The April news has been wall to wall Covid and coronavirus. It’s been the same story worldwide: deaths, lock-downs, social distancing and personal tragedies thousands of times repeated from China to Chile. A high temperature and persistent cough lead to isolation and intensive care in hospitals described as the front line in the uneven struggle against the microscopic enemy. Old age and a list of unfavourable medical conditions, or co-morbidities in the new lexicon of words, such as asthma, obesity, and diabetes reduce the chances of survival even when the skills of doctors and the care of nurses wearing suits that would not look out of place on the moon are used to tame the virus. Even so, the virus wins most battles in the dark days of April 2020.
Among hours of TV video footage, one image endures. An eighty-four-year-old man sits up in a hospital bed in England. He is lucky. He has just been moved out of intensive care and is on the road to recovery from Covid-19. The BBC and the NHS, eager to promote a good news story, have organised an interview. In standard issue rather boring pyjamas, he looks beaten, unwell. His face is careworn and straggly bits of hair hangover either ear. The unseen interviewer, respectful of social distancing himself and perhaps not sure the man is entirely free of the deadly virus, asks what the recovering patient has missed most. Now I see emotion lighten his lined face. Without saying a word, he raises both feeble spindly arms up and opens them wide, like the arms of land that enclose St Brides Bay which welcomes the sea into its sandy bosom, but he closes them on an imaginary person. He is miming a cwtch. He is wrapping his arms around an invisible body and starting to cry. After weeks of isolation, he wants to touch, to hold, to squeeze someone he loves. The interviewer awaits confirmation. In a voice breaking with emotion, the old man says, ‘A cuddle.’ I am so moved by his simple gesture and weak words.
Touch, human contact.
Touch is what everyone has been missing in these days of self-isolation and social distancing.
In my Thesaurus, there are forty-two synonyms for touch, thirty-four for taste and less for the other three senses, sight, hearing and smell. Touch can be expressed in so many ways and is so important and so universal. It is the most basic form of communication. We hold, snuggle, grapple, embrace and touch in so many different ways. Singers sing about it and as newborns, we experience from the very first moment of our birth as we are endlessly cuddled and repeatedly caressed. Our head is lovingly stroked and tummy playfully tickled. It won’t be long before we are being kissed or swung high in the air by firm hands.
I want to cuddle my grandchildren, kiss my daughter, shake hands with strangers and slap the backs of my friends. I want to raise a glass and say ‘Cheers,’ to a group in a restaurant or at a family gathering. But I can’t. I have to endure the Chinese water torture of seeing but not touching.
Daniel Defoe wrote about isolation and never giving up in his famous book, ‘Robinson Crusoe’:
‘I am cast upon a desolate island, having no hopes, no prospects of a welcome deliverance. Thus miserably am I singled out from the enjoyment or company of all mankind. Like a hermit (rather should I say a lonely anchorite) am I forced from human conversation.’ says the eponymous hero and in a surprisingly accurate analysis of his predicament continues with:
‘But yet I am preserved, while my companions are perished in the raging ocean.’
He soldiers on until he comes upon a footprint:
‘You may easily suppose, that, after having been here so long, nothing could be more amazing than to see a human creature. One day it happened, that going to my boat I saw the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, very evident on the sand, as the toes, heel, and every part of it.’
But how did he feel at the prospect of touching once again a fellow human?
Crusoe was ‘struck with confusion and horror, I returned to my habitation, frightened at every bush and tree, taking every thing for men; and possessed with the wildest ideas. That night my eyes never closed.’
If Defoe had lived through the isolation of coronavirus, he might have thought differently. We are social animals first and only a distant second comes ideas of relative advantage and superiority.
However, the greatest touch of all was not caught in an instant by a high-speed camera with multiple attachments or a mobile phone, rather it took a genius years to reveal it to us in all its splendour. It can be seen in a magnificent tableau on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, in Vatican City. Years ago, I stood and craned my neck to marvel at the sight of cherubs, shepherds, clouds and so many elysian characters across the enormous roof. Finally, my eye came to rest on the centre of Michaelangelo’s unbelievably large work. In the centre of the ceiling, God lay on a cloud. He stretches out a single finger from his hand on an extended arm to man, who reaches up to gain the touch which would put life into all mankind. Michaelangelo agonised over the design of the moment of our beginning and he showed it by touching fingers.
Touch is the greatest sensation and it’s a touch we miss most dramatically in theses times of plague.