14 minute read

Rebecca Tantony: A Recipe for Solo Isolation

A Recipe for Solo Isolation

by Rebecca Tantony


March 2020

Take one woman– fat heart, impatient

as time. Add the unpredictability of water,

how a fire becomes its own death, the spread

of a pandemic’s reach. Sprinkle the ease of

looking; a slow sip of coffee, the chase of light through

an open window. Fold in on itself then eat raw,

eat hungry, eat with your open palms, eat reckless,

eat alone, eat surrounded. Eat until satisfied

with what sits inside your being.


My mother waits in a room full of numbers. I keep taking away her frown and adding a giggle. Learning her was like pulling the heart from a chicken. It was like vacuuming a floor then standing back to admire what had been left. We would all share bath water once a week. The four of us – my brother, father, mother and me. I’d go in just before she did, my skin probably attaching to her own, my body the ghost of where my mother’s would enter just minutes after mine. Both of us learning how to stay afloat in our own special kind of way.

I dream of a god I long

to meet. The Tarot points

a finger at me and it feels like

the strangest nostalgia. My

brother has a religious moment

on a bike ride through Cheddar.

Everyone looks like they’re having

the best walk of their lives

and I seem to be obsessed

with those who stroll alone.

Night is a lot more frightening

than day. I keep recalling trips

away; parma ham in thin bread,

loud voices raising in bakeries,

shots of coffee on yellow terraces.

Schedules are good. So is not

keeping to them. I realise I cry

a lot. Often and with depth.

I seem to be made of water.


Today I am pale slate, the breath of the walls enclosing me. I have been ill with the symptoms no one wants to suffer right now. I haven’t seen anyone for nearly a month and everything hurts. With each one of my intimate family within thirty minutes distance, I wonder if we chose this separation or if we believed that we had no other way.

My grandfather left my grandmother to bring up five children. So the authorities took those five children and left my mother in an orphanage, where she spent the rest of her childhood. My mother was always the one who saved me from going under. Now she is seventy-six and sits in her council house waiting to be told when to leave. My father is twenty minutes down the road in another council flat. He was put into care for a while when growing up. They both learnt early on that survival was independent from others. That home is something transient and unreliable. I have never lived with a boyfriend. I don’t know how to trust I will stay in one place that long.


Age fifteen I sat on the floor of a distant relative’s spare bedroom, listened to a Texas CD and tried to make sense of myself. I seemed to find who I was in other people’s mouths. I knew I was sad, I tended to want to break things, but I seemed to have left my body somewhere, so it was hard to know exactly how my sadness looked.

While I was growing up my mother left my father for one year. She took my brother and I back to Margate with the idea of starting again. I was fourteen at the time and spent most evenings locked in my room imagining my friends’ laughter and planning ways to hear it again. I’d bunk off school often and when I was there I’d pretend to be a lot stronger than I was. Some girl punched me in the playground and I laughed. When the drama teacher played Fast Car by Tracy Chapman I burst into tears then pretended I was acting out a scene. On my fifteenth birthday I went down to the local bus station and brought a one-way ticket back to Somerset. Running away felt both exhilarating and boring. I arrived in Bristol by evening and slept on the bottom bunk of my best friend’s bed. I didn’t wake up for three years.


It is March 2020 and on the radio a Texas song plays while I am cooking. I am returned to early 2000. I see myself bent over the CD player, puzzled and unsure of what I am searching for. I decide to fill that spare bedroom with water, in fact all the spare bedrooms I spent my teenage years in I hose down until they are all just boxes of ocean. We all let ourselves cry this time, the hundred versions of me, until finally we are submerged in ourselves. Then I assemble her back. A pluck of hair, the blink of eyes, the rush of a heart, that furious brain, those elastic limbs, that hungry stomach. A whole body. A whole moment. A whole girl together once more. I ask her what she has learnt of her sadness now.

April 2020

I was born in Margate and back then it wasn’t cool to be born in Margate. Summer 1992 - an arcade machine on the seafront, clashing kids losing themselves to slot machines. The treat of McDonald’s on your birthday, DreamLand down the road and the girl who went on the rollercoaster and died. The memory that it could have been you. Salty chips and smacks. Those hard smacks when you were rude or loud or brave. How you won a soft horse in the angry claw of those arcade machines and slept with it for fifteen years. You didn’t know you were poor. But you were. Everyone seems to be poor here. My nan brought up my aunty in an East London squat, alongside Mad Franky Frazer’s sister, whilst my grandfather was in prison. My grandfather was a gang member and my father’s childhood was spent trying to belong to a group, but never feeling he did. My nan boiled potatoes and smoked fags in my dead grandad’s chair. She used the cheap salt for flavour. I saw a horse in her flat once. Watched as she clambered on top of it and rode away over the top of DreamLand, and just for luck, threw that tiny town behind her left shoulder.

