I have a difficult time Zooming or FaceTiming family and friends in the UK, and not because the WiFi on the Channel Island of Alderney has a recalcitrant record. It’s because I am living totally outside their experience of being locked down and feeling isolated. Alderney has been Covid-free for almost the duration of the pandemic and, as a result, the footage of relatives weeping as they tell their stories of loss coupled with the dramatic spikes on graphics showing climbing death tolls is otherworldly.
Certainly, the island has been fortunate with the virus so far and all 2,000-odd souls who live here are doing their best to make sure it stays that way. We have the AstraZeneca vaccine and the programme has started in earnest. I doubt there will be a single person who refuses it.
As islanders we are easily cut off from harm — and equally cut off from help. We have a hospital, but it does not have a ventilator. We have an ageing, vulnerable population, and emergency specialist care lies a flight away on the sister island of Guernsey. Flights are very often hampered by bad weather in the form of fog or high winds and boats cannot sail in the winter.
This leaves calling on our lifeboat to cross the 25 miles to Guernsey, which takes an hour — an hour that could mean someone loses their chance to keep breathing. Today, the sleet is biting, snow is forecast and the waves are crashing over the breakwater and it seems farther away than ever.
What do you do all day? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked that since I left the lights of London for the remote beauty of Alderney. I worked nights on a newspaper, so I rarely saw the lights. I hadn’t seen the stars for years because of the pollution, although I never got out of the habit of looking up to check.
This was something I’d always done in the worst of times in Northern Ireland, when the Troubles were raging on the ground and the situation seemed hopeless. Stars shine a wholly different light on proceedings and make you feel less alone. I had got to that stage of being forty-something and finding the city too busy, too noisy. It was always rushing past and I had run out of energy to catch up.
Now that question is one I find myself asking people trapped in a small flat in London, or a large, lonely farmhouse. They know they are privileged to have a roof over their head, but the lack of contact stings.
Some of them are still working and count themselves lucky. Suddenly, jobs that seemed to soak up too much of our precious lives are life rafts. A lot of them are retired and all the grand plans of volunteering, travelling or studying are on hold. They’re hard to console or cheer and impossible to convince that things will improve any time soon. We’ve all largely agreed not to talk about it. It’s too big, we can’t see the edges of it and it’s getting everyone down. We all know that things could be worse.
When I was put on the spot by family and friends who thought moving to an island measuring just three by 1.5 miles off the coast of France was my version of mid-life madness, I tried not to sound like a tourist brochure. What do you do all day? I walk on cliff paths, I watch for seals, dolphins, gannets and puffins during the day and bats, blonde hedgehogs and stars during the night. In the middle, I write for a few hours.
Some sigh with boredom, some with envy. I can see the sea from every place I stop to rest. As a child, living in the then-violent Northern Ireland, we crossed the border to get to the Donegal coast to get away from it all. It was what I wanted, that reminder that there was peace to be found if you looked for it. I thought of moving “home” and the time I’d get to spend with my family but in the end my heart wasn’t in it. I had spent my whole life leaving the place and I still didn’t trust that it wouldn’t return to its old ways.
I’ve found a home away from home. Alderney has a granite bedrock underneath its green coat, sandy beaches, pure air, huge skies, a hundred different types of rain. It also has local butter that would be proud to call itself Irish. It is the stuff of childhood dreams — bright yellow and reassuringly fattening. It arrives in Seamus Heaney-esque beauty with its “heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight . . . heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl” from the local farm.
We ran out of it when milk production was diverted to supply the shops when Covid panic-buying in the UK led to a problem with onward distribution to the Bailiwick. It was a mistake to mention this as anything approaching a hardship to a friend who hadn’t shopped for anything more exotic than baked beans for four weeks. He was running around his local supermarket in London as fast as he could to get home safe.
I lived in that city for 30 years. The pictures of its deserted streets are hard to comprehend. While I sympathise with the suffering of being contained, part of me would love to experience it. Imagine walking along the South Bank without having to sidestep a jogger? Imagine stepping off a train into a near-empty station? Imagine being able to see a square foot of bare pavement? I’m told it’s eerily quiet, that even the Thames is silent bar the usual wheeling and dealing of seagulls. It’s alien territory.
On Alderney, the mood has changed. We have one confirmed case on the island and Guernsey has had a surge of 431 cases from one event. An official lockdown is in place and we’re confident there will be no spread. I FaceTime the baked bean-eating friend in London, who visits this place to get away from it all. When I share my news that Alderney has joined the rest of the unnerving Covid world, he has news too. You’ll never guess what I did last night? I thought I saw a star so I stood and watched the sky! Look at you, I say. Aren’t you the master of this isolation game at last?
Tish Delaney’s novel ‘Before My Actual Heart Breaks’ is published by Hutchinson on February 18
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