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Experience

39 ambulances whizz by

Onjali Rauf's contribution to our Stay Home collecting project
06/05/2020

I live in a terraced house in east London (the decidedly non-glamorous, non-gentrified part), with my wonderful mother and brother.

It's my permanent abode for now, and has been for the past 14 years.

Take part in our Stay Home collecting project

This is my writing chair: I bought it with my first ever book advance, and I absolutely love sitting in it.

In what ways has the coronavirus pandemic changed the way you use your home?

I have never been at home for so many days in a row in the whole course of my life as I have these past two months.

Whilst I technically 'work from home' running my NGOs and writing, I tend to do the bulk of my work in cafés and libraries, and am always travelling for talks, festivals and meetings too. It's been strange to have to try and do all that within the confines of four walls.

My writing chair and attic room have become the epicentre of all my various worlds combined, so my home has become the starship enterprise in many ways: it's the frontier to everything 'out there' at the moment and the one space I can safely traverse through it all.

How do you feel about your home? How have these feelings changed?

I love my home and the very small garden I have attached to it, and am very lucky to live in a space with people I love who understand my working patterns (and emotional ones too).

I do however have famously 'itchy feet', so even though I love this space deeply, I have struggled with being forced to have to stay indoors 24 hours a day for days on end.

The most difficult thing to bear is the endless crying out of sirens. Living in a part of London just a corner or two away from a network of major roads leading into central London, Kent, Beckton etc., hearing ambulance and police sirens nearly every half hour and sometimes every few minutes has been difficult to have to bear.

On one day, over the space of just four hours, I heard 39 ambulances whizz by. A constant reminder that so many around us are struggling to survive. It's the one thing that has made me wish I could be out of London and situated in a different home entirely. That and wishing I had a bigger garden – or a few meadows nearby to go and wander in.

How does staying at home affect your relationships?

There are definitely moments of tension in the house – especially as we're having to be in lockdown whilst fasting for Ramadan too. But generally speaking, it's actually been really lovely to just be with my mum and brother and all of us to be present and not rushing off somewhere.

Normally we're all working and my brother travels a lot too, so there can be days and even weeks when we don't see each other. Or when we do, we're too exhausted to do anything.

The most difficult relationships to maintain under these conditions for me has been my friendships and relationships outside the home. I hate speaking on the phone and to screens (in the whole seven weeks, I have managed to have no more than three Zoom sessions!), so am missing the social interaction of just meeting up in town with beloved friends for a quick tea or dinner, or driving out somewhere to go and explore somewhere new.

I am also greatly missing seeing my nephews and nieces and wider family members, especially for birthdays and also to mourn the passing of loves ones who didn't survive the virus together. But that's where mobile technology and voice messaging has been wonderful. I have no idea what would have happened without the ability to just connect over a quick message...or fifty, and ping through videos and photos too.

What do you appreciate most about your home? What do you find frustrating?

My home is filled with sunlight (on sunny days that is) from all angles, and I love that about it. And even though my garden is tiny, we have a wealth of beautiful roses and bluebells and flowers stuffed into it, as well as a tiny fig tree which attracts all manner of birds, so I utterly adore it. I also am greatly appreciative of the fact that each of us in the house has our own room and spaces to withdraw to if and when we need it.

What do I find frustrating? Hmmmm...My room is a little too small to contain all my worlds anymore, as is the garden, and I keep spotting a thousand and one repairs that need to be made to everything. But other than that, I am very grateful for every nook and cranny of it.

How has lockdown changed your habits or routines at home?

For some reason I feel busier than ever, and am actually sleeping far less than I normally would (especially in Ramadan). But I think a lot of both the busy-ness and the sleeplessness stems from worrying about what is currently happening to women and children trying to flee domestic violence or who are in lockdown in single rooms without even a TV to help them find relief, whilst trying to come up with new ways of supporting refugee frontline aid workers in northern France too. And my writing deadlines of course, all of which I couldn't keep to, as writing anything more than a few lines at a time went out of the window for a good while.

However, one major way that my routine has changed for the better, is that I am actively forcing myself to take a complete Time Out from everything. So the phone is switched off, the laptop is stored away, and I spend an hour every morning looking through books of paintings and reading poetry, and an hour in the evening reading whatever I want.

Before Ramadan, I was also watching a new film every afternoon – something I haven't done since being at university. I've loved doing all that and am definitely going to try and keep practising those mental breaks as much as I can post-lockdown. Fingers crossed I can keep it up.

How is your sense of home affected by your neighbours or those living nearby?

We have amazing neighbours. Some are quieter than others, but we know they're always there should we ever need them for anything.

My immediate neighbour is always making us treats and foods, and we in turn take her shopping and drop off anything she might need. Whilst the neighbour opposite is also mum's masseuse as well as a good friend.

My street is full of families from all walks of life – English, Chinese, Somali, Pakistani, Indian, Bengali, Turkish, Nigerian, Kenyan, Polish, French. Whilst none of us know each other intimately, we know who is who and belongs to which house, and the recent Thursday night 'Clap for the NHS and keyworkers' events have been lovely in bringing us together. It makes such a huge difference to have great neighbours.

I lived in a council estate in east London before moving to this area when I was nine, and have vivid memories of being terrified for years of the extremely racist family who lived above us. They were so awful that they would scratch up our car or smash in the side mirrors every other day, and went on doing that for years because the police seemed to be on their side and never heeded us.

To go from living in that kind of terror to being surrounded by really lovely people, is a blessing I won't ever take lightly.

More about the chair

If I haven't sat in it for a few days, I actually start to miss it (a common occurrence before lockdown). It is a rather magical chair, because even though it looks like an ordinary chair, it transports me to all the different worlds I need to be in at any given moment. In the early mornings pre-anything-else, it is my relaxation chair, from which my mind can go and venture somewhere new and take a break from the sirens and the realities around me. During the day, if I'm working on a new book or researching ideas for a book, it is my writing chair (for 'work-work' such as emails or my NGO works, I have a table I work on on the other side of the room). And in the evenings, it transforms once more into my story reading reading chair. Everything else – television, movies, dinner with the family etc all happens downstairs in other spaces. But when I am in my chair, it's just me and whatever words and thoughts that lie in front of me. In the course of this pandemic, it has become 'control central' for all aspects of my creative life: one which in 'normal' life, I would usually be utilising the chairs of libraries and cafes outside my home.

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