It seems we are in the still of the storms. For three days there is rain, lots of rain. It is steadfast and soft. I still walk in it, past the greyed river and lush green gabion slopes. It gets me wet but not unpleasantly so. Elsewhere, rivers flood and snow falls, but here there is just the soft rain that fades away as quietly as it has come.
We walk out to the glitter of frost and the chatter of starlings on chimney pots. The sun is strong in a gentle sky. The land has been stilled in ice. Large puddles are opaque expanses of glass. Gutters have turned white. The pavement is crossed by frozen trails from the run-off of drainpipes. In the places that the sun hasn’t yet warmed, the ground is dusted white.
It’s Saturday and the streets are full of people. Older couples pass us on their way to and from the local vaccination centre. Young people congregate at the skate park. A queue of cars heads for the town centre. We move into the peace of the dene, where leaves look sugar-coated and the grass sparkles. Raspberry leaves are cross-hatched with ice crystals. Frozen puddles surround the roots of trees. Two tiny violets are vivid among the ivy.
Despite a chittering of tits in the trees. it seems like a birdless landscape. There are people: at least five family groups and a few lone dog walkers. It might be an ordinary day – not a day in lockdown. The pond is frozen. Children throw chunks of ice from the edge onto the middle, making loud clunks. It’s no wonder the ducks are hiding somewhere in the reeds. A huge cruise ship is moored at the marina, blocking the horizon. A man is training a new puppy on the grass.
The world of people rarely slows, even, it seems, when we have been told it should. I have come out today to rid myself of a week I’ve found particularly hard. To spend a few still moments with the earth, without having to think about that thing that consumes us all. There is the trickle of water in the burn. Daffodil shoots pushing through the frozen ground. A moorhen’s call and a pair of gliding crows. On our return home, we can hear the slow drip of frost melting, and some of the puddles have already thawed. The starlings are still chattering on the chimneys. Somewhere else the world is busy, but here the stillness lingers.
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.
The lights have become a ritual of the quiet hours. Moving around the house at dawn-break, lighting the Christmas trees and turning on strings of fairy lights. And last thing at night, hours after sunset, settling the house into darkness. It is a ritual I find comforting. I am seeking light in the darkest days of the year. I enjoy the Christmas trees in people’s windows. I watch the bloom of sunrise and the sweep of sunset.
Winter hasn’t settled yet. One morning I wake to roofs stippled in frost. The grass in the park is moulded into frozen spikes, mosses have become miniature winter forests and leaves are sugared with ice. Freezing fog cloaks the river in a soft white haze. The last leaves shiver from the trees, crackling as they hit frozen ground. I hear a loud, unfamiliar cheep in the stripped poplar. The woodpecker is back. I haven’t seen him since spring, when his drumming filled the air. Now he circles the boughs of the poplar, foraging for food.
The frost trails milder but more turbulent air behind it. On another morning, we are blown to the dene by a boisterous wind that feels as though it has a storm within it. There is a watery yellow line on the horizon and the clouds are like layers of broiling waves that obscure the light. The sky is on the edge of rain. A pair of wind turbine foundations docked at the marina rise amid tree skeletons. Most of the trees are bare now. White dead nettle and tiny new cleavers push through fallen leaves. The glossy-leaved holly has shiny berries.
I find myself looking for light in the colours that remain. I look for it in the fresh green of ivy, swaddling the trunks of alders. In the bright yellow of Mahonia blossoms and the more muted bones of ivy flowers. In the yellow-green of willows kissing the pond. Most of the ducks are resting today, but the black-headed gulls squabble, scream and soar on the currents. Suddenly the sun breaks through the clouds. Immediately the landscape changes. Covered in golden light, colours become more vivid, shadows appear and lengthen. Later, the sky will darken and rain will come.
Winter returns later in the week, as we travel down the motorway to Winston’s hydrotherapy. The landscape seems bleached, layered with shades of white and grey. Purple-grey clouds loom above the horizon like echoes of the hills before them. The fields cup rolling clouds of white mist. Icy puddles are like mirror-glass. Soon the orange of sunrise lends colour, until it is leached from the land once more. Canada geese fly low over the landscape.
