Breathing

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.

Meanwhile

Suddenly there are leaves.  Tissues of green illuminated by the afternoon light.  Dabs of lime like fireflies strung across dark branches.  Suddenly there are lacy florets waving from boughs of ash.  Spindly posies springing from maple twigs.  And suddenly there is blossom, wanton wild cherry blossom.  The trees have come to life and suddenly we will forget that they were ever bare.

There is a space in the town centre that was once a small bank.  Now, its empty rooms host abstract paintings and strange installations.  In the old, walk-in safe, a video plays of a buoy silently blinking Morse code over a dark sea.  Upstairs, artists work in makeshift studios.  Sometime in the future this will become a shop or a bank once more.  For now, it is known as a ‘meanwhile space’.  It is a pause between two existences: what it was and what it will become.  And in the meanwhile, it is a crucible for creation.

Lockdown is a ‘meanwhile space’.  A time between what we were and what we might become.  Our eyes have been opened to mountain vistas and clear waters, to clean air and wild animals roaming empty streets.  Amid the fear, uncertainty and boredom, many people are using this as ‘meanwhile’ time.  A time to do things they wouldn’t usually have time to do, or to prepare themselves for who they want to be when this is over.  We are baking, dancing, singing, writing.  We are learning and making art.  We have glimpsed the magic of what could be normal if we were to act as though we are a part of the world and not above it.

The physical world has shrunk again.  All the car parks have been closed along the coast to prevent people going there.  Life is something that happens nearby.  The life of my street is more important than ever before.  I pay closer attention to the Herb Robert flowering between the cracks in a neighbour’s path, the tiny hearts of shepherd’s purse in the gutters, the ivy leaved toadflax and dandelions growing out of walls.  The colony of sparrows on our street makes rowdy music as they flutter from the privet at the end of the lane, from roof to roof, all along the road.  Gulls glide over, wings lit up by the sun.  I can hear the crows’ soft caw as an undertone.  And in the night, foxes slink along the middle of the road.

Under the cherry trees in the park, bees hum and blue tits chitter.  The sun blazes white through white.  I sit against a gnarled trunk and feel the levity of the blossom.  The trees are parasols of light, voluptuous with snowy flowers.   It won’t last long, this perfect flowering, when the green of bud gives way to the burst of white.  After only a week there will be a tinge of brown to the blooms.  The ground is already littered with fallen blossom.

The grass hasn’t had its first cut of the season yet.  It is a shaggy hearth rug, patterned with daisies and dandelions.  Clumps of grass grow long and yellow at the tips.  There are whorls of cow parsley and tiny tree saplings that wouldn’t normally have had the chance to grow.  I watch my world from beneath the cherry blossom.  A recent poll showed that only 9% of Britons want to go back to ‘normal’ when this is over.  And yet we haven’t left the world behind, we have only left the way we normally behave in it.  I want to grasp this time, to wring from it anything that is extraordinary.  I want to be changed by it.  But meanwhile, there is cherry blossom and birdsong and the certainty of spring.