The screen comes into life as Sam joins the call and I immediately start laughing. His hair is all stuck up in different directions and looks crazy wild. “What the hell is going on with your hair?” I laugh.
“I’ve just got out the shower, this is what it looks like,” he replies, in his broad Yorkshire accent.
“I appreciate you being clean for this call.”
“You’re lucky I got dressed.”
Sam went into lockdown on the 16th of March, a week before the UK’s official announcement. “It’s generally not been that bad, but there’s been some really-not-good points. I’m quite enjoying working from ‘ome though, and I might see if I can keep doing it. It’s such a better work life balance. I’m gaining an hour a day from not travelling, saving a load of money and the washing machine’s only on once a week now.”
I laugh, knowing Sam’s usual Sunday evening routine as we often catch up while he’s ironing his work shirts for the week ahead. He knows what I’m laughing at, and smiles as he tells me he hasn’t done any ironing for about six weeks now. “It’s glorious.”
Sam started lockdown early, working from home in his job as a Plant Pathologist, because he’d been to a fairly large gathering at the time COVID-19 started to pick up traction and didn’t want to risk anyone else, just in case he might have it.
He tells me he’s frustrated at not being able to walk and camp and get outside as he normally does, and although he’s got an ankle injury that’s preventing him from doing much, he’s not happy about it.
“But then on the other side, you know, I’ve not got it as bad as most people, so I’ve got no reason to be frustrated. Well, no legitimate reason to be frustrated.” He pauses. “There’s a few days where it’s just been fucking shite,” he says, slightly wearily, and I ask in what way.
“I’m not sure how to describe it. Just really down, not very ‘appy. Doesn’t seem to be much logic around it when you try and work out what it is.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Just down. You know, it might be a day, it might be a few hours, don’t know. Some days at work are really productive, some days I‘ve really struggled to concentrate or focus. Couldn’t even be arsed to drag myself out of bed the other day to go for a run even though I wanted to.”
I wish I could hug him through the screen. Instead, I ask him what he’s been enjoying. “Sitting in the garden. My landlady has given me a bit of their garden to use while all this is going on, which is fantastic.” Sam lives alone in a basement flat at the bottom of a huge Georgian villa in Cheltenham with no real outside space.
“What I really like is every so often Silver Fox’s [Sam’s landlord] grandkids come to visit. They [the landlord and landlady] stay in the house and just wave through the window, so they’re not interacting with them, but it gives the kids the chance to run around the huge garden because they’ve only got a small garden at home. They go up the stairs past my flat and they’ll jump up and down on the path shouting ‘Hello Dr. Sam’.” He smiles. “So it gives me two minutes to stop working, go stick my nose out and just say hello to somebody. It’s proper cute. Disgustingly cute.”
I ask Sam how he’s been interacting with people, given he lives alone. “I’ve bumped into a few people while out and about—social distancing of course—and I’ve fixed a few bikes for people, so I’ve seen people when they’ve dropped them off. I wanted to give one of my friends a hug who’s having a rough time, but obviously can’t, so I wandered down to her place and sat on the steps outside just so she had someone to talk to.”
“It’s weird. I’ve not been within 2 metres of anyone in, what, seven or eight weeks?” He screws his face up. “It’s weird. In some ways I don’t mind it, because I’m not that keen on people, [Nope, I don’t buy that Sam] but in other ways, it is just a bit weird. I miss going to the park, and seeing people, standing around and having a coffee. You know, winding people up, having a bit of banter and a good chat.” His eyes grow wide, “Margaret’s cake!” he exclaims, remembering a dear friend’s baked goods.
“Is it groups of people then?” I ask. “Yeah, I guess. I suppose I’m quite introverted and I don’t mind spending time by myself, and I do enjoy my own company but, fucking ‘ell, even I’m sick of me’self now.”
“It’s all a scale,” he says, holding his hands up like he’s measuring something, “spending time in company at one end and spending time alone at the other end. Everyone’s just spending time by themselves right now. I’m getting worried for some people, some people aren’t coping anywhere near as well,” he looks concerned, “which worries me. ”
It’s a Bank Holiday in the UK on the day we chat, and after our call Sam’s off on a bike ride. “I’ve got some stuff to drop off for people so I’m going to do an anti-clockwise lap of Cheltenham and up into the Cotswolds.”
I ask him what he’s dropping off.
“Some chocolate, some dog treats and I’m fixing another bike. I’ve fixed a few now. The kids bike from the flat upstairs were upsetting me because he had a rusty bike chain. So I cleaned up the chain, gave it an oil, sorted the handlebars because they’d been twisted. It must have been a wanker to ride. Fixed the brakes too.”
I ask what else he’s done for people and he looks perplexed. “See, people ask this shit a lot. Why are you doing that for somebody? You just do stuff for people.” He shrugs his shoulders. “I like fixing stuff, for the sense of accomplishment, and I like helping people. It’s just nice. Just something nice to do.”
He’s put in a fence for his landlady and added milk for them to his milkman order because they’re not taking on any new customers at the minute. He’s picked some things up from the pharmacy as well as some food for several people, dropped off a powerbag for Hannah, gave yeast to Matt and bought a dog toy for someone who’d lost theirs in the pond.
I suggest perhaps helping people is a way for him to feel connected?
He ponders. “I’ve not considered that.”
I switch topics and ask Sam what things he’d like to see changed because of COVID-19.
“Really, I want to change the whole economy. This whole consumer economy where we just mine and take resources is not gonna work in the long run. We need a more green, circular economy. People just going out and buying shit all the time, and disposable shit. Why do we even have plastic packaging? It’s ridiculous.”
We talk about the economy, politics and how other people’s decisions are currently impacting on our lives.
“You, well not you, but we, are very privileged in that we have the freedom to do what we want to do, when we want to do it. We’ve got the financial freedom, the political freedom and the freedom of being healthy enough to do what we want to do. This is where I think I fail a little bit, I have those freedoms now and I do sort of take them for granted, and I don’t fight hard enough for people that don’t have them. But then I’m not sure how to do that.”
I tell him he does a lot for other people, that he doesn’t realise how much, and yet again he looks confused. “I don’t do that much,” he replies.
“You do, and you do it without thinking, and unconditionally,” he mumbles something, and I continue, “and there’s not a lot of people who do that.”
He finds it such a bizarre concept that people wouldn’t help someone if they could.
“I’d just like people to be a bit more considerate to each other, and a bit more respectful. Things like holding a door open for someone, let a car into traffic in front, you know. Don’t push through, let people go first. Being aware of people around you.”
He nods to himself.
“Aye, that’d be nice.”