It’s almost time for the sun to be re-born. The nights will no longer take us further into darkness, but will move towards light. In the meantime, I will seek light in the evergreens that garland the winter landscape, in the glint of a gull’s eye and the ripple of a reflection. The light isn’t gone, it has only retreated, so that others may have a summer too.
Myrtle the Purple Turtle has been a light in the darkness since she first appeared as a story told by a mother to her daughter to combat bullying and to encourage us all to ’embrace the shell we’re in’. Mother and daughter Cynthia Reyes and Lauren Reyes-Grange, have just published Myrtle’s fourth adventure, Myrtle and the Big Mistake, which deals with the subject of harmful gossip in a gentle, caring and sensitive way for young children. Beautifully written and illustrated, this book also has the added bonus of suggested discussion topics in the back to open a dialogue with children on the subject. Available through the usual outlets and you can visit Cynthia HERE.
Songwriter Will McMillan shares another point of light in what many have felt to be a dark year, by sharing a song recorded by him and written by Barbara Baig. It is a song about strength and love, and they have chosen to share it as widely as possible so that it finds those who need it. You can find it HERE.
Halloween blusters in like an unrepentant politician. Wind tears through the canopy, whipping the park into a frenzy. A multitude of privet branches bob like scolding fingers. The lindens, almost shorn of their leaves, sway back and forth like grass skirts. Clumps of bronze seeds wave in the stripped branches of the ashes.
The crows appear. This year’s pair of youngsters are still hanging around near their parents. While the adult birds will approach and wait patiently on a nearby perch, the youngsters are pushy for peanuts. As we walk, we unwittingly play Grandmother’s Footsteps. I stop and look behind me to find they have edged closer. When I turn they hop further away. Winston is very tolerant and only rarely chases them.
A gull cackles. There are three herring gulls worm-charming on the field. It is hard to tell now what is grass and what is leaf. The ground is an autumnal checkerboard. A Moses basket has been abandoned in a quiet corner. Not cradled by bulrushes, but by stinging nettles and dead leaves.
It has been one of the quietest Halloweens that I remember. No decorations. No trick or treaters at the door. No ritual or celebration. The remembering of those who have passed has a particular meaning this year, even if I haven’t lost anyone personally. And on this night when divining the future is usually traditional, it seems folly to try to predict what the coming months will bring. I am filled with nostalgia, as I often am at this time of year. Recollections fuelled by damp, golden afternoons, wind-whipped leaves, rustling pavements and the long-ago scent of candles flickering in turnip lanterns.
The Halloween winds soon fade into days stilled and obscured by mist, but the wind returns mid-month. We walk out to the dene under a dull sun blurred by glowering cloud. Much of the autumn colour is in heaps on the pavements now, but a few trees still glow with unshed leaves. The last of the rosehips and haws shrivel on the branch. Stripped trees are still hung with red berries as though decorated with festive beads. Mahonia bushes bring cheery yellow to the withering landscape. Crispy leaves crackle on branches like quiet applause. The pond is thronged with birds. Mallards, moorhens, tufted ducks, herring and black-headed gulls float and bathe and stake their claim on bordering rocks. Pigeons and gulls line the bridge. All the action is on the pond, the smaller birds well hidden.
Yesterday, we put up the Christmas decorations. This is early for us, but we felt the need for a little cheer. The lights of autumn won’t be with us much longer, as we move towards the darkest weeks of the year. Way back at the beginning of the year – months before all our lives changed – I found fear in the darkness. That fear is fading, but I have learnt to appreciate light in a way that I didn’t before: the expansive days of summer, the golden mornings of autumn, the icy sparkle of fairy lights. I recall the infusion of light on a winter solstice two years ago, when I met the dawn at the mouth of the river and I glowed in the sun’s rebirth. The embers of that light will remain through the darkness, there to call upon when we need it, waiting to flare into life once again.
We crunch and rustle along pavements of copper leaves. The sky is filled with diluted denim clouds, the sun a foggy disk slightly brighter than the sky. A strong breeze agitates the leaves. We walk past the war memorial, scattered with curled leaves, the shapes of old wreaths ingrained into the stone by dirt and lichen. Past the stone mason’s studio, where brand new tombstones await epitaphs. Through the iron gates and stone frontage of the cemetery.
