Small consolations. That’s what the last year has been full of. We are told to observe them, to remember that life is made up of them, a series of tiny moments, most of which we dismiss as inconsequential. Yet the more we take notice of the small consolations, the more apparent it is that they are the fabric, stitching, bias binding, lining, inter-facing, zip and hook fastening of our existence; they are the full garment of life and we’re often too busy being distracted by the thought of everything we are missing out on to notice that, ‘This Is It’. These are the small, daily, hourly, momentary consolations that add up to a rich tapestry of life and they more than adequately replace whatever it is we think is passing us by.
When it all began, one year ago, some people – well-meaning friends looking out for me – got in contact to say, ‘Should you go back to Ireland? Stay with your mum so you are not alone?’ That word, ‘alone’, it haunts so many of us because we forget – lockdown or no lockdown, whether we live in big a hippy commune or in a flat for one – that life is one big paradox. A paradox because as long as we breathe and walk the earth, we are never alone, we are connected to the whole. But, at the same time, we are always alone in our self and being, in our thoughts and dreams, in our sleeping and breathing. Does that sound mad to you? Does it smack of someone who has been on her own too much? I bet it doesn’t. I bet you know what I mean, even if I haven’t explained it very well.
March 2020, my last-minute rush to McDonald Road Library before it closed its doors, for how long none of us knew. Canadian crime, contemporary Irish fiction, an English classic, and an annoying new-age fable. I read them all within the month. I began chitting my spuds in an egg box on the kitchen windowsill, chatting to them in the morning as the kettle boiled. The hush fell suddenly and, by end of the month, like Bagpuss and all his friends, the city had gone to sleep.
Then came the miracle of April, the astonishing silver lining of a golden spring. Whispers of, this weather can’t possibly hold! But it did, day after day we woke to pure blue skies, a foil to the fear. Days of wrens and finches, blooming whin bushes and whitethorn. It was the out-breath month. A sky free of contrails and the boarded Balmoral Hotel closed its eyes to an emptied-out city. Swans and silverweed and sunsets and silent days at my kitchen table, and then it was May.
My evening walks up Calton Hill became later in May as the sun crept along the hills of Fife. Where once the sun had dropped far east of the bridges, it now dropped into them, then down behind Mosmorran. Princes Street was draped with luscious cherry blossom bunting for a party without any guests. Around the corner from me, hanging from a third floor tenement window on Hillside, was a red bath towel on which someone had ineloquently painted FUCK TORIES and there it fluttered, incongruous in its peacefulness for the rest of the summer, absorbing the Thursday night applause that faded as the weeks flicked by.
June heat brought something new: Scottish suntans nurtured by grounded homeworkers with time to sit outside and tap on keyboards or court the furloughed days’ rays. An uncomfortable peace made all the more uneasy because this slow-turning, silent stretch of contemplation was being played out on a stage where tragedy paced the wings: grief and hardship over there, an invisible menace over there, a possible threat there. So who were we to complain?
Especially by July when the hobbles were loosened, tanks filled, tyres checked, and engines revved for the first time in months. I took to Ireland and enjoyed beaches, bikes and barbeques. I picked blackcurrants, picked up where I left off, picked up Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters in Belfast’s Botanic Avenue. I wrote poems in July, more in August and more again in autumn. Poems about driving back to Scotland through summer floods, about skimming stones on the Tweed by Melrose Abbey, about eating ice-cream in Pittenweem.
For a moment, I thought it was all over; I thought we’d come back down off the curve onto a long, straight line leading to something semi-normal. And September came, with cool air and blackberries and quiet warnings that soon I might not bake an apricot tart to take to Dunbar, on the drive to which I would count the buzzards sitting on poles and bushes, trying to shake the notion they were messengers of doom. Yet, if I see them as that (and I still do), why does my heart soar when I spy the kestrel hanging over the valley at Arthur’s Seat?
I took to walking the city in October before we lost the light, an urgent audit of the districts to note the smallest things: peeling doorways; tombstone engravings; a fox running down a vennel; steeplejacks up Gothic towers; crisp leaves turning, dropping. The day and night of the Hallowe’en storm readied me for winter’s darkness and blew November in fast and determined. The month that held the night where I forgot my hat and had to lean in closer to the firepit, mug of pumpkin soup in hand. Sparklers, rockets, bursts of shooting stars and a birthday cake – when you send a picture of yourself blowing out candles on a chocolate cake topped with cream and raspberries, anyone who sees it is there with you, right? We are never alone.
Walks were taken earlier in December, I met my companion on Blackford Hill by 2pm so we could complete multiple loops before dark. The first mince pies and writing Christmas cards by candlelight and late-night trips to Toppings Bookshop for William Blake, Hope Mirrlees, Douglas Dunn. Hanging fairy lights around the kitchen, calls to Canada, end of year MOT, a new writing desk for a fiver. (A fiver!) The last trip of the year to Dunbar for stollen and tea from a flask whilst huddled in a freezing Lauderdale Park with a tetchy toddler. Last trip there for some time. We knew it was coming, this boxing ourselves away in January along with the tinsel and baubles.
New Year brought a deep hibernation. Dark and cold and wet because this thing had warped and shape-shifted its way around the world and back again. It rolls through in peaks and troughs, the rise and fall of the inbreath and the outbreath, the neap and spring of the tide. It will run its course. There is a tracing of hope in our thin patience: vials of vaccinations; a wise old man taking the reins of the free world; the sun once more creeping, inch by inch, up the Fife coast; courage in the clumps of snowdrops pushing through.
By February, flecks of orange and purple appeared. The joy of the crocus for Valentine’s Day. A week of glorious, thick, squeaky snow. Sledging on my belly in Holyrood Park beside students improvising on roasting trays and foil lagging for boilers. And the rollcall for jabs is well and truly rolling.
A full turn of the wheel has returned us to March. A dozen spokes, each with a dozen stories, from which will flow a dozen more, and so on. Stories came by email, by phone, by old-fashioned letter. Stories in my head about the day the sparrowhawk landed in the tree and stared into the kitchen as though I were its quarry, about dissecting Yeats with my niece (“my glory was I had such friends”), roasting a chicken with my nephew, dancing alone in my kitchen to Blondie, putting on my new lipstick before I clicked on the zoom link to see the York women, becoming bored with my own thoughts, loving David Whyte, Michèle Roberts and Francine Prose. Writing. Hooking myself to words, to the page, to the glow of the screen on my lap. Being so caught up in recollecting and recording the consolations of what was, what is, and what might yet be, that I am – paradoxically – whole and happy in this moment, consoled.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,…”