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Birthday was glossed over but I’m trying to paint a positive picture

PUBLISHED: 08:22 30 March 2020 | UPDATED: 08:22 30 March 2020

Helen's taken up painting as she brushes aside her birthday after the prime minister told us all to stay inside

Helen's taken up painting as she brushes aside her birthday after the prime minister told us all to stay inside

Christoph Kadur

What do you do in these current times of crisis? Helen McDermott has taken up painting

I’ve had some birthdays in my time. I won’t say how many but I will say that the one I had this last week was one of the most memorable, not for what we did but for what we didn’t do.

We didn’t hear much in the way of traffic, not on the main road and not on the road outside our front gate. What we lost in traffic noise we made up for in birdsong around the garden, blackbirds, blue tits, doves and pigeons, magpies and a couple of jays, and a very confident robin. I had every intention of joining them out there and doing a bit of gardening but somehow I couldn’t really settle to anything.

It was odd not seeing anybody as I normally would for a birthday get together, but I did sing Happy Birthday to myself quite a few times as I was washing my hands. I spent quite a lot of the day on the phone, catching up with friends, comparing notes.

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It was the day before my birthday that life changed drastically. It was the day that Boris Johnson warned us all to stay at home and keep our distance; it was also the day that Jarrold’s in the centre of Norwich, which has been a friend in a way for nearly 40 years, decided to close its doors for the time being. I managed to get in just before they clicked shut, keeping a couple of yards between me and anybody still in the place. With a view to filling the days of self-isolation with something soothing and creative I bought a start-up painting kit: a table easel, a handful of oils and a couple of brushes. As Jarrold’s door closed behind me I waved the assistant goodbye and began dreaming. “David Hockney, watch out.”

The other half did offer to pose for me, in his birthday suit. But it was my birthday, not his so I politely declined.

This was my last trip to the shops other than for food. With an 80-year-old at home claiming a jackpot in underlying health issues I’m being super-cautious. Running to and from the shops helps with keeping reasonably fit but it was sad to learn that my weekly pilates treat was being suspended. But something called ZOOM came to the rescue. If we couldn’t get to the classes, the classes would come to us at our homes, online. There were all the old (sorry) faces, the Wednesday crowd tuned in to tone up and stretch, instructed by the amazing Amanda who is fit and very slim (growl) and puts up with us week after week. And there was a bonus: the exercise I got from clearing space in the sitting room and running the Dyson over the carpet.

There are heart-warming stories of brilliant behaviour, generous offers of help to those in most need. But there are also foul tales of the bad and the decidedly ugly, selfish and mean. I was dismayed to hear of how some shoppers are treating willing staff. There was this woman with an armful of loaves who was politely reminded that the rule was one loaf per person. 
She had a temper tantrum and threw the lot at the checkout lady. Another was so incensed at being asked to remove some items from her basket so that others might get a look in that she flung the basket on the floor, screaming that she’d go somewhere else to shop. “Good luck,” said the assistant, quietly.

We owe these shop assistants a big thank you. We also owe it to those police who have been spat at and verbally abused. While we are doing the thanking let’s hear it for our paper and all the people who keep it going so as to be a comfort and telling us about decent folk who are helping others, not forgetting our paper delivery people. Our local man and I often have an early morning chat and put the world to rights. And thanks to our refuse collectors, posties and milkmen. So many people we incline to take for granted.

Then there’s our glorious NHS. At eight o’clock on Thursday there was an invitation to celebrate the NHS and its staff by joining a mass round of applause, in our windows, on our doorsteps and in our streets. We did it, happily and with pride and gratitude. I hope you did too.


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