Tabitha John, a student at Portsmouth College, reflects on an early moment in the pandemic, before the lockdown and when the impact was only just beginning to strike, as people started to panic buy.
I remember it distinctly, the twinge of my heart, like a bird fluttering in a cage.
It had been a relatively normal day at college, the tension of the coronavirus only gently simmering amongst the crowded lunch tables. At the time, the virus felt more like a passing headline, a conversation starter, used to spice up the arbitrary complaints of homework, slow Wi-Fi and expensive sandwiches. As I wandered past, I never would have guessed that in the blink of an eye those tables would be empty and I would be at home watching the days pass over my window.
Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I walked up to the car park, the familiar vibrations of my phone letting me know my step-dad was in his usual spot. I didn’t bother picking up. A little joke between us: ‘Spy rings’ – calls you don’t have to answer and yet signal the other had made it to the rendezvous. As I slipped into the car he let me know, with a dramatic seriousness, that we had the perilous task of going shopping, a mission appropriately named: Operation Toilet Roll.
I know it’s silly but as college got smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror and the wind ruffled my hair through the open window, it really did feel like we were on an adventure.
Initially we ventured over to the Range. Now, this may seem like an odd choice but when people have been ravaging the supermarkets of literally everything essential, you start thinking outside of the box. Alas, we were met with the shake of the cashier’s head and we turned on our heels and trudged back towards the car. Disappointed but not deterred we tried Tesco’s, Morrisons, Asda. However each and every time we were met with the usual glaring bold text: SOLD OUT. My heart shuddered. A toilet roll shaped void was stark against the backdrop of the colourful supermarket aisles.
As buildings bled into one another through the scope of my window I tried to not think about a life without toilet roll. Then again, people have to deal with that eventuality every day.
‘If I was a toilet roll where would I be?’ I mused.
We had stopped at a red light and I happened to glance over at the Subway across from the Pets at Home. My first thought was, I’m hungry, but then in a corner of my mind, a second, quieter thought bubbled up. Where do restaurants buy their industrial size toilet rolls? The toilet roll that you have to wrestle out of dispensers in public bathrooms because its size is equal to that of a small tyre. I voiced my idea to my step-dad and his eyes flashed as a light bulb lit up in his head.
We saw the green signal and the Subway was lost.
‘I can’t believe we didn’t think of this sooner,’ he exclaimed as we parked up outside of CJs. My step-dad had been a window cleaner and had frequently bought supplies from there. As the sign danced in the wind, I tried not to get my hopes up but some part of me knew this time it was different. It had to be.
‘Right, wait here, I’ll be back in a minute,’ and he slipped out of the car. A bell jingled as he disappeared into the building.
Time stretched itself out like a cat in the sun and I could barely control my anticipation as the seconds ticked lazily by. I put some music on to distract me. It didn’t help.
After checking my phone for what must have been the hundredth time I decided I could stand it no longer. I reached for my belt and pressed my finger lightly onto the red eject button.
The bell rang and I froze.
Nobody appeared and I squinted to see in the evening sun. Had I imagined it? In a nearby tree a skirmish of birds began to fly away. When, from the darkened corner of the entrance way a hand appeared and in that hand a pack of toilet rolls was held, the plastic shining in the light. It may not have been the giant toilet roll but my face split into a grin, barely able to control my laughter and my heart soared along with the birds.
Sitting here in lockdown, toilet rolls safely tucked away in my bathroom, it makes me realise how lucky I am. Since the initial toilet roll rush at the beginning of lockdown the shopping sprees have quietened down and the toilet roll was more fairly dispersed due to the implementation of rationing.
However, many people have to deal with the uncertainty of not having essentials each day whether it be toilet roll or otherwise. The pressures of lockdown are not new to them. I only caught a glimpse of that reality and it makes me appreciate just how brave those people really are.