Introspective action

‘WOW. So.’ Martin looks thoughtful, a small smile creeping onto his face. ‘Yeah. A lot’s changed.’ He pauses. ‘When we spoke last time, in May 2020, I was still living in my house, I was still married, I was working from home, it was sunny, and everything Covid related was a novelty.’

Fast forward to December 2021. ‘I’m now in the process of getting divorced, I’ve put in my papers to leave the RAF, I’m living in an RAF house with my dog, I’m about to go out of area in January and Covid has started to cause a division, like an extension of Brexit.’

Martin found the second UK lockdown in late 2020 really isolating. He says: ‘Just before Christmas, I wasn’t able to see anyone, and I was living by myself. Twitter became a really big thing for me. When I first joined I didn’t get it, didn’t really understand it, but once I’d got the hang of it, it soon became a social hub. I couldn’t go and see people but all of a sudden, I could have conversations with real people in real time.’

He explains something called Square Eyes. ‘During a week someone would be nominated to pick a film, and at 8pm on a Friday a group would all press play at the same time and we’d have a tweet thread with banter and comments while we all watched the film. It actually became huge for me, because it was the only time I was really talking to people outside of work. I’ve built up some amazing relationships with people on there.’

Pre-Covid, Martin had a big social network. He worked in an open plan office every day with over 20 other people, had a big group of friends at the local pub and through football, and his family. These were friends and people he’d grown up with and had known for years. He says: ‘Then we went into that first lockdown and I was restricted to just me and my family, then last year I was living by myself in a strange house in a different town, only seeing my daughter every couple of weeks. The only reason I left the house was Winston [the dog]. I felt like at times I was just by myself in a wild wood, in the middle of a bleak, bleak winter, cut off from the rest of the world. I literally just had Twitter. It was bizarre.’

‘It definitely impacted my mental health. I wasn’t enjoying work at all and made a decision to leave the RAF. I was on the cusp of promotion but I just wanted to do something else, get a job I’m passionate about.’

He started to notice the impact it was having on Maggie, his daughter. He says: ‘On Christmas Day, on the way home I asked her if she’d had a good time, and she said ‘I did Daddy, I loved it. The best bit was playing with little people.’ I suddenly got a taste for how she’d felt. As isolated as I’d felt, as an only child Maggie’s only social interactions were adults. That must have been really isolating for her as a kid. She couldn’t wait to go back to school, she loves it – it’s her only time with little people. I don’t know what the long-term affects will be. Kids are resilient, but things do leave little imprints on our make up.’

I ask Martin whether, or how, Covid contributed to these life events. He says: ‘I think they would all have happened anyway. More importantly, they needed to happen. What Covid did was make things a bit more extreme, highlighting the not-so-great things in life, like unhealthy relationships.’

Since his marriage break up, he’s done a lot of self work. He says: ‘I’ve had a lot of counselling, done a lot of meditating and read all the books. Isolation gives an opportunity to learn a lot about yourself, and I’ve certainly done that over the last 18 months. I’ve had unhealthy patterns from quite a young age and I’ve really been able to look at instances in my life where things have happened and work out my behaviour and how I was reacting to situations. I’ve learnt so much.’

Martin’s social network is much smaller now. He says: ‘I’ve looked at friendships I’ve formed and realised I put a lot of energy into the wrong friendships. I’ve learnt about attachment styles. I’ve gone from thousands of Facebook “friends” to a couple of hundred. I’ve gone from seeing friends down the pub to not going to the pub anymore. I’ve detached myself completely from my old life. Turning 40, Covid, leaving the RAF, my marriage breakdown and everything that’s happened in the last 18 months has given me the chance to strip everything right back down to me, my daughter, dog and immediate family.’

Martin sees this as a chance to start again, a blank canvas. He says: ‘The point I’m starting from has everything that’s good. I have the people who are going to stick by me, I’ve got much healthier boundaries and I’m getting a lot less triggered by people not being in alignment with me. I’ve got a better grasp of my hierarchy of needs, and have improved relationship boundaries – both mine and other peoples. It’s like I had this mess of a painting that I’ve put a load of paint thinner on, cleaned it all off and was left with a fine outline of something that now made a lot of sense to me. I’ve slowly started to expand on it and I feel like I’m getting towards building up the picture and colouring it in.’

