The sun comes out and shines down on Scotland as if it has never been away. My two morning clients cancel, so instead of staring into the Zoom I go down to the field. All the mares are in a trance of profound pleasure as they feel the warmth on their backs for the first time in days.
I spend quite a lot of time hanging out with Florence, the baby of the herd. I play her some music from my favourite Spotify playlist and sing her some songs. It turns out, luckily for me, that she really loves Leonard Cohen. She listens to him singing ‘And there are no letters in the mailbox; there are no grapes upon the vine. There are no chocolates in your boxes any more and there are no diamonds in the mine.’ She agrees with me that only Len can makes those lines sound like the coming of the apocalypse.
She rests her nose on my back as I lean on the fence. I think of the very first time I heard that song. I was six years old and my brother had got the album and was so excited about it that he made the entire family listen. I remember my grandmother putting her head on one side like little bird and her melancholy friend Deacon smiling his sad smile as if he recognised a kindred spirit. (He had a secret tragedy in his life, and we never really knew all the details, but his gentle heart had been broken and it never quite mended. When he laughed, it was almost with reluctance, as if he felt that any expression of delight was a kind of betrayal.)
My mum fell in love with the Diamonds in the Mine song and played it for ever afterwards, and I did too, and I took it with me through my turbulent teenage years and in and out of all my disastrous love affairs, and it’s with me still, in a sunny winter field with a sweet, questing thoroughbred who was hearing it for the first time.
Flo felt as if she was going to sleep. This was her lullaby. Her head grew heavy on my back and I did the thing I do in what I call our Place of Peace – I opened my spirit and my energy to hers, so that all the atoms that exist in our corporeal selves could mingle. I looked at the blue sky and I looked at the beaming sun and I looked at the other mares, dreaming their dreams.
Here, now, in this moment, I thought, I have everything a human heart needs.
A while later, Flo and I shook ourselves and woke up and went out on a little adventure. We struck out across the big meadow, walking together in time.
I love taking my mares out for walks in hand, as if they are big old Labradors. We match our steps and chat our chat and laugh at our own private jokes.
We went through the woods and then turned for home, along the straight path that is watched over by my favourite hill. And there we met a mother with her little boy. His name was Ethan and he was perhaps two and he had never seen a horse before. I asked if he would like to be introduced, and he wiggled his tiny feet up and down, so I took that as a yes. I let the rope out so Florence could approach. My red mare adores saying hello to children, so this stopping and saying hello is a usual thing for the two of us. Flo had not done it before and I was curious to see whether she would be like her grand cousin.
She gazed in fascination at the tiny person, took a questing step forward, and dipped her head tenderly to sniff his splendid green boots. He wiggled his feet again, in apparent delight. Flo got a slight shock and retreated very slightly. Then she had the measure of the wiggling and went in once more. So she and Ethan became friends, and his mum smiled, and I smiled, and the sun smiled, and the world smiled.
Yes, I thought, she will be like the red mare. She will say hello to all the children.
The mother and I went on our way. ‘Thank you for stopping,’ she said, as she left. I smiled even more. ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘It was a treat for us.’
It was a treat, because it’s those very small things, those fleeting, ordinary, extraordinary moments of human connection that make this strange time bearable. I write them down because my middle-aged brain will forget, and I want to remember all the jewels so I can take them down from the shelf on a dimmer day and watch them sparkle.
After I put Flo back in the field and congratulated her for her blazing pioneer spirit – she had forged out into the wild spaces like a frontierswoman – I put my serious hat on and headed back to my desk. There was work to do and I couldn’t just spend the day wandering about in a haze of pony-girl bliss. As I walked swiftly past the old beech hedge, I suddenly realised that I was feeling something quite unfamiliar. It took me a moment to work out what it was.
It was happiness.
It was pure, pure happiness.
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘my old compadre. I haven’t seen you for such a long time.’
2019 ended on a note of jarring sorrow. A lifelong friend died very suddenly and I was plunged into searing grief. I remember this time last year vividly, feeling heavy and hollow at the same time, battling my way through the dark days, wondering how I was going to manage Christmas. I did go to our big family lunch in the end, and managed to put a smile on my sad face, and I felt as if I was there and not there.
Just as I was swimming up from the watery depths of that vast sadness, March came and everything locked down and the world stopped. I remember the sinister emptiness, as the village became like a ghost town and I would go days without seeing another human being.
The rules relaxed a little, and there were people again, and I felt as if I were adjusting, although there was still that heavy, pressing sense of disaster in the air, and then my most beloved mare died and my stepfather died. Bash, bash; two hard blows on an old bruise. I have to learn to do grief again, I thought; I have to do my PhD in loss.
I did remember how to do it. It’s horrible, but it’s possible. I had to feel it and feel it and feel it; I had to remember not to run away from it, however much I wanted to. I had to breathe my way through it and cry my way through it and stomp my way through it. Sometimes I would dance my way through it, and sometimes I would shout my way through it. Sometimes, I wrote my way through it.
The mares were very good. They don’t like jangled and tangled human emotions, but they can deal with grief. It has a purity to it that they understand. All the same, I did wonder whether I was bringing a weight to the field where there should have been lightness.
And then, after that, there were the dashed expectations. Someone, somewhere had said this would all be over by Christmas. It’s such an old trope; everything is always going to be over by Christmas. The First World War was going to be over by Christmas. And look what happened to that.
There was the sudden realisation that this thing might go on and on, that all our lives would be changed forever, that hunting for silver linings would have to become a perennial and necessary habit. But there was a sense of anger and frustration in the air. Everyone was shouting at each other on social media; in real life, everyone I know was getting to the fed up stage. People who I normally think of as surfing their way over the waves of life were falling into weariness and despair.
As if this ghastly parade were not bad enough, Brexit crashed its way back into the party. Everyone seemed to get even crosser and sadder. I kept forging on, furiously doing as much emotional processing as I could, digging for a small cache of joy on each doomy day, but keeping my equilibrium felt like having a full-time job. It was work. It was worthwhile work, but it was work, and it made me tired. Everyone I knew was tired, in their bones.
So, in this last year, I’ve managed cheerfulness, and determination, and jokes. I have smiled genuine smiles. I have laughed out loud. But all the time, my arms were aching from paddling my way through those crashing waves. A good day; yes. Pure happiness; no.
And then there it was, at 11.17am on a perfectly unremarkable Thursday. There it was, all dressed up in its finest feathers, as if it had never been away. There was happiness.
It was from singing a song to my little mare, as she rested her head on my back. It was from the sunshine and the beauty of this Scottish landscape and the dancing feet of that tiny child. It was the kind smile of his mother, as a little pulse of understanding ran between us, under the high skies. ‘This,’ we were saying to each other, in the unspoken spaces that run below the classic British understatement, ‘this is what matters, in the end.’ It was from taking my thoroughbred for a simple walk and feeling as if we had conquered the wild west.
It was as if someone had given me back to myself.
And I want to write that down, so I don’t forget.