March 2020 will go down as the month when the UK, held hostage by a virus, began to live out a dystopian novel. The time when a health emergency turned into a pandemic and we went from freedom to lockdown overnight.
During the first half of the month, there were rumblings in the background. A few deaths began to be logged to COVID-19, although it still felt like a vague threat – to the general public, at least. It seemed inconceivable that we might suffer in the same way that China had, until Italy and Spain showed signs of going the same way. By the end of the month, schools and businesses were closed, the streets were deserted, even in London, the supermarket shelves bare, stripped of packets and tins and toilet rolls. We were allowed out for an hour’s exercise a day, alone or with the people we lived with, or to go and buy essential shopping. We stood in line, 2 metres apart, to go in to shops one at a time to check whether butter had come in, or hand sanitiser, or tinned tomatoes.
The saving grace, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse, was the weather. After months of gloom and rain, the sun came out – but not without giving us a beating from a weekend of gales first. The countryside, parks and gardens (for those lucky enough to have them), came into bloom and the birds sang their hearts out, from dawn chorus to dusk, to prove that for them, at least life went on as normal. Better, in fact. The climate benefited from the fact that there were so few cars on the road, industry had all but ground to a halt, planes no longer flew.
I write this in the hope that, looking back in a few months’ time, it will all feel like a bad dream: the whole world in the grip of a virus that as yet no-one knows how to beat; a million dead worldwide, over 4,000 in the UK and rising. Every individual death, logged as a daily total, a tragedy for that person’s family, made particularly cruel because of the isolation of both the death and the funeral. And through it all the key workers soldiered on, putting themselves at risk for us, while we hid, alternating between fear and irritation, wondering whether there was a way out and if so, when it would come.
The relatively normal start to the month began with the publication of my fourth book, The Margate Maid, in hardback and ebook and audiobook – two firsts there for me. I went up to London – although I chose to drive as a precaution rather than take the train – in the midst of the worst rain I have ever driven through. On the Friday, Ellis and I went to the playground and to a café – both memorable for being activities now forbidden.
Saturday was very special – a visit to Bekonscot model village – much loved by my own children and now an amazing new discovery for Ellis. Choo-choo train heaven!
When I got home, there was a lovely delivery of publication-day flowers from my new publishers. And I received the final large-print copy of my Yorkshire trilogy from my previous publishers.
I managed a couple of walks with friends, although by now social distancing measures were beginning to come into force. There was much washing of hands and keeping 2 metres apart. Then that came to an abrupt end, too. In its place, a new world of chatting to friends and family on HouseParty and WhatsApp, video calls for Mothers Day, writing group meetings and yoga classes via Zoom. And each day, a solo walk in the countryside – perfect for social distancing where I live.
Primroses were in flower and a solitary cistus bloom appeared, very early. All the spring yellows came out in force – daffodils, forsythia, mahonia – and the tulips were up and waiting in the wings.
In the first week of lockdown I threw myself into cooking recipes new and old. A variation of a Nigel Slater recipe with coconut, spinach and tomatoes, tweaked to include what I could find in the shops. Cauliflower soup, very much enjoyed at a friend’s house but lacking in flavour when I made it, enlivened with a delicious garlic and coriander Zhoug (not made by me…)
Then spiced lentil soup, a Delia recipe that I’ve been making for well over 30 years (recipe now lost but engraved on my memory). And, when the sun came out, pear and roquefort salad, with the addition of bacon, eaten in the garden one sunny lunchtime, accompanied by a glass of white wine because – why not?
I’m lucky in that I’m used to being at home, with writing and researching taking up a portion of every day. It’s been much harder for friends and family, having to adapt to home-working with two people needing to make calls and use computers plus looking after children and maybe home-schooling, too. Ellis was keen to get in on the act. He enjoyed the chance for a run-around, too.
The photo at the top was taken just before lockdown, as is my final image. It felt too sensitive a subject to post to my Instagram account at the time, but the church and graveyard at Kingsdown are so beautiful and peaceful – a moment of solace in the strangest, and saddest, of times.