They say pandemic. They say lockdown. They say set the calendar to autopurge, unwrite your future life, reset the month: germs, germination, another revolutionary Germinal. Yesterday I realised things will never be the same. A philosopher might say: from one day to another, they never are. And furthermore, from one day to another, you never are. But still.
So it came home to me: the world is being turned upside down, like a child’s snowglobe. But this one won’t settle down to display the old cherished landmarks. Unless it resembles the Titanic snowglobe I once saw, drifting back to a clearer picture of disaster.
I’m lucky. My daughter is here with me. I have a house, a garden; in the end, says Voltaire’s Candide, whatever else is or has been going on, we must cultivate our garden. And also, as Voltaire did in life, fence it in.
The garden insists on Spring. Persistence of primroses, les primevères du printemps. In my last house they were everywhere; they’d spread onto the lawn and my first cut of the grass would wait indulgently until they’d finished flowering. Here, in my new place, they’re clustered under an apple tree. Primroses, apple trees – many a folk song here and out there, down unseen Devon lanes. That world.
Yes, Spring, even if the apple tree is slow into leaf. I can still see, approaching its branches, the usual view of the hills. My daughter says: no, not too near the fence.
I’m listening to a wash of Gregorian chant and now in my mind there’s an oak avenue leading up to buildings that are austere but with good acoustics. It was an elm avenue at first but then I thought of disease and the elms I used to have, felled now. Oak is so much more soothing and reliable for these times; I’ve moved it into the position of first responder to the word ‘immemorial’. It was an Augustinian priory originally but I then thought, what about quietude, so it’s Cistercian now. To reiterate: I’m listening to Gregorian chant, with a mental picture of a mature oak avenue leading to a place predisposed to silent observance and prayer, emitting this wash of song. White-robed singers. An overlay of peace.
The chapel walls are white, too. I almost overlook the area where a dance of death, painted over, is coming through. Almost. Then for some reason a pair of pangolins, viral launchpad suspects for the virus, scamper up the oak avenue. Why? Surely I specified Europe? It takes me a while to work it out. But of course, pangolins is an anagram of plainsong.
When the new season should have been underway the ballrooms failed to open, though they’d been spruced and buffed not so long before. You could hear reports that the waves were still queuing patiently, but you knew they’d make a rush for the doors sooner or later. On a sick planet, warming inexorably, the heart had just gone out of things. One neglected municipal task was collecting all the raggedy palm fronds and burning them, like old posters for the Carnival of Silence that should already have left town. It hadn’t, though; it just stayed there, its tents getting saggier, its mute menageries more moth-eaten.
I pass the lockdown evenings mentally staging boules matches with my imaginary friend, an old man in a beret who says it’s obviously the end of the world as we know it, but sod it anyway. I make a note to copy his shrug. He’s competitive for a miserabilist, but no match for me. My last super-accurate boule of the day, lobbed at whatever moon is current, always strikes sparks. Still got it.
Alasdair Paterson was born in Edinburgh and lives in Exeter, where he presents the monthly Uncut Poets event. His most poetry recent collection is Silent Years (Flarestack Poets).