In a winter that hasn’t much felt like one, we came close to a white Christmas. It was Christmas Eve, and we had almost reached my favourite part of the movie Meet Me In St. Louis, where Judy Garland, clad in sparkling headscarf, sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Just as she was about to begin, the flakes began to fall. They were thick and fat, but they melted as soon as they hit the pavement. I paused Judy and went to the door, to revel in the falling snow. Across the street, one of the neighbours sat in her window and filmed it on her mobile phone. For a while there was the silent magic of falling snow against a twilight sky. Soon, the fat flakes became tiny balls and the snowstorm was over. I listened to Judy sing about us all being together someday, and thought back to March, when, walking in the dene just before the first lockdown, I had heard Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again floating on the air.
Close to sunset on Christmas Day, when dinner was eaten and gifts opened, I walked with Winston into the town centre. The hush of Christmas Day is usually like no other here. Every business shuttered and no people around. Just a life size decorated Snowman gazing down the empty street and a silence that is profound. But this year the silence isn’t a rarity. This year there have been weeks of silence and empty streets. Some of the shops are now empty permanently. The first lockdown is like a dream: hard, shocking but with a good smattering of optimism and community spirit. I remember the shriek of kittiwakes nesting by the river. The red-haired woman who drove her pony and trap on empty roads each day. The bloom of birdsong that filled the two minutes silence on VE day. Back then there was fear, but there was also the possibility of what we could do with the ‘meanwhile space’ we had been given. Winston barks at the snowman and his bark echoes back at us. Gulls watch from sentry posts on the rooftops. A half moon is visible in the darkening sky. It was a short walk, but I am already numb with cold. As we turn for home it seems as if all the gulls have taken flight and are circling in a feathered tornado before settling to their roosts.
On New Year’s Eve, we moved into the highest tier of alert for Coronavirus in the country. It didn’t make much difference to us on our last walk of the year. Roofs were coated in ice and our breath shivered in the air before us. Trees were silhouetted against a pink and blue pastel-striped sky. The crows followed us around for peanuts. I heard the call of great tits and the woodpecker from above and gulls massing in the distance. Soon, there was a blaze of orange in the west. The year’s last sunset had a flamboyant palette. Later, I would be woken at midnight by the usual roar of fireworks, despite the restrictions, but the sunset was fireworks enough for me.
The new year rides in on storms and hope. We are battered by rain, hail, sleet and snow. The wind moans along empty lanes. We are promised cold and perhaps another Beast from the East. We are told that the virus is out of control and tougher restrictions still may be needed. On those grey days when the light hardly touches the landscape, the world seems stark and unforgiving. But in between the grey, the sun struggles through. What appeared stark becomes nuanced. This year has shown us in horrifying ways what it is to be without the most basic element of survival – the breath – and how quickly that can change everything. But it also gave us a taste of what it is to breathe freely, in unfettered time and in unpolluted air. We had no choice but to live in the moment, because we didn’t know what would come next.
A few days into the year and we are in lockdown once more. The messages are serious, the numbers who have the virus are the highest since the pandemic began. Fear is whipped up by the news and community spirit is fraying at the edges. We are encouraged to stay at home. A TV pundit suggests we keep our Christmas decorations up until Candlemas for some extra cheer. The weather still fluctuates between storm and sun. From my window as I work, I can see the clocktower of the town hall across the river. The shifts in landscape bring me joy. Sometimes it blurs into mist and rain; sometimes it is clear and burnished in sunlight; in the dark the tower is lit up in different colours. The snow that lies further north and south has passed us by. But our first trip of the year to hydrotherapy takes us into a landscape softened and made luminous by snow. Out here, I can breathe in the space and light and forget for a moment the oppressive news. Out here I can remember that I am starting this year in a much better place than I started the last. At heart I’m an optimist, still inhaling hope with each breath.