The Great Pause
From the spring equinox to midsummer solstice, nothing is the same this year. I am bearing in mind that people are dying, and that the virus is as potent as ever. At the same time, I am enjoying the sheer silence of the early morning. Sheer silence, shared silence. The splendour of this spring’s birdsong lets us know that the birds can hear one another again, that they are practising their songs till they are as full of improvisation as they were long ago. This morning I awoke to the call of a bird which I had not heard since I was a child. Strange and tuneful migrant, waking the sleeping poet. Others will relish this song too, and question how it will feel to walk alongside the ear-splitting roar of engines again.
The arrival of the pandemic in Scotland is difficult to write about, it is just too close. It has taken me two months to begin to think about writing again. What was I doing that was interrupted? Back in rainswept February I was given a commission to write a poem about the Tentsmuir Nature Reserve, to be performed at the StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews. I arrived on the Reserve on a brilliant, cold day with notebook and pencil, boots and binoculars, to spend time with the rangers, walking the forest paths and the sand dunes, looking out to the Tay estuary and the North Sea.
Lockdown precludes this kind of field work to prepare for new writing. At the March event, ‘Sea Poetry from Tentsmuir’, I read the new poem to a live audience, a full house. They began to recite the refrain of the poem along with me, echoing the sound of the sea. This was a real not a virtual event which seems unlikely to take place again for a long time.
At home here, we are a shielded household, so we have gone nowhere near people since lockdown began. We have had to become online hunter-gatherers. No shopping and no queues. We’ve found local shops who are willing to deliver, and we hope they’ll continue to do so. The pharmacist delivered a prescription in its bag, perched on top of the Chilean Lantern bush at the front door.
We take our hour of exercise every day from our doorstep, by walking the dog on the golf course on the hill behind our house. The course is closed to golfers. We have a lively young whippet who needs to gallop every day, so Liam and I can be seen walking about one hundred yards apart from each other, with the dog running to and fro between us. This exuberant sprint can entertain any sightseers on surrounding hills and is our idea of distancing. Many of the original wild grasses are flourishing in their June growth, though the mower will be out today in preparation for the return of golf.
Growing season in the garden coincided with delays in the delivery of young plants and seeds which became a concern for Liam, who grows our fresh vegetables here. He has spent hours in the garden this spring and the greening of south Edinburgh continues.
I miss going for a swim at the local baths, and regular qi-gong classes. The qi-gong instructor has begun workshops using Zoom, and these give me a new perspective on many of the moves, which I put into practice at home.
The major change for us came at the start of lockdown when two of our grandchildren who live here with us moved to another house with their parents for the duration. Two other grandchildren can only wave to us from the garden. Meanwhile, our air tickets are on hold, to go to see two little grandsons who live in the Western Isles.
All sessional staff have been stood down at Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Edinburgh, where I facilitate Creative Writing, Keeping a Journal and the Café Writers’ groups. Who knows when groups will be able to gather again at the Centre? For vulnerable patients that may take a long time. It is beginning to be called ‘The Great Pause’. All of us are missing actual writing workshops. The memory of how much we enjoyed them is so powerful that we want to keep going.
Zoom workshops are radically different. A two-hour virtual writing workshop is simultaneously exhausting for the eyes and exhilarating for the heart! It seems as if I am running a facsimile of a writing workshop, and I have decided that this is the moment for some stay-at-home writing. We will all need to go offline to reconnect with nature and with ourselves. How much time do we spend in the real world?
This morning I was feeding the birds in the garden when I glanced back at the house which has been our shelter in these months. I caught a glimpse of a candle shining out from a room: the candle I lit earlier, with a prayer for our country and the world.
Adventures with Vegetable Boxes
I have a confession to make: as I write this, it is late May, and I have not written one single word of any creative writing project since the lockdown began in March. I sent my latest novel manuscript to my agent on 16th March, the day mass gatherings were banned in Scotland. A week later, the lockdown started. We collected our two children from university less than 48 hours before it began, a fact for which I am grateful every single day. So here we are, the four of us, at home for what seems like a very long time indeed.
I have always said that the one thing I need in order to be able to write is peace and quiet. I don’t have a fancy study – I write on my grandmother’s oak table, bought in 1933. It has irritating knobs on the underside, which my husband once threatened to saw off. He was not allowed: what was good enough for three generations of my family to bark their knees on is good enough for me to write on. Sadly, the Muse has packed up for the time being. The logistics of feeding a family of four without visiting supermarkets has proved too much for her (wimp).
Early on in the lockdown, I became nervous about the local supermarkets. I looked down the aisles at the people with their trolleys, all jammed together, and all I could see were vectors. We have two asthmatics in the family and it just seemed too risky. I couldn’t get a home delivery slot from any of the major chains. Instead, I turned to small local companies. As the lockdown progressed, a surprising number either began or stepped up their home deliveries. It turns out that you can get nearly anything delivered directly to your door – soap, cabbages, butter, whole chickens – without resorting to any of the big names. Undoubtedly, the most interesting delivery of all has been the weekly vegetable box.