Boxing gloves on, I pull a meat

hook then clench. Consider throwing

my own mouth into the wall but instead

dance Tarantella, until my fight is a Sicilian

holiday. I am hard on myself with parts

I promised to soften. I keep those bits quiet

in a suitcase I never bothered to unpack.

I try a Zoom call with friends and their faces

make the hurt instantly turn into butter.


Today I am lemon punch, the only fighter in the ring. It has been two months of solo isolation now and whilst washing up the evening dishes, hands wrist deep in foam, I find the head of a horse submerged in the water. As I lift it from the bowl an entire body follows, the torso slippery, the swishing tail covered in suds. The horse, a stallion I soon come to know, stands grazing the space between worlds, stamping his hooves on the kitchen Lino, braying his brave voice. I am ecstatic as my parents could never afford riding lessons when I was a child. He stays for five days, trotting between rooms, eating tax returns from my open palms, galloping to the top of the road and back down again. Everyone pretends not to see him. I stand at the front door, mouth slack, eyes lost in his thick limbs. The extraordinary of the horse on our little city road, weaving in and out of parked cars, head tilted to the future. When I point and say, Look at my new horse, his golden mane, his rich skin, people shuffle their eyes, mummer into the familiar of one another and slam themselves shut. I thought the horse and I might leave for somewhere, a forest perhaps or a beach in Cornwall. But on day five he disappears. I hear the ping of the microwave and rush into the kitchen to find him gone. Just a sad smell remains. A very sad smell.


Today I am natural calico. There is so much time to think about all the hours before a pandemic entered stage right. I know it sounds ridiculous but I feel my grandfather inside of me. I feel his anger and his despair move between my throat and hands. This morning I smashed my favourite coffee mug by accident and I know the rage that followed was him uncurling. The house of both our bodies ignited has set the furniture on fire. We redeemed ourselves with another glass of petrol.

My friend Jonathon says in solo isolation you can do nothing but see yourself fully. I am facing angry men and powerful women on repeat and how their stories have sometimes become my own. My great grandfather on my father’s side was an escapologist, tying himself in chains and jumping off piers to free himself underwater. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was an African ventriloquist, throwing his story into someone else’s body. Both of them trying to detour who they really were. Both of them made of magic and the possibility of escape.

May 2020

Today I am kiwi crush. My street has started a WhatsApp group which mostly involves images of cakes and requests for various food items. It feels good to be a part of something greater than my own face. One afternoon 59 suggests cooking Paella for everyone. They send updates of the process; a dish the size of a small moon brimming with rice and peppers, home baked brownie and round tortilla. Grandfather’s secret, we are told. I collect the secret at 8pm and it fills the hole-in-my-stomachwith-my-heart. Another time 23 drops me a bag of wood for my outdoor fire and the smoke drifts over the back gardens and towards his kindness. When my car is hit by a delivery driver who then leaves a fake number, 17 places a flower on the windscreen. 22 bakes me a homemade flapjack once a week. 53 longs over the fence and we share mornings together. Nature keeps delivering a whole heap of wonder for us all to open.


My neighbour DMs wondering if birds have different accents. Four houses apart, we both love the evening concert of voices. This evening the sky hurts. It is that hopeless navy, unafraid to show all of itself off. Nature seems to wear a whole new outfit and my eyes fill with its truth. All these birds cooing from the back-throat of time and me only just listening. Was the world always this alive? Rowdy pigeons, flirtatious seagulls, a murder of crows. I can hear West Country, I return. Defo Brummie there, he responds, That one is ordering a pint, selecting a tune on the jukebox, telling the person he loves that it’s all going to be okay. Yeah, I say, I heard that too. It was in the lilt, in the wonder of language, in all that impossible freedom.


Today I am hectic mocha. The shot of emotion, half bitter, half necessary. Years ago, I remember lying in bed with a boyfriend and feeling alone. In the depths of intimacy isolation has shouted the loudest – when we aren’t meant to feel separate and still do. Alone and not lonely. Surrounded and in solitude. I want to learn this isolation next to others. I don’t want to make it wrong or validate it as truth. I want to embrace and decide what is mine and what I have learnt. It has been three months and ‘the alone’ has something familiar to it now. Something of turning towards the strange unknown and being curious to what’s discovered.


