The early hours are soaked in stillness. We greet each other warmly and set off. The mood is pensive. Our footsteps – heavy as we start to climb the hill towards our green recourse. This new ritual – our daily morning walk – gives us some order, some control, amidst the days that stretch out into hours of endless confinement – locked in with our thoughts, our fears, in the absence of outer events or stimulation. It is an endless waiting game.
We walk along the path, shaded by the tall trees have been here longer than us, and pick up where we had left off the previous morning. We talk about what happened yesterday, who called or wrote, how many hours of work we managed to get done.
She tells me of Grandfather, his health, his clouded mind. He doesn’t leave the house. Half-hearing what the television tells him of the world outside, not trusting the information fully, he falls into a kind of stupor. His 90-year old mind is well oiled in shutting out that, which threatens its security. It is the secret to his optimism, despite the tempestuous years.
She tells me of her friends scattered across the globe – in Moscow, Paris, the USA. She tells me of her lover and how he smokes two packs a day. His life is hell already – locked in a loveless marriage with a sick child
Inevitably we talk about the numbers. They rise every day. Religiously, she watches the electronic digits grow, reflecting new deaths across the world. I try not to think about it, an irritation growing, that our peaceful walk is once again disturbed by paranoia. Because these negative thoughts take hold if only, once they are let in. Enclosed, they begin to breed and to expand, until you are convinced your body has all the symptoms of the virus. Until you think you cannot take it anymore. You lift your head towards the open window and pray.
But now we walk. We breathe, inhaling deeply. Exhaling with a loud sigh, like old women. Letting go of all that emotion bottled up inside. My belly also weighs me down. In it, new life matures day by day. As do the buds on the trees that we pass on our walk. Spring will turn summer.
We like to take secluded paths. Shying away from people in a way that is almost phobic. Will it pass? Although we lived here for many years, we discover new routes and hide out in the wilder parts, imagining a forest.
The air has cleared of chemicals, but the pollen this year is high. It finds its way into the nose, the back of the throat, rubs against the glands creating the feeling of an oncoming cold. Or is it the virus?
We take slow steps and carry on for over an hour. Sometimes the breathlessness I feel, together with the low lie of the child, forces me to take a rest on a log or a bench. I sip water and eat a fruit.
We keep going.
Together on these walks, we hold each other up when the paths become slippery or steep. We have not been this close for as long as we can remember. The sore memories of our collective life kept us apart. Our family, broken and scattered across too many flats and countries to call any home.
Now we find each other once again. These walks keep us sane. Letting go here of all that builds up in the hours spent inside our flats, in relationships that are trying and tensions which can only cool with distance. And how can you distance when you are stuck all day in a confined space? Internal immigration. Occasional outbursts. Will we be forgiven?
We are breaking the rules a little by meeting up. But Mama lives across the street. We cling to this one transgression. On waking, we look forward to this hour of freedom.
The city has gone quiet. I like the pace. In these quiet hours, it is easier to focus. To process. Day by day, the past removes its entrenchment from the present, and I am able to enter it in a different way. Immersing myself into a story that is no longer quite mine. I imagine the world through her eyes and start to write.
As I map out our collective years through her as the protagonist, my own narrative recedes. I find a door open, and suddenly I am immersed in the turbulent Nineties. I begin to see our life anew – the escape from the collapsing Soviet Union, its dangers and grey drudgery, to sun-lit California. The American dream and its cracked image. My mother, the same age then as I am now, her life turned upside down by a broken marriage, failed expectations, and a country that after seven years felt more foreign than when she arrived. Which brought us here, to North London – the city she had read about in books that were so hard to find in the USSR.
She had imagined herself in another life, of walks in the green parks, of tea time and great writers who lived in a land where you could breathe more freely.
We turn around to make the journey back, noting that there are more people out. The dog walkers have been replaced by parents and their toddlers. The joggers increase in quantity and speed. We dodge them all. Looking into each other’s eyes, we laugh, at our own strange and still novel aversion.
The sun shines brightly. The cool breeze is a reminder that the season is still transitional. Too early to celebrate the warmth. We find solace in the thought that today the buds will grow a little closer to their bloom. The air is crisp. We walk. We breathe.