Loss

There has been too much death this past year. As I write this, 111,264 people have died from Covid-19 in the UK alone. Whilst grieving for lost family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, or fearing for the loss of our loved ones, we have been forced to face our own mortality. For most of us, there is a realisation that life is a precious and fragile gift. We do not know how long we have. We must make the most of every moment, appreciate even the mundane or simple stuff. Striving for success or wealth or recognition is maybe not as important as we once thought. Some of us have been made to reconsider how we live our lives, whether we are in the place or the relationship or the job we want to be in. Others of us have reconnected with nature, the environment and community. We’ve remembered what we are here for, that we are part of the world and every living thing in it, not separate or special.

The virus, and the terror at possibly losing someone close, has made me think about how much I love my family and their importance to me. It has brought back memories from my childhood – occasions spent with my brother, Mum, Dad, cousins, Nanna and Grandad. Watching the film, The Dig, made me sob at the soft Suffolk accents, like those of my grandparents. Living in Wales, I rarely hear ‘silly Suffolk’ now. The sad news of Captain Tom’s death particularly made me remember special times with my Grandad, and his death over thirty years ago. Happy memories and upsetting memories.

My Grandad was a gentle man. A little ‘hen-pecked’, as they used to say, by my Nanna’s sharp tongue. He was an animal lover. His father had kept a donkey and cart. He grew up helping to care for the donkey and often talked of how he missed it. After he retired from working in a factory, he became a pigman. I loved the smell of him when he returned home from tending his pigs but Nanna used to shout, “Jack, get your overalls off!” at the back door. When I visited, he liked me to ‘do his hair’. I would stand behind his upright armchair and rub Brylcreem through the few grey strands around the side of his head with my fingers, brush the hair until it looked glossy with his special wooden, handle-free hairbrush, polish his bald pate with a little of the cream on a handkerchief, then take a long hard sniff of the warm, scented skin on the top of his head.

Sometimes, we would sing. He taught me the old songs – Roll Out the Barrel, Knees up Mother Brown, Show Me the Way to Go Home, The Pub with No Beer and, my absolute favourite, My Old Man’s a Dustman. Sometimes, he would tell me stories from when he was a boy, out delivering in the cart with his Dad, vegetables from their garden for the local people. Or other times, stories from the war when his factory started making munitions and he had a reserved occupation due to the skills he had operating complicated machinery. Nanna worked there too. He became an Air Raid Warden and was kept busy because my grandparents lived near Ipswich Airport (sadly now replaced with a housing estate) and there were plenty of US air bases in Suffolk which were often bombed. I had two favourite stories, one funny, one terrifying. The funny one was the time when my Grandad and Nanna were cycling home from the factory when the air raid siren went off. Nanna let out a scream, jumped off her bike, threw it towards Grandad then belted off down the road to the house. For some reason, she thought she could run faster than she could pedal! The terrifying story was when the air raid siren went whilst Grandad was gardening. He called to Nanna to come to their Anderson shelter and she got to the backdoor with baby Uncle Jack in her arms, as a German plane swooped in from the direction of the airport. Grandad said he must have released his bombs, as he could hear an explosion over the rooftops, then miscalculated as he turned his plane. He flew so low, the wings nearly touched the house and managed to steer upwards just in time to avoid a collision. Nanna said she could see the pilot’s frightened face looking at her from the cockpit as she comforted her bawling baby.

In my late teens, Grandad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For some while, there had been signs that something wasn’t quite right. We noticed a slight tremor in Grandad’s hands, a tapping of teacup on saucer, the sweet brown liquid escaping, a telling off from Nanna for spillages. Grandad became slower. He shuffled in his slippers over the carpet. Sometimes, he got stuck, frozen and rigid rising from his chair. Once diagnosed, Grandad quickly worsened. His speech slurred or he stammered or he whispered breathily. He began to be stuck more often. He started being vacant, staring into space and seeing things that were not there, people and conversations from his past. Sometimes he would join in and talk about things that had happened years before as if he were in that moment. Grandad lost himself. Then came the dizziness and falls. When home from university, I visited Grandad to find him black and blue. We still sang together though and he remembered all the words.

