'It was like everyone forgot about us'

Four readers talk candidly about their months of isolation

Good afternoon — today’s story is about isolated lives.

A few months ago, one of you suggested we interview people who are shielding at home. Lots of readers answered our subsequent call-out, and we spoke to some of them on the phone.

This piece features four Mill readers from across Greater Manchester. Their stories show how the pandemic has ruined plans and tested friendships but also how it has forced people to find new worlds on the internet and to summon the most resourceful versions of themselves.

Alex has got to know his daughter better. Not that he didn’t know her well before, but he has become especially close to her this year. Every day since March the two of them have gone walking, along the roads and footpaths of Tameside. Alex is in his early 40s and his daughter is four, but she can easily walk five miles in a day. They have walked the Trans-Pennine Trail, and become familiar with all the fields near their house. One field in particular — the one that has horses in it. His daughter will say she wants to go walking, and he will say “You want to go to the horse field don’t you?” and she will say yes.

His wife has mostly done her walks at 10pm at night when no one else is about. She has severe allergic asthma and was instructed by the government to shield at home in the Spring. The same goes for their one-year-old son, who has a rare genetic condition that makes him extremely medically vulnerable. Nevertheless, it was their daughter they were most concerned about. “She's not old enough to occupy herself or read a book,” Alex says. “It’s hard to keep her engaged because I have to work downstairs.” He has a tech job that he can do from home, and his parents have been doing the shopping. They come to the yard and chat most days.

His daughter started school in September — her first year at reception. That was a new phase for the family and brought new risks. They were nervous about sending her back, knowing she could pick up the virus from classmates and bring it home, but they have become resigned to it. “We can't worry about school,” Alex says. Keeping her at home didn’t seem right. “There's nothing you can do about it.”

A back-street in Levenshulme. Photo by Dani Cole.

Angela is an accountant and lives in Whalley Range with her husband. When the country went into its first lockdown, she was undergoing chemotherapy at the Christie. For weeks, the staff at the hospital didn’t have PPE. “I was physically frightened,” she says. “It was a horrible time.” She thinks her period of being scared lasted a few weeks. “There was all this talk of there not being enough ventilators. You were thinking, who makes those decisions? As a 57-year-old woman, would I get one? I remember lying awake thinking about that.”

The initial shielding advice from the government was strict, and seemed impractical: shielders weren’t supposed to be in a room with anyone else. “I think people have made their own risk assessments and decided what they feel comfortable with,” she says. “It's a numbers game - reducing the number of interactions you have with people.” Her husband doesn’t work, and when we speak in November she had been to one shop in six months. “The WHSmith at the Christie - that's been my treat,” she says.

In June she got a letter from the government, saying she could leave isolation. It came from Matt Hancock — “signed 'Matt' like he was my mate,” — and said she should discuss going back to work with her employer. The change in instructions seemed sudden and perverse. Then in late October, before the second lockdown, she got an email that said she was still considered clinically extremely vulnerable and should stay at home as much as possible, but should exercise and go to health appointments.

She has seen a handful of friends outdoors, but other than that she’s kept up with them in group chats. “Technology has been the saving of us all,” she says. “I dread what this would have been like without Zoom and group chats.” She has colleagues who have been hired during the pandemic and who she works with every day in Microsoft Teams meetings but has never met. “I don't know how tall they are,” she says. Ahead of the second lockdown, she felt she was “just starting to re-emerge” and was considering a trip to the Co-Op on Withington Road.

The virus has laid waste to nice plans. “I was going to take my husband to the Midland for tea for his birthday, but that's been cancelled,” she says. She hopes she will be able to have her mother-in-law over for Christmas — she’s in Stockport. “Our usual trip to the pub with friends won't happen.”

A woman walks her dog in Wythenshawe. Photo by Dani Cole.

Lois lives in Littleborough, a few miles north of Rochdale on the old road to Halifax. She takes medication for chronic myeloid leukaemia, so she was on the shielding list. For a month she stayed at home as instructed, and then after speaking to her doctor she started walking out onto the moors. She could walk for miles without seeing anyone.

She runs a photographic studio with her daughter. They lost most of their business, but spoke regularly on Facetime. For ten weeks, she lived in total isolation, and after that, she and her daughter formed a support bubble. “I'm really lucky that I like my own company,” she says. “I'm a bit of a hermit really.”

She knew from the beginning that there was one thing she was really going to miss — live music. “I'm not a drinker, I don't go to pubs, but I love going to gigs,” she says. They are important to her, and suddenly they were gone. And then they were back again, via a local musician called Jake Fletcher, who started performing live gigs on Facebook, live from his attic. She started watching him every Saturday night from March onwards. Before the pandemic, Fletcher played in various local bands, and now he takes requests from his new fans on the internet.

