The Rythms of Life in Lockdown London

Last September our TV signal went down. We’d just travelled from Ireland to London, where settling into our two room flat normally takes five minutes. Boiler on, yep we’ve got hot water. Fingers crossed, deep breath, phew, the broadband’s still working. Stick a pizza in the oven and watch an episode of Taskmaster. Totally normal. But that night, we had a crisis. An ominous blank, black TV screen. 

I should explain that our two rooms are in an inner-city block, part of a former jam factory with an eighty- foot, redbrick chimney that says HARTLEY in huge white tiles. In Ireland, our stone house - two rooms again, plus a dodgy back kitchen - is up the side of a mountain in the West Kerry Gaeltacht. It has a compost bin, ridges for growing spuds in the front garden and apple trees, fuchsia hedges and gooseberry bushes round the back.

Anyway, there we were in London with no TV signal and, since I’m talking Freeview, with no chance of finding a human being to set us right. So my husband spent an hour cursing his way round the Freeview website until, several screens beyond the FAQ one, he discovered the entire system had been shut down and reconfigured while we were away. Eventually, when the pizza was cold and we’d nearly murdered each other, we got it working again. Except for one thing. The clock was set wrong. Now, as everyone knows, there are two things you can do in this situation. One is to go back online, find a ‘solution’, and take the risk of screwing things up again. The other is to put up with it and wait. Because, you know that the passage of time will bring a temporary solution, and that, in the interim, a better one might emerge.

I’m writing this in lockdown in our two rooms in London, living through a different kind of crisis. I know we’re lucky. We’re well, we work from home and (touch wood) the boiler, broadband and TV are fine, But my mind is over in Ireland where, at this time of year, I’d normally be walking Atlantic beaches, visiting neighbours, earthing-up spuds, or just sitting in the garden, writing my next novel. 

When we first began to till that garden nearly twenty years ago, our neighbour, Jack, came and introduced himself.  He enquired our names, told us his, and we stood at the gate talking. He had two dogs then, Sailor and Spot, and a cat who could open doors and ate cabbage. Next day, when we walked down the hill, he invited us in and we sat at his kitchen table. The cat lay on Spot’s back and Spot lay on the floor. As we drank tea, I looked out through the door at three red hens pecking watercress by a stream.

Later that week Jack came to help us make the ridges. He had a long-handled spade, perfectly balanced for this work he’d done each year of his life since he was a boy. He moved backwards in an unbroken rhythm, breathing to the swing of the spade and turning the heavy, oblong sods with a twist of the handle. A robin darted out of the hedge and joined him, stabbing at snails in the freshly-turned earth. Beak and blade moved steadily across the garden in counterpoint. It was like watching music.

I’m remembering that today in lockdown London. No ridges were made this year in our garden over in Ireland, and the robin is darting about among uncut grass. Scarlet and orange nasturtiums will be creeping towards the front step, and scrambling over the compost bin. No neighbours will stop at the gate for a chat. 

Here at the jam factory we haven’t a garden, and the one walk we’re allowed each day takes us down eerily empty city streets. And it feels weird. I’ve written a novel called The Heart of Summer about a woman who flies off on a life-changing holiday, yet, right now, my own life is on hold. Like every other author with a book about to be published, I feel frozen. My signings, talks and library events have been cancelled. I’ve seen my book on a screen but haven’t yet held it in my hand. Nothing is normal.

But we’re growing radishes. Three frail, green shoots have emerged from a seed pot we got for free at a supermarket, after queuing two metres apart to buy a plastic bag of spuds. Right now it feels as if the clocks will always be wrong, that we’ll never get back to the life we knew, that we’re all holding our breath for fear of some new crisis. Sometimes, not knowing what will happen next feels like the worst part of all. But not knowing what will happen next is the heart of the human condition, and I do know one thing when I look at my gallant, green radishes. The earth is still turning and, all across it, the rhythm of the seasons still goes on.

A version of this piece appeared in the Irish Mail's You Magazine May 2020


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