Bindweed trumpets wind and bloom along the clipped privet. A few hogweed flowers have not yet withered. Clumps of grass finger out of the dead leaves. The base of a shattered tree hosts a massive crop of fungi. A squirrel, who may have been feeding on it, streaks past and up a neighbouring tree. But there is another squirrel in the grass who hasn’t yet spotted us. Her companion chitters a warning and soon both are beyond reach.
There is still a lot of green in the cemetery, but those trees that have turned are showpieces. Horse chestnuts and maples and lindens and beeches. Yellows and bronzes and coppers and reds. They are beacons of light nearby and in the distance as we walk.
A mischief of magpies crowds on top of one of the graves. There are at least ten of them and I wonder why. When we get closer I see it is planted with a fiery-leaved rowan, still laden with berries. The magpies are feasting on those that have fallen. They aren’t alone. A couple of jackdaws hop nearby and a mob of crows, one of whom nonchalantly grooms himself on top of a gravestone. There are gulls too. One of them eyes us from the top of a tall tombstone. Others squabble and squawk in a rowdy flock. Some of them have the traces of juvenile plumage and I wonder if these are teenagers looking for trouble.
There are points of communion in every special space. Here in the cemetery, there is the fallen tree where fungi grow. The graves that bloom with snakeshead fritillaries. The place behind the chapel where bluebells and cow parsley froth and hoverflies shimmer. In autumn, it is the place of the three maples. They stand in a row, in a slight clearing. Leaves like butterscotch and lemon and honey glow on their branches and form golden pools on the ground. Cow parsley leaves and tiny saplings poke through the leaves. There is a small, dead tree beneath the canopy, gnarled and bent, wrapped in a tendril of ivy. A broken tombstone, its stone cross laid gently against its base. Standing beneath the three maples, the sun gilds the leaves and takes you to another place.
We leave the gilded shelter of the three maples and walk up a narrow path. The sound of a bird singing makes me pause, because until now I have heard only the rough sounds of corvids and gulls. Listening carefully, I realise it is the full song of the blackbird, but sung so quietly that you would not hear it if you weren’t stood next to it. I look up, into a holly tree and immediately see a male blackbird perched there. For a few moments we look at each other and I hear the song again. It isn’t the bird I’m looking at that is singing, but another higher up in the tree. I wonder why it is so quiet. Perhaps I have stumbled on some secret thing. I listen for a few moments then leave them in peace.
There is a funeral about to begin at the crematorium. Two female vicars in billowing vestments stand at the door. A handful of masked guests wait outside. We pass quickly, to the shelter of a towering beech, its trunk like elephant skin, its boughs trailing petticoats of autumn hues. I think of our early morning dog walks, when the sun is just peeping above the houses, bathing the park in golden stripes of light. We wander out of the cemetery on a path of shining beech leaves. The sky is still grey. We are expecting storms this week. But the fire of autumn is glowing within me.
On the autumn equinox we head for the sea. Morning breaks on bold blue skies and whipped cream clouds. Sea and sand sparkle under warm sunlight. It isn’t quite low tide, but wide expanses of reef are exposed. The promenade is full of people, who wander over the causeway to the lighthouse.
The beach is almost empty; the sea flat and far away. The sandscape changes with each tide. Today it is tossed with boulders swaddled in bladderwrack. The sand is studded with lugworm casts and bird footprints. That unmistakeable salt and sweet seaweed scent perfumes the air. The sand martins that nest in the cliffs are gone, but there are flocks of birds out of reach on the reefs. A curlew’s cry echoes. Wind turbines turn slowly beyond the lighthouse and ships break the horizon.
Back on the headland, yellow grass is woven with bronze seed heads. Yarrow and thistle are still in flower. Sea buckthorn berries light up the borders. We sit on the grass and eat ice cream. There are always starlings here and a mob of them soon moves in. At one point there are at least forty, hustling for treats. Once they have decided there is no more, they swarm onto the grass, a sinuous horde, looking for earthier fayre.
The equinox ends with a sky full of storm light. For two days rain falls and winds blow. This is not a summer storm. It is the arrival of autumn. Outside the air seems charged. Damp and rich and full of movement. Though the leaves have barely begun to turn, the atmosphere is bronze. On a day like this, anything can happen. The fire hisses flames for the first time since early spring and the dog lies on his side in front of it. The wind moans in the chimney. The autumn equinox has passed. Summer has fled but the season of magic has arrived.
