Shared experiences

WHEN the Covid chronicles, the commissions’ reports, the inquiries, the memoirs, the polemics and the plays and films are all gathered in, the collective experience of the pandemic will, of course, add up to a lot more than baking, home schooling, a lot of unaccustomed cleaning and improvements, telephoning friends you haven’t seen for ages, growing-your-own, catching up with missed television drama, opera and theatre on screen, and wildlife watching.

There will also be the shared experiences of helping and being helped by neighbours, friends or family members – a younger niece and friend doing the shopping during the height of the lockdown, shopping for or just chatting with friends who are shielding or quarantining because of their age or underlying health condition; the kindness of strangers; and the communal gratitude to the NHS, the delivery drivers, the teams who collect the rubbish and recycling week in, week out, the supermarket shelf stackers and the countless other “key workers” whose previously unsung roles suddenly became essential.

For most of us, these will be the lasting memories, rather than the dramas of this terrible infection, the tragedies and the occasional good news – wonderful, for instance, to hear Michael Rosen on the Today programme, reflecting on his long weeks in intensive care – the political mistakes, the arrogance and recklessness of the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and, of course, Black Lives Matter. We won’t forget these, but it is the little things that have touched us directly and personally that will stay with us.

The night the lockdown was announced, we were on our way to the theatre at Bath when the mobile phone rang in the car and the theatre’s marketing manager told us the performance was cancelled and the theatre was closing. We have no idea when we will be able to go to the theatre again – an emotional, social and professional wrench for people who have been reviewing theatre and music three or four times a week for more than 20 years.

The three months since the lockdown started have been a roller-coaster for most people. We have been lucky and we know it. We have kind friends who shopped for us when we were only going out for the permitted dog walk/exercise; we have a garden; our small country town has good, independent food shops and a pet shop, all offering deliveries or click-and-collect; and we live in an old house with thick stone walls, so the occasional very hot days have not worried us.

We had yeast and we managed to get flour; and thanks to the efficiency of Wilton Wholefoods we were able to restock grains, nuts, seeds, spices and dried fruit when we needed to. So we have done lots of baking, revisited favourite recipes from the past, discovered new things among our collection of cookbooks and cooked for single or widowed friends who are in quarantine.

We have done things which really needed doing – sorting the larder, tidying the office, making a trellis door for the conservatory so that we can get cool breezes but the house cat (who would be a tree and wall-climbing bird-chaser if we gave her the chance, and would venture out to the road where people drive too fast) is safe inside.

We are growing more things than we have done for years; it is astonishing how many different vegetables, herbs and salads you can grow in a small walled garden. Tomatoes and chilli peppers – currently making a tropical rainforest in the greenhouse; runner beans, benefitting from a properly prepared bed for the first time in years; strawberries, courgettes, lettuce, cucumber, several different sages, three or four thymes, rosemary, mint and more mint and yet more mint …

And perhaps most of all, we have enjoyed the birds. It’s partly because we have had the time to keep restocking the bird feeders and then to watch them, and partly because the absence of airplane noise has enabled us to hear them better. Blackbirds, robins, sparrows, pigeons, starlings, blue tits, great tits, coal tits, a shy resident wren who peeps around the pots and plants, a pair of collared doves, and even, joy of joys, a thrush.

The sparrows had two nests in the lilac tree, and watching the fledglings was fascinating. Initially they were just a lot of noise in the tree, and then they started to fluttter and flop on to the patio, letting the hard-working parents gather food for them from the feeders hanging from the pergola. Then they tried to get the seeds and fat balls for themselves, balancing precariously and falling off with loud indignant squeaks. Soon they flew as far as the young apple tree and discovered the excitement of bouncing on the slender branches.

Now they are noisily competing with each other and the starlings at the feeders, and my visits to the pet shop to restock the box of seeds and nuts and fat balls have become more frequent.

We don’t pretend we have anything rare in our garden, but we have lots of birds and lots of bees, some of which get into the conservatory and don’t seem to know how to get out – they have to be rescued when they fall unconscious to the ground and hopefully revive with sugar water in the garden.

The greatest delight, perhaps, even more than the song of the blackbird, who sits on the top of a neighbour’s tree or the gable end of the next-door house, was the arrival of the swifts. They fly over the house in a tight, well-rehearsed Red Arrows formation, squeaking as they go, chasing the evening insects, zooming back, dipping low over the gardens before soaring high over the houses behind … an evening show of unparalleled grace and daring.

Fanny Charles