So, I arrive back from my weekly shop and my wife Angela says: “You’ve done so well. When this COVID-19 business is all over, you should still do the weekly shop.” It’s at this point I wonder if there’s some sort of conspiracy going on.

I must confess that, previously, I’ve not enjoyed shopping. But that was before it became a strategic military operation or even a noble quest requiring diligence and fortitude against a merciless invisible emery. OK, so this seems a little over the top, but lives are at stake here and the highest risk factor for many of us is what I like to call ‘Operation Provisions’ or ‘The Search for the Holy Gruel’.

‘Cut off your enemy’s supply line’ is a classic military manoeuvre. It’s why we need to stay at home. If the virus can’t find new people to attack, it will die either by your immune system or taking you with it. Either way it needs supply. So, too, do humans. We have to eat. Don’t let the enemy exploit this weakness. Also, I need some extra bleach in case Donald Trump pops by for a drink. I know drinking bleach won’t cure the COVID-19 problem but him drinking it would cure the Trump problem. 

I have a high chance of dying if I catch the virus. I had pneumonia as a kid playing in bombed-out buildings in Nottingham in the early 60s. Ironically enough, I found a gas mask back then and, like any young kid, tried it on. I regret to this day breathing in. I’ve had a weak chest ever since.

Angela is reasonably healthy and our 22-year-old autistic son, Johnny, is a healthy 6 foot 4 and weighs around 16 stone. Having never had a fizzy drink, sweets, very little chocolate, no gluten, dairy and plenty of healthy vegetables and meat, if ever there was anyone you’d think might fight the virus easily, he’d make a good candidate. Our worry for him is a little different. He’ll probably never be able to live independently. If Angela and I die, both from the virus, then Johnny and the State will have to find a way of coping with each other. Though that may occur in the future anyway, we’re trying to prepare Johnny with each year that passes and concentrate on giving him a good life in the here and now.

So, it’s with caution that I set off beyond the safety of my privet boundary. I limit my entire outings to the shops to one visit to ASDA per week and always midweek just after 10am. Consequently, we eat fresh vegetables and fruit for about four days a week and then whatever is left in the fridge, in the freezer or in tins for the remaining three. Like a diet weaning someone off junk to health food, or the reverse depending on your fancy.

On every day when I don’t shop, I wear a t-shirt and jeans and don’t shave. On the morning of ‘Operation Provisions’ I shave and wear my best clothes. I know I’m not going to mistake these for any clothes on a non-shopping day and, besides, it is surprising how people treat you when you shave and wear a clean, ironed shirt with a collar to go to the supermarket. You’ll find you stand out a little and it adds that extra assurance if, like me, your credit card plays up and declines for no reason until the third attempt.

Henry NormalASDA is busy any time of any day, but midweek mornings are not peak. There’s usually about 20 people queuing outside my local branch. I take four strong bags and some wet wipes. Bags for life seems like such a strange term now. We are constantly re-appraising language in view of the pandemic. New words becoming common parlance include self-isolation, social distancing, PPE, ‘flatten the curve’ and Matt Hancock’s favourite, ‘unprecedented’.

I select my trolley from the most unpopular place possible and wipe the handle thoroughly with a wet wipe. Then I put a new wet wipe on the handle and set off. I never touch any other part of the trolley. It’s like my hands have become deadly weapons. I don’t wear gloves as I found it gives you a false security. I’m conscious of my hands and never touch my face if I can possibly help it. I did wear plastic gloves one time and found I was transferring whatever was on the trolley handle to the food. Also, with the difficulty of getting the gloves off I found I needed to wash my hands anyway.

I use a further wet wipe when I get in the car, so that I don’t transfer any virus to the vehicle. I have to remember to wipe the outside of the wet wipes packet in case I touched it in getting out the wet wipes. Keeping track of your hands is a mind game. I’ve taken to using feet, knees, elbows and shoulders to open and close doors and move things out of the way. In addition, I’ve designated the index finger on my left hand as the official face scratcher although, wherever possible, I use a tissue, my shirt or other bits of clothing if they can reach.

