Silly Saturday – Essentially Essential

In Wales a two week ‘firebreak lockdown’ has started and only essential shops are allowed to open with the essential idea that these essential shops are only allowed to sell essential items, so as not to cheat on the non-essential shops who are not allowed to open. For example, you may not buy an electric kettle at Tesco, because Dai Jones the Electric in Pontypandy has been selling only electrical goods in his shop since 1937.

How are customers and supermarket managers to decide what is essential? Essential for survival or for Covid Comfort?

Tick which of the following you will buy over this weekend as the clocks go back and winter nights draw in. Chocolate of course, chocolate biscuits, bread, wine, potatoes, warm fluffy slippers, rice, cosy pyjamas, bunch of carrots, bunch of flowers, cabbage, boxed set of old black and white films, pork chops, celebrity magazine, cheese, pot plant, milk, Lego set, a free range chicken, new underwear, shredded wheat, paperback book, cocoa pops.

If you ticked more than ten ( 8 if you are vegetarian, 6 if you are vegan ) you are being self indulgent and breaking the spirit of the new rules. Now imagine the task of staff who have to police the supermarket customers.

Chains will be strung across the sweet aisle, padlocks put on the ice cream cabinets and  constant patrols to remove flagrant non-essentials from the shelves. As staff must socially distance they cannot grab that bottle of whisky out of your hands so there will be announcements over the PA system.

Will the lady in the lurid pink coat put down the packet of chocolate digestives and raise her hands in the air… now take a packet of plain digestives.

Customers are reminded they must produce their child’s birth certificate if they wish to purchase birthday candles and cake decorations.

Pet owners with a certificate from their vet may purchase one bag of pet food, but not a squeaky mouse toy.

On the ball managers may have already set up deafening alarms to beep if you pick up a box of hair colouring and there would be greater embarrassment if you have braved the medical aisle and got as far as the intimate products…

Perhaps within a few days harassed supermarket staff will allow you no further than the till where you will be handed one basket of  food essentials.

The Game of Death – Changing the Rules

Warning: If you want to avoid the topic of death and dark humour read no further.

Covid has completely changed the way we do funerals; whatever your faith or traditions most funerals involved an open invitation to attend, with numbers kept manageable merely by the short notice, travel involved or the health of elderly relatives. Equally important were the refreshments afterwards, whether a cup of tea back at the house or a big booze up at the deceased’s local, it was a chance to catch up with long lost relatives and reminisce about the dearly departed. At present, funerals seem very bleak.

In between the death of my mother and husband I heard of the sudden death of a friend I hadn’t seen for ages; the game of death was being played out at speed. I was sent a link for the funeral at the crematorium and logged in successfully on time. I thought I had missed it as I saw the coffin disappear through the curtains and cleaners appear to dust and spray. Crematoriums work on a strict half hourly in and out schedule; the notes with the link warned with words to the effect that if you accidentally zoomed in on the wrong funeral you must close your eyes. The one camera revealed only the backs of my friend’s mourners as they entered to Elvis Presley singing ‘Love Me Tender’. It was hard to work out who the tiny group of mourners might be until the immediate family sat down at the front; it did feel bleak. A woman introduced herself as someone official and spoke on behalf of the family, but when my friend’s son got up and spoke very amusingly and movingly the bleakness was gone. The memories came back and the official lady rounded everything up with dignified words and The Lord’s Prayer – ‘proper version’ from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Everyone filed out to more Elvis.

Cyberspouse had always been adamant he did not want a funeral. His one wish, decided years ago, was to bequeath his body to science and he had filled in all the forms. Our part was to call the hot line to Southampton University Centre for Learning Anatomical Sciences as soon as possible. Once a year they have a service for families of donors so we would be doing something. Cyberspouse knew there was no guarantee of acceptance, in normal times they might have enough bodies. Plan B was cremation and we could do what we liked with his ashes! Sadly we were not surprised when it turned out Covid had wrecked Plan A; they weren’t accepting any bodies.

Two days after Cyberspouse’s death my daughter and I were at our local Co Op funeral parlour chatting to a very nice lady who was totally unfazed by our instructions for no funeral; we would have a ‘direct cremation’ with a courier delivering the ashes. A pleasant surprise was that she was composing a mini biography, tapping away at the computer as we offered snippets, so that the staff ‘caring’ for him would see a real person who had had a life. The few times I have been involved in organising funerals there always seem to be amusing moments. She said he would be dressed in a white robe; daughter and I looked at each other ‘No way!’ As he liked casual wear we agreed he should be left in the shorts and T shirt he had worn most of the hot summer.