At the end of my first year at university, enjoying a restful summer holiday in my parent’s sunny back garden, we got a phone call. Grandad had fallen down the stairs. He was in intensive care and things did not look good. Mum, Dad and me rushed to the hospital. We arrived to find Grandad in a coma. Apparently, he had died in the emergency room but been brought back to life by the doctors. I understood that was their job, but looking at my Grandad, face blackened with bruises, tubed up, heart and vital organs monitored in that white antiseptic room, I wondered why. Why had they brought him back to this? Why hadn’t they let him go in quiet dignity? His body was broken and suffering. His mind was wandering and confused and now retreated deep into himself. Seeing him lying there, I wanted to shout out in angry misery but I choked down the enormous painful lump in my throat. Mum and Nanna needed me.

The hospital staff said they were not sure Grandad would make it through the night, so Nanna could stay in a special flat for relatives if she wanted to. It would save her having to rush back if anything changed. I agreed to keep her company. She looked so small, her face pale and afraid. It hit me then how much she loved him, although she had often appeared cross with him. Dad offered to bring us the things we needed for the night. The flat had a kitchen area, a bed and a small shower room off. The staff had made me a put-up bed on the floor. Nanna fussed with her nightdress and toiletries then sat down on the only chair. She looked spent. I made us tea. We didn’t feel like food. Nanna talked anxiously about whether Grandad would be all right. I didn’t know what to say but tried to reassure. I felt sick with anxiety and was glad when Nanna suggested we got to bed. I lay awake with worry. Nanna managed to sleep, I supposed it was her age. Soon she was snoring and I resigned myself to a restless night. For a while, I wept silently for my Grandad, for his sweet-smelling head and gentle singing. Then, in the way that tragedy can often become comedy, Nanna began to break wind, probably due to the stress of the day. Suddenly, I found myself giggling as each fart erupted. I think it was some sort of hysteria. I bit my lips and dug my nails into my palms to stop myself.

Grandad made it through the night. The rest of the summer was spent visiting the hospital with Mum. We sat with Grandad. Day by day, his situation was unchanging. The staff said we must talk to him, and keep chatting amongst ourselves too, as he could hear everything. It was difficult, thinking of things to say when we were bereft. Sometimes, to fill the silences, we put the radio or TV on. The nurses came in and out doing their checks and care routines. We ate dreadful canteen food with little appetite, washing it down with cups of tea. With nothing to say, I began to sing to Grandad, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. Roll Out the Barrel, Show Me the Way to Go Home and My Old Man’s a Dustman. With that one, I noticed a flicker of the eyelids. I looked at Mum. She hadn’t noticed. Not wanting to raise her hopes, I said nothing but sang it again. A small miracle! Grandad’s lips began to move. He was mouthing the words. I leant near his face and kept singing. I could hear his breathy whispering – ‘He wears cor-blimey trousers’. Tears trickled down my face, “Mum, get the nurse.”

After that, the whole family sang with Grandad every day. He slowly woke up. One morning when we visited, he was sitting up in bed. It was a shock. He was awake but a shadow of himself. A ghost of Grandad. An empty shell. He did not know us. He looked around blankly. He didn’t really speak again. A few words. But Grandad never came back. In many ways, the following weeks were worse. He moved to a ward. He remained in bed. He was fed, bathed, given drinks through a straw. He developed bed sores and a nasty case of thrush in his mouth. Everyone was celebratory – he was getting better – but I was relieved when I had to return to university. Guiltily, I wished I had never woken him with a song.

A couple of weeks after I left, I got a phone call at my bedsit. Grandad was dead. It was terribly sad. It was also a huge relief. For me, Grandad died when he fell down the stairs. His prolonged stay in hospital had not been living at all. I went home for the funeral and cremation. Poor Nanna, alone after fifty-three years of marriage. We buried his ashes in a garden of remembrance. I bought a small statue of a pig to put next to the small plaque to remember him by. Grandad loved his pigs.

