Hello from Eastbourne
Plague Journals by Franklin Lewis Macrae
Going back to school has been great! I have made several new friends and we are having a great time. However, we no longer move around the school from class to class. We stay where we are and the different subject teachers come to us. We must wear masks in the corridors though and we must social distance in the classroom. Anyone breaking the rules gets a detention. I do miss walking around the school corridors going from class to class. I definitely preferred that. We have been put into 'bubbles' too, which is a small amount of students in a group. This is how I've met new friends. We are supposed to stick to our bubbles outside of school too. In science though we are having sex education which is terrible. I can't wait for this to be over and neither can my friends.
I have also got a new Rubik's Cube, a 4x4 and I've spent the evenings trying to solve the algorithms.
Back to School by Marli Rose Macrae
I went back to school this week and a lot of things have changed. We are only allowed to play with people in our year group. Each year group has been given a colour and my year, year five, is blue. So we must all wear a blue badge and we're only allowed to play with people who wear a blue badge. If we forget to wear our badge then we are kept inside at playtime as punishment. The playground has been split into three different zones (and we blues have the worst zone). Lunch can no longer be eaten in the dining hall, it has to be eaten in the classroom and we must eat it within twenty minutes or it goes back in the lunchbox. I have been gobbling my lunch quickly. We must wash our hands SIX extra times a day, not including before and after lunch and going to the toilet. My hands have started to get sore again so mummy has bought me my own soap to use. We are not allowed to use our own soap but this is a tiny bar I can smuggle in my pinafore pocket and mummy is getting me a tiny pot of hand cream too. There are no assemblies and no singing. We can't choose a book or read in the book corner and we're not allowed school bags anymore. One boy called Jacob keeps breaking the social distancing rules and deliberately trying to hug people.
Despite the rules though, I am glad to be back at school. We are learning about the Tudors and horrible King Henry. We are also learning about the Mary Rose. Mummy said when she was a child she was off school poorly and she watched the boat being brought up on the television. We are going to look for the film on YouTube this weekend. I have missed going to the beach and the Downs every day so we are going to Beastie Cove tomorrow morning.
Vie de château
Marie-Christine, Blois, France
"Toujours la vie invente" Gilles Clément. ("life always invents")
Free and very economical gardening advice:
I love abandoned gardens, green and lush, or dry and withered, with forgotten plants and decrepit paint on never opened doors. What could one like more? How much free time does one have to do "gardening"? Maybe best to plant some wild roses (to add some thorns for authenticity, as well as delicate short living flowers). No pretense of "look at me how beautiful I am".
The birds help with unexpected seeding. That is what has happened to our little green patch. What I notice after twenty years of doing the minimum (cleaning up and cutting things back now and then), is that plants do what they want, some loved ones have disappeared and we have got used to the ones we did not want initially and are even fond of them now.
No need to go to the garden center, to spend time and money. No need to water (but Rob does occasionally), nor to do wrong by importing estranged wild life. One's energy-print on the environment will be impeccable.
One just has to do "sit-spotting", I read this morning that it is the new way to travel: stay put and do nothing.
I have to confess, even as a voluntary non-gardener, that I love visiting inspiring gardens, a Persian idea of Paradise. We are lucky to live between Chambord (beautiful park, the biggest walled garden-and-forest in Europe, the wall being 32 km long and first built in 1542) and Chaumont (annual international garden exhibition with nature-artists from around the world, exploring new possibilities).
I am a devoted fan of a "gardener" (he refuses to call himself "garden designer") Gilles Clément, who has made gardens around the world. His belief is that "the planet is a garden", a possible garden of Eden. He defends a "laisser-faire" (let it be) approach, not so radical as mine and (infinitely) more thoughtful and resourcefully artistic.
He and I were born in villages 72 km apart along the same river (La Creuse). Perhaps that is why I feel some communion with him. I am sure that all gardeners will do better than me. I must have been traumatized by my visit to the Cotswolds in 1981, discovering that the locals were even mowing the sides of the road, and that their gardens were so over-pretty and elaborately groomed that it seemed to me like a crime against nature, I had never seen anything of the sort before. In France, we only devote this kind of care to the "potager" (vegetable garden). I wonder if some English people secretly resent Costwold-style gardens and think they deserve a salutary roughing up.