A few weeks later I was told when the ashes would be delivered. A man in black stood on the doorstep and I could not see how he had arrived. I peeped out the window after he left and saw him open the boot of an ordinary car; the boot was full of smart grey paper carriers with large grey tubs, identical to what he had just given me – at least he wasn’t in a white van doubling up with Amazon deliveries. What will we do with the ashes? I have some ideas, but getting family together or traveling to places all seems so difficult with Covid and we have all heard stories of ashes kept on the mantlepiece…

Does it matter if you don’t have a funeral? At a funeral you can write something and read it out and you probably have flowers. I will be writing more blogs, I wrote a piece for our camera club, of which Cyberspouse had been chairman a few years ago and the house was full of flowers, more appreciated than their short life at a funeral. I have kept the flowers topped up – easier than visiting the cemetery. We had to explain to everyone there would be no funeral, but how many would have been allowed to come with the Covid situation? We carried out his wishes. Unless you own an ancestral estate you do have to get official involvement in taking care of the body of your loved one, but it seems you don’t have to have a funeral.

Dark Humour.

My mother told me that though her father died suddenly, too young, they still found themselves bursting into laughter when the funeral director left their home; he had been so ridiculously sombre and Dickensian.

When we took my uncle to arrange my aunt’s funeral the chap who showed us in was straight out of a Dickens novel, gaunt and dressed in black. But he showed us into an office to talk to an ordinary bloke who went through the plans then finished up with a flourish ‘… and this coffin comes with a special offer this week, a free shroud.’

When I got a letter back from the Co Op a few days after our visit, it came with a free book mark impregnated with flower seeds! Rather amusing considering what even this most basic of their services had cost!

Sunday Short Story – Sheep May Safely Graze

‘Daaad, that’s disgusting, it’s still oozing blood.’

‘You can’t beat a rare 16 ounce steak, it’s your sawdust burger that looks disgusting.’

‘At least I’m not eating a sentient being.’

‘He’s not sentient anymore, besides, he had a good life roaming free and eating all that lush Scottish grass.’

‘You mean he was one of the unlucky ones, castrated, never destined to be the prize bull.’

‘That’s life…’

‘Even the prize bulls are herbivores; if they can turn grass into muscle, why do humans need meat?’

‘Your daughter’s right Geoff, even if you don’t care about the animals you eat, you need to care about your health.’

‘…and I am eating all the delicious veggies you cooked to go with my juicy steak.’

‘But you had egg and bacon for breakfast and a huge ham sandwich for lunch.’

‘From outdoor reared pigs, I thought that was okay. Humans have always been omnivorous, that is why the human race will always survive… Phew, is it me or is it hot in here. I’ll take the dog out and enjoy a death stick, ha ha.’

‘Daad, I thought you were going to try vaping.’

‘That’s for teenagers, sucking in steam that smells like a sweet shop, my grandfather smoked forty a day and…’

‘…lived to be a hundred, yes Dad, you have told us that a hundred times.’

‘Your father’s been a while.’

‘Probably chatting to next door, his smoking buddy…. Oh it’s okay, I can hear Rex… why is he barking like that?’

Geoff opened his eyes, the dreadful pain had disappeared. The sun shone in his eyes, but that couldn’t be right, it was a dark autumn evening in Mildred Avenue and where had that stupid mutt gone? Green fields, rolling hills, a meandering river, reminded him of that Scottish holiday. Peaceful, the air so fresh, no sound but the bleating of sheep. He stood up and took a few shaky steps; he had lost his glasses somewhere, but his eyesight was perfect. Sheep dotted up on the hills, cattle grazing by the river, this was paradise, but what had happened to his house, his road? Was he in a film set, or in heaven? No, there was a farmhouse in the distance, best to ask there.

No sooner had he thought this than he was there, in the yard, chickens pecking around him, a sheepdog lying in the sun, a sow brushed past, followed by her piglets.

‘Hello, anyone around?’

‘So you have arrived Geoff.’

He couldn’t see where the voice was coming from. ‘How do you know my name, who is this speaking?’

‘Your long suffering guardian angel.’

‘Ha, ha. Very funny. Am I dreaming, fell asleep on the sofa watching Countryfile?’

‘No, you’re dead.’

‘You’ll be telling me next I’m in heaven.’

‘You are, though it’s not your heaven.’

‘Whose is it then? Don’t tell me the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right all along, are there lions here?’

‘All God’s creatures, you are just seeing all the ones you have eaten.’

It dawned on him with a mixture of relief and fear; he was in intensive care, his wife and daughter must be feeling smug. All that nagging about him being an obese middle aged chap, vulnerable to Covid, going down the pub and not social distancing. Hallucinations, that’s what happened when they put you in an induced coma, not so bad, but he must not relax. He would show them, he would get better; if Boris and Trump could recover, so would he. His hallucination was still rabbiting on.

‘Your daughter was right all along. The answer is reincarnation, it’s time for you to go to your next life.’

