During the first lockdown – way back in April 2020 – I began talking to an elderly gentleman. We live beside a public footpath and I had noticed him because he had a wool hat and a rucksack and wore his socks pulled high over his tracksuit bottoms. But we hadn’t spoken: paradoxically, it was only lockdown that lifted that barrier.
He told me about his life – he had been a pilot in the RAF – and how his wife used to like weeding. (I was weeding at the time.) “Nature’s always going to win,” he said once. He said it kindly, though. Since then I have shared many moments with him. During the first year of the pandemic, and now this one, his words have been strangely anchoring.
January 2021: I was driving my eldest daughter back to her flat in London but we only had until midnight before the new restrictions began. Roads were eerily quiet. The bullishness of previous lockdowns was gone. This felt like going into a darkening hole. I drove away, not knowing when I would see her again. At windows all around me, there were people blue-lit by their computer screens and, because I was already missing my daughter, it struck me as the loneliest thing.
Days passed. Time stood still. I didn’t even leave the house. After all, we had been here before and we knew what lay ahead. We even knew that banging saucepans only woke up our neighbour who was trying to sleep because she was a key worker on night duty. By the end of January, I was struggling. I tried to work but without anything to knock against, I felt smudged at the edges, and always tired. It was dark, cold, endlessly wet. I hoped that if we followed the rules, we would be safe.
Then a phone call: my father-in-law was in hospital with Covid. We were not allowed to travel up to see him. Eventually we managed a FaceTime call. He was sitting behind a Perspex window in a wheelchair. His hair was white. Wait. He had a white beard. “The thing is,” he told my husband, “it’s the loneliness.” He looked like a bird in pyjamas. He did not seem to notice that he was surrounded by multi-coloured plastic balls and also Barney the purple dinosaur; he was in a children’s soft play area. Or maybe he had noticed but it seemed irrelevant. “Or maybe he likes Barney,” said the old man in the wool hat.
February: I dreamt of going inside someone’s house by mistake and woke in a panic. We discovered Hamilton and watched on a loop. Such energy! We watched it so often, it was there in our sleep. I ordered hundreds of bulbs. Truly: I ordered enough bulbs to plant in a park. I was desperate for new life.
I met a friend for a walk and we drank sloe gin in our own cups. A passer-by spotted us together and shouted angrily, “Social distancing!” “Do star jumps,” my friend said.
We did star jumps. They were wild and beautiful. The old man laughed when I told him about that.
By March, I was feeling even worse. I had a new book coming out but it seemed unreal when bookshops were closed. I did some video messages for book groups and even that simple task took me hours because nothing I said actually felt like the kind of thing I would say. I picked up my handbag and realised it was the first time in weeks. Everything inside it looked old-fashioned. My car keys. My purse. My lipstick. None of them felt like things I would use.
I went for my first jab at the end of March and was amazed by how organised it all was, and by all the people. Volunteers at every turn. I was in and out within minutes. The nurse said to me, as if I were a child, “Well done, darling.” I fell in love with that nurse, right there and then, on the spot.
I said to the old man in the hat, “Spring is coming!” You could feel it. Ready to crack open the tight buds. Scramblings of green leaves. There was birdsong at 5.15 am. “Keep going!” he said. “You too!” I called after him.
Mid-April. Shops began reopening, bars and cafes (outside only) and gyms. We were shocked at how much had closed down: it was like coming out of a bunker and seeing what had survived and what had not. I drove my youngest daughter – an extrovert – to meet friends at the pub and she sat in the car, saying, “I am so nervous, I am so nervous.” A few weeks later, we spent time by the sea, watching waves unpack against rocks, moonlight on the water. I heard people whooping for joy on a golf course. It was like breathing again.
Then another stranger crossed my path. Next to the cottage where we were staying was a car park and I realised a man was always there in his car. He sometimes sat in the passenger seat, sometimes in the driver’s; he slept at night on the back seat. By day, other cars arrived and parked all around him and people set out fold-out chairs and ate picnics. One morning, he even got a parking ticket. He looked like someone who was waiting, and sometimes he looked as if he was praying. At the end of the week, I resolved to take him a coffee and knock on his window, just to ask if he was OK. His car was gone.
In May we went for a pub lunch. A pub! A lunch that we hadn’t made! The owners had constructed a special canvas tent for dining outside but it was open at both ends so that what they had in effect created was a mighty wind tunnel. We sat in our coats eating food that turned stone cold the moment the waiters stepped outside. Then something flew past my head that I realised was a small portion of French fries, followed by something else that was a piece of lettuce. I looked at my husband and realised he was blue with cold. “Enough,” we said.
By mid-May, there were rumours of a yet another strain of Covid. Just as the world was waking up, it felt as if it was being put back to sleep again, like a curse in a fairytale. I was still struggling to do the simplest things. I was even avoiding the garden. I wondered when I would come back, or if this was a new permanent version of me.
Over the next months, my father-in-law left hospital. When we visited, he told us this was the best day of his life. Two carers arrived and sang to him in Latvian and told him he was handsome with his white beard. I attended a talk where the speaker began by saying how nice it was to see actual non-Zoom faces, even with our masks, and also to have the opportunity to put on his trousers. Our garden erupted into life: so much weeding, I couldn’t keep up. I travelled to London in October and was shocked to see people on trains and tubes without masks. I went to the theatre for the first time in over 18 months and wept with happiness, even as the lights dimmed. In November I tested positive for Covid. We shut the doors again. I struggled to work again. We put up the Christmas tree earlier than ever before.
It dawned on me a few weeks ago that I hadn’t seen the old man in the hat for a while. Maybe he was keeping out of the cold. Nevertheless I found myself praying for him. I can’t remember when I last prayed for anybody. Keep him safe, I said almost silently. It was really the best I could come up with, and I had no idea who I was talking to.
As we head into a new year and find ourselves in the midst of yet another variant, I ask what I have learnt over the course of the strange, bittersweet 12 months we have just lived through. I see now that the old man was, of course, right: Nature will always win. This is a time for quiet, for paring back, so that new life may come again. (I accidentally dug up one of those bulbs I planted, and there was one colourless shoot. It might be out of sight, but there was the first intimation of new growth. It was happening, even in December.) But I hope he is not alone. I hope the driver is not still living in his car: I pray for a day when everyone has a roof over their heads. I hope the kind nurse is safe and well.
I would not have found these people without this past year, and they have touched and enriched my life in ways they do not know. No matter what next year brings, I will keep my heart and mind open.
Rachel Joyce is the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which will also be a film next year. Her latest novel, Miss Benson’s Beetle, is now available in paperback. Both are available from Telegraph Books.