There is always a way to make it possible to wear a mask, surgeons or their assistants might need hearing aids or have all kind of handicap, but that is no reason to go to the operating theater not wearing one. Real surgical masks don't have those elastics behind the ears, they have two top ribbons and two bottom ones that you tie with a knot. It keeps the surgical mask better in place, and does not hurt behind the ears for spectacle-wearers.
Some spec-wearers attach buttons to the arms of their specs with wire and put the elastic on the buttons, not behind their ears. And that is also what Valérie, our secretary, does at work. Let's be creative and find our personal solution to go out safely. Let's be patient, since the bug is not going to go any time soon. Previous world epidemics have lasted between two and five years, and that was before such widespread international commerce or travel.
As for breathing problems, remember that people with asthma wear the PP2 mask (the thick one) during the pollen season, and people working in the steel or painting industries also wear these.
Relax when you wear it, it may save your life and the life of one of your loved ones (it is the new equivalent of helmets for bike-riders, and seatbelts in cars). Would one accept the anesthetist assistant's not wearing one during an operation? Don't worry! It is not permitted.
I often say that nobody ever gives a thought to the discomfort of industrial or health workers who have to wear a mask all the time. A way to share the experience of other people. Before Covid we were just too careless, going out without a mask when we had signs of flu or when suffering from a cough, and not washing our hands frequently enough.
Fires in California :
Our son and his wife left the San Francisco bay because of Covid (loss of job, closure of schools). They live now in wine-country, two hours' drive north of SF, with her parents in law, and their 7-week-old Flora, restoring the burnt vineyard and making a vegetable garden, when the smoke or the heat permit. The parents, Tony and Jenn lost and rebuilt their home after the fires in Mendocino County in 2017. This year the fires have not been closer than 80 miles from their place. Benoît told me last week that each of them had their suitcases ready (ID and important documents, favourite things one can carry, and a set of clothes). They have to keep a full petrol car-tank, in case they have to leave very quickly if threatened by fire. In 2017, Tony, Jenn and their son Braden aged 10, had less than ten minutes to save their lives. In the middle of the night a neighbor came to tell them to get up and run. Braden only took a Roman coin that Rob had given him.
I cannot forget the ready suitcases, trying not to worry too much. Hope and acceptance.
And us, what would we take from our house if we had 10 minutes to escape ?
When I was a medical student, at 3 AM one winter night, my neighbor tried to commit suicide with gas, decided to smoke her last cigarette, and destroyed three houses. My then husband and I woke up to find the old wall on top of us. My husband thought he was dead and buried, because there was earth in his mouth. We had to extract ourselves and get out immediately in case the house collapsed (it had just one wall left strong enough to hold the floors and staircase). We had no time to take anything away, just time to throw on some clothes. Forty-five years later I can't remember what I left there, except a horrible dresser that my (then) mother-in-law had given me. Our faulty memory helps us to survive.
Young people don't care. Hypothesis.
Let's look back at ourselves? In the early 70's our parents were afraid of public nudity. But I was wearing shorts as short as possible; boys' hair was as long as possible, and oily too. On the beaches, I was wearing only the tiny bottom of my "panther-with-rings" bikini - and the boys were often completely naked. I guess the young refusing the face mask is the contemporary equivalent. We can't ask our children or grandchildren to be smarter than we were (I know I am now contradicting what I said above about masks). It's painful to discover this. We would like it so much if humanity could improve with each generation. Are we any smarter than our ancestors who lived in the caves of Lascaux, 17000 years ago? I don't fancy living as they did, even if I have indeed lived most of my childhood without hot water, car, fridge... And I am not sure that Soulages or Joan Mitchell, painters I love, could be more talented that the painter of Lascaux.
By extension, the other question I ask myself about masks and the young is: why the argument of putting "grandma" at risk doesn't work? One answer might be that they are living far away from their grandma. So, no social pressure, and they don't mind the possibility of passing the Covid bug to an elderly grandma of somebody else.
