Out of the frying pan(demic): life at home

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Image description: Abi Owen, author, holds a bow and arrow

I remember leaving Oxford with elbow-bumps, laughing and joking and shouting “see you in October”. I remember going home on the train, using hand sanitiser while trying to sit as far away from people as possible. I remember watching videos of people in quarantine in Italy, playing saxophones and accordions on their balconies. But did I ever think we’d be in a similar situation? No; I never even considered our infection and mortality rate would soar above anyone else in Europe. But on when the Prime Minister announced the UK would go into lockdown, I knew there were further challenges ahead.

The first was deciding where to quarantine. Between us, my boyfriend and I had four homes to choose from and plenty of considerations. Distance ruled out our respective university accommodations. His mother is a full-time worker on the front line and staying at his house would mean constant exposure through her. We decided we would stay at my house. There was only one issue: I live in a house of seven.

There are many disadvantages to living in a house of seven, and the first is space – or lack thereof. I share a room with my boyfriend which contains the only desk in the house, one chair and one speaker. The living room is not exactly a productive space – it can variously stage general chatter, obnoxiously loud cartoons, Minecraft, Fortnite, or wrestling matches between my younger siblings – and those aren’t exclusive. Being the largest room in the house and the only one with half-decent WiFi, it’s also the primary room for meetings, calls, and virtual karate sessions. The dining room is a prize to be won, containing the only other table in the house. It also houses the family piano, on which my youngest sister has been treating us all to the most aggressive rendition of Harry Potter I’ve ever experienced.

the family piano, on which my youngest sister has been treating us all to the most aggressive rendition of Harry Potter I’ve ever experienced.

The last room has become a godsend for me. After sacrificing my desk to my boyfriend I realised I needed my own space; frankly, if I was going to attempt an Oxford term at home I needed a door I could close. So my family helped me clear the toy room and install a makeshift desk. I use a jam jar as a pencil pot and my little siblings helped me make signs saying “I’m on a Call” or “Knock and Enter”. It’s a room I can finally call mine, where I can (attempt to) work productively.

A week before lockdown took effect my parents decided to withdraw my little brother (11) and sister (9) from school. Far from upset to be leaving their friends, the pair were incredibly excited to start their new homeschooling adventure. They coloured in timetables, installed Microsoft Teams on their new (my old) laptops and made their own ‘packed lunches’. Their new timetable includes maths every other day, reading and ‘P.E with Joe’ daily, and an ambiguous category labelled ‘activity’ which can be anything from turning the stairs into a slide to being taught by me to craft their own bows and arrows to practise archery in the back garden.

We all have a hand in their teaching; my boyfriend teaches them history once a week and I help them both with their maths and music. I’ve enjoyed setting lesson plans, however, I did not appreciate just how time-consuming it is to hand-craft an hour-long lesson for children that devour work like it’s a race. Many a time I’ve been caught out with ‘I’ve done all that, what do I do now?’. Furthermore, teaching takes its toll on my own time and workload – it’s hard to do a day of work when it takes two hours to plan lessons and two hours to teach them.

I did not appreciate just how time-consuming it is to hand-craft an hour long lesson for children that devour work like it’s a race.

In our house we now have two WiFi extenders, but this doesn’t even begin to cover all the spots in the house where I find myself having to work. I am yet to attend a tutorial without the WiFi temporarily giving up on me, and undoubtedly freezing me in an unflattering pose. One day last week my entire family ended up sat in the living room as Virgin Media went down across the country, discussing how we would manage with our less-than-ideal connection. When the university sent around ‘personal circumstances’ questionnaires, I couldn’t help but notice the majority of questions were technology-based. Only the final question asked about the availability of a quiet working space. In my house, I don’t have suitable WiFi, but more importantly, I don’t get suitable peace.

On a Wednesday it’s my turn to make food for the family. I make lunch for my older sister (23) and myself every day, as she works non-stop and doesn’t have time to make herself food. At university, I cook almost every night. For one. I can even cook for two or three. Something I have discovered during quarantine, however, is that cooking for seven is a whole different kettle of fish. I’ve even taken to cooking the same meal in two separate pots so I don’t have to deal with large quantities of ingredients in one go. This also generates enough washing up for seven people – another Wednesday night undertaking. The best part? My deadlines are all on a Thursday morning.

COVID-19 has done nothing to stifle the spirit that leaks under our doors and seeps through our windows.

Without a doubt the biggest obstacle is noise. We are not a quiet family. My boyfriend and I are music students, and between us we carry a trumpet, violin, viola, cello, and bass guitar. I have already mentioned my sister’s new hobby of abusing the piano. Once, to get away from the cacophony of typing, whinging, and shouting ‘Hello??’ at Zoom, I decided to work outside. I settled down in the sun and had just started my reading when our neighbour decided to test his new bass-heavy sound system. Clearly, a thoughtful gesture to make sure we were all awake and focused. Sound emanates from every room, and even from outside our doors.

It may not be ideal work conditions, but my house is bursting with life. COVID-19 has done nothing to stifle the spirit that leaks under our doors and seeps through our windows. I’m feeling healthier than ever; I’ve passed on recipes I’ve learned at Oxford to my family and almost every day I play cricket or football with them in the back garden. When I really need a break, I cycle down to the nearby beach, sit on the sand, and remind myself that soon I’ll be back at Oxford drinking bubble tea, ice skating, and laughing at the events of ‘virtual trinity’.

Image Credit: Abi Owen, Jesus College

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