When lockdown started at the end of March, I found myself in the unusual position of having both spare time and spare energy. My previous full-time role, fantastic for eight years, had recently ended with redundancy and so for the first time in 25 years I really didn’t know what the coming weeks or months would bring – how would I use my time and skills in 2020?
Although blessed with a lovely home and garden where I live with my wife and two daughters, I knew by early April that I was feeling restless – and with good reason. I simply didn’t feel at ease with my relaxed situation whilst knowing that so many other people were already in need of help. I was healthy and available to volunteer, so what to do?
We had a family chat and concluded that I wouldn’t step forward to join the NHS recruitment list – we had siblings and close friends already working as medical professionals and at that time didn’t feel comfortable adding to our personal risk. My daughters needed me to be present and healthy to support their home schooling and general welfare whilst Mum worked from home – like many – glued to Zoom meetings most of the day. But I knew this pandemic wasn’t something I could just watch happen on TV from my own microcosm; I needed to be involved and to do my bit to help the community.
The right opportunity literally presented itself over the garden fence one evening. Our next door neighbour has been a driver with ECT for several years and called over to me to say they were looking for volunteers as they had a busy Easter weekend coming up. The charity had answered an SOS from the local council to repurpose the ECT fleet of green minibuses to deliver food parcels to the elderly and vulnerable. Driver numbers were already sufficient from existing employees but without a second crew member per vehicle the key element of keeping the crew safe and providing human contact to each resident would be severely compromised. Quite simply, they needed capable volunteers and they were needed from tomorrow.
The next morning’s alarm announced the start of my new role. Although delighted to have this new purpose in my life, there was a great sense of worry from my family as I left our ‘bubble’ to enter the new dangerous world of Covid 19. As we walked – at social distance – to the Greenford depot, my neighbour reassured me that although the facilities were far from glamorous they were very clean and PPE was in good supply. The key to staying safe was to use common sense.
The first briefing provided further comfort to me; clearly the supervising manager had been very thorough with preparations and the 16 crew members were all being careful with space and contact.
So to the task in hand – each pairing was provided with their list of Ealing Borough residents who had been identified by the council as in need of food and milk. Some had specifically labelled bags to satisfy their own special dietary requirements – for example, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free. Crucially, my role was not just to ensure they got the right food supplied – I was to chat with them to check they were safe and ok, making a note of any extra support or medical help to pass back to the Council.
As our loaded bus left the depot and we headed for the first address I sat in the back and wondered what challenges I’d encounter as each door was answered. How to strike the balance between being warm and friendly to everyone but to ensure we remained on time? I feared getting stuck on the doorstep for an hour as a lovely old lady realised she had someone to talk to for the first time in ages – how I could say, “No, sorry I’ve got to go!” to someone who clearly was so lonely?
My thoughts inevitably returned to my late Grandmother – I’ve missed her so much over the last two years but felt thankful she didn’t have to encounter Covid as her weak lungs wouldn’t have had a chance. Well up a bit, give a contemplative sigh.
I tried to retain focus as we arrived outside the first address, a terrace house in West Ealing. Gloves – check. High vis vest – check. Clipboard – check. Double check the house number and name… who are we visiting first?
As the minibus stopped, I grabbed a weighty bag of provisions in my right hand – mostly tinned food, tea, sliced bread and a four-pinter of milk. Slide the side door open with left hand, shuffle forward to exit and then half trip over the bag and nearly slip down the step. Slow down, be careful Chris!
The trick here clearly was going to be finding the right technique and system. Next stage. Put the bag and milk down first – making sure the front door can still open. Ring the bell – did it actually ring? Knock on the door loudly. Take eight steps back. Wait. Wait a bit more. I think I can see movement. Yes, great. Door opens cautiously. Warm smile.
“Hello Indira – I’ve got your food delivery for you from the Council.”
“Oh Thank you so much dear, that’s really wonderful.”
“How are you? Is everything ok?”
“Well, I’m feeling really fed up with it all – being stuck here not being able to see my friends and family anymore. I just don’t know what to do or how long this is going to go on for? I’m worried.”
“Yes, it’s completely rotten isn’t it? All we can do is stay safe and help each other where we can. Have you had a few telephone calls? Have you got neighbours looking out for you? Do you need anything else urgently?”
This first exchange was fairly typical of many of the conversations with residents I met across the last few months. An overwhelming feeling that this time in our lives was unprecedented and it was simply unfair – the invisible bug generally hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.
The sense of satisfaction I got from delivering the food and providing a few minutes of company to each resident we visited was significant. I knew I was adding some real value to their lives at the most basic level – fuel for the body and human contact for the soul.
I remember those who were in the most difficult situations: the man with a broken leg, the guy who was waiting for his heart bypass to be rescheduled and, especially, the lady with throat cancer who accused me personally of threatening to stop her food deliveries! Her potty mouth will stay with me for a while – despite the fact that I left her with a smile on her face having reassured her everything was in hand and ok.
As I’ve enjoyed the beautiful warm evening sunshine in my garden during the summer, I’ve remembered ironically how the heat we’ve had has actually made life so much worse for some and how I wish I could do more to fix the many challenges I’ve seen. For the lifts to their 11th floor flat to be fixed. For the stairwell to be clean of litter and not stink of urine. For the noise and smog from the adjacent A40 to be less (how bad must it be in normal times?). For the flies and putrid smell that originate from the dirty shop bins to be no more.
Of course, there was some light relief along the way. I recall the conversation with Charles, a war veteran who was so desperate for a chat that he insisted that I must talk him through the full contents of his bag…
“Here’s a packet of rice.”
“How do you cook that then?”
“You just boil it in a saucepan of water.”
“No I really can’t be doing with that. Have you got me any rice pudding though? I like that. Yes – you have – good lad you’ve looked after me there, eh.”
The majority of beneficiaries were those in troubled times and fairly depressing surroundings. But my conscience has been stirred and I now find myself grappling with other unanswered questions, frustrations and guilt. Why have I not done more charity work before? Why is society not more caring? Why do I have the right to all that I have when others have so little? Am I just another selfish human being?