Walking on the pavement, and passing somebody younger, it is I, the elderly one, who step into the road, thinking that when young I would have never dared to hog the pavement (even if I dared for the bikini), and then feeling a bit superior, thinking "I am not as selfish as you, darling, and you will age too, even if you don't feel like it". I am convinced that we experienced more freedom than the young today: riding my bike far away from home with almost no cars on the roads, no seat belts in cars (I even had a friend who had bricks as car seats, he had sold the seats to buy beer), no speed limits...
But, in case of danger, it used to be the young people who went to war to protect the old. Inversion of the situation.
Months with an R. (that means with the letter R in the name, when you can buy sea food safely at a distance from the sea).
Chris, in last week's column, had mussels with Chablis. We had the first mussels of the season this week - such a delicacy, the little ones from the Atlantic coast. With our favorite white wine from Quincy. As usual, Rob shops in too big quantities, so we had them once "marinière" with chips, and there were enough left over, to make the next meal, with pasta and slightly curried fresh cream. First sign that autumn is coming. Like the apples and pears ripening, les "vendanges" (grape picking and the all folklore around it) and the birds gathering along the Loire.
Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
This week we said goodbye to our Labrador - Sophie. She was over fourteen which I’m told is a very good age for her breed. It’s no consolation.
There was some warning. Last week she went off her food, slept a lot, did not want to go outside. Then finally on Monday she lost the use of her back legs.
The worst of it was we could not be with her at the very end. The vet and nurse were kind and gentle but because of the virus restrictions, we had to say goodbye in the surgery car park.
Feel hollow now. A big empty space. Our other dog seems to be missing her too.
Sorry to burden you all with that. We are okay and hope that you are too. All good wishes x
From St Just
Jane G, St Just, Cornwall
I've just got back from a toot to Perranporth with a friend, and we almost managed not to mention the C-word - if only through a system of forfeits. The gallery we'd gone to visit was mysteriously closed, even though the website and the sign on the door both said it was open - but despite that frustration it was a lovely day: I'd forgotten about seaside resorts selling mostly flip-flops, plastic buckets and ice-cream, and there was something very nicely time-travellerish about the main street. It also has an excellent charity shop, which provided a book stand, a blue glazed vase, a smock and a necklace of myriad lapis lazuli chips. The beach is a very proper stretch of sand with a smaller pool protected by rocks at one end, and it's evidently vastly popular, but looking down from the car park it was slightly comic to see people sitting tidily at regulation distance from one another, between regulation striped windbreaks: rather as if they were acting being on a beach. We drove back along the coast and stopped at Portreath, with a beautifully engineered curved channel leading in to a series of small harbours - remnants of when it was a significant trading place at the end of the valley from the Redruth mines.
It feels a very long way from new regulations or the need for new regulations - and as ever, I'm puzzled about the sense of them: six people, maybe, but I can't see why there shouldn't be exceptions if only two households are involved - unless the ones in the household who went out are going to isolate from the others on return. Like the daftness of insisting on masks in shops - unless you're going to spend significant time there by stopping to eat, at which point you somehow cease to be a threat to public health. Of masks - I'm alarmed by how 'normal' they are coming to seem, and alarmed at how we are all becoming accustomed to acting as if all other people are death threats: I'm afraid this will persist far beyond any real threat from the virus.
In entirely other news, Diana Rigg has died (not of the obvious): someone I'll miss despite having not known her.
And it is a ludicrously beautiful evening: translucent sky over almost translucent sea, with sounds of children coming up from the town and sounds of birds above and immediately around. And next-door-but-one having a barbecue in an entirely normal rather than new-normal way.
Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire
We have now reached Cornwall and the area where we spent six years while our children were growing up.
We left the cats and our comfortable accommodation in Eastleigh and moved to a campsite above Beesands in Devon. The site was huge with very spacious pitches and well organised washing facilities. It felt safe. We spent three lovely days with our friends Mary and Simon. We couldn't stay with them but spent many happy hours talking, going for long walks, swimming in the sea (which was freezing) and eating delicious food at outdoor venues. It all felt wonderful. I am appreciating being able to do normal things and meet up with good friends again so much.
On Wednesday we drove down to Pendeen to stay with old friends. Yesterday we walked the surprisingly busy coastal path from Sennen to Land's End and back, smiling and making detours around people as we went. We sat looking out to the Scillies and watching the people queuing up to have their photos taken next to the famous signpost. Then we wandered around St. Just and visited the craft emporium where I was delighted to see Katie was in charge. She is another friend from way back who paints and now also makes beautiful silver jewelry.
