A week ago I crossed the border again, only this time it was not strictly allowed. The halogen streetlights swept across the dashboard in a forgotten rhythm as the sign for England finally came into sight. I pushed the little car way beyond its capacity as I always do, convinced that in order for everything to be okay on the other side I must not be overtaken before entering the country. This is OCD. I tell myself not to do it every time but inevitably find myself pushing ninety as I’m welcomed to what I have to call my real home.
The legal question over my permission to do this act highlighted more than my own nervousness; it made me think about which side I prefer to be on. There’s no clear answer to this, it depends on how the previous few weeks have been. I know that on occasion I breathe a sigh of relief to be passing back into England, yet have often felt a pronounced heaviness as I cross this imaginary line. For it is imaginary. We are in the UK after all. The confusing status of the UK, Wales or the European Union for that matter, seems to remain in a slow but sure-footed march to atomisation. Sometimes I like this, other times I don’t.
As I crossed, at what appears to be the end of the authoritarian phase of the lockdown, I felt a rare mixture of feelings. I have been locked down, forced, as so many have been, to reflect on my situation, my home, my ‘stomping ground’. I’ve had nothing else. My world has been reduced and I have been thrown into my own self-portrait; this is my existence.
I’ve had an easy lockdown, how was yours? At first I predicted a personal decline, but having thought it through I came up with an easy solution to my apparently parlous circumstance in a tiny studio flat in Aberystwyth; I would simply drive out to the countryside. I had an excuse, both a press card and kids in the sticks. I could break up the day and, most crucially, fill my lungs with good air. I saw a subtext to the virus that ran through its own narrative like the fibre optics that powered it, and that was the ability to breathe. “I can’t breathe”
It wasn’t just me that noticed that within a few weeks, or possibly even days, things had hugely altered. I was convinced on my long afternoon walks that the animals had even started forgiving us, noticing quickly how the air had cleared, how the Llyn was somehow more visible. Cloud formations, not pushed about by contrails and exhaust induced microclimates, eased into something unfamiliar, bigger somehow. The silence was difficult to notice at first, not like in the cities, but eventually it seemed obvious that things really had stopped and, barring the neurotic fiddling with garden machines, it was again possible to hear the nuances in the voices of the creatures and the trees.
Many people naturally turned to the ‘wartime spirit’, displacing their formally busy lives with the busying of other people’s lives. Some fell mentally ill, unable to process this hugely disruptive end to disruptiveness. I know people who can’t do the countryside and much of it is to do with the silence. Some thrived in a guilty realisation that they didn’t like work, they liked spending time with their kids and had always wanted to slow down and maybe spend time cooking or wandering. For a while, I would argue a couple of months, any return to ‘normality’ seemed inconceivable. It was a frightening time, an exhilarating time and, in spite of all the apparent horror, a time of hope, at least on one or two levels.
Routines developed where they might not have been, or they disappeared in time for healthy reflection. It became clearer just how much time we spent on social media even though we turned to it. Our need for company became at once pronounced, but filtered. The pubs fell silent under the superior clout of the off licence. No one seemed to mind that much; they just adapted to walks and sneaked meetings. Friday nights became as vital as Mondays and Wednesday needed no name. All this happened in short order as we adapted quickly to our new life footprints. But we made less mess and there was little fuss. We didn’t ‘Stay Home’ we simply redrew the borders of what we called home.
This re-altering of our personal spaces perhaps took out the toxicity, the bits where we justified our existences through spending, travelling or working. We were thrown together with people we had lost contact with but lived under the same roof as. Some of us, and this was crucial, began to wonder whether what we had been doing up to this point was meaningful anyway. Key workers, front line, these were the people that mattered. The friendly and stoic person on the till at Lidl demonstrated that what we had been doing to feel so damn important wasn’t important at all. How many new career paths were planned?
I didn’t want the lockdown to end in my heart of hearts. I recognised the seriousness of the situation, indeed I’d had the virus myself and it was no laughing matter, but I also saw the opportunity as the curtains were thrown open on what things could be like. We had to go back (or forward) to something, but surely it couldn’t be like it was before? The opportunity for self-reflection was bound to elicit change. There could be no conceivable way that those who had lived under such apparently abusive circumstances could return without question. Cities that had once choked could now breathe and we had seen the value in things other than their price.
But change happened almost as fast on the downhill. It wasn’t only the rhetoric of politicians and partially sighted SPADs that set this in motion. We craved what we had lost, not, I think, because we wanted it, but because we weren’t prepared to invent anything new. We were told that we needed to do this and that because our lives depended on it, that recessions were looming and we responded with fear, the very same fear that had cemented the Protestant work ethic so firmly into the fabric of our society. We needed to return to jobs that don’t pay the rent or study that teaches us nothing, because of the fear that we could only return to that and that there could be no alternative. The government cleverly used the common sense line in the sure knowledge that no one wants to be left behind. It takes a strong person to stand alone on the barricade when the penny has dropped that what people around them had been saying were just words, that they were never going to actually do anything about them. Who wants to be the last duck to fly south?
I knew, as I drove along the M4 that the time was up. I had been called back out of my frozen and contemplative state to action. I was forcing my home open, crow barring in gentle increments my globalised home. I had seen pictures of these roads deserted on bank holidays, but now I fought for space. The same four by fours, useless apart from the statements they made, flew along the middle lane in totemic defiance. It was back. The kestrels backed off from the safety barriers along the hard shoulders, they began to again awaken to the same rules they’d been forced to apply before. The badgers headed towards the sets. The clouds that shouldn’t be there began to regroup. The grids of the contrails had begun to return.
We had a chance to view our habitat and it was achingly short. Momentarily we had signed a peace treaty with what was around us, like a cessation of violence in conflict. Then, as always happens, one bullet flies and the rhetoric starts. We sprang out like thirsty travellers to see what was left in the creek. We turned our backs on our habitat, folded ourselves into our leather seats and, winding up the window lest we share our space with flying insects, pressed A/C.