Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Keeping the Rules


I went out for my permitted walk yesterday, and returned to find this, photographed through the vine leaves by my neighbour. I thought there had been a sudden snowfall on my lawn, but there was a magnificent Sparrowhawk, being a Pigeonhawk and doing some socially-distanced outdoor eating.

She was keeping the rules, just as I am. ('She' because she is so much larger and more powerful than the male. Please note that this is a fact and not a sexist comment, and this girl was huge - even more huge when she tried to take off with a pigeon-filled crop.)

Although the very difficult 'shielding' situation has been lifted, people in my situation of extreme vulnerability have been advised to return to isolation with the exception of being able to meet one other person outdoors to go for a walk.

In recent days this has been good, in sunshine and with magnificent autumnal colour surrounding us all. In rolling mist it's not so good, but still possible. In wind and rain it's still possible and it has to be, otherwise my legs will drop off. 

What is not possible is travelling to meet people far away, or even relatively near. Not even going next door to say thank you for the photograph.

How I wished that my nephew was here to photograph this beautiful bird, but he's in New Zealand in Southern hemisphere spring-time. He has created so many superb photographs of birds (and many other things). However, two days ago we managed to talk via Skype, in the evening for me and the next day's breakfast time for him. As we concluded our talk another Skype call came through. It was my elder son and my youngest grandson, playing in a sunny room at mid-day on the same day as here. They were stacking wooden bricks and grandson was chewing on a plastic giraffe in front of huge windows with views of sky-scrapers and distant snowy mountains. Not their usual views in Austria. Grandson is in Canada for his parents' wedding tomorrow and the distant mountains are the Rockies.

I've not yet been able to meet my nine-month old grandson, I won't be able to attend my son's wedding, I haven't properly talked with my nephew for a long time, but I genuinely, genuinely feel a very fortunate old biddy.

I'm still here, and there is now some hope of this solitude changing. In the meantime technology enables me to reach across the world, over time-zones, through night and day, into tomorrow and back to yesterday: to see and talk to people who are so important to me, to have virtual suppers with grand-daughter and grandson senior, to witness the development of a baby and to have some form of attendance at a wedding half a world away.

We keep the rules in the huge hope that they, and the possibility of vaccines, will work.

Monday, 21 September 2020



They come and they go,  leave and return, sometimes travelling huge distances, scything through the air before arriving at a familiar site, arriving for food, warmth, safety and comfort. They are mysteriously drawn to the place they knew first, where they learned to fly, to swim, to crawl. They can travel through darkness, cold and heat. Then, in this place of ancient memory their offspring are imprinted with the knowledge of the same journey and will be able to navigate the same complex route, following the patterns of the stars, the smell of the rivers, the temperatures of the changing seasons, the many other chemical and geo-physical factors involved, most of them still mysterious. Here, in this special place they too will realise the  importance of familiarity, the value of sanctuary. In turn so will their offspring. And so on, through the generations.

I live quite close to the river Severn, near to a place where a special route is being created to enable returning salmon to continue their journey from the cool waters of the Atlantic ocean, upstream to their spawning ground in the middle of this country. There, often in the exact place where they hatched, they lay their eggs. As the eggs develop into infant smolts the tiny fish leave their freshwater spawning grounds. Their bodies develop the ability to live in salt water as they begin their journey back to the sea. A form of adolescence perhaps? After several years of travelling huge distances in the oceans many adult salmon return to the exact location of their hatching place. Where they die creating more life, but I don't need to emphasise that bit.

Sometimes, not quite so often in the last few years, I can watch and hear the screaming aerobatics of house martins, swifts and swallows who have flown thousands of miles to raise their families here, then to return the youngsters to warmth for winter. In turn their off-spring will make the same annual journey from the heat of Africa and Southern Europe to raise their own young in the cool, damp, insect-rich British countryside. They have left now, as the nights grow cool at the equinox. Not all of them will make it back to their warm holiday homes, many will die, young and old during the course of their extraordinary and perilous travelling.

The frogs hop back to the garden pond where they were hatched. They know where they are in the garden. They know the good, soggy hiding places. They know all about the Spring Frog-Fest, the noise and spluttering excitement, and the tadpoles know too. They come back and join in the next year or so. Those that the heron and the grass snake haven't met.

The family raised in the house come back too, equally attracted by familiarity, comfort, memories and usually at least three puddings at lunch-time. Their offspring are (and hopefully will be in the case of the yet-to-be-met little one) familiar with every bit of this house and garden. They know where their parents' old toys are kept, the best hiding places, the incline where a plastic motorbike can roar down-hill, the warmth of the stone seat beside the pond, and where all the really good books are (answer: in every room).

