The end is in sight. If we do as we’re told, many of the restrictions on our daily lives will be lifted on June 21st. Naturally, I’m delighted and excited. Dan and I will get to see family and friends again, eat out in our favourite restaurant, go to the theatre, swim at the pool, maybe even fly to Chicago for our nephew’s wedding in July. A life without limits in just one hundred and ten more sleeps.
The trouble is that after eleven months I have grown rather used to my pandemic-life. Being inside makes me feel safe and I have come to accept the predictable content of my every day. I have discovered how to enjoy slow and have learnt how to love quiet. I welcome the absence of external pressures and obligations. I appreciate my four walls and my daily walks to the far corners of my town. I suppose I could make a conscious decision to sustain my recently assumed habits, but I suspect that continuing to be a tortoise in a world filled with hares is something I would find quite challenging.
In 1980, I was a student at the University of Reading. My friend, Martin was a prison visitor at Reading Gaol and, every week, he would drive over from his home in Beaconsfield to support a man called Jim with his reading and writing. Jim grew up in the East End of London and had spent 40 of his 60 years behind bars. This time though, he assured Martin, he was going to mend his ways and lead a better life. On the morning Jim was released from prison, we invited the two of them round to our student house for breakfast. I remember Jim as short and stocky, with iron grey hair and a deeply-lined face. He told us stories about life on the inside and his friendship with Reggie Kray, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. He also re-iterated that he was fully committed to the straight and narrow. He wasn’t going to let his friend Martin down.
Jim’s social worker had found him a job as a gardener at a Catholic monastery. For eighteen months he seemed settled and content. In May of 1982, Pope John Paul II came to England and all the monks travelled up to London to see him. While they were gone, Jim stole a radio from one of the cells. This theft, albeit petty, was in clear violation of his parole and he was sent back to prison.
Jim’s life on the inside lacked freedom but it gave him structure and routine. He lived in a small, regimented and institutionalised world that was filled with people just like him. Life in prison offered Jim predictable content. Being inside was safe. It provided him with four walls. It made things simple but, above all, it’s what he was used to. Jim was a tortoise not a hare and even his new monastic life didn’t manage to replicate the familiarity of all that he had left behind.