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Two Become One

Last Thursday was, in many ways, my final day of medical school. The entire week had been eerily quiet throughout the hospital. It felt like the calm before the storm. The Acute Admissions Unit – a usual hive of activity – was spare. Elective operations had been suspended, so the surgical wards were unusually vacant. There wasn’t much to do at all. After the morning ward round, I offered to take any bloods that needed taking, but the phlebotomists had already taken any outstanding samples. Feeling rather null and void, I decided to call it a day.

That afternoon I returned to Cambridge with my belongings – officially moving out of Bury St Edmunds – and tried to keep myself busy. I decided to go to the gym, to make the most of the final few days (or hours) of it remaining open. Given that schools had been closed earlier in the week, I figured it was only a matter of time before other public spaces were closed too.

The mantra ‘stay at home and save lives’ was already being chanted on the news and social media, so I felt a burden of social guilt and ignominy when visiting the gym. There was already a pervasive feeling that it wasn’t right to leave your house unless it was absolutely necessary – and of all the places to go, the gym is probably one of the worst. It’s a mixing pot of people and bodily secretions – a playground for any infectious disease. I remember my neighbour in Manchester told me that the two ‘scientifically-proven’ dirtiest places were the inside of a bowling ball and the leather lining of gym equipment. I have yet to find a citation, but that comment has stuck with me like a wad of gum under a bench.

With the hyperawareness of one’s own and other’s personal hygiene that comes with a viral pandemic, I was noticing all the habits gym-goers partake in between their sets: scratching their nose, rubbing their eyes, itching their bum. I was beginning to feel a little repulsed at things I wouldn’t have even noticed before.

Men are more guilty of it than women. The worst thing – the highest crime and misdemeanour – is the ball-scratching. Squats, give it a bit of an itch. Deadrows, nice long scratch. Was it a habit, or was it some sort of animalistic display of dominance? I often think to myself that the gym floor resembles a zoo with a menagerie of animals vying for the alpha position.

Some gents also grunt, a lot. You can practically see the droplets of saliva spew from their mouths as they strain to lift weights – of a mass, mind you, far too heavy to ever be useful to lift. As they lift their heads from the bench, a glistening, sweaty imprint of their occiput remains. When they stand, the same artform paints an accurate line drawing of their buttocks.

The psychology of gym-goers is a fascinating subject, worthy of cogitation. The psychology of gym-goers during a pandemic… now there’s a thesis waiting to be written. The gym floor had been socially distanced because every other machine was off-limits. The ideal mean distance between two gym-goers was now approximately one-and-a-half metres –  unfortunately just shy of the two-metre target set out by Number 10, but better than nothing. It took my friend roughly half an hour to realise why “half of the gym had broken down overnight.”

The term ‘virtue signalling’ gets banded about a lot, but the paragons had all scheduled a workout on this particular afternoon. Meticulously cleaning the apparatus, many gym-goers were gently and delicately stroking the machinery with the disinfectant wipe. Good on them, but the technique was not quite there.

I am a stickler for details, and my friend thought I was strange for taking an issue with what was going on. But I felt my observation was significant: I saw several instances of people wiping the seat where their moist, sweaty bum had been, followed by a long slow wipe of the handle where people place their hands. Coronavirus or no coronavirus, to me, that makes no sense. Wipe the hand part first people… seriously.

On top of that, I also observed despicable instances of hand hygiene. Instant OSCE failures. People would lather on inordinate amounts of alcohol gel (I’m talking three or four pumps – no wonder there’s a shortage), positively bathe their hands in ethanol, but never wash between their fingers. A veritable microbiome likely resides between their fingers.

God, I sound like such a fascist. Deep breath… I’m sure people had the best intentions.

On Friday, I spent most of the day indoors. I ventured out only twice, once to get bread and once because of a post on a local mutual aid group. There was a message from a lady asking for tins of Heinz baked beans with sausages, for her son who had autism and refused to eat anything else. Because of the panic buying, she struggled to find any in the nearby supermarkets.

