‘Anything you want?’ says Catriona on her way out of the house to go to the shop. I’m standing at the hob stirring a first batch of Low Life’s 2021 Pandemic Second Wave green tomato chutney. (My outdoor homegrown tomatoes stopped turning red just before Christmas.) The wooden spoon stops revolving while I google my brain for things I want.
No results. Materially, I have everything I need. Too much of everything. What I once looked on as too few clothes now strikes me as insane excess. I’ve got a Honda Jazz that starts first time parked down in the village, lent to me by a friend for as long as I need it. I’ve books, pens, paper, ink, fags, gin, tonics and there’s ice and a lemon in the fridge. We’ve logs and last year’s pine cones for kindling and a newish box of long matches. In the bread bin is a fresh crusty loaf and the last time I looked a half-box of chocolate fingers. I’ve 100 Tetley teabags in hand and a blue-top bottle of French half-fat milk. My razor blade remains sharp and there’s an unsqueezed tube of toothpaste in the bathroom cupboard. The house is a little on the small side, but if I feel hemmed in I can go outside into the dusty garden featuring giant palms, ferns and cacti and the mimosa is coming out. And on most days I have sunshine. I only have to step outside and turn my face to it and I can feel the warmth of the sun on my cheek.
‘Nope,’ I tell her and resume my stirring with the anxious concentration of a green tomato chutney virgin.
‘But if you see anything on the shelves marked ‘gaiety’ get half a dozen, will you?’
For we’ve been feeling the strain a bit lately. It now turns out that we’ve committed our reserves to the mental fight against despair too early. Instead of the charge and breakthrough we were expecting, we now have to reorganise and re-equip our forces and dig in once again. Neither of us are hearing homicidal voices or angelic choirs — not yet — but there’s been a certain amount of eye-rolling and puffing out of cheeks and exhaling slowly at the ghastly possibility of a Low Life Pandemic Third Wave green tomato chutney 2022.
But as I contemplated the bubbling mess and circled the spoon, I took heart from a positive thought or two. That morning I was lying in bed reading the daily jeremiad in the news section when the phone on the bedside table buzzed. It was a video call from my 11-year-old grandson. His handsome, happy face filled the screen. ‘Grandad! Guess what?’ he said. ‘What?’ I said grumpily. ‘It’s snowing!’ he said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow before. Not snow that stays like this.’ He pointed his phone camera out of his bedroom window and panned left and right. A row of postage stamp gardens, some with dilapidated sheds, a line of bare trees, the scarred concrete walls of a sunken motorway: everything white. Big lumpy snowflakes were dropping fast. He was beside himself with simple joy.
I have lived my 60-odd years in the most prosperous era in world history. I was born and raised in a lower middle class family who laughed a lot. My grandson has recently emigrated from his mother’s numerous family in Devon, which descended into chaos, to his father’s in Basingstoke. A new area; a new family; a new school, now closed, but gamely open for business each morning from nine o’clock via video link. Except to the park for a muddy kick around, I don’t think he’s been out for three weeks. When I think about him, I make the calculation that he’ll be looking for a job in 2027 — if such things still exist by then — and I wonder which political or cultural myth he will choose to believe in — if there are any left by then — or which personal myth he will maintain about himself to drive himself forward. But if he keeps up his level of indomitable cheerfulness, he’ll have no need of either, the dear chap. As I looked, I could see his beaming chops in the circle of bubbling chutney and was terribly glad.
And earlier that morning my new British passport had arrived. I barely recognised the white-haired old codger peering myopically out at me from the photograph. ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty,’ it says. The new passport is diplomatic black and the same size as the old EU version and I’m afraid it looks and feels a bit cheap. But cheap or not — and you can call me whatever names you like — when I think that I am British once again I’m as joyful as my grandson is on seeing snow settling on Basingstoke.
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