Every day during lockdown, I take a walk up to the ridge. Some days I go early, after breakfast, and on those days the walk usually turns into a run, as I try to fit in a quick 5k before it gets too warm. Other days, I go in the afternoon, when the sun is high in sky, for some of that all-important Vitamin D. Recently, and more often, I’ve been going in the evening, half an hour or so before the sun is due to set. I walk down School Lane, cross the road by the old garage, and follow the path all the way up until I pass the speed limit signs—at which point I bear left and step onto the grass. Once you’re away from the edge of the road, the path drops down, and a long stretch of trees begins. The path is undulating and narrow, and sometimes you have to take a step to the right and walk through the grass, since it’s now standard etiquette to do this whenever someone approaches from the opposite direction. Most people give you a nod or a wave, or even say thanks, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all good.
Right now, the ground is hard, spider-webbed with cracks after a long dry spell, and littered with beech mast and broken twigs. Blackened conkers are pressed into the mud like tiny, shiny cobblestones. The grass either side has grown thick and lush between the trees, and the branches overhead interlock to form a low, latticed ceiling. The cow parsley is already waist-high, while dandelions and daisies grow in abundance, and every so often a patch of bluebells comes into view. Spring is very much in bloom, but it feels like the change took place overnight, even though it’s been weeks since the end of winter. Lately the weather’s been so good that it feels more like summer.
Please don’t think for a moment that I’m not fully aware of how lucky I am to have this little route, right on my doorstep. It’s been a godsend—not least because walking serves so many functions. It’s exercise, of course, and a chance to get some air into my lungs after being cooped up in the house all day. Walking also helps me get my thoughts in order, and when my thoughts are ordered, everything seems more manageable. The other function is something more spiritual. At a time when we’re being cut off from other people, these little hikes up to the ridge help me reconnect—not just with myself, but also with my friends and loved ones. There are certainly times when I feel lonely, but when I’m out walking is not one of them. There are moments when I’m eight years old again, holding my grandfather’s hand as we walk down to the beach together, and he’s explaining why we get April showers. Other times, I’m with an ex-girlfriend, apologising for my behaviour all those years ago, or – in one particular case – telling her, finally, what I really think of the things she did. (There’s no holding hands during those conversations). Other times, still, a memory is triggered, out of nowhere, of someone else I care about – someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time – and later that evening, sitting on the stairs in my house, I’ll text that person, or even call them, and we’ll chat for an hour, and it will be good.
A not-so-little-known fact: social distancing and self-isolation are not really a problem for me. I’ve always been comfortable in my own company—a little too comfortable, one or two of those ex-girlfriends might argue. The reasons for this are numerous, and not really worth going into here, but it’s something I’ve long since come to terms with. That’s not to say I don’t have strong friendships, or that I haven’t enjoyed close relationships, but I would say that my tendency to withdraw has caused some problems in the past. The other day, after one of my walks up to the ridge, I sent someone a message—someone with whom I once shared a close friendship. That friendship might well have become something more, had it not been for what can only be described as some rather twattish behaviour on my part. In my message, I apologised to this person, for my failure to adequately communicate what she meant to me, and for my careless actions later on. To my relief, the message was gratefully received, and it sparked a brief conversation that helped lay to rest any lingering doubts either of us might have had. The conversation eventually ran its course, and we each went back to our lives, but the point is I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind to send that initial message under normal circumstances.
Eventually, I reach the ridge. A pheasant’s cry rings out from somewhere in the distance—I can’t tell whether it’s in front of me or behind, or on which side. It’s a harsh, graceless honk that seems unfitting of a bird so rich in plumage. Aside from the occasional rush of a passing car and the soft cooing of wood pigeons, there are no other sounds. I stop and lean on the gate, looking out across the farmland, at the acres of land, glowing golden in the last of the day’s sunlight. I’m waiting for the sun to drop behind the horizon, to capture the moment with my camera before it disappears completely. I don’t really know why I do this. It might make for a pleasant image—one that pleases a handful of others as much as it will me, and that, too, is a way of staying connected, as every little ‘like’ or positive comment will strengthen my bond with the person posting. Once I get back to my house, I’ll take the memory card out of the camera and spend an hour at my kitchen table, editing the photos on my crappy old laptop, before uploading them to my phone and sharing them on social media. It might seem like a lot of effort for such a small reward, but I don’t care. I enjoy the process, and find satisfaction in completing these tasks, however inconsequential the outcome.
I know that it can seem like our lives are in limbo right now, that we’ve entered a period of stasis from which we’re all just waiting to be released. We’re experiencing time in new and unfamiliar ways, our existence characterised, simultaneously, by the words “repetitive” and “uncertain”. Some days, an image appears in my mind’s eye, a scene from my own life since the start of lockdown, and I think: was that yesterday? Or a week ago? And then I think: What difference does it make? Most of us, though, I think – the dark days aside, and the various psychological struggles notwithstanding – are working our way through this lockdown period with a renewed sense of appreciation. We’re noticing things that we wouldn’t otherwise notice, under “normal circumstances”— be that the single poppy, growing at the side of the road among the weeds, the enjoyment we find in doing a supposedly mundane thing, or how much we appreciate the people in our lives, both past and present. Once again, this can only be a good thing, surely.
After I’ve snapped a few photos, I turn and head back down the hill. The sun has set, but it’s not quite dark yet. Once I’m back at my house, and after I’ve shared my photos, I’ll probably check the news and get lost down the rabbit-hole of Covid-related articles on my phone. There might also be an update from my brother, who works at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham—all of which will bring me back down to earth, no doubt, and remind me why this is currently my reality. Many of the stories will upset me, a few will terrify me; others will simply piss me off. It’s a bizarre state of affairs, I have to say, and not one I fully comprehend. There are terrible things going on in the world – as there always have been – and yet right now I feel deeply content. Calm, and centred, and hugely grateful. How do I reconcile these conflicting circumstances—aside from being thankful and just doing what I’ve got to do? I don’t have an answer to that. Not yet, anyway. Part of me is desperate to get back to work, to see my family and friends, for lockdown restrictions to be lifted. Another part of me is totally fine with this, and more than happy for it to continue. All I know for sure is that this is a spring like I’ve never known, and with each passing day I feel a greater connection with myself; with my past, and my memories; with my immediate surroundings; and – most importantly, perhaps – with other people.
I hope that, if nothing else, lasts a little longer.