Sex and sausage rolls

When I was a girl, I used to enjoy sleep overs with my cousin Stacey who was almost exactly a year older than me. Sometimes, we slept at my Nanna and Grandad’s house. We would share the big double bed in the chilly front bedroom and lay there talking and giggling until late, or until Nanna came to scold us. I relished scaring Stacey silly with stories about ghosts or ‘Creeping Jesus’ – an unfortunate man with long, lank hair, always in sandals, who passed my house every day. He had become a character in many stories of child abduction, stalking and murder. As the passing cars cast shadows across the curtains, I would tell my tales until Stacey shrieked in fear and we heard the bump, bump of Nanna inching up the stairs, “Go to sleep, girls!” One summer, I told Stacey the facts of life. This story was the most horrific she’d heard yet. She exclaimed in disbelief, “They put their thing where? Well, I’m never having children!”

Our favourite game was to pick fluff from the blanket, roll it into a ball, then wet it with spittle before throwing it up at the ceiling. If a ball stuck, it was a win. Uncle Jack, Stacey’s father, had told us all about this game. Remarkably, Nanna never seemed to notice the fluff balls hanging precariously from the ceiling or find them when they finally fell to the floor. Or if she did, she never mentioned it to us, which was a relief as she could have a sharp tongue when she felt it was needed.

Other times, I went to stay at Stacey’s. Auntie Deirdre would make a bed up for me on the floor in Stacey’s room and the same hilarity would occur. We had a little more freedom at Stacey’s because her parents stayed up until late watching the television on full volume. One stay, when I was about twelve and Auntie had gone to her morning job, Stacey beckoned me into the box room, “I’ve got something to show you!” She was wide-eyed and excited. She climbed onto the narrow bed and stretched up to reach a high cupboard. “They’re in here. I found Dad’s porno mags.” I had no idea what she meant but a heap of magazines tumbled onto the bed. Stacey sat down next to the pile and grabbed one, “Look!”

I received an education that morning. Uncle Jack had found new games to play. The magazines were glossy, full of black and white, some might say artistic, photographs of a couple in various acts of carnal passion. It was the Joy of Sex or the Karma Sutra with real people. I had never seen such biology before. Stacey and I gaped and giggled in incredulity, “Why would she want to do that?” We were so occupied, we didn’t hear the key turning in the front door. “I’m home!” Auntie Deidre shouted. In a mad scramble, we scraped the magazines together and threw them back up in the cupboard.

Auntie Deidre smiled as we appeared at the top of the stairs, “Had a good morning? I thought we’d pop into town. I need to go to Woolies and we can have a bit of something to eat in the canteen.” I couldn’t look her in the eye. On the bus to town, Stacey and I whispered and sniggered. Thoughts of the things adults got up to lodged in our brains. It was hard to see the passengers, tightly squeezed together on prickly seats, in the same way now we knew their smutty secrets. In Woolworths canteen, we stood before the glass counter and chose our food. “Sausage rolls look nice,” Auntie Deidre said and we both burst into laughter. We took our sausage rolls and sat at the shiny formica table. Neither of us could bring ourselves to eat them. “Come on, they’ll get cold.” Auntie prompted. I lifted mine to my mouth and took a bite. Stacey squealed and I guffawed, sending meat and crumbs all over the table top. “Whatever is wrong with you girls today?” Auntie tutted.

Pornography was different when I was young. Available only in sex shops, or on the top shelf at the newsagents, it was fairly difficult to get hold of. Now, internet porn is easily available and children are watching it; some surprisingly young. As demand has risen, porn sites have made their pornography more shocking and hardcore to get an audience. Much of it involves violent acts perpetrated on women. Some sites, such as Pornhub, have made material featuring child abuse and rape available. There are links between pornography and sex trafficking. Sex education is poor in schools, so kids learn about sex from porn. They think they are expected to behave like that. Violent, hardcore acts seen in pornography have become mainstream, encouraged by women’s magazines. Young men see women as sex objects. Young women advertise themselves as ‘enjoying being choked’ on Tinder. Desperate to attract a partner, they do not understand the dangers. The porn industry is wealthy, powerful and influential in our society. We have let this happen. We are letting our children down.