In the evening we went to the Minack to watch 'Oh Mary'. It was a one woman show about the life of Mary Bryant the only highwaywoman. Beautiful, warm evening and so pleasant not to be squashed in like sardines as we usually are. We were directed to a seat where I have always wanted to sit. We felt like royalty!
I'm wondering whether to start taking vitamin D as we go into autumn. There seems to be some evidence that it might be beneficial.
Mary Fisher, Norfolk UK
There have been some “New Normals” this week. Eldest grandson started sixth form and was given a new timetable. Timetable is staggered... two hours here and another hour there. Nothing unusual. Except, in order to meet government guidelines, students cannot do any self-study at the college. Exactly what is the student to do in between contact hours when they cannot stay on college premises? Has anyone at the department of education NOT had a public school education and actually thought about the implications for state pupils? We are not talking about wandering back to the dormitory, we are talking about students who will have had to travel some distance and can’t just pop back home. The result of this education directive will be that the students will be left to congregate in cafes, local libraries and the streets in groups of considerably more than six permitted in a new government guidance. Daughter-in-law teacher cannot look at pupil’s books or touch students work for 72 hours. Oddly, staff cannot meet in staff room but she has been given a social bubble of 200 students. On a positive note, the general consensus is that it’s good to be back at school.
Bereavement doesn’t have much going for it. Grief isn’t something that only happens immediately after the death of a partner or loved person. It is part of the rest of your life. The pain doesn’t go away; you have to learn to make room for it. Looks so easy on paper. My darling husband died last year. Yet, I still wake up each day and subconsciously reach out to touch him; I hear a piece of music he liked and can ‘hear‘ him pom-pomming to it; every new piece of news is never to be shared. Oh how much news I would have liked to have shared over the last six months! Tuesday is a good day. A walk with a friend to Wheatfen nature reserve. Shortly after R died I went for a ramble and accidentally took his walking boots. Our feet were similar sizes, so I used his boots and found that I preferred them. And the joy is that I feel a part of him is with me on the walk. I know. It’s just a pair of boots. But it gives me pleasure.
Government cajoling workers to go back to their workplaces. In the case of its civil service, the government has issued a directive to demand that four fifths return to workplace by the end of the month. Other employers have opted for more employee-focused approaches. Eldest son’s employer surveyed its entire workforce. Nearly all voted to stay working from home. Decision made to find office space for those who prefer or need to work away from home; additional support given to those who had technology difficulties working from home; those preferring to work from home will be able to continue and; office space will be sold and rental agreements terminated. In employment terms this amounts to two thousand people working from home compared to the eighty who did prior to the pandemic. Sister commutes once a week to an office which resembles the Marie Celeste as she is the only one there. Sister wouldn’t be there either if she could access the information she needs at home. It will be interesting to see how these work patterns pan out across the country.
On the last day of his holiday, youngest grandson and I went to park. Joy of joys... the zip wires have been mended. I turf off a group of teenagers, we jump on and whiz down the wires.
Persuaded by friend to join an online singing session. My first. Fortunately there was an opportunity to mute yourself. Just as well as my voice is not the sharing kind. It’s a Norfolk based group but, as it’s online, folk have been able to join in from around the world as far afield as Japan. The final song was a Zimbabwean folk song.
It celebrates the sunset and promises that the sun will rise in the morning. How beautiful. Some things can remain unchanged.
James Oglethorpe, Blue Ridge Mountains, VA
I smooth out Albright’s hair, brushing it away from where it has fallen across his eyes. Settling him upright I move his head, supporting it with an extra pillow. I sit on a chair beside him. Taking his emaciated hand I stroke a sluggish vein with my fingertips.
“Thought... in heaven,” he mutters, eyes still closed.
“Just a preview,” I say quietly.
He takes a moment to respond but opens his eyes. They are clear and he is alert. He smiles at me.
Contact. Pressure from his hand, weak but constant. I raise a glass of water to his thin, bloodless lips. He manages a couple of sips.
“Need to tell you something.’ His voice strengthens. ‘We are not alone.’
