I was looking forward to Tom’s book and CD launch. Then this virus farce-cum-Armageddon came along.
In his wisdom, Tom had asked me to lend an editorial hand to his forthcoming book; but his manuscript was already in great shape before I got my hands on it, so it was one of the easiest and most pleasant editing jobs I’ve ever undertaken.
Over three days of great company with Tom and Bridget, along with far too much red wine and Jethro Tull, I worked through Tom’s manuscript. (Remind to tell you at some point about being mistaken for Bob Geldof in Tom’s favourite-but-closing-down wine shop; how I became best friends with the proprietor after sharing Brexit-led stories of wives and emigration, over several tiny but beautifully chosen glasses of red; and how I found myself on the receiving end of five gratis glasses of far less palatable stuff on the train journey back to Tom’s from York).
I persuaded Tom to go with the title Seasons of Change. His book is about different towns, changing seasons, and busking, so change just seemed to fit perfectly. The narrative captures something elusive – the street-level view, the ordinary, the ascendancy of random events building into something meaningful, but always elusive. I reckon it’s the best narrative on England since J.B. Priestley’s 1935 English Journey. It’s much better than this rubbish you’re reading now – go out (or, these days, stay in) and buy it.
Anyway, I left Manchester feeling confident that Tom had a classic on his hands. Zip forward a few months, and out came the book and accompanying CD; and then along came a Covid spider that sat down beside us and not only frightened Miss Muffet away, but fucked up everything else too.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that there was no book-and-CD launch – not that I could have travelled to England for it anyway, with all the Czech borders closed and guarded by orcs.
Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve turned inwards; and I’m very lucky to have lots of ‘inwards’ to turn to. Magda’s work disappeared in a puff of social distancing, enabling her to resume her role as builder-in-residence in the vast folly we call home. While I sat in my usual isolation (the lockdown has had no effect on my daily routine or workload, which must make me exceptional in these bizarre times), Magda guided plasterers, plumbers and electricians through the cavernous spaces of the house, and applied flooring, tiles and paint, taking revenge on the silence with drills, nail guns and circular saw.
At the end of three weeks, we had three new upstairs rooms and a stripped-back, replastered vaulted hallway crying out for a gallery of minstrels (whose presence in my subconscious is probably a hangover from the Jethro Tull surfeit I enjoyed with Tom earlier). We even had a permanent staircase fitted to replace the one Magda’s Uncle George had made for us three years ago. Apart from licks of paint, and the gentle dilemma of what to do with a hallway that resembles Poole’s Cavern more than a standard hallway, that's stage one complete. We have our full quota of living quarters. It only took us three years.
The more inroads we make into the house, the greater the physical distance between us. Three years ago we were spending our days and nights in a mediaeval huddle of beds and chairs, cooking, eating, working and falling out in the room that now serves as my office. We now have our own bolt holes, with rooms to spare, and on busy days we only bump into each other at mealtimes, or after Whatsapping each other to arrange a meeting in front of the TV in a desperate bid to find something worth watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Sometimes we even talk to each other.
Living in the middle of nowhere, the countrywide lockdown has made the wilderness on our doorstep relatively busy, ironically. Many people have decamped to their summer houses in the woods and hills, and on a walk where we would normally have the world to ourselves, we now pass parties of barbecuers, rows of cars, and more dogs on the loose than our two hounds are willing to accept with equanimity. We offer muffled greetings to passers-by, hurriedly pulling our masks over our faces. Once we’re up in the rocks, the solitude returns, and the masks fall away.
We’re terribly selfish. We look forward to the day when the towns reopen, so that the Covid tourists can get back to their urban lives. How bizarre to think our local patch of bucolic obscurity is currently busier than the streets of Prague. In that newly silent city, the horse-drawn taxis that shuffle tourists around the Old Town Square are unemployed; while here in Bĕlý, the horse-drawn carts are busy as never before, carrying wood, food and farmers, and making surreptitious deliveries of eggs and milk.
Every morning at 7.30, two heavy-hoofed beauties clop past our house, horse-collar leather gleaming. How wonderful, and frightening too, that these ghosts of Hardy’s Wessex are now the everyday method of carriage here, their only rival on the road being the occasional tractor – a 1960s relic that roars into the shattered present with the shock power of a UFO.