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Barsa Rae on the Pandemic

The Beginning

On Good Friday it's blue skies, 20C. With higher temperatures, the UK government has banned congregating outdoors. A walk is allowed. Mine takes me through the park, by the river, onto the golf course. The fairway is empty; an open cathedral with no worshippers. Easter is two days away, but when will we all be resurrected? In May, my parents come visiting from India, enjoy spring here. Not this year. When I walk alone, I walk for all of us.

I come to a stile, wonder if I should turn back, then climb it. Bracing my leg against a fence post to avoid touching anything other walkers may have touched, I get over. I head into the woods, on the steep hillside bordering the golf course. Choose the bottom path, hoping it'll be easier than the straight ascent. Spring flowers everywhere; the ground underfoot soft with pine needles. I could be Frodo on his way to Mordor. Or the only person on earth.

I climb but never quite reach the top. Out of the woods, a runner hurtles towards me, like a startled deer. (Animals are reclaiming the world as humans retreat.) I stand aside. He says thank you as he crosses. I think about his rushing breath, its aerosol effect.

I can't see where I'm headed, the pines are so thick. Instead of my intended one hour, I've walked two. I'm lost. There's no one to ask. I decide that's enough, clamber up the incline, ignoring the protest my legs make. On the ridge, I see I've overshot where I should have cut across. The only option is to turn back. At the bottom, I spot the gate I opened with a tissue, open it again with a tissue, climb the stile. The white stones on the fairway mark the path; sentinels standing guard until the pilgrims return. My legs aren't complaining any more. They've walked far; they'll go further still.

The Rest

What do you say about a situation that's so sci-fi if you'd written it people would have lapped it as a story? A situation having lived through which, a year on, most of us are still absorbing.

With the announcement of a national lock down, I was one of the (very few) weird people who rubbed my hands thinking: I'm freelance; I'm going to be unemployed. This is my opportunity to write. For six weeks I worked steadily on the third draft of my novel. Writing new chapters and editing existing ones. So far so good.

Since I lived on my own and was used to working from home, I thought I was well suited to lock down. As the weeks wore on, I found myself craving people and not just friends. The gym, the pool, the yoga centre; places where I didn't have any more of an exchange than a smile and a hello, all called to me from behind closed doors.
I was also wrong about getting paid work. After a couple of months the tap opened to a steady trickle. Each project had a long tail, merging into the next. Struggling with motivation, I could just about manage to work and exercise. My usual habit of writing before or after work totally fell off.

With the rainy summer, I fell out of walking. I could still see the world passing by on the tow path and canal my flat overlooks. I exercised at home. I thought that was enough. Wrong again. I started feeling depressed. Then realised, seeing the world from inside is not the same as being out in it. I became alert to half hour slots when I didn't have urgent work. I'd pull on my walking uniform and head out. Had it always been this beautiful in the autumn and winter, or was this year being kind because I needed it?

Time was an eel that slipped through my grasp. Within a day the hours dragged; then I'd blink and weeks would have disappeared. I did write a clutch of poems and a flash, but my novel languished. I self-counselled. This was a bizarre time and it was enough just to get through it earning a living and with my sanity intact. I read other writers' advice. Take as much time as you need. Whatever you do: reading, talking to other writers, encouraging each other, thinking about writing, all count. Take small steps regularly.

Relax. Trust yourself. All will be well. So I did and it was. Mostly!

Barsa Rae

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