I ask what’s next for his career, and he says: ‘I’ve booked myself onto a course to potentially become a professional coach one day. That’s my passion. The best part of the RAF was being able to mentor and help people, and it’s so rewarding to feel like you’ve had a positive impact on someone. I want more of that, and I’m in such a better position to listen to people now.’

Straight after our conversation he’s going to an Open Day to find out more about going into teaching. ‘My approach at the moment is to keep following my gut, my interests, trying things, speaking to people and seeing where it leads. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to become a teacher, or a coach, but if I follow the things I’m interested in and passionate about, it might lead to something else. I’ll be surrounded by like-minded people, putting myself into areas that are aligned to me, and the more I do that, the more I might see opportunities.’

Martin says he’s in a fortunate position that he’ll have a pension from his time in the RAF. ‘I have some sort of financial security there, and that’s important to me. It’s hard for kids to get that nowadays, it’s hard for people to buy houses now.’

‘I feel like I’m taking baby steps into a new life. I’ve always looked from the inside out, for as long as I can remember, but now I’ve been looking at myself from the outside in, I have so much less baggage. I’m in such a privileged position where losing a lot over the last 18 months has provided me with the opportunity to gain so much more, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.’

Loss, life and muddy shoes

How’s the last 18 months been for you Dylan?

‘Shit.’

He laughs, then I laugh, but it tails off.

‘Yeah, it has been a bit crap.’ he says. ‘My best mate went into hospital with a surprise liver transplant. So that was November all through to about March, with her recuperation, and in February my Dad passed away.’

Dylan’s parents moved to New Zealand some years ago. “I always knew, one day, I’d get that call, but I was hoping it wasn’t going to be this soon. It feels too soon to have happened. That was really difficult. Well, it’s still difficult now. I can’t get out there. I get why the borders shut, and I applaud it, but at the same time it’s frustrating, because there’s no way for me to get there. I can’t see my Mum, who’s on her own. It’s my Dad, and I couldn’t even be at his funeral.’

Dylan did apply to get a special exemption to get to New Zealand from the UK, but was turned down. “Because he had already passed, they decided there was no reason for me to go over. He wasn’t dying.’ His Dad was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at the beginning of the pandemic, which was a huge shock to them all. ‘He was such a healthy guy, had survived a baseball bat to the head in Australia, but this is what took him out, and that was the harshest thing. It was something that took away his independence, and he hated it.’

Dylan’s wife’s Grandma also passed away. ‘She had a stroke and went into a home. All through lockdown no one could really visit her, which was really hard. Kerry was going to visit her when lockdown restrictions eased, waiting the whole year, but she passed away before that could happen, so she didn’t get to see her at all.’

‘It’s just been a combo of things, and to be fair, those are the horrific parts, losing people we’re really close to, but the rest of the time’s been alright. You know, getting to finally see people again, and going away. We went to France for a mates wedding. I’ve never been to France, and it was sunny in November so I was happy! Peaks and troughs.’

Dylan turned 40 in January 2021, when the UK was in lockdown. ‘So I turned 40, which is horrible, as you know.’ I laugh. ‘I couldn’t do anything. Had all these great plans for me and my mates to go to Disneyworld in Florida, which had been planned for 10 years, but nope, that went out the window.’

Kerry asked Dylan what he wanted to do instead. ‘I told her, just want to go outside.’ He laughed. ‘It had just rained, and me and Kerry went out for a walk, and I lost my shoe in the mud.’ I asked him what he was thinking at that point. ‘Fuck my life.’ He laughed. ‘Nah, we couldn’t stop laughing. It just summed everything up. We went home and ate a whole salted caramel cake. Despite all that, it was a great day.’

Dylan’s still enjoying working from home, although he doesn’t mention whether they’re still doing the yoga he talked about in his original post which he and Kerry started doing together in place of the daily commute.

He’s also loving meeting up with friends. ‘Hugging is nice. When you haven’t hugged other people for a while, it’s really nice. ‘Oh, and going to the cinema. I’m loving that.’

I ask Dylan what he thanks he’s learnt over the last 18 months. ‘Ooh that’s tough,’ he says, staring off into the distance. There’s a pause. ‘I don’t know. Hmm.’ He looks at me. ‘Can I say I don’t know? I genuinely don’t know.’

