We may return to normal, but for those of us who have lost loved ones nothing will ever be the same.

Monday was a good day. For the first time in a very long time, the Department of Health recorded no new deaths from Coronavirus. It feels like we’ve waited years for good news.

The last day we had no deaths from Coronavirus was Saturday, 21st March. Just over two months have passed since then, and we’ve lost 1,603 people on top of the three who died before that day. As of last evening, when we heard of nine new deaths, we have lost 1,615 people.

1,615 unique perspectives, 1,615 completely individual Irish people, 1,615 irreplaceable human souls, gone forever. It feels as though we’ve turned the corner, but we will lose many more before this is over, if it ever is over. Remember, we still have no SARS vaccine. There’s no guarantee of a Covid-19 vaccine.

It does seem an eternity since Wednesday, 11th March, when we recorded our first confirmed death from Coronavirus. Since then, we’ve all done our best to follow the guidelines, stay home whenever possible, socially distance, wash our hands, and hold the tide of the virus at bay. Many of us have lost loved ones, and many of us have stood in socially distanced guards of honour and watched family and friends denied in their grief that most Irish of kindnesses, a decent send-off for the deceased, and a hug or a handshake for the bereaved.

We’re all dealing with this in our own way, and many of us have found the going heavy. One cabinet minister – one of the busier ones during the Covid-19 lockdown – told me recently about obsessively looking at Ireland Remembers, and becoming upset every time at “the locket faces, the characters lost, the pain and the loneliness”.

I think we’ve all been through variations of that, and it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that politicians are human beings too. Me, I find myself checking RTÉ Health Correspondent Fergal Bowers’ Twitter account every day around 6pm. Maybe it’s not a full-blown obsession, but – like the Minister – I keep on doing it.

On the admittedly unlikely chance you might forget the stakes, it might be worth remembering our worst days, days which we pray are behind us:

Saturday, 25th April: 52 deaths. Tuesday, 28th April: 59 deaths. Monday, 20th April: 77 deaths.

Stocial distancing

We’re just over a week into phase one of exiting the lockdown, and I think we’re all intrigued at the prospect of easing social distancing restrictions, and reducing the recommended two metre physical distancing to the World Health Organisation’s recommended one metre. The cabinet is divided, and Sinn Fein is doing a masterful job of Just Asking Questions, without leaving their fingerprints, just in case this all goes horribly wrong.

I think we need to tread carefully. It’s hard to think of anyone – bar the touchiest, feeliest space-invader – who doesn’t already in peace-time socially distance by one metre, so really one metre would be business as usual. A friend of mine said last week: “The W.H.O. don’t know the Irish. Two metres is already one metre with us.” (I took a guilty step back at that.) “If you tell us one metre is okay, we’ll all be hugging each other.”

Still, the difference between two metres and one might be the difference that would allow pubs and restaurants to return to something like normality, and a host of jobs being saved when they might otherwise be lost. To tell the truth, though, it’s hard to see pubs ever again being what they were, and I wonder how, after five or six pints, any of us would be able to practice stocial distancing.

We’ve all had to adjust to a completely new way of living recently, and I think we’re all familiar with the double-take you do on seeing on television people shaking hands or hugging, or indeed that double-take’s first cousin, when you forget for a second how much the world has changed.

A pint on the way home

The other night, I found myself thinking that I might take a stroll into town, with The John Creedon Show on my earphones, and stop for a pint in the Spailpin Fánach or maybe the Franciscan Well on the way home. And then I remembered that the world has ended, and we’re all living the dullest Stephen King novel imaginable.

We miss the things we used to take for granted, the simple rituals that make life bearable. Like going for a drive, or a long walk, or a pint, or a sandwich, or a haircut, or shaking someone’s hand. Or a haircut. Did I mention a haircut? Me, of a weekend afternoon, I love to stop by the Long Valley on Winthrop Street for a scalding-hot mug of coffee and the finest sandwich in Cork city, and a read of the paper.

A toasted ham and cheese sandwich, slathered in mustard, is a particular favourite, although my fellow Long Valley aficionado, the Irish Examiner’s Michael Clifford, insists that the bread there is the finest known to humanity, and toasting it is sacrilege.

To be fair, Mick isn’t exaggerating. The legendary Mike Hanrahan of Stockton’s Wing once told me that when he was chef in Pat Shortt’s pub in Castlemartyr, the first thing he did was track down the Long Valley’s bread supplier because he knew that he couldn’t settle for anything less than the best. Much as I love the sandwich, though, for me at least half of the charm is just to be left alone in the snug, in the sheer luxury – the respite – of the time and space to just read the paper alone with my own thoughts.

Perhaps it will seem strange to long for solitude at a time so many of us – this writer included – feel so lonely to be forcibly apart from loved ones, but I suppose really what I’m yearning for is autonomy, and a return to familiar routines.

Some day soon, I hope, I’ll have that sandwich and coffee again. Then I’ll walk over to the English Market, and buy a couple of steaks from Eoin O’Mahony.

I’ll call into Waterstones, and John Breen will have a book that I’ve never heard of but he knows I’ll love. Then I’ll take a stroll over to Fenn’s Quay, to Skateboards and Cool Stuff Records behind the Courthouse. You’ll always find something fantastic on vinyl there, and even though their prices are ridiculously low, they’ll give you a discount if you’re a regular.

Maybe we will get back to normal some day, but for some of us, though, nothing will ever be the same. In real life the endings are never happy. We carry with us always those we’ve lost, and the best we can ever hope is that we can come to live with our losses. It’s awful, but it’s all we have.

I just look forward to the day I don’t check Fergal Bower’s Twitter account, and check Tony Connolly’s instead for the latest Brexit news.

That day I might even stop for a pint on the way home.