Life in Isolation: Old Voices, New Routines…

New routines in a time of isolation include frequent calls to my two octogenarian aunts (who live in Sydney and Singapore) and talking to my father every day on the phone. Old people are cast adrift in this bizarre world of lock down and no visitors. Could they have imagined being so alone at this late stage of their lives?

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I may have started making these calls out of a sense of duty but now I really look forward to all of our chats – they remind me that I come from some pretty resilient stock. They lift my spirits. They give me hope and courage.

In a conversation about home schooling, my aunt reminded me that she and her sisters missed four years of schooling during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during World War II but they still passed the examinations necessary to be admitted to British universities.  She went to Glasgow University and her sister, my mother, went to Nottingham University. My father won an Empire scholarship and travelled from Kenya to study medicine at Glasgow University.

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All these young people were wrenched from the lands of their birth and flung into the gloom of post war Britain. My aunt talks about the bitter cold, the darkness at 3 pm, the food, the loneliness. “If we knew what it would be like we wouldn’t have wanted to go but we didn’t know and so we just made it work and then we were fine.”


Rummaging through old letters from my grandparents to their daughters studying in a land so far away from the sunshine of Malaya, I read the repeated phrase: “Chin up!”


My aunt and I laugh at privileged people complaining about the harrowing experience of being in quarantine for two weeks in a fancy Sydney hotel. My father reminds me that he nursed his whole family through a typhoid epidemic in Kenya when he was nine years old. I phone my aged relatives in this strange and awful time because they need the comfort of my voice but it is I who am comforted and buoyed by their stories and memories and love.

© Anita Patel, 2020

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