I’m not letting him get away so easily. ‘Is there anything about yourself that you think you’ve learnt?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. I guess..I don’t deal with loss very well. I knew that, but I don’t like to dwell on it. But I guess also I’m a bit stronger than I thought I was. I’m quite an emotional person, I always have been, but I know I can just about cope. I learnt things will affect me in ways I don’t expect. Like, I haven’t felt a drive or motivation sometimes to do the things I normally would. It was like my mental state said nope, you’re not going to do anything that’s too strenuous right now, just do the basics. My brain and my body will tell me what to do.’

My 40th year – February (month #10)

February was all about time with the girls; I spent a lot of time with my friends this month. Not particularly planned, per se, it’s just how it ended up and it’s done wonders for me.

Last winter me, Emma, B and Sarah booked our spots for the Kepler Track over Waitangi weekend and promptly forgot all about it until this January. We decided to make a holiday of it and spent just over a week down South hiking, exploring, eating, drinking, dancing and laughing. And OH MY WORD it was so much fun.

Good friends are really important to me. They’re my cheerleaders, my different perspectives, my support, my positivity, and my chosen family when my actual family are in a different country.

Me and the Poet aren’t together any more, and spending a week around people who are supportive when I was feeling quite sad was super helpful. Everyone knows that shitty time after a break up, regardless of what happened, when you feel a bit crap and low and need people around who hold space for you.

Reinforcing those connections and being reminded that I’m not alone was just what I needed.

Residence Relief

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

I stared at the email. Your application for a 2021 Resident Visa has been approved.

Holy shit.

ARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH. My insides flipped. I looked again, just to be sure. Really? I’d been waiting so long for this I wasn’t quite sure it was real.

Oh but it was. I’m now a fricking New Zealand resident, I thought to myself.

I’m secure. The relief enveloped me.

I can go home. I cried.

I’m not tied to anything. I was elated.

I was surprised.

This application was a relatively new one, only put in two weeks before so I hadn’t been expecting to hear so soon. My original application had been in since last August, and really, it was that one that I wanted to be processed. But COVID lockdowns and changes in immigration processes had put those applications on hold with no idea of when they would be starting them up again, so I applied for a new category that had opened up for a couple of months.

I was disappointed though.

This wasn’t what I’d worked towards for the last 2 years, and it didn’t give me Permanent Residency straight away like the other one would have. Now, I still have to apply for that in another two years time, making sure I spend at least 6 months of each year in New Zealand. It’s not quite how I’d hoped, it’s not the visa or route I wanted. There’s still some hoops to jump through, and I’m tired of jumping. There’s that tinge of disappointment that, if I’m not careful, could permeate this good news and taint it. No, this is a time for celebration and looking forward. I’m a resident, it means pretty much the same thing, and at least I can get on with living life on my own terms.

My visa journey has been pretty stressful. I came over on a tourist visa, to see how my relationship with Mike went. I then applied for a partnership visa to be able to stay and work, having to evidence our short relationship with copies of messages, phone records, documents, cards, letters from witnesses, and photos, hoping to hell INZ accepted it as genuine and stable. We knew it was, but did the evidence show it?

It did.

When Mike ended the relationship, I had two choices: get another visa or leave the country. Luckily I was already working by then, but it was a stressful time to tell my (fairly new) employer I’d need another visa and could they provide pages of evidence that they hired me fairly, over and above a kiwi, as well as proving that I was doing a skilled job that met all the criteria of a particular job classification code. Then it was a tense wait to see if it was accepted.

It was.

That visa had no path to residency (unlike the partnership visa) so I had to accept the reality that I’d never be able to stay in New Zealand long term, which was something I’d just started to think about. I didn’t have enough points for the usual skilled migrant residency pathway, and there were no other visa categories that I could apply for. It felt like something had been offered on a plate, and then cruelly snatched away. I’d started to build a life which I knew wouldn’t last that long. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace the adventure and see what happened.

So I did.

