We’d started to have glimmers of hope: spring, the vaccinations. Some warm days of luminous splendour and, of course, the blossoms: the first shy blooming cherry trees, the daffodils (riotously yellow), the saffron-giving crocus (purple, these, but nothing is as one would expect). One afternoon I spent two hours hunting for magnolia trees in my neighbourhood. There were all kinds, sizes and colours, and I decided that that was joy, more or less. I flaunted with great contentment my new identity as a genetically modified creature, the first dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine already involved in my biology’s secret chores, and still bewildered by the knowledge that a young lady I had never seen before in my life had put inside my body those cute and lethal psychedelic spikes that adorn Covid-19, at least in photos. The lengthy winter, literally fatal for many, injurious for the mind and soul of those who survived, was coming to an end.
The visible signs of hope, however, don’t always last. After the spring début, winter came back with a vengeance. The temperature dropped, hurling us back into February; we didn’t even have a chance to put away gloves, hats and scarves, and there is no way to express our dejection because, after an endless confinement made of cold, darkness, isolation, fear, and death, many of us have no more energy or language to articulate the heaviness of the endless repetition of identical days that don’t know how to head for the future.
In my neighbourhood, the flowers’ puzzlement has been the worst of all. Last spring was benign, miraculous even; it held us at the beginning of the pandemic with blossoms everywhere and the bluest skies. This year, instead, as we approach mid-April, the splendour is hiding away. As if the first trees that bloomed had been dying away, going back in time, obeying a cruel voice that tells them, ‘not yet, not yet, perhaps never’. Some have already dropped their scant flowers without having managed to burst with joy, and the leaves start to show up. I had never seen anything like it, or sadder: those pale green leaves are telling me that this year I won’t see the treetops’ radiant clouds of white and pink. Other trees haven’t even bloomed. A few scattered buds seem to try to swell in the naked branches only to then lose their strength, and I am terrified to think that the winter’s spiteful return may not let them bloom. There are friends in other parts of London who talk about blossoms and I wonder if a spell has been cast over my neighbourhood north of the city, or whether my friends are satisfied with just a few, out of pure and honest gratitude. I’m not satisfied, and every day I go out to check on the nearest cherry and apple trees, my guardian spirits, but the blossoms aren’t there, and I soon go back home, stunned by the cold, having nowhere to go because everything is closed, my heart lethargic with sorrow. In 2021, spring has been stolen from us.
It’s true that soon (tomorrow, in fact) the shops will open again and there will be cafés, even if outdoor only, and little by little, they say, we’ll start going back to something resembling life, but this Sunday, as I write these words, I feel that such a tomorrow is a deception, just like spring; a promised gift that will never come our way.
Yesterday, I only went out to drop something in the post-box. The day was grey, cold, intolerable, and I came back home right away. At midday I started watching the news in my computer, as if guided by an alien will or, rather, by a lack of willpower. If vampires are the undead, I think that us humans, amid a pandemic, have become the unliving. Sitting in front of the screen, without knowing what to do with my day or with myself, I suddenly came across images that came and went from different cities in the UK, in other countries even, to an overcast and grey London, in particular the area around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. The images were saturated with sadness and a solemn silence, and looked very much like that melancholic London that I dreamt of since I was little, many years before I had set foot on this city. My emotions were vague and confused. I felt an unbearable longing for London, for the city in which I thought I lived until the pandemic came and locked me up in this suburb; I felt a wild urge to be there, by the river. I also felt the sadness of the very real grey and wet London in that concrete moment, and the doubt (‘why on earth did I dream of such gloom?’); I felt the affirmation and the grievance (‘yes, I do love my city’s melancholy, but not from here, so far away’), and then the longing for all those years of my childhood and youth in which I yearned for a place that, though unknown, it was possible to reach; which was hypothetically inhabitable, and not the limbo of some neighbourhood in the north of London that doesn’t look like London and that you’re not allowed to leave.
That’s when the shots started. In the screen, I hasten to clarify. They were solemn too, spaced out minute by minute. Those doing the shooting were ‘the gunners’, members of the Royal Artillery, in full-dress uniform, and facemask. They were firing some cannons that, from the aerial views, looked like toys. The gunners that remained motionless by their cannon with one knee on the ground specially caught my attention. Still like tin soldiers, in such an uncomfortable posture. In that cold. I stayed there watching as if hypnotised, with the languor that had seized me, trying to understand from which world did those images come, the commands bellowed in the air—the most eloquent one being ‘Fire!’). 41 cannon shots. I am wholly ignorant regarding the codes of military honour or those of royalty, so the 41 struck me as an enigma, an arbitrary figure I didn’t feel like unravelling. After each shot the dense white smoke hovered for a while in the air and then dissolved over the Thames, which was as grey as the clouds, and restless.