War

This morning my dog woke me before light. I crept downstairs on aching limbs; hauled on my coat and wellies to take him out into the freezing air for his first business of the day. There was a hard frost; sparkling over the grass in the lamplight, as if an over-enthusiastic child had sprinkled glitter everywhere making the garden a Christmas card. The world slumbered, frozen in fantasy land, and I expected silence. Instead, the rumble and roar of a mechanical monster stalking the fields beside my home assailed my ears; its two fiery eyes like searchlights scanning the icy darkness. A fountain of stinking, putrid liquid manure gushed from its rear, coating the rock-hard ground.

Nature is not in harmony with farming in the Welsh countryside. A war rages and wildlife is losing the battle. Farmers say the slurry adds valuable nitrogen to fertilise the soil and they are simply recycling animal waste. In truth, they are caught in a cycle of growing monoculture grasses, cutting for silage and spreading muck which depletes the earth of nutrients. Winters in Wales are wet. When it is cold, the ground freezes and muck cannot soak into the earth. Rain washes slurry into streams and rivers, removing oxygen and killing plants, invertebrates and fish.

Farmers are at war with the Welsh Assembly too. New regulations to prevent muck spreading in the winter were due to come into force in January 2020 but farmers protested and the Assembly conveniently buried it under the ensuing Covid crisis. I understand that farmers are in a difficult position and they need to make a living. My farmer neighbour has recently bought up several hundred acres of land surrounding my home in order to double his herd. He has weed killed and ploughed up fields that were laying almost fallow; full of wildflowers, cut once a year for hay. He has cut down trees and hedges, thick with insects and birds. He has planted grass for silage winter feed for his many cattle. Life has become harder for local wildlife. My unruly, overgrown garden is a sanctuary. From my windows, I watch the year-long rotation of cows grazing, grass growing and silage cutting, and muck spreading. I listen for the tractors racing up and down the lanes, holding my breath as they pass while I walk my dogs, fearing for my life and for my cats tentatively crossing the road. Double the herd means double the dung. He has a lot of shit to shift.

There must be a solution. Some way for farmers to work in harmony with nature. I am biased, I know. My concern for the environment and animal welfare means I have chosen a vegan lifestyle (I won’t go into the unpleasant breeding cycle I sadly have to observe living next to a large dairy farm.) If people could cut down on milk and meat consumption that would be a start, as well as Government legislation to support farmers to work in ways that help, not harm, the countryside. Some farms are managing this but we have a long way to go.

For all our sakes, nature must win this war.

Blind date

In my secondary school, if you didn’t have a boyfriend by the age of 15, then you were odd. Several of the girls were mothers by that age. In one memorable sex education class, a new mum gave a full commentary while we watched a woman giving birth on video, “Oooh yes, that bit was painful.” At the end of the day, a line of bouncing babies in buggies waited for their mothers outside the school gates.

Awkwardly shy, with a reputation as a swot because I was interested in learning and hoped to study at university, I was definitely in the weird category. By the time I was 15, I still hadn’t been asked out on a date. My chances of this happening seemed unlikely; made worse by teachers who insisted on reading out my essays to the class as examples of good work, while my face grew a deep shade of beetroot. An English teacher even read one of my stories to Year 5, much to my mortification as the marvellous Marty Tender, my biggest crush at the time, was in that class. Marty was all beauty but no brains and the teacher asked him to pay particular attention to my writing skills. Everyone considered me a target for their jokes; a favourite one compared me to a tampon (both stuck up apparently). I must admit I didn’t enormously enjoy my school days.

One day in physics class, I was paired in an electricity experiment with Samantha Heacham. When she asked me whether I had ever been out with a boy and I answered in the negative, she gasped in disbelief; her eyes goggling so dramatically I thought she had received an electric shock. Samantha felt it was imperative that she fix this situation immediately and offered to set me up on a blind date. Now, Samantha was not a person I especially trusted. She had a reputation for having lots of boyfriends, always tried to get me to tell her the answers during tests and once, in second year, she challenged me to a fight after school because I disagreed with something she said. Then again, I wasn’t having any luck on my own so, somewhat desperately and completely crazily, I agreed. Samantha went to a drama group and she knew a guy called Rich who was looking for a girlfriend. Over the next few days, arrangements were finalised.