It is possible, I think, to find out what is going to be in your vegetable box in advance of receiving it. The company has a Facebook page, and they post a list every week. I purposely ignore it. When the days are merging into each other and there is very little to entertain you, the element of surprise of the vegetable box is very welcome. Will we get a sweetheart cabbage (please, oh please!)? Will there be a butternut squash (opinion is divided on the merits of those)? Or will we pull the absolute last straw and get kale?
My husband is a great proponent of kale; he attributes almost every positive quality to it, short of raising your ancestors from the dead. The rest of us hate it with a passion. My daughter says the best way of cooking it is with plenty of butter, so you can scrape it into the bin more easily. Of course, we could avoid having kale at all; I could order individual vegetables every week, and leave the kale out. But that strikes me as rather unsporting. You have to take the rough with the smooth. The cherry tomatoes and sweet potatoes are all the nicer for not being kale.
The unexpected star of the vegetable box has turned out to be something I had to Google to work out how to cook it: collard greens. These present themselves as a bunch of unspeakably leathery green leaves. The first time we got some, I tried to put the whole lot in a curry, and the result was atrocious, like chewing inner tubes. The second time, despairingly, I read the online instructions again and realised I should have snipped the leaves off the stalks, and then cut them into ribbons. The result, cooked with garlic and chorizo, was really delicious. Now we actively hope for some of them in the vegetable box. I apologise unreservedly to the American friend who told me that collards are wonderful. She was right.
The one vegetable that has defeated me is the cauliflower. Kale is actively evil; cauliflower, on the other hand, is like the bland unsuspected serial killer of the vegetable world. It is not so awful that it grabs your attention, but when you have cooked a few you realise there is nothing you can do with it that is really tasty. Two of us hate cheese sauce, so cauliflower cheese is out. I made a Jamie Oliver recipe with one, and in spite of following the instructions very carefully, it was so hot it nearly blew our heads off. Steamed or boiled, it is horribly watery. I mentioned this on Twitter, and got myself into trouble. A couple of people said they wished they were lucky enough to have a cauliflower (so stop complaining); everyone else sent me recipes. I have enough recipes now; please don’t send me any more.
When the lockdown ends, I hope my Muse will come slinking back. I don’t think I’ll stop with the vegetable boxes though. It’s been too much fun!
We stand with Licorice the python at the window looking out over our lovely canal, the boathouse, trees, and an empty street. “Your hoomins are confined to their vivarium”, we tell him solemnly. He is intent on our outside. I decide that this has deep philosophical implications but can’t quite work out why. He flicks my wrist with his little forked tongue.
“Remember when you thought that the green light just behind the boathouse was very Great Gatsbyesque?” John asks. “Then I told you that it was the traffic lights.”
“But it was always green when I looked”, I say by way of excuse.
My lockdown hasn’t been much different from ordinary life although John and I had been making an effort to go out more, wandering around Edinburgh, taking photos, browsing second hand book shops, and even finding our favourite coffee shop. The speed at which events took place was bewildering. It seemed that we’d just enjoyed the Cheltenham Festival, John had been to the rugby – Scotland v France, and I’d had a poetry reading coming up for March 21st which went from being definitely on the Friday before to maybe on Saturday, dubious by Sunday, and postponed by Monday.
We take to lockdown surprisingly well considering our “quirks”. We provide meals for an upstairs neighbour, and almost daily therapy for the postman. At first John’s a bit miffed that he can’t be Parking Monitor as no-one is actually moving their cars. However he slides effortlessly into Lockdown Infractions Inspector describing what, to be fair, is an appalling increase in joggers, cyclists, walkers etc. We figure that our quiet little corner of Edinburgh is now the most popular destination for miles.
I sit my cuddly toy sloth at the window. He’s called Roy, after Roy Orbison. I potter about for the morning before realising that he has a sheet of A4 paper clutched in his paws. My partner had dug out the black sharpie and penned a missive to those taking the mickey out of the daily exercise allowance. Thankfully, it can’t be read from the street as we are one floor up. The following day I get up from my nap to find Licorice’s surplus vines encircling Roy’s furry head. A minor disagreement ensues after which Roy is removed back to his usual space beside me on the couch, minus his crown of thorns.
We slip into a routine of reading, writing, baking. John goes out for the shopping. Once Licorice has enough frozen mice to last him into winter we breath a sigh of relief. For me, it’s Yorkshire Biscuit Brew tea bags. We add dog biscuits to our must have list. They’re for the crows who come to the railing daily. We’ve named them all. Jacob is our favourite with his whitish wing tips. He seems to be bullied by the others, until they realise that he’s the go-to guy for fly-through meals. I find myself arranging leftover chips, pork, bread, into arrangements in little metal bowls for the following day’s meals. John throws it to them. We feel a bit guilty when it bounces off cars and once we nearly hit a cyclist.