It so happens that a man had died in his sleep, a couple of months before his hundredth birthday. He was, as you surely already know, the queen’s husband. When there are royal deaths, or weddings in this country, people flood the streets in an incomprehensible manner. It was therefore odd now to hear that the Royal Family was asking people please not to leave flowers outside Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, or that there wouldn’t be a public funeral, not only because apparently Prince Philip didn’t like so much fuss, but because of the risk of contagion. For, of course, the pandemic touches and alters everything. Many people took no notice anyway; they went to lay flowers and to watch the cannon fire. Even 41 funereal shots are a welcome distraction in a pandemic April bent on whisking spring away.
‘The end of an era’, some say in the news. I think that no doubt this April is that. Since the pandemic started we’ve been living the end of an era, though we still don’t quite know what ended and how will what follows be. I also think that the end of that specific era the commentators are talking about will be sharper when the queen herself dies, but what I am thinking, or rather feeling, has nothing to do with what one may think about royalty, hating it or adoring it, it depends, in this or in any other country. It has to do with the simple passage of time, and with death; with the disbelief that sometimes seizes me when I realise that all eras finish, that everything comes to an end and starts again in some other way, that there is truly nothing that time leaves untouched. I do feel sorry, I can’t help it, for the elderly widow who’s lost her companion of 73 years, just as I feel sorry when I think of the millions of widows and widowers, orphans, parents who have lost their children, people who have lost siblings or friends, for whatever reason and, of course, through Covid, during these fourteen months burdened by unstoppable mourning.
Until fairly recently, when I knew of the death of someone I loved, I lived it as a tragedy. The pandemic has come to give me a lesson that I’m not sure I wish to learn, but I have no choice: death is, indeed, a tragedy for those who love someone who dies, but it is also simply what we humans do. All of us. That’s what I think as I see the repetition of cannon shots saluting someone I didn’t know, all identical but not the same, just like the pandemic days; the cannon fire in central London, which I look at and feel like crying, longing to walk those streets again, to verify that the city is still there, because the strange ceremony the news is showing, even if it says “live”, seems to be something quite remote, even from another time. If it were not for the facemasks.
That was yesterday. Today, after lunch, I thought that I didn’t want to spend the Sunday afternoon locked up thinking of how we all die. The idea of going out, though, made me anxious too. Going where? To one of the two same parks, to my neighbourhood’s streets that I’ve been seeing ad nauseam? In the cold, going round and round the same places? I decided to venture a bit further and go and find a new park. To get there I had to walk past the New Southgate cemetery. It’s enormous, one of the huge cemeteries built in the outskirts of London in the 19th Century, and its entrance and chapel are picturesque enough. The long walk alongside its railing kept on talking to me of the omnipresence of death. The cold was intense; I had to put on my gloves, and though I was following the instructions in the map, I couldn’t find the park. Disappointed, I was about to go back home when I saw some greenery at the end of one street. There was a park there, though I don’t think it was the one I was looking for. Far in the distance was the children’s playground, its colours standing out against a backdrop of hawthorn trees in bloom. They were the only thing I’d seen during my journey affirming the presence of spring; in the streets I had only found those ghostly hints of flowers in bare trees that I’ve already described. I decided to reach the hawthorns until the end of my walk, to crown perseverance—though I don’t know if mine or that of springtime, feeble but tenacious.
I turned towards the park’s wilder area. Two small football grounds on a narrow strip of grass adjoined masses of trees and grown grass. There was pretty little green on the treetops, but further round a bend I could glimpse another hawthorn, and that’s where I headed for, almost happy. Just then I saw on the ground a pigeon’s tattered carcass. Must have been a fox, perhaps.
I wanted to believe that behind the copse there was a mystery, another world, though I knew too well that all there was were the rather dull houses in the streets I had come by. The sky still had brushstrokes of grey clouds, but now and then it opened to let some mirage of sunshine through, as if darkness and light were fighting a dogged battle for the dominion of that theatre of suburban life. Raindrops started falling, rather fine, invisible, like pinpricks on my face. A couple of optimists who were air-bathing (since sunbathing wasn’t possible) by one of the football grounds got up and left. I walked across the grass to get closer to the hawthorn trees, and to avoid seeing the dead pigeon again. There was a man running to-and-fro just by my goal, without straying too far, and I thought that perhaps for him as well those flowers were a kind of talisman. When I got closer I realised that he didn’t want to walk far from his son’s pram.
I reached the humble white clouds of blossoming hawthorn when the man was putting on his jacket and was joined by a little girl. He took her hand, pushed the pram and the three of them walked away, rather happily. The hawthorn petals, minute, had started to cover the ground, and along with the echo of the few children still laughing in the playground at my back, they cheered me up. They looked like confetti, the promise of some party. They could have been snow too, hadn’t their contour been so neat.
I started to walk back, not knowing if that park was the one I had been looking for, and not wishing to find out in the map, happy with not knowing where I had been during that recess of time cut into that grey Sunday.
Perhaps, I told myself, heartened by those glimpses of life that the afternoon had granted me, we will still have some spring. Perhaps tomorrow will indeed come, and the outdoor cafés will open, even if not yet inside, and we will indeed be able to sit down and have a coffee like people who live and dream, even if we shake with cold.
Soon the rain stopped. The sun had come out by the time I got home.
*Image by Allan Warren