We met at The White Horse pub, a popular venue with the young folk of the town. I had spent a ridiculously long time choosing my outfit, spiking my hair and putting on eyeliner. As usual, I got there early and sat nervously peering out from a cosy corner table. After about ten minutes, Rich arrived, a blond-haired Morrissey look-alike in paisley shirt and tatty cardigan. He carried a bunch of flowers (I was surprised they weren’t tucked in his back pocket). As a massive Smiths fan, I thought perhaps this date would be okay. He spotted me, waved and navigated his way to the table.

“Hello, I’m Rich.” He smiled, revealing two missing front teeth.

I must admit I was taken aback, “Hello…”

“Sorry about these,” he said, pointing to his mouth, “I fell down the stairs yesterday, knocked them right out. Nearly cancelled but I thought…oh well. Hope that’s all right.”

My heart went out to him, “Oh, that’s awful, of course it’s all right.”

“I saw the dentist. He’s putting two new ones in next week so then I won’t look quite so hideous.”

We laughed. After that, we got on famously. I thought he was sweet and felt very sympathetic towards him. We agreed to see each other again.

I went out with Rich for several months. He played guitar and wrote me a song. We watched Live Aid together, sobbing on the sofa. I went to see him acting in a play at the theatre with my parents and felt very proud. My Dad didn’t like him as he was overly demonstrative with his affections and called me ‘babe’. Then one evening, he got a bit carried away and stuck his hand up my jumper. That was the end of it for me; I wasn’t ready for a relationship of such magnitude. I finished with him the next morning.

Fermenting

During these strange times, I have been enjoying the art of fermentation. A traditional method of food preservation, it appeals to my belief in a simpler way of life. I enjoy the whole process: selecting fresh produce, cleaning, chopping, salting, massaging the leaves and packing the vegetables in the jar. It is relaxing and uncomplicated; my mind has time to unwind and think. While I ferment vegetables, I ferment ideas. Then comes the waiting: watching the bubbles start to rise, checking every few days for unwanted mould and tasting to see if it is pleasing to my palate. The smells as I unscrew the jar lid hit me full in the nose and carry through the house.

Fermentation has opened interesting doors for me. There is a whole world of fermented food out there waiting to be discovered. So far, I have made sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and giardineira from Italy. The last is my favourite, at the moment, with its delicious garlicky flavour. Many pleasant hours are spent searching the internet for new recipes. I have found an exuberant man called Brad who shares videos about fermenting on Youtube. His enthusiasm is catching and I like his often imperfect presentation without any artificial polish. It is good when things go wrong. It creates a feeling of humanity and camaraderie. It is because of Brad that I have my ‘fermentation station’.

Fermenting foods is great for the mind and the body. Not only is the process relaxing, the final produce is healthy, being full of good bacteria. Our bodies need this good bacteria for our digestive health. There is growing scientific evidence that gut bacteria play a role in many diseases too, including heart disease, cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Good bacteria can boost our immune systems and help us to fight disease. Other research has suggested that gut bacteria play a part in our mental health, so eating fermented foods may help to keep us happy.

Fermenting foods is a positive experience for me. Returning to old, clever ways, safe and busy in my kitchen, while the world outside goes off kilter.

Rescued

We have a new puppy; an eight-month-old crossbreed from a local animal sanctuary. He was rescued from a designer puppy farm. The runt of his litter, malnourished and afraid. Thankfully, the farm was shut down. He was lucky to be fostered by a wonderful lady who brought him back to health during lockdown. She did an amazing job teaching him to do his business outside, to travel in a car, to walk on a lead and to sit on command. It means our job is much easier. He is a beautiful boy and settling well. We have named him Pasha which suits his good looks.

