The Stories of Our Times podcast is interrupted by my ringtone. I fight my way through the empty bags hanging off my arms to reach the back pocket of my shorts.
I wince at the common mispronunciation. “Yes?”
I already know who it is.
“Hi Pam!” I tilt my head and close my eyes against the sun as Pam proceeds to ask if it’s a good time to call with her list, then immediately launches into her list.
“Sorry, Pam, can I just stop you there? Give me a minute and I’ll locate a pen!” I use my best smiley voice.
Not usually one for chatty telecoms, I’m learning on the job through pushing comfort zone boundaries. Since starting volunteering, for which I call people to check how they are and go shopping for them, I’ve become more confident and realised that phone conversations don’t have to be perfect.
Single-handedly rifling through my handbag, whilst maintaining pace towards the Co-op for someone else’s grocery collection, isn’t working. I drop to the ground for a deeper rummage but eventually concede I have zero writing material about my person.
Pam is filling the silence by reminding me of her ailments, so I jump in with sympathy and a gentle steer into cheerier conversation. We agree that I’ll call her back in a couple of hours and I continue through the park to collect Clara’s shopping.
Before I enter the Co-op, I don the PPE kindly donated by one of the other volunteers from her currently closed beauty salon: latex gloves squirted with cleansing spray and a facemask. We were each issued with two pairs of gloves, but my first ones were tiny and caused some unexpected Covid collateral when a diamond dug into my ring finger during a grocery run, exhuming a chunk of skin. The site then got infected, inflicting the most pathetic of war wounds.
I pack the load into my Ikea bag and trudge off to locate Clara’s handsome regency villa in leafy North Leamington. She is, like everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, terribly grateful. A few weeks ago a guy opened the door, put his hand to his chest and thanked me like I’d saved his life. The bags contained Easter eggs and the sounds of children chirped from the house, so I was delighted to have brought treats in a depressing time.
However, there was an awkward start to the first phone call I made. Frank was frankly alarmed and appalled. ‘And who are you? And who’s given you my number?!’ We unpicked the mystery and he grouchily realised his Scotland-dwelling son must have contacted the volunteers because his father needs to self-isolate. ‘Always bloody worrying about me’.
Despite the cranky kick-off, the conversation took a beautiful U-turn and by the end Frank was lauding how wonderful it is that people care. He confessed he was overwhelmed with offers for help, given that his son had also placed an Asda delivery and contacted numerous neighbours to be on standby. Aware that yet another do-gooder probably served to remind him of his vulnerability, I left him with my number but promised not to keep badgering him.
My work is through Covid-19 Mutual Aid – a national organisation covering hundreds of communities, each branch run by volunteers. A lack of central management means it feels very grass roots – we’re local people who found each other via Facebook, during our individual desperation to do something useful. The group inflated and morphed into more of a moan forum, so the people wanting to take action instead of bitching about their two-walks-a-day neighbours broke away to WhatsApp.
The methodology evolution was heartening. We mobilised quickly and began fulfilling requests before the chaotic admin was addressed. A few people took on coordination roles and we figured out some simple good practice (i.e. common sense). Someone who is shielding, but still wanted to be involved, arranged for leaflets to be printed and allocated a unique distribution area to each of us ‘on-the-ground-ers’. I developed a nervous disposition and increased appreciation of postal workers, given that the resident canine at every other house made me jump out of my skin.
Our little team might never recognise each other in the street, but a common goal and comradeship initiate in-jokes and empathy. The rounds of ‘good morning’ in the chat thread, along with a few weather-appropriate emojis, feels like a contemporary version of walking around the village and doffing hats to familiar faces.
My motivation for volunteering is obvious and widespread; that sudden plunge into feeling utterly useless experienced by a vast proportion of the population. Despite the subliminal message that our jobs are laughably pointless now the sh*t’s hit the fan, we still have limbs and brains that can surely be re-jigged into some variation of value.
Cue the volunteer movement, an unexpected by-product of which is the camaraderie around cursing career choices and life problems that now seem shamefully trivial. I confessed the other day that I’ve got both PCR and clinical trial management in my disjointed work history – and everyone agreed that I could have been useful, once.
However, if I have learnt anything from the past decade, it’s that ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ are shackles that paralyse and prevent progress. The only way through is to do what you can, right now in this moment, to make tomorrow a bit better than yesterday. Hence here I am, helping the national effort in the optimal, safest way available to me. And somewhere between collecting cream crackers and Cadbury bars for Pam and delivering armfuls of pills for George, I realise I hope I’ll still help them out in future. Regardless of R0 or vaccine viability, these people remain vulnerable and would benefit from ongoing goodwill.
I encounter repeated expressions of joy that ‘people care enough to do this for free, for strangers?!’ The fact such utterances are laced with surprise has a weighty impact on me and I’m motivated to spread the message. Of course I care. It crushes me that people are struggling with daily tasks, alone or perhaps caring for a spouse, unaware that someone a few streets away has time for them. Surely the nationwide philanthropic performance including stitching, cooking, donating and delivering demonstrates that the default position of most of society is that if we have the means to do so, we’ll happily aid another in a time of need? Perhaps we just don’t show it enough.
Maybe the mobilisation of small-scale volunteer groups will be one of the constructive embers left by Covid-19’s catastrophic rampage. There is now somewhere to turn to for help with basic errands. I fully appreciate that there aren’t many people able to devote time even if they wanted to, but if the fortunate few continued to slot the odd act of kindness into our schedules then the positive repercussions on public health and NHS burden would persist.
When I dropped George’s dementia medication on his doorstep, I didn’t consider the chemicals to be the most crucial element of the delivery. The gesture that no-one is ever alone in their suffering was far more important; and the shining eyes of George’s wife implied mission accomplished.