In the aftermath, we walk to the dene. For a while, our soundtrack is the hubbub of starlings. I wonder if at dusk they join those at the island to murmur into darkness. The sky is moody but dry. A row of linden trees are beginning to curl and brown. Small tree limbs blown off in the storms cover the ground. The sports centre around the corner has become a test centre for Covid 19, a white marquee raised next to the skate park.
A gentle cheep greets our entrance to the dene. Autumn is just flirting here. Crisp bronze leaves lie in clusters; some of the trees are beginning to turn; but green is still the predominant colour. Two wind turbine foundations on their way out to sea jut over the trees. I watch through drooping willows as mallards circle the pond. A pair of black-headed gulls have taken the high perches on the jetty, but one of them is ousted by another before long. The moorhens cry occasionally, the gulls scream.
A clump of meadow cranesbill draws my eye to reeds starting to turn yellow. Sprays of orange lilies and columns of yellow rattle mingle with sienna dock seeds. Tiny fish dart away from my shadow in the burn. The edges are full of berries. Blackberries and rosehips, raspberries and haws, elder and snowberries. A pair of crows feed on a discarded Yorkshire pudding. Suddenly, a feather – grey and downy – falls from the sky, in a slow flight right in front of me. I catch it before it reaches the ground.
On the way home, I notice the weeds between walls and pavement. It has been the year of the weed. Fewer grass cuttings and weed spraying has allowed some to appear that wouldn’t normally be seen and others to grow into monsters.
We may be facing another lockdown. In this area of the country, Covid infections are rising again and there are new restrictions in force. There is tension between those who think the restrictions are too harsh and those who think we aren’t doing enough. We are still fighting for balance as we move into the most challenging part of the year. But this is nothing new. I watch a documentary that describes how the Bubonic Plague in the 14th Century led to revolts and a re-imagining of the world. That plague stayed for centuries, re-appearing every ten years or so to take its toll once more. It feels, right now, like Covid is something that won’t disappear, but that we’ll have to come to terms with.
But for now, the seasons turn. September moves into October and today, it seems, is arrival day. Not long after dawn we walk to the park at the end of the street under an arrow of squawking geese. If that wasn’t joy enough, there is soon more squawking in the air. In the space of ten minutes, five separate skeins of geese fly directly overhead. They are heading south. I wonder where they will come in to land and what they will find there. I am thankful that I was here to witness their passing.
Days are slow in a year that moves alarmingly fast. June sizzles. Days too hot to do much of anything. Too hot to walk far. Too humid to move around. I long for the sea, but reports of crowded beaches keep us away. Then the heatwave breaks at last. Wind wicks away heat. Showers drench and thunder rumbles. Relief. But relief doesn’t last long. June tips over into July and the wind dies. The air is close and still once more, only the grey-tinged clouds offer any hope of respite.
I walk to the river, down to the old docks, under a broiling sky. Gulls soar and somersault on the air currents. The river chatters past in grey-blue peaks. The yellows and purples of summer wildflowers are in evidence, but the gabion baskets have been crisped. A few hardy clumps of valerian, nipplewort and wild parsnip remain, but mostly the rusty baskets sprout shrivels of yellow and brown.
There are fewer people around than at the beginning of lockdown. A purple-haired man wobbles towards the ferry singing a song. Further along, a family is fishing. There is a cruise ship docked upriver at the marina. It has been here for weeks. Usually cruise ships visit for a day or two, but this one has nowhere to go. I walk to the ferry landing to check on the kittiwakes. They have made the barest of nests from seaweed. Now covered in guano, they are like dusty wigs shoved on a shelf. I think I can see three chicks among the chaos on the sill.
In the passage of this virus, this feels like the strangest time of all. Everything is changing and yet nothing seems to have changed. Rules are being relaxed. I have hugged my mother-in-law. I have visited work. Many people are behaving normally. And yet the virus is still here. We are moving – sometimes slowly, sometimes too fast – inevitably to some kind of new normal. I wonder if I have imagined these last few months in which everything was different.