One morning, after a night of suspicious whispering and clattering outside, our downstairs neighbour calls up. She’d seen two youths in balaclavas with bikes. We look outside our bedroom window, and there are two cycles, one missing a tyre, hidden from the street by bushes. I don’t know if they came back for them. I do hope so because within a day, through a FaceBook site for our local area, John had managed to return them to their owners.
I find a rather marvellous series of mysteries set around a New Orleans’ scrapbooking shop. I find myself fascinated by the tips provided and spend a couple of days planning a Gone With the Wind scrapbook, using green and red felt, burgundy velvet ribbon, white lace, and film-themed decals. John asks me how the writing is going and I delete my Amazon wish-list and decide to phone my best friend.
Her eldest daughter has made it back from Spain where she was studying. Her youngest, Lucy, is working for a care for the elderly organisation which seems to think that it’s immune, if not from Covid, from health guidelines. Until she has finished working her notice she and her sister are isolating in the cottage by the main house. It’s over a month before my friend can give Elsie her first hug. The next time we speak, Lucy has taken their car keys and grounded them. She’s taken over the shopping duties, much to my friend’s relief and her husband’s annoyance.
I realise that I have practically been living like a hermit for the last decade. Licorice is curled in his cozy hide. The crows are waiting to be fed. And I still believe in that magical green light above the boathouse.
No Room of my Own
Five hundred a year and a room of one’s own. According to Virginia Woolf, I have always had the pre-requisites to write. I’ve lived alone all my adult life. First, when I began teaching in the 1990s, in a two-up-two-down red-brick terraced house in a humble-but-not-actually-dangerous part of Belfast. The furniture was mostly cast-offs – it was years before I could afford a sofa that did not have to be covered in a throw to spare its brown velour blushes – but it was all mine.
The second bedroom was tiny, but the occasional guest needed only a bed. More important were the desk, and the bookshelves my father built in for me. They made that box-room into what I grandly called my study. I never used it for school work but for what I already thought of as my real work, writing, though it would be years before I was published.
I expected to move from this humble starter home into a marital home, like all my friends, but this never happened. The man eluded me, or I him. Instead I moved alone again to a little detached house in the countryside. Three bedrooms, which meant no bed vying with desk and bookcases – this new study was the real thing. And now, it seemed, so was I. I wrote books in that study – and people published them. I gave up my day job; I had only myself to think of. When I sat at my desk, with my view across the County Down hills as far as the Isle of Man, I felt like a real writer. I was sorry for writer friends who had to share their space, put notices on the door telling their kids to keep out. I had a room of my own. I had a house of my own. I had no demands except professional ones. I had silence all day long.
Unexpectedly, at fifty, after twenty years of celibacy, I fell in love. The kind of love I had thought was only for others. He is an old friend, a widower. His house is big and pleasant but somehow alien to me. Too few books, too many photos of a family, and a history that is not mine. But that’s OK; we are in our fifties, we have had lives before this, and I am only there at weekends. And if the house isn’t entirely congenial to me, the man definitely is: kind, funny, smart, loving. The best man I have ever known. And time spent at his home is weekend time. I needn’t write; I couldn’t write; how could I write without a room – more especially, a study – of my own?
But now. This virus. I can lockdown in my own quiet home, with its books and its view and its peace, or I can move in with the man I love. And his teenage son. And his bouncing dog. And I will need to write there, because this is not a weekend, and it is not a holiday, and I have a novel to write. But where? The house is literally twice the size of mine, but there is no study. The small downstairs room that some people would use for a study is a gym. The large upstairs room that many people would use for a study is a dressing room. This is not how I would organise a house, but this is not my house. I am no longer a guest, though I sleep in the guest room, but it is not my house. There is a barely-used dining room. I think I might write there, in peace. Nobody will disturb me. There is a large table and the room is bright and cool. It juts out from the main house; it could feel like my own little annexe; I could pretend I was on a writing retreat. I could colonise it with my laptop and notebooks and books and pens.
But something has happened. I don’t want my own little annexe. If I am here, I want to be really here. So I am writing this at the kitchen table. The dog circles and bounces, trying to catch a fly, the ultimate triumph of hope over experience. Maybe the son will come down for his breakfast, or maybe not – it is only two p.m. The man I am so unexpectedly sharing my life with is at the other end of the table. He is playing his guitar. He is learning something complicated and twiddly, which takes as much concentration as this article, but is much noisier. I plug in earphones and put on some classical music in the background. I have never worked with someone else’s creative energy in the room, but I like it.
I need silence to write. I need solitude. I need my own space. I need to be surrounded by books. I need to look across the hills of County Down.
Or maybe I don’t. Because I seem to have what I need here.