Róisín Ingle: For two hours, I forgot about the pandemic. Well, not completely

The pandemic hovers over everything like a bad smell. You can’t hold your nose for long

When the going gets tough, the tough wrap up in a crazy lockdown scarf

When the going gets tough, the tough wrap up in a crazy lockdown scarf

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For two hours at my kitchen table, talking to my mother, I forget about the pandemic. It’s my birthday. She is wearing a yellow shirt and has just had her hair cut. Not in the posh place she usually goes to, but in her local, less fancy place in Phibsborough.

A few years ago she saw Mary Lou McDonald getting her hair done there. Mary Lou was getting a blow dry before going on the Late Late Show back when the Late Late Show had an audience and Ryan Tubridy hugged and kissed his guests. My mother and I laugh, thinking about more tactile times.

(As I write this, there are over a thousand new cases of the virus being reported and an increase in those being admitted to intensive care units. But I am not thinking about the second wave or how I am doing in the Compliance Olympics, because the virus does not control my mind. It can’t tell me what to think about. For now I choose to think about my mother sitting at my kitchen table, laughing in a yellow shirt.)

My mother’s hair looks almost as good as it does when she can get into town to be attended to by her hairdresser of longstanding: Christian, a genius with a pair of scissors.

I had to give up Christian for financial reasons several years ago but my partner still goes to him on account of the fact that Christian is the only person he trusts to cut sympathetically around his vaguely problematic ear area. My mother’s hair looks sharp. I think even Christian would approve of her Phibsborough chop.

(Sometimes, even when you want to stop thinking about the pandemic and even though you know, logically, it cannot invade your brain, the crisis forces its way in. I stop thinking about my mother and I put up a poll on Twitter asking people, now that the cases are way up, should we go to Level 4? Or Level 5? Or Level 5, with fines? It’s only an inconsequential Twitter poll but I like seeing what the people on my timeline are thinking in the moment. One person says: “I don’t know what is right anymore.” She might be speaking for many of us, maybe even some of the people in charge.)

The day before my mother comes to wish me a happy birthday, Phibsborough is named one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world by Time Out magazine. Cooler than Soho, London and Bugis in Singapore, apparently.

“With that carbuncle of a shopping centre and all the charity shops – imagine,” says my mother. As a resident, she’s allowed to slag off the less salubrious aspects of Phibsborough. She loves the place, really, almost as much as Time Out who say “neighbourhood café Bang Bang is a one-stop shop for brunch burgers and political tote bags. The sports bar The Back Page serves pizzas named after some of Ireland’s greatest athletes, while the Victorian boozer The Hut slings ‘pints of plain’ (Guinness) by the armful.”

They don’t mention my mother’s hairdresser but it’s only a matter of time.

(Now, instead of thinking about cooler-than-thou Phibsborough or other non-pandemic happenings, I am looking at photos of Dr Tony Holohan furrowing his brow and looking worried. “All indicators are deteriorating,” he says. And still I keep clicking, clicking, clicking. Doomscrolling they call it. “Let’s talk frankly and bluntly. We are in a bad place,” says Simon Harris. “Covid 19 is still a problem and we’re all the answer,” says the suspiciously chirpy-sounding woman on the radio ad.)

My mother thought it would all be over in 100 days. “Delusional,” she says now. The 100-days-of-solitude idea kept her going in the early stages. She’s an assiduous sort, disciplined and organised in a way I hope to be when I grow up. She kept a lockdown diary, the kind of citizen journal the National Library might have plans to acquire. Or maybe she should just bury it somewhere and wait for it to be discovered by her great-great-grandchildren.

She wrote the number of cases at the start of each entry and then she wrote about her feelings (there were a lot of them) and what she was doing (which wasn’t much.) And she went back to knitting. Scarves mostly. Every time I spoke to her she was knitting a scarf from various bits and bobs of wool, no pattern or rhyme or reason to them.

“I want one of those scarves,” I’d say on the phone.

“You don’t want one of these scarves, they are crazy lockdown scarves. They are unwearable. They are just for therapy.”

(My friend started actual therapy in lockdown. She does it on Zoom. Turns the video off and lies in her bed wearing headphones for an hour excavating her past, analysing her present, worrying about her future. It’s an hour of escape, like the way she used to escape to the spa for a massage. The voice in her ear is sometimes soothing, often thought-provoking. It is a voice from somewhere beyond the pandemic, she says. It’s comforting.)

I got lovely presents for my birthday. Some sourdough bread. A face mask decorated with the Poolbeg towers.

My mother has brought me a birthday present. I tear open the paper and am thrilled to recognise what must be one of her crazy lockdown scarves. It’s the kind of thing I’d pay for in a shop. Random colours thrown together. Brown and green. Red and yellow. The randomness is because it was made in lockdown. She calls it a “nightmare Covid scarf”.

“It varies in colour and size according to my feelings on the day I was knitting it. Put it in storage, keep it, hide it, wrap yourself up in it on cold nights,” she suggests in the explanatory note that comes with the present. She says other things in the note too, words I will wrap myself up in on cold nights.

(I’m wearing the scarf now, like a suit of armour or an amulet that wards off evil. When the going gets tough, the tough wrap up in a crazy lockdown scarf.)

For two hours at my kitchen table, talking to my mother, I forget about the pandemic. I mean not completely. The pandemic hovers like a bad smell, and you can’t hold your nose all the time however much you’d like to. But sometimes, you can call in the services of a human air freshener and the smell dissipates for a bit, temporarily transforming it into a fragrance with more floral, bearable notes.

The human air freshener might wear a yellow shirt and bring you the present of a nightmare scarf or some totemic equivalent. You’ll have a dreamy couple of hours when you’ll laugh and you’ll forget. The bad place will become a good place for a while. Less frank, not quite so blunt.

(And then you’ll start scrolling again.)

roisin@irishtimes.com