Soon afterwards, the first few cases reached the UK. At that point they could all be traced back to people who had recently been in China.
Everybody knew about coronavirus by now, and it was coming up with some frequency in conversation, but it wasn’t all-consuming yet. I went to a house party where so many people were packed into the living room that you couldn’t take a step without forcing everyone else in the room to shuffle around and the host was making people queue at the door as if for a nightclub. Half the guests turned up brandishing bottles of Corona beer, to much hilarity.
Within a day or two of the first cases arriving in the UK, my mother developed bronchitis. She hadn’t knowingly been in contact with anyone who had recently been in China so it was likely to be “just” bronchitis – but I couldn’t help being a bit anxious. Thankfully it was just bronchitis, but it went on for so long that she was still coughing when covid-19 gained a foothold in the UK and people started edging away nervously at the sound of a cough.
I went to Boots to get Mom some cough medicine. I couldn’t find it immediately but I didn’t want to freak out any members of staff by accosting them and announcing that I needed cough medicine (“but for a phlegmy cough. For bronchitis. You know, not for a dry cough, like the kind caused by coronavirus. And anyway it’s not for me”) so I just wandered the aisles until I found it. Then I was too embarrassed to pay for it at the till, so I went to the self-checkout instead.
At one point, at the tail end of her bronchitis, she dragged herself to choir – the last place she wanted to be, but she felt bad for Sue, the conductor, because people kept missing sessions – and found herself sitting next to a woman who had been hauled in by Sue to boost the numbers. This woman sat next to Mom and belted out her part, quite as if she were a soloist rather than a member of a choir. (She turned out to be a professional opera singer.)
Although the bronchitis was on its way out, Mom’s voice hadn’t quite returned to full working order yet, but she was doing her best, and suddenly this woman turned to her and demanded “Are you singing?”
“Yes,” said Mom, at which the woman turned on her heel and flounced off to the end of the row.
Mom then realised that the woman had actually said “Are you sick?”
She took great offence at the woman’s reaction.
“I understand that as a professional singer she wants to protect her voice,” she told me, “but she had no idea how much effort that it had taken for me to be there that evening. “I didn’t even want to be there! Anyway, she was singing loud enough for five people. So I left at the break.”
She mused over what would have happened when Sue noticed she had left.
“I’m sure Sue will have asked this woman where I went. And I wonder if she replied ‘Oh, I was a bit off to her — perhaps I offended her and that’s why she left’, ” she said.
“I doubt it,” I said. “She was probably offended by your being there when you were sick.”
Mom was not among the early coronavirus panickers and at that stage she didn’t really get why people might freak out at sitting next to someone who was freely admitting to being ill.
She emailed Sue the next day to say “I won’t be coming back for the rest of the term. The young woman you recruited to help out took exception to my being there when I was unwell, without having any idea of how hard it was for me to be there in the first place. In any case, she has enough of a voice to keep the soprano section afloat, so I’m sure the choir will be fine.”
Sue replied (she knew that Mom had been struggling with bronchitis) to say sorry to hear it — and then the following day choir was cancelled for the rest of term anyway because of coronavirus.