There was a visa category that granted work to residence visas for people working in skilled jobs like mine for employers who were ‘accredited’, but my employer wasn’t on the list. I kept asking if they would consider it, but the answer was always no. After about a year our new parent company said they wanted the company to be accredited, and so it was game on. I was so excited I could’ve burst, and completed the company’s application for them to push it through as quickly as I could. Again, a nail biting wait followed to see if all the evidence was enough.

It was.

As soon as it was accepted, I changed my visa and began the two year wait, as I had to hold that visa for two years before I could apply for residency, which was then normally granted within a few months. About a year into being on that visa they changed the rules, and all of a sudden the wait times for residency being granted were getting on for two years instead of a few months. An additional two years. My heart sank. Two years of having to stay on the same visa and therefore the same conditions, the same type of job, with no ability to change or be spontaneous. It was killing me.

You see, work visas are tied to your employer and job, so you can’t just decide to work in another job (or even change role within the same company) unless you request a variation – effectively applying for a new visa each time. You can’t be unemployed, you can’t work for anyone else on the side, you can’t study and with the accredited employer visa, you can’t work for any employers who aren’t accredited. You also have to earn above a certain salary range and work full time (after working 4 days a week part time in the UK this was difficult to go back to!). You also can’t buy property, get an employer-contributed pension and a heap of other stuff. You’re just temporary.

The only way to speed up that two year backlog was to earn $ over a higher salary threshold, which at that point I wasn’t. I had 8 months to find a new job and a pay rise otherwise I was still stuck with restrictions for another two years. I also needed to change my job because it was slowly destroying my mental health. Not being able to take any extended time off or quit a toxic environment to have a break because you’d have to leave the country if you do is an incredible pressure. It was also the time when New Zealand had closed it’s borders to anyone who wasn’t a NZ citizen or resident, so I was pretty much trapped here – if I left, I couldn’t get back in.

I got the new job.

A great company, over that salary threshold and all I had to do was wait until August to apply. To get through those months while incredibly burnt out and fragile, my main thought was that when I was a resident, perhaps I could take a break and have some time off to recover, because I was hanging on by a thread at this point. Only August came and Delta shut down Auckland, and with it, the immigration team that dealt with my type of visa applications. That priority I worked so hard to get by getting the new job was pretty redundant, as they weren’t processing any applications.

I broke down at that point.

It’s OK, I thought, they’ll just start again when out of lockdown, and it’ll just be a few weeks. But lockdown kept going. Immigration NZ didn’t have any business continuity plans for these applications to continue, so the backlog kept growing and there was no end in sight. Again, something had been offered to me on a plate and then cruelly snatched away.

To add, every visa needs a medical check. Nervous waits while getting blood taken, being prodded and poked, and x-rayed. Oh god what if they find some terrible disease I don’t know I have? Police checks from all the countries you’ve lived in. Oh god, what if I have some terrible crime on my record I don’t know about?

A new resident visa category was announced. ‘Everyone should apply for this one! It will be quicker!’

But it costs more, and we don’t get Permanent Residency (a perk of the accredited employer visa), surely that’s unfair? we said.

‘You should apply for the new one! It will be quicker!’

When will the old ones be processed? So we can make an informed decision? we asked.

‘No idea! Everyone should apply for the new one! It will be quicker!’

Still to this day, no one at Immigration NZ has acknowledged the loss of the PR perk for a group of people.

It’s surreal. When you’ve been waiting for something for so long, you wonder whether it’ll ever happen because it seems so out of reach. You daren’t dream, because it might jinx it, or you get frustrated. And then – boom – it happens and it’s like ‘oh! I can do all that now.’ And then you freeze. ‘Oh, no, I’m not sure I’m quite ready yet thanks.’

I acknowledge I’m incredibly privileged to have even been able to take this path in the first place. I come from an English-speaking country, one that already has ties to New Zealand (colonisation is a different topic however), working in a professional job. I don’t come from a country where it’d be dangerous or horrific to be sent back. I’m not supporting a family who are relying on me to get a better life. I’m one of the ‘easy’ ones. Please spare a thought for the millions of people across the world in those positions and try to imagine how difficult it must be for them.

I’m so determined to make the most of this opportunity. Within hours I’d set the ball rolling for Kiwisaver (NZ employer pension scheme that I hadn’t been able to join, missing out on all those $ contributions from my employers), even though the actual visa hadn’t been issued at that point. I’ve emailed a couple of contacts about some potential freelance writing work. I’ve spoken to my boss about some potential small changes at work.