“It’s fine. It’s two in the morning. Just us. The peace of the dead and the dying.”
“We are not the only ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are here, with us. They are watching. Always watching.”
I look around the functional room, clinical save for flowers adding a splash of colour to the act of dying.
“Who is watching?” I ask.
“They are here, listening, learning.”
“Do they have halos and wings?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“How long have you been seeing them”
Breath fights its way out of his lungs. I settle his lolling head against the pillows.
“Not even wife, children, know. It’s natural. Sunshine kissing snow.”
“Do you talk to them?”
“No. They just get on with their job, watching my life unfold.”
“What do they look like?’
“Amorphous. It’s all in the colors. They shift hue. Do you believe me?”
“At this point you want the conversation to be about this. It’s proof enough. But from you, a scientist, it’s lot to accept.’
He moans, a dry, feeble groan of frustration and slips into sleep.
A skin that once carried the etchings of life is now smooth, stretched across his cheekbones. The mouth that had loved, from which countless words had flown, sags open. Breath wheezing in and out, life drowning.
He had a fearsome reputation. A man who strode the world lecturing, lobbying governments, communicating. He framed the debate about how to respond to first contact with another civilization.
Earth received a signal. Huge debate, excitement, hysteria, end of life as we know it. Albright calmed everyone and within a year we started transmitting a reply. With increasing levels of sophistication and power we streamed data towards the source of signal, deeper within the Milky Way.
Nothing in return. Just the hiss of cosmic background radiation. Then we started receiving data. Vast amounts. The only problem is humanity still has no idea what it means. Not a clue on how to unscramble the petabytes of data. The world sent a request for a primer.
A squeeze of my hand. An angelic smile wreathes Albright’s face, his eyes sparkle as they turn upward in their sockets.
“I thought you had flown away,” he whispers. “The message is a proof of intent. What we do will tell them what they need to know about us.”
Exhausted he struggles for breath. I check the drip soothing into his veins. After a while his rattling, shallow breathing grows more regular. Tucking the blanket under his chin I leave his bedside. I go to the window, open the blinds.
A hint of dawn in the sky. A mere suggestion that night is evolving under the rising beneficence of the sun.
“Where are you?” His words fly to me like the whisper of wings.
I turn and he is reaching out to me, hands just above the blanket.
“I am here.” I go to him, place his hands in mine. His skin is cold, his body shutting down.
“Don’t use the phone anymore. Not paying another penny to those crooks.”
Dying surprises. Life doesn’t always surrender on schedule. I have seen some catch a second breath, a continuous final download to the living.
“Parts of Nature often neither here, or there. Imagine the unimaginable and we get there. Contact only possible when we learn what they are. Might be a mess, bloodbath or worse. Mistrust, paranoia, assimilation, annihilation. Once or twice I heard something from them. My record of those conversations is under the table. Open the bag. There is a pin drive in there. Send to Dawes at Oxford. Good man.”
“It would mean telling him everything.”
“No. No. Send him anonymously. Be careful. They are leagues beyond us. It’s only a matter of time. You are here, now. They have come for me.”
He looks at me. Anxiety leaves his face.
I examine his hazel eyes. Holding his gaze I see flecks of color emerge in his pupils. Yellow, then green, growing in intensity until his irises are ablaze with blue.
“It’s OK,’ I say, leaning into him, intent, focussed. “You are safe now. You are with me.
You are home with us.”
The shock of realization occurs as his last breath escapes his lungs.
A nurse finds his body a few minutes after he dies, alone in a quiet room, surrounded by flowers, yellows and greens, alive in blue vases. With a crunch she stands on the pin drive, and throws the crushed remains in the bin.
There is no sign of us, of me, we are entangled with Albright, our secret safe.
It is for us to choose the moment of revelation. Until then we watch and wait, escorting those that knew us as they reach the moment of transition.
Angels make a fine cover story.