“The same people watch him every week and it's grown into a lovely friendly community,” she says. “We're all really looking forward to meeting up at some unimaginable time in the future to watch Jake live somewhere.” She comments on the Facebook live stream and has got to know some of the other viewers from all over the world. During the first lockdown, about 200 watched the stream, which dropped to around 70 viewers when the restrictions were eased. Most of them chip in the price of a pint so that Fletcher can earn a living from it. “It's got that feeling of being involved in something,” she says. “It's the same people every week.”

A misty day on Saddleworth Moor. Photo by Joshi Herrmann.

When we spoke just before the second lockdown, Mick had left his house twice since March. Once for hospital surgery at Stepping Hill, once for an eye appointment. He’s 67 and lives in Stockport. “I live alone and I've spent most of my life alone,” he says. Initially, he was quite optimistic — “I thought I would catch it but probably survive it” — but then his outlook changed. The news carried stories of “long Covid” and young people dying. He started worrying that the virus wouldn’t kill him, but would leave him weak for years.

No one told him to stay at home, but he decided to on account of his age. “I thought, I don't have to go out,” he says. “I have plenty of things to do here. I can do that for as long as it takes.” In his youth, he trained in the Territorial Army for 11 years. When he goes walking in Wales he likes to sleep in the open air rather than pitching a tent, with a special bag that covers your sleeping bag. “Most of the walking I've done, I do it on my own,” he says. Seeing out Covid has become his latest challenge of endurance, in keeping with his personality.

“I’ve got that sort of mentality: I can hunker down and survive this,” he says. He doesn’t have any family nearby, and in normal times he would spend his time at his social club and at the local theatre where he volunteers. He used to go to the gym every day, and he’s a “Culture Champion” for Stockport. Outside of his medical appointments, he has spoken to one person: a neighbour who brought a parcel in. He’s had a few phone calls, but not many. He is spending more time on Twitter than he used to — mainly looking at pictures of wildlife. He’s joined the Badger Trust. And The Mill, which he found in September.

He retired almost ten years ago from his job at one of the universities and calls himself “a lifelong student.” Soon after retiring, he discovered “Massive open online courses” or MOOCs — mass participation learning programs that often involve interactive elements like community chats. He does scientific, medical and historical ones, and recently has been learning Scots Gaelic. He subscribes to a site called Great Courses and has discovered that YouTube is better than he thought. He has spent a lot of time watching dog training videos, “Even though I don't have a dog.” He’s thinking about getting one.

Has being alone ever got him down? “I think I would be a liar if I said no,” he told me. “The odd day or two, but I had that before Covid. It's been hours rather than days or weeks. Or a day.”

An empty chippy in Bury just before the country went into its second lockdown. By Dani Cole.

Not everyone is as mentally equipped for being alone. Alongside his countryside walks with his daughter, what kept Alex going in the first lockdown were regular Zoom calls with his large group of friends from school. Every second day they would do a quiz or have a virtual pint and it meant a lot to him. “There was a really strong sense of us as a gang,” he says, “And I was really clear with people that they meant a lot.”

Then the lockdown ended, and people went back to normal pub trips and normal get-togethers. Suddenly, he stopped hearing from his mates. “It was like everyone forgot about us,” he says. “The minute your lives went back to normal, very very few of them have made the effort to check-in.” He would suggest a virtual pint on a Friday, and there weren’t any takers in the group chat. Hardly any of his friends have called him to check-in or instigated a video chat. “It feels like a crummy time to find out who your real mates are,” he says.

He wonders whether they think he’s all right because he puts a joke down the Whatsapp group every couple of days. “Everyone has their lives to live, and get on with — I get all that,” he says. Nevertheless, he is hurt by their lack of empathy. “I've had this group of mates since secondary school,” he told me. “You couldn't get rid of them when you wanted to. And this is one of those times when the chips are down, and they didn't turn up.”

He hasn’t explicitly told them he needs more of their support but was hoping they would read between the lines. “I've dropped fairly colossal hints,” he says. “Maybe that's the problem with being British — you don't say what you need.”

We changed Alex and Angela’s names in this article, at their request.


If you are going to spend Christmas alone — whether by choice or necessity — please get in touch by replying to this newsletter.

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Today’s story is the second in our series on shielding and isolation. The first was this moving piece by Dani, about a woman called Vicky who lost her mum during the pandemic.