You can’t live all day, every day, in fear – you have to occupy your mind with something else or you’d go mad.
When lockdown started, it was like a long Christmas holiday – stuck at home arguing with the rest of the family, not being able to work, or go out and get away from each other. We needed a distraction. Or more than one.
My mother and I fell back on the tried and tested cornucopia hidden in the toy cupboard: jigsaws. Doing these on the kitchen table was never going to work, so we cleared another table, stuck a board on it and started off with the hardest one: 1000 pieces. Big mistake! All the pieces were more or less the same drab greenish-grey and the picture was of WW1 soldiers, so not very exciting to look at – it took us about four weeks to finish. We argued about where particular pieces went, if the ones the others put in really fitted together, if there were pieces missing, whether we should just give up. But, doing it on our own or together, it took whole chunks out of the day, when we could focus on something other than the rising toll of illness, death and predictions of economic meltdown.
Watching television became a mixture of rabbit-in-the-headlights horror at all the government incompetence around protective equipment for health workers, the exponential rise in infections in the UK and the rest of the world, and at the inability of the scientific world to come up with the definitive solutions we all wanted to hear. So we diligently watched the daily briefings, shocked at the inability of ministers and health advisors to answer even the most basic questions. And then anaesthetised ourselves watching a river of quiz games – Countdown, Tenable, Tipping Point, Pointless, Only Connect, Mastermind, Eggheads – followed by escapist soaps: Heartbeat’s ‘60s nostalgia and, weirdly comforting in its pre-Covidness, Doctors.
My daughter – yanked out of ‘the most important year of her life’ – had her GCSE exams taken away from her. Her school friends and extended family were reduced to text messages and brief face time sessions on her phone. She was our WhatsApp conduit to friends abroad, locked down in Italy, France, Germany and Switzerland, giving us a glimpse of our possible lockdown future a few weeks ahead. Once her schoolwork was completed by Easter, she threw herself into sewing: a variety of facemasks in different shapes and off-cut materials, as well as clothes and a doll. Her sewing machine was the equivalent of our jigsaw-tv escape and solace.
She was the one who provided me with the best comfort from the terrifying world of deadly infection lurking outside, one that we were lucky enough to be able to hide from together at home.
As the lockdown was looming, in the last shopping trip we did together, she went and explored the seed section of Morrisons. ‘Buy these, and you can grow them in pots on the terrace!’ So I did.
I had dabbled in grow-bag and plant pot gardening before: a couple of tomato plants for a couple of years in a row; a failed experiment with potatoes in a sack with a flap; a chilli plant that had expired in its pot after only a brief crop that I hadn’t managed to use up; some courgettes that produced marrows before we ate them all; and the childhood mustard and cress experience that I’d replicated with my own daughter, and which may have inspired her supermarket foray into edible horticulture.
So we bought some Mercury Stores compost, dusted off the old pots from the cellar, and emptied the window boxes of their years-old weedy squatters.
The tomatoes sprouted, the parsley, coriander, chives and basil pushed their way out of the moist dark soil and stretched towards the sun that streamed unseasonably through the window. My neighbour entrusted a handful of her carefully chitted potatoes to my previously barren sacks, and I repaid her with a bean plant I’d grown from a pod taken from her bean crop last year. With flowering fruit trees in pots and a proven record with beans, tomatoes and potatoes, she provided a beacon of hope that I could do better this time.
My endeavours met with limited success: only three of my peas grew, flowered and podded; the others never saw the light of day. So many tomatoes spouted that I gave some to my brother and my neighbours who hadn’t already grown any. I had successful crops of baby carrots and rocket in window boxes, but the radishes were a disaster: not a single one! And around this mini-market garden, now flourished the flowers and shrubs that had always been there, but had been overgrown with weeds, in too-small pots, not always watered or pruned.
In my enthusiasm, I cleared away last year’s dead leaves and added the rich leaf mould from their forebears to my pots. Out of the blue, my daughter scrubbed the tiles clean of many summers’ sticky Lime tree drippings, so that I no longer slipped when I watered.
As we passed from winter to spring and summer, the honeysuckle, lilac and jasmine filled my lungs with perfume, and the roses bloomed. I ordered ladybirds through the post to eat the aphids, and I cut back the ivy that threatened to pull down the wire fence next door.
I never thought I was a gardener, but now, picking tiny wild strawberries that have colonized the pots on the terrace while I water their hosts, and harvesting handfuls of peas and carrots, I understand the joy and satisfaction of growing things. I share gardening conversations with my neighbours. I’ll be listening to The Archers next.
I wouldn’t have had this if I’d been busy working. It took a pandemic – with the deaths and grief it’s brought to so many – and the economic devastation to come – to discover it.