John Underwood, Norfolk
My Aunty Audrey, my father’s sister, died early this year aged 96. She had been in a care home for twenty years, having lived with dementia for all that time. She was a single woman, and a singular one. She commanded a searchlight battery in WW2, later worked as a quiet Senior Civil Servant, played hockey for England, and travelled extensively in her leisure time, enjoying walking in the Himalayas with Sherpas. Because she was so fit, her body continued where her mind could not, and I found it tragic that such a lively person had to be looked after in a care home for her own safety. In her latter years, she only recognised my sister from our family members, and she would become distressed if we visited her. In her middle life, she helped to kickstart a hospice for children in the East End of London, and because she was an astute woman financially, when she died there was a considerable legacy which she left to this hospice, and a further amount to be shared out between her nephews and nieces. We have decided to use part of this legacy to make a wildlife pond in our garden, and work on digging it has started this week. It won’t be a massive pond, about 7 metres by five metres, but it will be surrounded by native wildflower planting, with further wildflower meadow areas. I know that Audrey would have approved.
This week we have also been harvesting. We used to despair that every year we wasted our crop of apples, only able to eat or give away a fraction of the produce of our four apple trees. We started taking them to a farm up the road who produce apple juice from their own trees and also juice apples for customers. This year our five large boxes produced eighty seven bottles. The juice lasts at least a year in the bottles, and every year it is different in flavour dependent on the amounts taken from each tree. We prefer the juice to be just slightly tart in flavour, on the sharp side of sweet, and this year it has turned out just right. We still have one tree, a “Discovery” or at least, very similar, that produces too early for the juicing operation, and we end up fighting the wasps for them.
We have also been making Sloe gin, Damson gin, and our own speciality Bullace (wild plum) gin. Plum Tree Farm was probably named after the hedges containing Bullace trees - it has certainly been called “Plum Tree” since around 1750. They make really good jam, but we use only a tiny amount each year. If you would like some Bullace for gin or jam, bottling or freezing please let us know. They have a tart flavour - treat them as sloes for making Bullace gin, and apart from an unfortunate horse piss colour, it is rather wonderful.
The Prime Idiot, perhaps channeling Tintin, has come up with an “Operation Moonshot” plan for millions of Covid tests by next Spring. Only a year and thousands of deaths too late. More like “Bullshit”. Added to “Whack a Mole” this infantilising is tedious. Worse than that it demeans the intelligence of the population. This government wishes to take the country away from a place where reasoned argument holds sway, and into a nether world of falsehood and undemocratic personal fiefdoms. The world looks on aghast at their plans to break International treaties. Can we expect to make trade agreements with other countries post Brexit? Would you buy a used car from these people?
Susan, Country Victoria, Australia
People are weary. I think there was hope that numbers were low and lowering in rural Victoria, and that we would move to our previously relaxed conditions. We have hurdles to jump and changes will be gradual and carefully staged. My heart breaks for Melbourne. My friends and family living there were hoping for Stage three conditions, and do understand why that isn’t possible. It can all unravel so quickly, some one returning from a doctor’s appointment (not us I hasten to add!) in Melbourne has caused a second outbreak of the virus in a small town. In a week, 1 became 29. The town has two major employers, an abattoir and an ice cream factory, and it has moved quickly in its favourite conditions.
Mandatory mask wearing has given me some amusement. They hang from every rear vision mirror, on drivers and passengers they sit below the chin or hanging from one ear. I’m guessing the couples I see already masked in their cars are taking the health department’s advice seriously. They tell you to put it on correctly and leave it in place until you return home. It doesn’t stop the Premier from stuffing his in his back pocket when he steps up for his press conference. Good sense should tell you in a town with no cases and in a municipality that has only one active case that you could cut yourself some slack and just pop it on for solidarity when you exit your car.
It is lovely to wake up in daylight. We have had some balmy weather, and I have spent some long days in the garden. A beautiful Magnolia Felix, I planted not long after we came here is flowering and attracting attention. I lose count of the number of people who bale me up asking about it. Talking has become exhausting and I have to take myself into the back yard, which is private and find things to do there. I am happy that its flowering is giving real pleasure. The fritillaries are in bloom, the roses are shooting with fresh green growth tinged red. We expect frosts here until mid November, and I warn them sternly not to get ahead of themselves. We have bush peas flowering and we have covered them twice in the past week so frosts don’t deprive us of sweet spring peas. The air smells different, but as I write I can see the cold front blowing in. Meg needs her dinner and a quick evening walk before the rain, so I must fly.