Alex pops onto the screen. He has a beard. He starts talking and I hear some words about having sunburn and working in the garden but I’m distracted trying to figure out whether I’ve ever seen him with a beard. It’s a long time since I’ve seen him.
‘It’s really hard to explain. It feels like it’s gone really quickly, but it also feels like there’s been a lifetime of stuff that we’ve done and things that have happened. So many emotions, moods and thoughts.’
Alex started the UK lockdown off sick from work with a herniated disc. ‘One day I was in the kitchen and it just went. I’ve had back spasms before and I thought they were painful but this was just something else,’ he laughs, the kind of laugh you do at something from the past that was definitely NOT funny at the time. ‘I was screaming in pain, it was that horrendous. I just dropped to the floor, poor Linz didn’t know what to do.’ His wife couldn’t easily get him to the doctors because of the lockdown restrictions, but they managed to get an emergency appointment.
‘Basically I spent the first week and a half smashed out my face on codeine and diazepam. I don’t really remember a lot of it. You wouldn’t believe how much codeine they gave me, huge boxes. I’ve still got six or seven boxes full,’ he jokes, ‘if it all gets too much, I’ll be fine. Apparently I was still working, on my back, on the sofa not being able to move. There are emails that look fairly sensible but I have zero recollection of sending them.’
He’s not been able to have any physiotherapy appointments, so has had to do a lot of his rehab himself, learning what stretches and exercises work.
‘It’s been really nice to spend time with the family, work life balance is brilliant now. Me and Linz take the dogs around the block every morning-sometimes with the kids, sometimes not. We get in, have some breakfast then I walk down the garden to the office and I’m at work, and it’s great.’
Alex has enjoyed spending more time with his wife, lockdown giving them a chance to reconnect. Pre-COVID life was busy, full of family and individual commitments, them often only seeing each other for the briefest of moments during a day. ‘Just things like being able to get up at the same time and being able to walk the dogs around the village together. It’s really chilled, almost like that walk you do when you’re on holiday. You know, the after dinner walk where you chew the fat; we just hadn’t done that for ages. We’ve even been working out together,’ he looks at me and smiles, ‘it’s been nice.’
Alex’s parents were shielding, and he missed them, saying: ‘I didn’t think I would feel like that. Having a socially distanced cup of tea was a big deal, and really nice. All this has made me realise their mortality; it’s a bit of a grim realisation, and it’s been occupying my mind recently. I’ve taken them for granted a little bit, and it brings that anxiety back, the realisation that they’re not going to be there forever. I don’t want to take them for granted, and am going to make the effort to see them more.’
He’s relieved to be taking time out, away from ‘that pressure of the rat race, and relentless need to be doing things. I am worried about the long term impact on mental health though, especially for young people.’
He’s still working, in procurement for the local county council. ‘At work, we’re going through some pretty significant changes. The council has done some home-working before, you know, the odd day here and there, but in response to the virus we’re all home-working full time. It’s forced a change that would have taken several years.’
He’s likely to be working from home until the end of the year at least, as they’re planning for more waves. ‘It’s not going to go away, it’s going to be a long time before the UK goes back to how things were, and I’m not sure that everyone’s cottoned onto that yet.’
He misses contact with people at work. He leads a team of 20, all sharing an open plan workspace. ‘In the office I get to talk to everyone. It’s the informal chat I miss, that you can’t really replicate on video call. The impromptu chat by the photocopier or in the kitchen. I used to sit on a desk in the middle of the office and give corporate updates; having to do that on a video call is like giving a formal presentation where you can’t see most of the people you’re speaking to. It’s not the same.’
He asks what I’m laughing at, and I tell him that I still can’t believe he has a team of 20; in my head he’ll always be the 16-year old office junior I larked around with back at my first job, giggling as we shredded or filed reams and reams of paper. I mean, we’re barely much older than that now, right?
I ask Alex what’s the best thing that’s come out of all this. ‘It feels like the pace of life has changed, but for the better. Time feels better spent now for us as a family, we’re getting better value out of it. There’s been some good family times.’