I’m not stepping onto a completely different path; last year I thought I would, but I was chronically burnt out. I’m well on the way to recovery from that, and right now I’m doing really well, so I’m staying put for a bit. I’m just enjoying having freedom and choice. I can live life how I really want to.

Holy SHIT it feels so good.

My 40th year – January (month #9)

January was pretty hectic, and given I was away for half of it, I was wondering what activity I could do to nurture and support myself this month. Time ran away with me in the end, and I didn’t really do anything specific. But, I did move house which turned out to have way more of a positive impact than I expected.

Since getting divorced ten years ago I’ve not lived in a house that I’ve owned, and haven’t stayed in the same place for that long. I’ve rented houses or flats, lived or stayed with family/friends and rented rooms. I’ve loved the temporary nature of it, and relish the change in scenery and environment. But I also LOVE living by myself, and being surrounded by my own stuff.

I moved into my last flat in July 2019, after months of flatting with strangers or in furnished places. I’d decided I’d be in New Zealand for a while as I was committed to a work visa that’d give me residency after a couple of years, and so wanted my own place with my own furniture to feel a bit more settled, and more at home. After living out in the hills, I chose the city centre for a change, and to feel a bit more connected and able to walk to places rather than get in my car.

I LOVED that flat, it was a one bedroom, upside down quirky little place. Not very big but full of character with a great view over the river and huge windows; ideal for people-watching. Living alone, it was great to feel surrounded by people but still have my own space. It was there I started to build my life properly, like I was used to in the UK; living life on my own terms, by myself, surrounded with things I’d chosen, making friends and just making the most of being where I was.

But after 2.5 years, as my lease was coming to an end, I’d got itchy feet. I was ready for a change. The flat was pretty noisy facing out onto the street in the city centre, and didn’t get any sun, which I’d come to realise was a big thing for me (and in NZ, where sun is a primary source of heating for much of the year). It was feeling small even though I don’t have a lot of stuff, and I’ve felt a shift in my life over the last 6 months to step away from being in the middle of everything. Giant windows facing out to the outside world and opposite other flats that once felt comforting now felt intrusive, and I longed for some privacy.

But I love the location. Right in the centre of the city, surrounded by trees and close to the park. Walking distance to work. I didn’t want to move too far, and decent flats in the area just don’t come up that often. Luckily for me another flat in the same building (there’s 5 units) was being renovated. Being at the other end of the building, it’s north facing and so would get all the sun, all day, as well as being quieter, as it’s away from the road. Two bedrooms and no garage meant more space.

I made friends with Terry the builder and got him to give me some sneak peeks while it was being renovated, and before it was finished I got in touch with the letting agent to ask them if I could switch flats when it was ready. After a lot of email wrangling, lengthy discussions about rent and lease dates, inconvenient Christmas holidays and my impatience, I finally moved in the week I got back from holiday. It’s the easiest house move I’ve done; carrying my stuff 20 metres down an alleyway.

From the moment I got my keys I’ve been in love with it. I can’t really explain it, or put my finger on any specific thing of why that is, I just feel so content there. It’s bigger, full of sun and feels like home. I went out and bought a big yellow chair which makes me smile every time I see it. I feel so much joy every time I open the door.

It’s the start of a new chapter, one where I don’t know how the story will unfold, but I know my mindset has shifted. I feel an inner calm I’ve not felt for a long time, and a real desire to just stop and nest for a little while, and this new flat is the perfect place for me to do it.

Creative Positivity

‘Firstly, let me congratulate you on your amazing taste in music. I myself am a Taylor fan too.’ Charlie laughs, and we both agree how nice it is to be able to do this interview in person, rather than over Zoom like the first one.

‘I went back and read the last article, and I had to really think about what happened after that. For me, that time post pandemic [lockdown], was the absolute worst.’

During the first New Zealand lockdown in March 2020, Charlie talked about how good things were. ‘I was so happy, so enveloped in my family and everything was just lovely. We were coddled away from everything.’

When she had to go back to the world though, things didn’t go well. She said: ‘All of my positive, airy fairy thoughts came crashing down and I had a really bad time. Reality hit and I felt really isolated. 2020 was incredibly difficult.’