I had forgotten what hard work puppies can be; their bursts of boundless energy. He must be kept amused with games and walks. He needs to learn the rules of the household (it is okay to chew the rubber tuggy but not my flip flops). He must be taken out to the garden for regular toilet trips. He needs help to build his trust and confidence in us. His hardships in early life have left their mark and he is nervous around men and new people (though improving everyday). He and I have become very attached. He is my shadow. I am trying to get him used to being without me for short periods so he will not develop separation anxiety. It all takes time and patience. It is much harder at the moment to train your dog to be alone, and to socialize them, as we are home all the time and no one visits much. He sleeps in our bedroom. A thing unheard of in our house but this is what he is used to and change takes time. Slowly, we are moving his bed further away from us. I hope this will work. He wakes me at 5.45am every morning exactly. I am tired but I love him. He has given me plenty to do.

I had forgotten how much fun puppies can be; the silly scrapes they get into. He tears around the garden and paddock so fast that sometimes he cannot stop and goes somersaulting over. He adores puddles and will jump crazily in every one he finds. When he grabs a shoe, he runs with it to the living room and launches himself onto the sofa in such a rush that he flies off the other side. (The jumping on the sofa is another thing he is used to and something I am not sure we will ever be able to stop.) He chases through the long grass alongside Monty, our little terrier, with complete abandon giving me a real sense of joy. He has given Monty, who is twelve and was missing company after our old dog Iolo passed away, something to think about.

I had forgotten how revolting puppies can be; the yucky things they enjoy. He loves going on chicken poo hunts. He found a dead bird in the garden and gobbled it down with pride before I could snatch it from him. He caught and ate the mouse that lives under our potato containers (even the cat had not managed that!) We have suffered the consequences of his undesirable snacking. I am trying to teach him what he may and may not munch on. I need another pair of eyes and hands to keep him out of mischief. He has given my son, feeling rather low from weeks of being isolated, a sense of purpose.

Re-homing Pasha from the animal sanctuary has been an absolute pleasure. He makes us laugh every day and keeps us busy. We have little time for worrying about the future and how our world will be changed now. Like dogs, we live in the moment, making the most of each minute. In fact, you could say Pasha has rescued us.

The Mask by Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

#blacklivesmatter

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/

We wait

Time passes in fits and starts at the moment. As the lock down continues, with no easing here in Wales, hours can disappear without notice yet weeks and months seem to stretch on interminably. There is a paralysis of inspiration, focus and motivation; nothing much beyond normal routine is achieved, activities are cancelled, future prospects and plans are on hold, loved ones are missed, anxiety is buried beneath layers of mundanity.

We wait.

Nature does not wait, however, and time continues in the passing of spring into early summer. The swallows have returned and built a nest in the barn, flitting and swooping above the paddocks, finding pure joy in the hunting and catching of winged insects for their hatchlings. The hedgerows are vibrant with wildflowers, white, blue, purple, yellow and pink; bees darting among the petals, legs laden with pollen. The air is filled with amorous sounds of life; the buzz and hum of mini beasts, the chattering conversations of birds, the throaty calls of frogs, busy in their mating rituals. Less welcome, the local farmers are industrious, cutting silage and spreading muck on the fields during the dry spell. Tractors roar up and down narrow lanes all day and late into the night. The pungent perfume of manure sends us scampering inside with our lunchtime sandwiches.

Staying active in the garden, observing and enjoying small moments of this normality, keeps us grounded and content. Vegetable seedlings need planting, weeds must be cleared, brambles and bracken cut back. A poorly chicken needs care. Wood preservative is ordered ready for treating the stables, barn doors and fencing. There are jobs to do. Physical work to keep us healthy in body and mind.

There is family too. The bliss of being together with nowhere else to be. The pleasure in gathering for good food cooked with love. Sourdough bread is a success; warm, crusty and flavour-full, now yeast has become like gold dust. Pride at how well the young people are coping, with university closed, projects and dissertations to complete in difficult circumstances, unable to enjoy a night out with friends. There is zoom and social media but it is a long period of uncertainty and missing out. They are doing remarkably well.

