Tom Peck writes in the Independent, “The message is go back to work. The guidance is stay at home. So that is clear then.” On Sunday morning’s Andrew Marr Show, Michael Gove, the Minister of the Cabinet, was speaking, and I couldn’t stop imagining him dusting and polishing the table while making sure the water glasses were clean and sparkling on their coasters, as he clearly said, “I don’t think wearing face masks should be compulsory, but it is the polite and sensible thing to do”. For the first time in weeks I was nodding along with him, at the word – polite.
Monday morning Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister you remember, urged the public to wear face-masks in shops. “I think in shops it is very important to wear a face covering. Whether we make it mandatory or not, we’ll be saying a bit more in the next few days.” By Monday evening it is compulsory. One for Cummings behind Boris, nil for Gove.
Sunday was also a Big Birthday as the other member of this household of two turned 77. Upside down 77 could look like two deck chairs sitting out in the sunshine but we know not to sit still for too long. The day brought a first in four months: lunch at a restaurant with two other couples. The restaurant garden with outdoor seating was full at this Sunday lunch-time. But it is strange to know that though we may walk beside each other we cannot hug. This small curb checks us back to when we were children with parents who didn’t do hugging. Lunch is lovely and after our goodbyes leads to a long afternoon nap.
But on a birthday, a big birthday as the years, not us, get older, it is fun to find a reason to gather and celebrate. Brane Zivkovic from New York University first comes up with the idea for his students. Then he reaches out to Randy Thom from Skywalker and Taghi Amirani with the Coup53 team. And suddenly there is a surprise Zoom party and I have stage directions to follow! They zoom like fishing, dropping a line into the river of our lives, hooking those bites and making connections with long ago colleagues and friends. There are folks in party hats and with balloons, the number 77 in case we forget what birthday this is. There are chuckles bringing forth deep and long-ago memories to share. Our children and grandchildren are enjoying the moments, too. It is filled with rememberings, gosh did that really happen? Yes it did. And laughter, more laughter. We are all hungry to connect while holding in our hearts a longing for the physicality of each other that is still a long way off. With a tilt of a camera here a half-closed eye for focus and imagination, we could even all be at the farm, with people flowing from one room or screen to another. After the final click goodbye we sit back, grateful for this time we live in, while remembering those who are torn apart from families and friends throughout the world.
And for Monday, what about a nice little picnic on the river? It seemed like a good idea and we sensibly took off to Kingston in an Uber. It was strange to be out in the ‘real world.’ And truthfully we were a little intimidated by it. There are facilities to find, instructions to heed before we finally are in a tiny little GoBoat and heading out onto the Thames river. The boat is small and slow. The river is big, but we are alone and can take off our masks and spread out a picnic on the table. Steering to river rules, we begin to see what semi-suburban England is looking like and going through. There are swans, geese, ducks and a few grebes on the water circling us, more curious than hungry for the chips we toss to them. The blackberry vines dip into the water and their lush berries are already ripening. Looking back towards Westminster I thought of Henry and Thomas in Tudor times and wondered how long it took to row up river from Westminster to Hampton Court when you were summoned to the King in residence.
Today there is no hurry. People are wiling away their time, lingering on the river banks. There are groups of children gathered together, unmasked, as they play in and around the water. Boys teasing girls, boys showing off for girls, boys daring each other to climb and jump higher than before from this or that branch into the river. A few out-of-work young men are fishing – that occupation of doing something and nothing.
The smug and comfortable detached houses, with gardens and moorings are sad, rejected for this year at least, left like old lovers to fend for themselves. There are no renters to prepare for, no holiday makers to the river. The lawns are uncut, Buddleja grabs hold in borders waiting for the butterflies to find their blossoms. Even the few potted begonias fail to convince anyone that this year is not over before it began.
The house boats are tied up in rows, barely bobbing with the river’s ebb and flow. The spring chores of painting and polishing have hardly begun as we enter mid-summer. Maybe I am wrong, maybe it is just Monday on the river, but it feels like the river, the community, and thus the country is in retreat.
As are we, now we are safely back home. A deeper acceptance of this moment in history has set in and we are mindful of what is before us.
This has been A Letter from A. Broad written and read for you by Muriel Murch.