekend away as much as the next person, but maybe it’s time to take stock and evaluate. We are all facing the threat of Coronavirus. We are all facing the threat of climate change. Let’s hope that what we learn from the former teaches us how to respond to the latter.
As a worker in one of the few still highly unionised sectors, I have far better pay and conditions than anyone working in the gig economy. Ken Loach’s 2019 film, Sorry We Missed You highlights this poignantly. There are a lot of low paid workers on the front line during this crisis. Care workers, food chain workers, junior doctors and nurses have all struggled for improvements over the years, while the likes of Richard Branson and Philip Green, billionaire businessmen, have raked the money in. Finally we are seeing who is really worth what, and not only in monetary terms.
'Finally we are seeing who is really worth what, and not only in monetary terms.'
Even Boris Johnson has refuted Thatcher’s infamous “there’s no such thing as society.” As he receives treatment himself, the NHS (National Health Service) is lauded on the television, the radio, even in the streets and yet it was rumoured to be on the table for trade deals not so very long ago.
We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change things for the better: to rebuild communities, to cherish the NHS, to value those who quietly improve our lives on a daily basis, to call to account those who do not and to address climate change. And we must keep an eye out to ensure the libraries, museums and galleries don’t remain closed indefinitely. Let’s not waste this chance.
Carrie Bray is a railway worker from Bradford in the UK, currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She is not allowed to go to work at the moment because of underlying health conditions.
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