‘What a lovely accent, where are you from..?’

I glance at the checkout-lady behind her protective screen wondering how best to dodge the question this time. How to explain without giving too much of myself away in the few short minutes it takes to pack the shopping that I was born and raised in Nottingham. What she thinks she’s hearing isn’t a foreign accent but a speech change following an accident that temporarily left me speechless. I’m often mistaken for French/Italian/Spanish, occasionally South African and sometimes, as in the early days when I stuttered and stammered with excruciating embarrassment, deaf.

I’ve spent the past six years socially distancing since life turned on its head and everything I knew to be real and true about myself, my identity, the essence of who I was, came crashing down like scenery on a stage. Finding myself in uncharted orbit I avoided social interaction and eye-contact as much as possible and learned early on that a smile and a nod were effective substitutions for actual conversation – people rarely require anything more than a willing listener when they stop for a chat. Home was the only place I felt safe and would often spend days sometimes weeks without seeing anyone other than my husband and children. With hindsight, it was useful training for the crisis we currently find ourselves in.

Just today in the supermarket, I came across several lost souls wandering the aisles aimlessly, eyes full of confusion, faces drawn and strained unwilling to make eye contact for fear this too might attract contamination. My own feelings of isolation depleted somewhat into diluted solidarity for the wider community who are experiencing the same sense of bewilderment for a world that looks familiar yet feels anything but.

The ties that bind really are far stronger than the ones that pull us apart; if we learn nothing else from these troubled times, let’s at least hold on to that.

Incredibly, it was only a few short months ago that I made the monumental decision to try and engage more fully with the world again and like an overexcited prisoner on day-release, saw the RSC’s outstanding performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Theatre Royal. And although my parole was short-lived, my personal concerns since over speech issues seem far less important in the grand scheme. There’s nothing quite like an external threat to strengthen collective resolve, and the invisible enemy that has separated me from the crowd for so long has now taken on a far greater global identity.

To those who are struggling, I want to reach out and say there will be good days and bad, days when life feels relatively normal until a trigger reminds you it’s definitely not. Finding a routine helps, a reason to get up and get dressed every day if only to do one thing you love, even if that one thing involves throwing routine out of the window and forgiving yourself in the process.

Grieve for what was, for the life that has been temporarily frozen, whilst still believing in the potential for that life to unfold again. Hold fast when the storm is at its height and ask no more of yourself than this. The ties that bind really are far stronger than the ones that pull us apart; if we learn nothing else from these troubled times, let’s at least hold on to that.

I’m still debating how to answer the lady on the checkout when she’s distracted by another colleague. Seizing the opportunity, I wave my payment card over the machine and make my escape with a smile.