Now I know I should wear a mask but, somehow, I find I resist this. I’m not coughing or sneezing and don’t believe I have any symptoms of the virus, so the likelihood of me passing it onto others is small. I keep my distance and, thankfully, my local ASDA has wide aisles. I take my time and do a sort of dance round other shoppers. I never touch anything I’m not going to buy. 

Angela and I compile a shopping list beforehand, but I like to improvise and add a few treats. We don’t get out much, so you need to keep your spirits up. There seems to be no shortages at this time. I was comforted to see a huge aisle full of toilet rolls on my last visit. So many it intimidated me to buy only one multi-pack for fear of looking like an idiot. A few weeks ago, when the toilet rolls had run low, I’d invested in kitchen roll before everyone else got wise. I’ve been anticipating the loo roll running out and quite looking forward to the thicker stronger larger format of the kitchen roll. I had speculated that I might enjoy them so much I’d never go back. 

A particular favourite food I always get is tinned pineapple chunks. These always remind me of childhood and so provide a comfort food, but also come in useful towards the end of the week when the fresh fruit has run out. Pineapple chunks and butterscotch Angel Delight has always been my signature dish. Pineapple seems to keep its texture in cans better than most fruit. I’ve never been a fan of mixed fruit in cans which is mostly cling peaches (not the most enticing of names) and pears with a few bits of cherries, but never enough in a clammy juice that sticks in your throat and can only be shifted with evaporated milk. 

But frozen peas, sweetcorn and oven chips are good for when the fresh veg runs low. It’s fresh bread that tends to run out first and I find that bread from the freezer is never quite right, so I get crackers.

Henry NormalI always talk to the cashier these days. Partly because I’m at that age, partly because I haven’t spoken face-to-face with other humans for a week (excluding Angela and Johnny), partly because I value the excellent work they do and the fine body of men and women working behind the scenes whom they represent, and partly because I live in fear of my card not working. I don’t have enough cash on me if it goes pear-shaped (fresh or tinned). The thought of having to abandon the food or, worse, having to put it back, is only surpassed by the thought of arriving home having not ‘brought home the bacon’, so to speak. But literally the bacon in Johnny’s case.

Arriving home is the next stage. I bring the bags to the door. Now, remember the bags may be infected. So, once all the bags are at the door, I unlock the door and go straight to wash my hands like my life depended on it (which, of course, it may do). I abandon any excess clothing in a quarantine no-go zone which is usually under the stairs or against the back window where it will get maximum UV sun rays. This is where we keep any post that arrives for at least five days (unless a likely bill or official-looking letter). I say keep but kick is more accurate.

Then I clear a space on the kitchen island and bring the bags in. I unload everything onto the island and immediately quarantine the bags. Then wash my hands again. It’s at this point that Angela joins me to marvel at the bounty I have brought home. The glee with which she greets these once commonplace items is something to behold. With the sight of a four pack of Snickers she is close to rapture. I have done well. Like my prehistoric forefathers I have risked death and brought forth supplies for the cave. I hang my head at any missed item and resolve to do better. 

I put the food away. When completed I wash my hands again. I go upstairs and take off all my clothes and shower using a lot of shampoo, put on my t-shirt and jeans and return to home-based life mode. I watch the Government briefing every day and notice, like everyone else, how they evade apologising for the many avoidable deaths. This is my new normal.

By Henry Normal

Since Henry can no longer do his Epic Tour of the libraries up and around Nottinghamshire because of #StayAtHome, he decided to take camera in hand and do an Epic Tour (released in multiple parts) around his house as he reads poems and tells stories. This is a virtual take on Henry Normal’s Poetry Hour Epic Tour that would’ve toured across Inspire‘s 60 libraries and County Archives in Nottinghamshire between April and May 2020. Click here for more information.