Two could play at this game, he hadn’t finished with this life yet. ‘Okay Gabriel, or whatever your name is, who will I be next time?’

‘A pig; but don’t worry, you have earned a dispensation as you were not a bad husband and did not commit any crimes against humanity. You are about to be born in a muddy Hampshire field, suckled by a healthy sow, playing with your siblings till it’s time to go into the barn to be fattened up.’

The Game of Death Well Played.

When my mother planned her funeral five years ago, she could never have imagined it would be streamed live across the world, but the service itself went as well as she had planned, despite Covid. As Western Australia has dealt well with the pandemic the limit was sixty people in Mum’s own church; how many of us could summon that many people to our funeral, especially at the age of 94 when many of one’s friends have already departed. Mum was also the last of her generation in our immediate family.

On the tenth of August my daughter and I were up ready to watch the funeral on her lap top at 4am British Summer Time, 11 am in Perth. The link failed just as my sister started reading the piece I had written and reconnected in time to see my brother reading his piece. Luckily the recording worked perfectly and we were able to watch that later.

This was a warm Christian funeral with the priest who knew her well, who had been visiting her in her last weeks; a sad, but happy event. Mum had been ready to go for a while. Five weeks previously my sister thought it was the final weekend. I had already talked to her on the phone not long before, laughing and putting the world to rights. She knew I would be widowed soon and would have willingly swapped places with Cyberspouse. Having outlived my father by 24 years she had been in the same situation, also with plenty of support from the rest of the family. We laughed at her memory of the mountains of paperwork they had to sort out; carefully preserved by Dad, dating back to our arrival in Australia in 1964. Mum’s hearing and mind were in fine fettle up to the end. On the ‘last weekend’ I manged to Facetime with her and my sister, a very different experience from those forced to do that with relatives dying of Covid, isolated in intensive care.

Our mother had chosen to go into a care home five years ago and made new friends, took up knitting again and started new hobbies such as card making. She had a room with its own little terrace where everyone could visit including my sister’s dog. Recently she had to move into the higher care unit, but was still watching the evening news. The care home had Covid rules and restrictions, but never went into lockdown, Mum could still have visits. After the ‘last weekend’ Mum felt peckish and carried on for those next five weeks!

It was a sad day for staff and her friends at the care home when she finally left; two of her friends there said she was the best friend they ever had.

Silly Saturday – Cyber Shopping

If you have recently come out of isolation, albeit briefly before we’re all in lockdown again, you will have noticed that shopping is now very different. Perhaps you will look back nostalgically to those months of cyber shopping. I got an email yesterday from the Co Op ‘We have missed you, please come back.’

https://www.coop.co.uk/coronavirus/updates-on-our-delivery-service

I have been back, but they didn’t recognise me in real life; even with a mask on I am not quite the anonymous self who ordered twice a week. On line shopping with our local Co Op was fun, not at all like the big supermarket chains, more like a game. At the start you had to spend £15 to get free delivery, but could not have more than 20 items, this gradually increased to 30 items, but still delivered by scooter. There were always plenty of delivery slots and I though smugly of all those people staying up till Sunday midnight, desperate to get any slot with Tesco or Sainsbury in the coming week. Of course, with the limit on number of items the cosy Co Op was not likely to suit those needing a big family shop. The website was a challenging computer game; you could always get chocolate, but not necessarily what you needed for dinner. It was vital to think outside the box. Type in baked beans, no luck. It was weeks before I discovered that typing in Heinz revealed beans and such Covid comfort food as tomato soup. The website did improve over the months, with the layout involving less scrolling down, but keeping the fun of guessing whether you should tap onto ‘Get Inspired’ ‘Food Cupboard’ or ‘Bakery and Cakes’. If you forgot to check your emails with updates on how your order was progressing, there was the fun of not knowing if you would get everything on your list, or perhaps an unwanted substitute.

So what is it like at real shops now? Don’t forget the mask… the rest of the rules seem to vary from shop to shop; another game to play, with arrows to follow and circles with footprints to stand on. Don’t mix up the bottle for sanitizing your basket handles with the hand gel. Move out of the way once you have swiped you card  ( cash is out, except at the greengrocers ) to make safe space for the next person. But that little row of chairs where you used to sort out your bags and make sure your purse was put away has gone; don’t have a medical incident, that was where shoppers who had a funny turn were seated as they waited for the ambulance!

How will you get on at shopping centres? Those benches where husbands were parked while waiting for wives to finish in the shop or come out of the Ladies are gone. There is nowhere to rest your heavy bags and meet up at the arranged time. In town will department stores ever be the same again? Restaurants and toilets closed, no meeting friends or relaxing with coffee and scones while you check you phone, or if you are a writer, do some people watching and scribbling.

It is nice to once again see what you are buying, but will you be going on line or out to the shops in the near future?