2021 was much better. ‘It’s actually been mind blowing, in a positive sense. I’m actually scared because some things are ending now, and I’m like no, no, I don’t want to go back there, I don’t want to go back to how I was feeling.’

Charlie looked into taking the teaching course she’d previously talked about, but it wasn’t something that would fit with family life. She said: ‘Instead, I enrolled in a project management course and an accounting course and it was fantastic. They’ve done so much for me. I met some really lovely people, and it just gave me a sense of me. Like, it was something just for me. But now it’s ended, and I’m scared.’

She’s taking measures though, and has already applied to do a further course, this time in leadership. ‘Just, you know, to keep me going.’ Charlie’s also been doing pottery for the past three years but her group had to change the members to allow new people to join, so she’s put herself on a waitlist for a new ceramics course too.

‘I’m also biking and swimming now, and I’m going to sign up to the Akaroa 1km swim in February. Things are coming that are good and positive that will maybe fill that gap, which is good, because I am a bit scared of where I might end up again.’

‘The reason I, erm, fell over, was the fact I had no sense of worth left within me. I felt like I was just The Mom, and last year taught me that I can do things for me before everyone else, which has been really good for my self worth. I don’t want that to stop.’

I ask Charlie what part the pandemic played. ‘I think it was a long time coming, but I definitely felt like I had a post-lockdown hangover. It was really, really hard to integrate again. Really hard to, you know, get back into life and be around people. I suddenly felt very crowded and overwhelmed. It’s like the pandemic made me almost phobic.’

Interestingly, Charlie hated the second lockdown. She said: ‘It was bizarre. I think by the time the second one rolled around I thought ‘oh no, not again’. It was ridiculously unexpected for me, because I don’t watch the news. I was completely blindsided, not prepared for it, and I just didn’t want to do it again. It just didn’t work in our house. It was fine, but it definitely wasn’t like the first one.’

I ask Charlie what she’s learnt. ‘Last time I told you I didn’t want to go study because I was scared of failure, but now, I know I can do it. I didn’t study teaching, but I have studied, I’ve loved it and I made it through a year and two courses. I do have it in me.’

Dr Sam, patron saint of self care

‘Your hair looks just as messy as when I spoke to you last time,’ are the first words I say to Sam, remembering that in the interview for his first post he’d just got out of the shower and his hair was everywhere, like it is this time too.

‘I ‘ad a hat on, which I took off, it’s what ‘appened.’ Sam says, his Yorkshire accent showing no signs of fading.

‘How’s the last 18 months been for you?’ I ask him.

‘Interesting.’ He replies, and silence follows.

‘You gotta talk to me dude,’ I laugh. ‘In what way?’

‘I bought a house. Got a dog. Started a new job. Got a serious relationship. All terrifying, terrifying things.’

I ask him to tell me more, and he starts telling me about the house and it’s need for a new roof.

I stop him. ‘That’s not the kind of thing I want to know. How are you feeeeeeling?’ I say, drawing out the e’s.

‘Well one thing, with Covid sort of relaxing a little bit, although it looks like maybe we’re unrelaxing a little bit, I’ve found myself rushing around like a blue arsed fly. Like, go and visit family here, go and see friends there. One nice thing about Covid was that we were forced to chill out a little bit.’

So next year, in 2022, he’s decided to try and spend more time at home. ‘I’m going to spend a minimum of one weekend in Cheltenham [at home], and one weekend on the hills somewhere each month. Because, yeah, it’s just been a little bit frantic the last six, nine months. The change has been quite large, and I’ve been rushing around trying to see people I haven’t seen for a while. Like, next weekend I’m in Edinburgh, the weekend after I’m in York, the weekend after that is the BB Christmas party, then Suffolk, then Leeds. I’m busy every weekend for nearly two months.’

I point out that perhaps he has some choice over this, but he says ‘you’ve got to meet your social obligations.’ I tell him he shouldn’t be so popular.

‘Self care is important though, I’ve learnt that. I know it’s a very fashionable thing at the minute, but just taking that time to do whatever it is you want to do is necessary. I’m still not quite so good at doing it, and I’m still getting told off for helping people, but I’m trying.’