Like the swallows and martins and swifts, their visits have been diminished this year, and the little one hasn't been here at all. But migration is a part of life for all of us, and the going is as significant as the returning.
Part of life and death.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Coming Out



Rain drips steadily in the garden, although sometimes it thumps down. I have been steadily dripping inside the house too, also coughing and feeling unwell and miserable and alone and wishing someone, anyone. could come and make me a cup of tea. But they can't. So I do it myself and not tea either, but one of those lemon-type drinks with various medications that help you feel a bit better. Eventually.

I haven't really ventured out of my rather rigid degree of isolation, and now I'm back in it because I realise that I might be infected and infectious. Then I also realise that any time any of us gets a common-or-garden cold we are going to think, 'This is it! The end is nigh! One of those dreadful things with prongs all over it got through the holes in the face mask even though I have never been closer than a metre to anyone since this whole business began, let alone for more than fifteen minutes.'

Coming out of lock-down is hard to do. Harder than going into it, because at least we all knew where we stood on that. I don't want to know how long it has been, but I can measure it by the age of my youngest grandson, and he is now a bit more than six months old. We have not been able to meet yet. In earlier times I was  sort-of joking about hoping to meet him before he starts school. That wasn't funny at the time, and now it's even less funny because it becomes a realistic situation.

There was a fragment of chance a week or so ago, but it evaporated rapidly because I got very cold feet about going through Heathrow and getting on a plane. The cold feet are not for my own sake, but out of a deep mistrust of almost any of the so-called safety conditions in this country. I am in the much-at-risk category, and my fear is of picking up infection during the journey and transporting it to members of the family who are otherwise safe and well in a country where rules are clear and (mostly) obeyed. In England they are neither.

This account is not strictly true, either. There have been two occasions when family members in this country have visited here for the day, and one recent occasion when I visited them and stayed overnight. All these visits were made after much thought and discussion, and with young children firmly in mind. We needed to see each other, and I had been self-isolated here for weeks on end so that I would not pose any risk to them.

As an accredited at-risk oldie I think it is my duty to be as well-informed as possible about the risk factors, and then to make the best decision I can in any situation. There are risks in close contact with young children who are at Nursery and playing with a variety of other friends, but what are the risks to them of not seeing their only grand-parent or, much worse, thinking their only grand-parent may not want to see them?

The only way to stay safe may be to stay in lock-down isolation, disinfect every scrap of food and wash your hands every time you touch anything. Being born is probably the most dangerous thing we ever do because the whole of life from then on is beset with perils, some much worse and more likely than others. Perhaps instead of wishing each other to 'take care' we should be saying 'take risks', small ones that we've thought about and balanced against the other odds, but risks all the same.

And then we should go out and dance in the puddles, socially-distanced and silent.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Notes from a Very Small Corner.


Surprisingly early in the evening the light begins to fade. The little puffs of cloud balancing above the hills turn pink and apricot before they melt in the haze. The hills darken to deep lilac.

What happened?

I've only just had lunch, with a friend, in the garden, socially distanced, behaving properly, keeping the rules....and another day has gone, whizzed by, apparently almost empty yet full of  very small, mostly unrelated incidents. It is a recognised fact that the perception of time changes with age. It speeds up. It really does. 

For the next week or so I'm following a regime of eye-drops every four hours. This is for the second life-enhancing cataract surgery. I do the eye drops, go out into the garden, look at some things growing, watch a few birds sunbathing unwisely on a slate roof in 30 degrees of heat, go back in, top up the water-baths in the garden and indicate to the birds that they should use them, make a cup of coffee, look at the clock.....and it's time for the eye drops again. What happened?

Nothing and everything hasn't happened, and goes on not happening here in Middle England. Here most of us are keeping the rules (when we can work out what they are), wearing masks, washing our hands, sanitising ourselves and not cuddling each other. The heat may have made some of us reckless, but not me.

Being good is not all it's cracked up to be. I have ventured into two shops now that I'm allowed to do so. I've been into the cafe in M&S, partly because I can, mostly because I'm hoping to see another elderly, rule-abiding citizen attempting to drink a large filtered coffee while wearing a mask. No luck so far. You have to find your entertainment in very tiny doses these day. I do, anyway.