I only had one tin but I figured I’d bring it to her – she seemed like she really needed some help and she told me she appreciated even small contributions. It was also an opportunity to get off my arse and go for a cycle.

It was only after I promised to deliver her the single tin of baked beans that I realised how bloody far it was! All for, what I felt, was a pitiful act of charity – just one paltry tin. I felt sorry for her first and foremost, hoping that others would answer her plea too. I also felt a little sorry for myself, having to cycle all the way across Cambridge to deliver this meagre offering.

It was a glorious day, but just warm enough that it triggered my physiological all-or-nothing response to sweat. This was exacerbated by the backpack carrying the solitary tin of baked beans, tightly hugging my torso. Each push of the peddle and each revolution of the wheel came as a painful reminder of how much I hate cycling.

I arrived at her work, a local school, and parked my bike around the side. I had to pause and catch my breath. You would’ve thought I’d just finished a triathlon, but no, I’d just cycled 3 miles at a decidedly slow pace. Even just a few hours of sitting around indoors had siphoned my energy levels.

I didn’t want to look too much of a mess when I saw her, so I ran my fingers through my hair to flatten my post-cycle quiff and wiped the sweat off my brow. I entered the reception, triumphantly clutching the solitary tin of beans. I was still flustered after the journey and breathing heavily. I glanced around and behind a computer monitor at the reception sat a bespectacled lady with auburn hair. My panting hard to miss, she glanced at me and beamed a smile.

“Is it Mrs Mill,” I asked her hopefully, mustering the energy for a little smile.

“It is,” she said warmly.

“These are for you,” I said, and I handed her the can of beans. The utterance reminded me of moments in films where a gentleman greets the lady, but instead of roses or chocolates, it was a gift far more wholesome and evidently valued.

She sighed with relief. “Thank you. Really, thank you.”

“Oh, well it isn’t much,” I said, apologising for my sorry act of charity. She reasserted that it was appreciated and that she was accruing a collection from other donors – who, I thought, had been more prompt and more generous.

She handed me a KitKat in return. It was a fancy one with metallic green paper and Hazlenut and Raspberry filling. As I devoured the chocolate on the way back to my bike, I realised that my plans for a healthy isolation had got off to a bad start. Nevertheless, I reassured myself that the chocolate bar’s sugar content was still probably less than a tin of baked beans.

I felt like I had done my little bit to help out that Friday. I returned home (involving an equally arduous and sweaty journey) and slumped on the sofa. In what has become a worrying habit, an insidious form of subconscious muscle memory, I automatically loaded Twitter and Facebook as soon as I was on my laptop.

Scanning the timeline, you are simply inundated with requests to help out. There are mutual aid groups, healthcare helper groups, food banks, voluntary organizations. The list goes on. It became stressful to read: I felt like you aren’t doing enough. I was conscious of my compunction; a sickly feeling that I should be doing more.

It’s made worse if you scroll through Twitter. You see hundreds of posts with people doing objectively great things – helping out their neighbours, delivering medicines, saving lives. Seeing the posts by people from all sorts of backgrounds fighting the good fight against an invisible enemy… and here I was moaning about delivering a bloody tin of baked beans!  creates a soured mixture of feelings – both admiration and rankle.

I wasn’t capable of the seemingly endless acts of kindness that populated my screen – heck, mustering the effort to look after myself was enough some days.

People were commenting about how, even though we were more physically distant, we were less socially distant. I didn’t feel that. This thought pattern became a cycle: as I became aware of the disconnect, I felt even further apart from my fellow human beings. The world I was seeing on the screens – the soundbites and short tweets – was not something I could fully connect with. I was feeling more isolated and more alone, both on- and offline.

As my grandad had mentioned to me, the inescapable nature of it all can become suffocating. I was already noticing that the duality of physical and virtual reality becomes all too easily blurred: the time in near-total isolation meant the two worlds were becoming more intimate.

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