Sam’s new job is 100% from home, and I ask him how he feels about it.

‘I’m alright with it. Although I’ve only met people once or twice, which is really weird. It means I’ve got time to look after the dog though, and I like the fact you can do a lot of the boring shit around work, like putting a load of washing on, or doing the washing up. It’s efficient for a personal life but I think it’s quite productive as well for work life as you do get that mental break between tasks.’

There’s a silence and I comment that Sam’s not as chatty as he was the first time. ‘I’m just not sure what I’ve done. I’ve only fixed one bike,’ he says, referring to the first lockdown where he passed the time fixing bikes for people. ‘Oh no actually, I’ve fixed my own bike, so I’ve fixed two bikes.’

‘You’ve been too busy socialising by the sounds of it,’ I joke.

‘Lots of things have changed now. It’s always at the back of my mind now that I have to look after the dog. It doesn’t feel like it’s gone back to normal yet. Covid’s here to stay now, in one form or another. Binga [his friends] had a party on Saturday and it was awesome, but it did feel a little bit odd to be in a room with like 15-20 people. I got social anxiety, it was worrying to see loads of people at once. With so many people to watch, it was a bit overwhelming, there was so much input. The spectre of Covid is still there, especially now we’ve got the Omicron variant. Which is a great name for a ‘orror movie.’

Sam didn’t enjoy the subsequent UK lockdowns. ‘I really did struggle with that, it wasn’t a fun time. Generally now the world has opened up a bit more, I’m doing a lot better. One thing I would say though, mental health services in the UK – dogshit. Absolutely fucking abysmal and needs reforming massively. It needs as much, if not more, investment as physical care.’

‘In Covid, a lot of people have been like ‘oh yeah, I’ve re-evaluated my life and worked out what’s important and changed xyz’, but I’ve had no great epiphanies. For me it’s just head down, arse up, keep plodding along.’

Spanish sunshine

When I spoke to Bev in 2020, she was in Cheltenham dreaming of the French sunshine she enjoyed during three months in the Alps in France for the first lockdown. This time, as she comes on screen, I can see she’s in her motor-home with sun streaming in the windows. This time though, it’s Spanish sunshine.

Bev’s quite enjoyed the last 18 months, and tells me: ‘You know, apart from the frustration of not being able to get out in the motor-home and go travelling like we usually would, I don’t find it a problem. I don’t know if it’s the fact we haven’t been working for a few years, and we’re used to having extra time on our hands, or we’re used to being in a small space, but I’ve not found it difficult at all.’

Bev and Rich were supposed to go to Europe for another 6 month trip in 2020, but instead it was 16 months before they were able to get back on the road. She said: ‘We were getting really itchy feet. We did a little trip down to Devon and Dorset in the summer, but it rained most of the time and campsites are really expensive. It’s just the complete opposite of everything you get in Europe, so I’m not keen on doing UK trips in the future.’

Bev feels really safe travelling around Europe, and says it’s just about getting used to the different rules in each place. She said: ‘France is quite strict, you have to show your Covid vaccination status to go into bars and restaurants, even if it’s outdoor seating. Spain’s much more relaxed, we generally haven’t had to do that here, apart from when I picked up my race pack for the half marathon when I had to prove I was fully vaccinated or provide a negative test. Mask wearing is prolific but I’ve done that throughout anyway, as it just feels safer. Portugal has just introduced the need to be double vaccinated or have a negative test to enter the country.’

I ask Bev what she’s learnt. “Probably that I’m not as sociable as I thought I was, because I’ve been quite happy on my own. I’m happy not to go out, and instead just have a glass of wine at home, curled up with a book. I’m easily pleased,’ she says, smiling.

Bev and Rich have a few more months travelling around, and aren’t sure what rules might come in for booster vaccinations. They haven’t had theirs yet and aren’t sure whether they can get them abroad, but Bev’s relaxed about it. ‘We’ll deal with that when or if it happens. Right now, we’re just looking for places to stay that are good for running, cycling, and has bars. If somewhere has that, we’ll be alright.’

Coming back to it all

James comes into view and I don’t recognise the background. I try to picture where he is in his flat but I can’t, and it distracts me slightly. I know he hasn’t moved since I left Cheltenham, but maybe he’s not in his house. I make a mental note to ask him when we’re done, knowing full well I’ll probably forget by the time we finish.