In this small corner of a small town near to some large hills I like to see the avoidance techniques on my daily walks. The sashaying on and off narrow pavements, the darting into the nearest gateway, the dilemma of eye contact - wanted or not? The protocol of the mask, worn when driving alone in the car? Worn above or below the nose? Removed in order to speak to someone wearing a hearing aid? Kept available at all times by being round the neck? Not worn because you say you don't like it and you can't breathe properly? Neither can infected people, strangely enough, but perhaps you haven't thought of that? Designer-made, home-made, reusable, colour co-ordinated? I await the arrival of sponsored masks bearing adverts.

When I'm not venturing out, looking for diversion of the very mildest Covid-controlled form I'm at home, watching my vegetables. I have not grown vegetables previously, and now I have four plants, given to me as small, helpless infant seedlings by a neighbour on a suitably distanced and sanitised day in early Lock-Down.

Four! Two different tomato plants, a cucumber and a courgette. I cossetted them into adolescence and then I watched their adult struggles for space in a small border. If I could do this on a time lapse I would see the fights, the pushing and shoving and elbowing of each other. The thuggery that goes on in a vegetable plot. The fight for light, for food, for life from any source, at any expense to anyone else. Gosh, it's powerful stuff! The cucumber is making a desperate climb up the fence, hauling itself out of the melee with its initially soft tendrils that can cling like metal within a few days. The courgette had experienced a death-defying struggle against a determined and destructive enemy until I found one huge viscous and vicious invader tucked beneath its prickled leaves, ready to pounce as darkness fell. But I got there, just in time and the slug and its bloated orange under-belly met a sticky end. Ha! How satisfying a squelch was that!

Now that I appreciate the emotional impact of vegetable growing I shall need to do it again. Until I've finished the eye-drops I mustn't bend or lift, so other parts of the garden are getting a bit over-run, but with my new brilliant eyes and action-packed fleeting days I can do a great many other satisfying things. Sorry about the slug to those who care about such things, but all is unfair in love and gardening.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Back in the Saddle?

 After so many, many weeks of being a virtual Granny there is at last some chance of being  a real one: a Granny with hair like a gone-to-seed dandelion, but one who can still cook and read stories and make people laugh. One who can also hide miniature picnics in unexpected places, find (and possibly even write) notes from fairies and, more importantly, keep the house and garden entirely familiar for children who haven't seen the place for a long time.

Cheerful, noisy, happy life returned just for the day yesterday. In no time at all the garden buildings had become a den, a shop and a stable. The whole garden became a village, a farm, a jungle, a road down to a different village and a pond-side exploration place.
"The sound of this little fountain is so relaxing", said Grand-Daughter as she scampered past. Towards the end of a long play session the rockery, now a carpet of wonderfully scented English Pinks, was also discovered to be somewhere you could relax for a few seconds and think about anything you liked. Secret paths, hiding places, concealed doors leading to even more secrets were rediscovered and invented.
Grandson Senior remembered his plastic motor-bike and roared down an adrenaline-boosting slope with his knees under his chin. He has grown a lot in recent weeks. Then he mastered my sound-system in order to play his nursery rhyme CD, and had more fun than seemed possible, washing his hands with extremely slippery soap.

 All the work of maintaining this time-consuming place becomes so wonderfully worthwhile. What else has there been to do in the last three months, and how incredibly fortunate I am to have such a place. Even more fortunate to have the grandchildren to let loose in it.
Some day Grandson Junior will come and have a go too, but at the moment he's having his first holiday beside a lake in Austria, where hotels are open and people have much more freedom to move about.

Some things I didn't get right. The rabbit who unexpectedly came for her birthday party was not provided with a carrot cake. I didn't know it was the rabbit's birthday. How un-Granny-like is that? But surely even a toy rabbit should be able to understand that I can't just go shopping, that I haven't been shopping for three months, that I wouldn't even know what you're supposed to do in a shop these days.
 Have I got carrots in the garden? No, I've got raspberries though. Rabbits like raspberries. Have a bowl and pick some raspberries. Oh, your brother has eaten them, and your Mummy has scoffed a few as well? Oh dear. But as a special treat in warm weather have some frozen peas in your bowl. Yummy!

I'm still not getting it quite right. The horse who has been left in my care came with a list of feeding, grooming and exercise instructions.  You can see it lounging about over the stable door. I haven't fulfilled all the requirements, but the horse hasn't either. I needed the manure for the garden.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Letter to a (nearly) Three Month Old.

