Helen McDermott: I’m starting to feel guilty for not always being busy

Busy doing nothing is how Helen feels at the moment - do you feel the same?

Busy doing nothing is how Helen feels at the moment - do you feel the same? - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Helen McDermott is starting to feel rather idle with all this spare time. Perhaps it really is easier to keep busy doing nothing!

It’s not that easy chatting in these lockdown days with the width of the road separating us. The conversation can’t be as refined as we might like and any whispering has to be saved for the phone. You can’t really shout secrets, can you? But we struggle on. Recently, on my one outing of the day a neighbour and I had a chinwag, exchanging news or the lack of it in the past few days. What we did agree on was that we were lucky enough to have our own homes and planned to spend the forced isolation doing the sort of jobs that we’d been putting off for years.

There were lots of good intentions, like finding out what was in the bottom or the back of cupboards stuffed to the brim with forgotten bits and pieces. And there are all those drawers overflowing with the sort of stuff we’d kept in case it “might be useful one day” and yet goes on lying there being useless, like all those keys for locks we changed years ago and keys for cars we haven’t owned for 25 years or more. There’s the promise to deal with hundreds of books on dusty shelves that are simply begging to be put into alphabetical order, though there might be some resistance there. I can just hear it. “Alphabetical order by what: title, author, subject?”

My neighbour said she had the same sort of ideas but she’s done nothing in the house at all. “I’ve become very lazy,” she said. All I could do was nod in agreement and understanding as I continued with my solitary run, which I didn’t feel like doing anyway. I haven’t even taken my new painting kit out of its box. What puzzles me is that even though I get up most mornings at about 6.30am the hours just disappear, yet the days are full enough to leave me nodding and ready for bed at about 8.30pm.

It was inevitable that the famous poem Leisure by William Henry Davies would come down the years from my schooldays. You know it? “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? No time to stand beneath the boughs, and stare as long as sheep and cows.” It’s lovely. I used to recite this on busy working days when I never seemed to get a moment to myself. But now that I do have the time to stand and stare I find it difficult to do just that. The guilt of not being continually busy is tough to deal with and yet a lot of us must have been forced to slow down in spite of ourselves.

I slowed down long enough in the kitchen to pick up a cookery book for the first time in ages. I used to enjoy cooking until I was put off by a slightly disastrous dinner party when I served up a vegetable pasta dish with Brussels sprouts. It didn’t go down too well. Can’t think why, but it was a good thing the guests were old friends with a forgiving sense of humour. After that we settled for takeaways on guest nights and never put a foot wrong.

Since taking up the wooden spoon again I’ve kept a closer watch on the cookery pages of the papers and magazines, searching for inspiration. “Larder heroes!” screamed one headline, claiming that we had only to open the larder door and find the ingredients for tasty items such as prawn fideua, fusilli with sausage and cavolo nero, chilled chilli with tomato noodles and sesame. If these are too boring try digging out some nduja and lime leaves. When desperate you could always fall back on confit garlic jarred artichoke and frozen spinach lasagne.

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These are such ridiculous suggestions that I’ve gone back to my trusty Crank’s cookery book from the swinging sixties when they opened their first restaurant in Carnaby Street. I’ve also checked the tins hiding in our larder. It’s amazing how long some have been there. There were a couple of tins of pilchards of pensionable age. They didn’t look too appetising but the ancient cans of corned beef were perfectly OK, so I think the Spam should be alright too.

One year, my less-than-generous uncle Ernie took a tin of Spam as a small contribution to a Christmas dinner he’d been invited to. It was only dated from the Second World War. They ate it. Nobody suffered. Everyone survived that Christmas and many after. Right, corned beef hash and Spam fritters here we come.