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  • Writer's pictureAli Millar

The Wave

30 days ago I woke up after a night of fitful sleep. I felt hot, sticky, fuzzy headed; stress, I called it. It quickly wore off during the day, but my muscles ached. It's hard not to have aching muscles when you're packing up a house, cleaning, doing the school run, getting four small people though the day. The next night more of the same, again it wore off during the day. The first night in London, the same, but worse.

I never sleep well in a new place, I told myself. Lugging boxes around the house I began to need to stop to rub the base of my back. I felt like all my muscles were being pulled tight by a band, I started to cough. It's hard not to cough when you're moving house and have a dust allergy, I told myself. I began to feel spaced out, like I wasn't quite there. I had, after all, moved nearly 400 miles south, it takes a while for brain and body to meet, I told myself.

The next night, fever dreams. A desire to capture the sensations I was experiencing as well as what was happening outside, more and more people in masks, discarded gloves on the street, empty supermarket shelves. Signs, portents. Notes on my phone in the middle of the night make no sense when I read them back. My lungs began to push my rib cage out.

It's not the virus, my husband said. It's not the virus, I said. They said when it happened it would feel like mild flu. This didn't feel like flu, this didn't feel mild.

Another night of fever, of feeling like my body was being crushed, of pain I couldn't measure on a recognisable scale.

It might be the virus, my husband said. I think it might be too, I said.

I tried to stop reading the news. I tried to stop looking at graphs that looked terrifyingly exponential. I tried to ignore the rising daily death tolls, tried not to ask where the recovery rates were. I tried to feel reassured by the NHS symptom checker.

I'd wake in the night, check the news, the graphs, the death tolls, the symptom checker. I needed to know. I told myself I'm young, I only have mild asthma. But then people my age started to die, no underlying health conditions becoming code for no scapegoat.

Days in bed, nights of fever. Gaps in memory. Forever ago. My heart started to jump around in my chest. Symptoms recalling other illnesses, when at the age of 15 I started to eat myself until there was so little of me left I started on my heart, my brain. It jumped around then, and its motion during the virus seemed almost soothing, as if the years between maybe had been a dream. Time collapsed.

I stopped reading the news. Stopped trying to second guess what would happen. Tried to line Tim Winton's prose up. It would not comply. The unreliable narrator was too much for the fever. Somewhere along the line lockdown happened, the Prime Minister fought with all his might, nothing to do with oxygen and the NHS.

On the day of my 40th birthday I looked down and my nails were a funny colour. Not funny exactly, we've not laughed about it yet, but I'm sure we will, what do you do if you don't laugh? Blue, maybe, purple maybe, I said to the emergency operator, and then they started to ask about my heart, was it life threatening they asked. I didn't know. I couldn't breathe was all I did know, I couldn't sit up without seeing it push my skin out. I think I was supposed to feel afraid. Only, I didn't. It was happening to someone else, some other time; I was 15 still with my Granny driving me to the coast for the day like she did every week to keep me sane. She'd collect me from the farm and drive me through the Borders countryside and she'd say tell me where you want to go, and she'd take me wherever I said. We'd drive to Scott's View, up the Lammermuirs to the reservoir, over to Eyemouth to see the boats or across the border to Cocklawburn, deep into the Cheviots to Yetholm and through the national park. That's where I was when I told the operator how the body I was in felt, when my hands and feet went so cold I couldn't feel them.

Ambulance, oxygen, ECG, home for bed rest, heart racing apart from when prone, 26 nights of fever, nails still occasionally blue, foggy head clearing. I feel like I'm the shipping forecast.

Where are the women's voices in this, they asked in the paper the other day. The women are back where they were 50 years ago, in the kitchen, home schooling, trying to squeeze work in, feeding bored appetites, trying to make everything ok for children whose worlds have been upended; the women are sick, are alone, are scared, are head down trying to get through this. It's easy to lose your voice, to think that a voice isn't anything much amidst the scream of a mounting death toll, so large now it's impossible to understand. In what world do I look at yesterday's figures - skewed surely by easter - and think only 717, as if that's a relief. In the middle of so much sorrow, upheaval and change a voice can seem self indulgent, words aren't actions no matter how much you dress them up. But what they are and what they will be is something to chronicle this after now becomes whatever it will become. What someone else's voice is is company in the night when you're trying not to google your symptoms, when you're trying to convince yourself you don't need an ambulance. I didn't want to write about what happened, I'm hugely aware what happened to me isn't even close to what's happened and is happening and will be happening for many months to come to thousands of people. I've spent the last few weeks wondering if everything I've been working towards is futile, if art in general is futile, if I should be doing something 'real' with my time, and the only thing I can conclude is art matters more now than it did at the beginning of the year, either to make the world more beautiful, or to illuminate the dark corners of it, or to hold the people in power to account, art IS real, IS valuable, IS lasting. My voice might not be much, might not be very loud, but it's not going anywhere now my heart's decided to settle itself down.

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