My creativity has flagged. The painting and drawing has paused. I still don’t feel like I have anything to say. My novel has been waiting for review. Early this year it was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition. Later, it was identified as a ‘quality manuscript’ by a manuscript assessment agency. They’ve asked to see it again once I make some changes, with a view to possibly recommending it to industry contacts. And yet it sits there untouched, highlighters on top, ready to be looked at again.
I turn from the river and walk up the steep bank towards home. The empty windows of the old school burst with vegetation. Bindweed throngs the banks and brambles are in flower. Halfway up, the rain comes: fat dollops of rain that soak me quickly. It is the kind of rain that usually accompanies thunder, but there is no storm. I revel in the reprieve from the heat and keep moving.
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
I walk through the park I walk in almost every day. I have walked here so many times it must be layered with the imprint of my feet. The grass has been shorn. It had crisped and browned in the sun, but three days of showers has re-greened it. I look out for the crows, tending their nest high up in the canopy. I notice the clusters of wall barley that have sprouted against walls and around the base of trees. I enjoy the scatters of daisies and buttercups that have survived the shearing. I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’m walking, but to the signs of life all around me.
I take walking for granted. Walking roots me into my landscape. It keeps me in touch with what is happening from ground level. It enables me to watch the progress of the seasons. It confirms that I belong. Exploring on foot allows me to find those spaces in which I can experience the magic of the natural world.
I take it for granted that I can walk where I want to walk without needing to have an explanation. I take it for granted that I belong in this space, that I belong in nature and should have a relationship with it. When I walk, I draw on memory, history, past and present to find my place in the world. Very occasionally I’ve felt vulnerable, as a woman alone, but in general I don’t think twice about my safety. Somehow I feel no harm will come to me among nature.
If I were black – and particularly a black man – it would be different. It wouldn’t matter that I’d been born here and lived my whole life in this landscape – my history and my belonging would be in question. I would have to think about where I was walking. I would have to think about how to position myself so I couldn’t be mistaken for a criminal. I would have to consider how I move and interact with other people so that they wouldn’t assume I’m a threat. I would walk with the knowledge that I might be in danger from those who are supposed to protect me. Walking could so easily be a matter of life and death.
I write nature. I didn’t set out to do that, but I found that when I came to write about my experience, it was my place in the landscape that emerged. I’m not a typical nature writer. My voice is a different voice, but it isn’t the only voice. People of colour spend less time in nature than white people. There are complex reasons for this, but they include experiences of racism and not feeling safe or a sense of belonging in nature. Ask Christian Cooper, the bird watcher in Central Park who only last month was threatened with the police by a white woman when he asked her to put her dog on a lead. An organisation was recently set up here in the UK called Wild in the City to encourage more people of colour to enjoy nature.
Nature is where I feel most at home. The streets and the beaches and the green spaces of this town and its surroundings are where I find belonging. But it isn’t a safe space for everyone. Race hate crimes in the wider north east region have tripled in the last 5 years. There are layers and levels to racism and privilege. I learned about this by studying the history and experiences of women. I kept good company: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Audre Lorde were some of my teachers. On occasion, when tanned, I have been called racist names, but I’ll never know how it is to walk through the world as a black woman. I think I am self aware, but I know that I will have biases and prejudices I’m not even aware of.
There are moments in time that feel like tipping points. Brexit. Me Too. The most recent focus on Climate Change. Covid-19. All of these have felt, at times, like momentous changes (for better or worse). George Floyd’s death brings a rising up of grief and outrage that – it seems – can’t be ignored. And yet we’ve ignored so many other deaths. I wonder how history will judge these moments. I hope they’re enough to change us for the better.
Some further reading on people of colour, nature and walking:
I watched the cherry blossom bloom and fall. Then came the May blossom, until it too faded. Dandelion petals shrivelled and became clocks. The grass, uncut, flowered into lilac ripples. Clumps of cow parsley unfurled and frothed. It has rained only once in weeks of hot, dry days. Plants yellow and crisp. Leaves are seared from the trees. Nature shows that time is passing, but there is little else to mark the passage of the season. A sprained knee has kept me close to home and each day feels much the same. Days blend into weeks. The solstice is only a month away. I’ve found I haven’t much to say.