One day all my dead relatives gather together in my flat. Some ask me to remain reliving their stories for them, others ask me to move on. My grandfather’s face is worn as a shoe, my grandmothers are smoking themselves to the bone. We each wear a mirror on our foreheads and catch glimpses of ourselves often. In the silence of oscillation, I am surrounded. The flat is now cluttered with people who I want to both become and forget. I rank them in the order of importance and impact. I move in and out of their actions, sometimes dancing, then sipping cocktails or losing myself to music. Towards the end of the evening we all sit in a circle and play cards. It goes on for hours and I discover how to use the mirrors and learn their tricks. I stare at their foreheads and watch exactly what they deal, understand each one of their moves, until I can do nothing but win. Over and over every round is mine. Soon I thank them for their company and say it is time to leave. They are all too predictable now. There are tears, mostly of joy, we hold each other until something disappears. After I feel different, lighter. The remaining silence is exquisite.

We drink ourselves thirsty and think about dancing.

When I say we- I mean me- three months clean

of myself. A single flat, an entire human filling it

with space. I write to my seventy-six year old

mother and say, ‘Us women are made of strong

stuff.’ She texts it back to me when I forget

to get out of bed and calcify.

June 2020

As I catch the cat’s yawn, I notice an entire city on his tongue. I see tiny humans darting through the streets, buying loaves in bakeries, strolling their wide grins through parks. Office blocks sag with workers, skyscrapers reach for something beyond gravity. I hear the clutter of radios played simultaneously, smell soup boiling, watch teenage boys practice dance routines. Outside a restaurant a couple lean into lips, I hold my breath as they find each other. You aren’t meant to be doing that anymore, I near shout, then remember this city is different from my own. A man on a bicycle weaves in and out of risks, doves scatter in a church square then find themselves again. Then the cat closes his mouth and shuts the city down. Leaves the lounge to run freely through the streets, greeting all of the outside’s wonder.


The thick of air we pull from this room,

our voices left to fill the gaps. The sound

you make when falling apart. The sound

I make when pulling you in. It is a heavy

kind of alone, The one where the phone

becomes a holding that always seems to

loosen its grip. Is this what letting go of

dreams feels like- watching them form

and fade; bankrupt and broken at our feet.

Is this what losing everything brings?

Turning from the unknown outside,

towards the house kept within.


Today I am all atmosphere. The dreaming child laid to settle. The ease of breath after holding. My friend Naela tells me, Try to parent yourself instead or become your own partner or friend. There is a mix of humans in my heart who lead the way now. They help me decide what is best for each moment without clutter behind us. Today I am Rivera Blue, a far stretch of water, my walk nothing but liquid. I dreamt of the sea last night and my friend Ursula's daughters running barefoot across the beach. I don’t know if I ever took off my trainers and felt the sand between my toes, but I watched them both fluid and fast, and that seemed to be enough.

Curled in a muddle. The little girl

within enters with memory, sits

on my lap and promises

to never let go. We feel fairground-

giddy. She is with me now

and inevitable you.

We act as if conducting

a heart operation or dissecting

lungs. The slow puncture of air,

the final beat of living. She is

sensitive to words, so please watch

your way with language. Time

has kept her small and in the presence

of her, I seem to be growing. Perhaps you could

offer party talk instead? Balloons and clowns.

Words that will make us celebrate

all the ridiculous ways hope leaves and enters.


Today I am Rock Salt. I drive to my mother’s garden and we eat dinner at opposite ends of the grass. It feels so good to see her again. I wave at my neighbours through the window and they wave back. I know them better now. I drop a mug and laugh as it shatters, superglue it back together then plant parsley inside. It is already bending toward the light. Isolation has been getting comfortable with the eight-year-old-me who’s still crying to be held. The teenager high and staring into a lava lamp’s rhythm. The grown-up woman, parading from bedroom to kitchen as if on Nordic sails, all windswept and pushing on. My friend Thando always said home was in the body– amongst this infrastructure of bones, in the surrender to all we can longer rush building and the brick and mortar of what’s already been formed. Today I am Rock Salt, diffusing. Tomorrow I might be apricot glow. The slow lift of possibility. The warmth of a sun, returning.