Experienced detachment

The face on screen is familiar, yet I’ve not seen or spoke to this guy in 23 years. He’s not aged, I think to myself, apart from he’s grown a beard. Definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that at sixteen.

It’s not awkward though, and he starts talking.

“In some ways, I think my job has meant that I’ve coped with lockdown quite well, because it’s not that different to things I’ve experienced in the past.”

Martin’s been in the RAF for 20 years, and is used to being cut off from the rest of his family. He spent six months in the Falklands where he didn’t have any decent internet connectivity, when facetiming his daughter meant a screen full of pixels.

“Although the hardest thing with this is that they are close and I can’t get to them,” his daughter lives with Martin’s first wife, 14 miles away in a nearby town, “it’s different when they’re thousands of miles away, and you know when you go, that the internet isn’t going to be that great and there is no way to see them.”

He spent the first 8 weeks of the UK lockdown not seeing his daughter face-to-face at all, to protect his mother-in-law who lives with them. When he was able to see her, he was in full PPE, including a mask, which for a six-year old, was pretty confusing, although he says she has a pretty good handle on it for her age.

“She kept staring at me, asking me why I had a mask on, and I couldn’t give her a kiss, but it was great to spend time with her.”

He tells me it’s hard not having a network outside his house, spending time with the people that get him away from the four walls. He’s able to work from home in his job as a Logistics Officer for the Typhoon aircraft, but isn’t enjoying it. A people person, he likes working face-to-face rather than email.

“It’s hard to deal with that loss of freedom to just be able to go and do what you want when you want. I’ve started playing golf, purely because they’ve opened golf courses. Normally I’d play football, but we can’t. I hate running, but since lockdown I’ve been running five times a week, just to get out,” he smiles and I laugh, “but now they’ve opened golf courses I’m there.”

Every sport he’s played has involved other people, and he hates the solitary nature of running. Golf should allow, with the required distancing, some interaction with other people.

I ask him whether he thinks there’s a difference between virtual communication like our video call, and face-to-face interaction, and we both sip our tea while he ponders an answer.

“Definitely. There’s a big percentage of communication that’s body language, but I think there’s also another layer of being able to sense a person which you can’t get electronically; feeling and emotion that comes from being close to people. So yes, I can facetime my daughter and read her a bedtime story, but I can’t give her a hug. I can’t smell her, I can’t just quietly watch her getting on with something.”

Martin thinks there’s a lot to be said to experiencing another person face-to-face. “I think Zoom parties have been great for people but, I don’t know, it’s almost like an artificial life at the moment, and I don’t like it.”

There’s a lot to be said for the role the pub plays in people’s lives, Martin thinks, “the sense of community, mixing with other people and getting outside your house. I’ll not forget the last night of freedom when everyone went to the pub, which was the most crazy thing I’ve ever known. We’ve all got to stay away from each other, so let’s just have one last night of all being together in a pub,” he looks bewildered, “like, what’s that all about?”

He’s always found his RAF detachments away from home easier, the less ability he’s had to connect.

“When I’ve been away and had really good connectivity, I feel tied to it, and I miss people more. Before wifi and social media we used to get blueys [letters] and you looked forward to it. There’s something about picking up a letter and re-reading it, and when you’re writing one, you’re really thinking about it and taking your time.”

He’s not exactly sure why, but goes on to explain, “I guess when I was away I was concentrating on my here and now and the people around me at the time. If you’re sat glued to your tablet, laptop or phone every evening asking ‘how’s the weather’, or saying ‘I miss you’, or ‘I wish I could come home, I just want to jump into the phone and give you a hug’, then that’s hard. Sometimes not having that opportunity makes it easier,” he shrugs, “it just does.”

Lockdown has given Martin a difference perspective of how people interact with each other.

“When we’re cut off from the rest of society and we’re relying on social media, there’s an importance and responsibility for it to be used the right way, even more so when we’re restricted like we are now. If these platforms are our contact to the outside world, then there’s even more reason to hashtag-be-kind,” he pauses, stopping to think.

“Recently I’ve really realised how much responsibility I have for myself. Every second there’s a choice, and it’s my responsibility to make it a positive one. I’m rethinking how I live my life, so that when we do get our freedom back, I’d like to think this’ll end up having a good effect on me,” he looks wistful, “without wanting to be too wishy-washy, really understanding the value of interacting with other people in a positive way.”

He strokes his beard, “I’d like to think in a years time I’ll feel I’ve learnt how to chill out a lot more,” he laughs and his eyes crinkle up, “but we’ll see.”

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