I have moved from words to vision. From letter to line. I painted the songbirds that were my jewels of hope among the thorns of winter. I drew life models along with thousands of other people through the BBC and had my sketch of a woman with a cello mentioned on the programme! I imagined a version of ‘home’ in response to a theme on Grayson Perry’s Art Club. I painted a portrait of Rankin with scores of others through Sky TV. Now, I am painting illustrations for poems. I have had nothing to say in words, but my creativity has flowed out in pencil and paint.
Woman with cello
When I draw I try not to pursue perfection. Too often when I want something to be good, it strips away the enjoyment, or stops me from doing it at all. But there has been no higher purpose to my painting. There has been just me, sat at the table with a drawing board, overlooking the yard, following lines and colours. It doesn’t matter if they’re good pictures. They weren’t made to hang on a wall. Nor do they have any great meaning. They are just shapes on paper or canvas that record, if anything, a slice of contentment in my day.
Miles to go
Do not go gentle
The Cherry Trees
There is a movement towards recovery. Lockdown is shifting. We are allowed to go outside all we wish now. There are dates for the re-opening of schools, shops and, eventually, libraries. There are more cars on the road. The grass has been mown in the park. But mostly, movement is elsewhere. It is not here, at my dining table, where I work and I paint. It isn’t out there, where the washing sways in the sun and the plants could do with some water. The children’s playground is still padlocked and tangled with weeds. There are still queues to get in the supermarkets. I’m not ready yet to leave this bubble. I’ll stay here for as long as I can, in this place where creativity can flourish at its own pace.
This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
The gabion baskets burst with wildflowers. I don’t know if seeds were dropped into the baskets deliberately, or if they have taken the opportunity to root in the cracks. As yet, they are mostly green. But there are highlights of yellow, pink and a touch of red. So many varieties of flower, some in quantity, some no more than a sprig: coltsfoot, sow thistle and nipplewort, valerian, hairy violet and scarlet pimpernel; ribwort plantain, ragwort and bladder campion. A handful of poppies has bloomed and soon the wall will be crimson with them. I see my first ladybird of the year crawling along the wire. My first butterfly, a red admiral, flutters onto a dandelion.
It’s taken time to be comfortable at home again, without feeling the rooms were too small and that I had to escape. When lockdown was just a whisper, I worried whether my panic attacks would allow me to cope with confinement. Fortunately, they were more under control by the time lockdown became a reality. I work from home now. The days are often frantic. I’m classed as a key worker, helping to provide access to critical services through our libraries. Things change quickly, requiring a response. I’m on my phone so often it burns my ear.
Doggy lockdown is exhausting
But lockdown is also an opportunity. An extra hour in bed, being at home for Winston, pottering around the house as a break. Usually when I’m out at work, lunches are taken up with walking home and back to check on Winston. Now I have the luxury of a half hour walk. Each day I walk to the river, past the new houses on the bank shored up by the gabion baskets, past the former dry docks and on to the ferry landing. There’s a steep hill to climb on the way back, so it’s a decent effort for a short walk. I hear my first kittiwakes of the season. Most nest further upriver on the Tyne Bridge, but for as long as I can remember there have been kittiwakes nesting on the two tall buildings at Ferry Mews.
Rainbows painted by children appear in windows. Every lunch time the clip clop of hooves announces the passing of a horse and gig taking advantage of quiet roads. In lockdown, every day is Sunday. Almost – though not quite – the Sundays of childhood, when shops were closed and the day was filled with family duty gatherings and school the next day. I hated Sundays as a child, but I welcome the enforced Sundays of lockdown. My days aren’t so different to those before. Normal had already changed. As yet, I don’t know anyone who has the virus. It still seems far away.
Winter returns for a few bitterly cold days, as it usually does in spring, but then it is gone once more. In the park, the crows have begun re-building an old nest in a sycamore alongside the railway line. He brings her twigs as she caws and settles into the nest. They have become more territorial, chasing away gulls and wood pigeons, but they still swoop down for peanuts. The celandine and the daisies are flowering.
Once, I would have debated whether my writing had value in such times as these. I would have worried that others had more important things to say, that my soft words were irrelevant. But it’s in these times that we’re compelled to make sense of what is happening to us. If you’re a writer, you write. If I don’t write now, in these strange times, then why write at all? It doesn’t matter what I write about, it matters that I put one word in front of another.