‘I haven’t really structured this,’ I laugh, ‘at all.’ James laughs too. ‘I guess maybe I just start with, how have the last 18 months been for you James?’ I say, knowing it’s a loaded question.

‘Is that how long it’s been?’ he says, and I nod. ‘Wow. I read back over the last article, to see if I recognised that person. Reading it I remember all those feelings, and all the uncertainties, and I was trying to work out where I’ve got to from there.’

He pauses, shifting in his seat.

‘The world has sort of returned to normal, but the people in it…haven’t. We are constantly under threat of what’s going to happen next. I hear people refer to ‘back during Covid’, and I’m like, no, it’s still there – we’re just living differently, but it’s still there. People are still very unsure and uncertain, and it’s just a weird position to be in for everybody.’

I ask about him, though. How is he feeling?

“The last article was all about how I was going to survive, and I have, so that’s good. It took a lot of switching and shifting and doing different things, and it was nice that I was able to do that. People came to me with opportunities and some work landed, so a lot of that was really positive.’ He pauses, and I sense a but, although the word doesn’t quite come.

‘Having lost 18 months, I feel it’s taken with it quite a bit of my identity, my focus and my plan. Yes I’ve survived, but at some point I have to go from that survival mode into actually planning and shaping the future again, and that’s quite a difficult leap now, after 18 months and counting of complete uncertainty. At what point do I switch out of survival mode?’

He tells me his income at the moment has mainly come from gardening, which is welcome as he says, ‘I’m mostly on my own and out in the countryside, so I could work all the way through while staying safe, and it’s really flexible. But if you’d asked me 18 months ago where I thought I’d be, it wouldn’t have been mowing lawns for millionaires.’

In fact, he’d actually turned down this work two or three times pre-Covid, because he was trying to make his other ventures work. ‘Thankfully though, when the world went pop, [my boss] came back and still needed somebody.’

He says he knows he should be very grateful that he has income, a great boss, and a great job he can’t fault ‘as long as I can get a cup of tea in the shed’, it’s just not who he thought he’d be at this stage in his life. ‘That was taken away from me by the pandemic, and it’s hard to now think about switching back to who I was before. Am I happy with who I am now? Probably not.’

I ask him, what makes it hard to switch back?

‘The uncertainty of the events industry; things are still changing all the time. I’ve not coached [running] for 18 months, and I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of it, although that’s more of a mindset thing. I need to find a way back into doing those things, but it’s inherently risky. I mean, they were always risky, but I always managed and mitigated that risk, but it’s far more difficult now.’

‘It’s essentially starting again and doing all the hard things I did 3 years ago, to try and get back to that position of some stability and security. The thing I’m becoming increasingly aware of is that 2 years ago I was a running coach who worked in the events industry, and who also did a bit of outdoor skills tuition. All these things are parts of my personality, things that I really enjoy, things that,’ he whispers, ‘don’t tell anyone that paid me, but things I would have done for free. All of that was taken away, and I became a gardener. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a gardener, but I don’t feel like that’s me.’

It’s clear the loss of identity has been hard for James. ‘I need to try and get it back, but it’s quite difficult to essentially manufacture your identity, especially when I’m a different person now. Where I was 2 years ago had developed organically, and was starting to grow, and it’s hard to start from scratch again without a recent foundation, in a different world.’

I ask James what he thinks he’s learnt in the last 18 months. ‘How to do some bloody good stripes in a lawn.’ I laugh. “I’ve learnt a lot about other people and their characters, through the way that some people acted and behaved. I learnt I’m quite happy being on my own, home alone. Possibly too happy,’ he laughs, ‘which might be problematic. I do care a lot about other people, and I’ve learned I want to do the right thing by others, not only those I love but strangers too, and would readily put myself out to do it.’

He thinks the real learning is some way off though. ‘Everyone’s just trying to work out how things are going to play out. It’s just the start of the recovery. For me, it’s the next 12 months that will show whether I can get back to where I was, but first I have to figure out whether that’s what I actually want.’ He leans back and smiles. ‘The learning is still to come.’

I never did ask him whether he was in his flat.