And there is community. A group of willing and able volunteers in the nearest village. We post leaflets through doors, offer help for those alone and isolated; shopping, collecting prescriptions, posting mail. A support network, building links and hopefully lasting friendships. A chance to give something back for those of us who know how lucky we are. More people are walking; unable to go further afield in their cars, they explore the footpaths of the local countryside. We see new faces, shout welcomes over the hedge, have little chats. This gives us mixed feelings; selfishly we have enjoyed the peaceful isolation, and wonder if we will continue to have walkers once this is over.

Life is quiet and simple. We think about how it will be when lock down ends; what will we have learnt, what will remain and what will the new normal be?

We wait.

Tough times for a tortoise

Tortoises are awkward animals. Every job they undertake is hard work. Eating is effortful – with no hands to hold the food, necks stretch, mouths grasp and pull. Sometimes the delicious item slips away. Walking is effortful – dragging a heavy shell around, managing uneven ground. Sometimes the weight causes a tricky balancing act with the inevitable toppling over, then there is a scrabbling, useless flailing of legs in a hard-won attempt to get right way up again. Love making is effortful – the arduous manoeuvrings, scrape of claws on shell, crunch of carapaces and anguished cry. Sometimes the other half just wanders off. Life appears tough for a tortoise.

Living with a tortoise for forty-three years has given me some insight and surprises. My grandfather bought me one for my seventh birthday. Named after a popular road safety squirrel of the time, I chose probably the most inappropriate name ever given a tortoise – Tufty. He was beautiful – his shell a shiny, patterned olive green and mottled brown. At that age, I did not think about the terrible journey he had undertaken – snatched from the wild, crushed in a crate with hundreds of his fellows, packed onto a container ship. Shamefully, I think of it now and wish he could be returned to roam the dry, grassy slopes of his home country, sun warming his burnished back. Instead, he has had forty-three years of living in damp, rainy Britain.

thTufty the Road Safety Squirrel © ROSPA

At the end of every November, Tufty has to go to bed in a cupboard box, stuffed with paper bedding, insulated in another plastic box filled with polystyrene wotsits, for his annual hibernation. Every February, there is immense relief when he wakes up, fit and well. For Tufty is a resilient little creature. He is awkward but he is tough, reliable and lovable. He has character. He comes when called and likes human and other animal company. He particularly enjoys chasing other pets around the garden – dogs, cats and even ducks – who never seem to understand quite what he is; a moving rock, how is that possible? He never gives up if he wants something, even climbing out of his run to escape. Tufty may lumber around carrying his heavy home but he can move when he wants to, especially on a hot day. His pleasure in munching on a dandelion or buttercup flower is a joy to behold.

SONY DSC

Despite my guilt at having a pet who was torn from his homeland in traumatic circumstances, I am glad I have Tufty. He has been a constant since I was a small child and he holds an important place in the cycle of my life. Quiet, steadfast, patient and determined, Tufty has kept me company and provides a symbol for simple, sensible, contented living.

Years ago

My husband and I started dating in 1991. We’ve recently celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary – that’s a long time together and a long time married. Like any married couple, we’ve had our ups and downs. It takes work to have a successful relationship, and some days it’s hard to put the effort in, but we’re doing all right. We both agree that we’re happy. Here’s a poem I wrote a while back about long-term partnerships.

 

Years ago, you knocked on my door.

I put the chain across,

opened it a slit and

looked you over.

Then I

let you in.

For a drink, a chat.

 

But you

hung up your coat,

took off your shoes,

put your

feet under the table.

 

Sometimes we danced in the living room

giggling until we

fell in dizzy heaps.

Sometimes we sat reading

separate novels,

lost in

distant worlds.

Other times we fought,

brutal bloody battles,

no one could win.

 

Sometimes we shared a meal

together, diced sliced,

laughed over a glass of wine,

candles twinkling.

Sometimes we were tired, got take away,

couldn’t be

bothered with the effort.

Other times we ate apart,

solitary below the

cold kitchen light.

 

Sometimes we snuggled

beneath the duvet,

late lazy lay-ins,

close, so we were

touching.

Sometimes we gave a

peck on the cheek, rolled over,

started snoring.

Other times we slept alone,

chilly with a blanket, on the

hard floor of the

spare room.

 

But you

made yourself at home.

And I

never moved out.

We’re still here.