Dear New Grandson,
Not quite so new, but we haven't met, and it will be some time before we manage it.
You are a long way away, but it doesn't seem like it because your parents are so good at keeping in touch by e-mail, Skype and telephone. So I saw you a few minutes after you were born and I saw you having your first cuddles with your parents.
Your Canadian Granny came to meet you and was able to go with you to your new home in Austria, but then this pandemic (which I hope you'll never need to know about) also arrived and changed all our lives. Canadian Granny had a complex and stressful journey back to Canada to rejoin the rest of your family there. And I, who should have been walking in Alpine pastures with you now, can't go anywhere.
All that matters is that you are safe and well, amid blue skies and snow-capped mountains and both parents with you. An especial bonus for you is that your Daddy, who normally spends a big part of his life in extensive business travel, isn't able to go anywhere either, so the three of you can spend lots of time together.

It's Mothers' Day in Austria today, so guess what? Your're going on a sunny walk in your sling, and you'll all have a picnic somewhere beautiful. You'll be so full of clean mountain air that you'll sleep well all night - and that's an excellent Mother's Day gift. What a good job you've got your new sunglasses. The light is strong and clear up in those mountains, and those splendid specs can be used when you start skiing, which will probably be as soon as you start walking.

All your  English family will meet you as soon as it's safe to do so. Your three-year-old cousin will be so pleased to have another boy in the family. He looks at your photos and says you are just so cute. I wonder if he's seen this one, taken yesterday? He's going to want sun-glasses just like yours, and I think he'll be keen to ski, too. There will be a time you can do it together. For good measure you can teach both your cousins here to speak German, because you'll be doing that as well. You can bet they'll come and see you as soon as they can.

You'll be off to Canada. You'll be travelling all over the place,
So much to learn, so much to do, so much adventure and happiness in store for you. In the meantime stay safe and content in your peaceful little life.

I'll really see you one of these days.
With love from Granny.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Challenges and The Joy of Paper-Shredding

Here I am, at the start of the seventh week of  a total isolation from the world outside my house and garden,  I thought I knew these places better than I have ever known anything - every unfurling leaf of ground elder, every uneven stone slab, every bit of chipped paint. Then I find a lost world in the back of a very roomy wardrobe, hidden beneath the flowing skirts of evening dresses. Evening dresses? Will there ever be a world in which one dresses up to go out in an evening? Was there ever such a world?

Yes, there was once such a world where people dressed up and went out, really went out beyond the front gate. Went out into the road, round the corner, under the bridge, up the hill, into the town. How  intimidating is that? When you are put into a category labelled as 'elderly vulnerable' perhaps you start to believe it. You can believe it or you can go out and spend a couple of hours heaving compost from one bin into another and then get out the step-ladder and start pruning.
I choose the latter option.
I also move some furniture and explore the four big metal document cases in the back of the
wardrobe. It's a struggle getting them out. And then I remember why they are there. If I don't sort them now, who will?

Many years ago, shortly after my husband died, I attempted to sort the many, many documents in these cases. I couldn't face it at the time and so I put them well out of sight, underneath the long dresses and waxed coats and even one of my husband's suits.
Last week the prolonged spell of glorious weather gave way to cool and welcome rain, so I spent the greater part of three days sorting, classifying and shredding huge quantities of paper, hand-written, printed, drawn on, formal, informal. Records of lives that are over and cannot now be revived, but also some things that should be preserved for family, near and far.
We will all change during this strange period. I will have a different sort of garden, a tidier house, a clearer mind, however tough it may be to achieve. So many challenges.

My grand-daughter and I set each other challenges via Skype. A couple of days ago we played a new board game. One of us was a virus, the other a bar of soap. I was the soap. I won. Thank goodness for that!
We played Hangman, which was not easy as one of us is not very good at spelling more complex words, and that's really tricky with Hangman, ("Are you sure you've got seven letters with only one vowel?" "Oh, wait a minute I'll ask Mum......actually there's an 'A' there and an 'E' at the end." "That makes a bit of a difference!") Then we tried some Origami. Skype is not ideal for Origami, at least not when you're seven (and a half).
My three (and a half) year old grandson sets me challenges to read Postman Pat books via Skype until my voice gives out. He lies back on the sofa, a nice soft blanket to hand in case he fancies a nap, a snack also to hand and says, "Go on Granny. Read Postman Pat's Messy Day next." I set him a challenge not to simply switch me off when he's had enough, but to say goodbye first. Switching off Granny is a powerful thing!
And now eleven-week old grandson sets me a challenge to ensure that I remain well enough to meet him, hopefully before he's walking, and certainly before he starts school. At the moment he can smile and possibly wave at a snowy haired blob on the screen, which is a great achievement.

Change for us all, with special thanks to Skype, Zoom, family and friends, and paper-shredders everywhere.