I was going to write you so many lovely things. And then I lost four days down the back of the sofa and I can’t remember the lovely things now and I have only the recollection of a blur of insomnia and a faint feeling of unreality.
This whole diary was supposed to be a catalogue of lovely things. I remember, all those months ago, when the pandemic was new and we definitely thought it would be over by the summer, thinking that the least I could do was record a few lovely things, to keep up morale. (I still have absolutely no idea who appointed me The Queen of Lovely Things, but I felt very strongly that this was my duty. I would spread the optimism and the hope and perhaps dear old Blighty would keep sailing on.)
And then I’d have a day when I simply didn’t have the heart for it, or I’d watch too much of the news and be consumed with rage or desolation, or I’d feel like a cut-price Marie-Antoinette, handing round brioche whilst Paris burned. (Did you really need another charming horse story?)
But the funny thing is that I would always come back, even when there seemed no earthly point. That’s the cussedness in me and the writer in me: the humming belief that you make sense of a mad world with words. I had my fighting heart and I had the English language and I damn well was not going to give up. And the even funnier thing about enterprises like this is that all you need is one person. If one lone human sent me a message saying I made her smile, then I’d feel that all this frenzied typing had some meaning. That I had some meaning. And perhaps all of us want a little meaning. Perhaps we all want to think we are here for a reason.
One of the truly lovely things happened on Boxing Day. I wanted to write you a sonnet about Bryony Frost and Frodon dancing round Kempton for the best surprise Christmas present of all. It was a surprise because they weren’t supposed to win, not on the form figures, and it was a surprise because it was a little bit of history that nobody saw coming. Frost was the first woman to ride to victory in that race, and that was a landmark which brought tears to my eyes. (She and Frodon often make me cry, because they love each other so much and because they roar along in such ravishing harmony, and because they match each other in dauntlessness and enthusiasm.)
I don’t know why I didn’t write that. I got a bit lost for a couple of days. There was the whole not sleeping thing, but I think it was more than that. I think the entire year just rolled itself up and slapped me about the head and left me dazed. My great thing is about always bashing on, never giving up, keeping on trying. And I suddenly felt empty and defeated.
I’d been so proud of my new talent for emotional processing. From the start of the lockdown, I knew that I had to deal with all the ugly feelings the moment I had them. Otherwise my fragile craft really would sink under the tumultuous waves. And I did it pretty well, so I got a little cocky and swaggery. Hubris, my old enemy, rampaged around, whispering wicked nothings in my ear. I got through the strange, solitary Christmas, and then I crashed.
So back I went, to the beginning. Look the feelings straight in the eye; break them down into the smallest possible components; beadily decide which of them are useful and which of them are pointless. Mine the valuable information. (Even the most uncomfortable emotions carry with them valuable information.) And, most important of all, don’t run away. Don’t run away, don’t run away, don’t run away.
I swam back to the surface, gasping a little. I’d given myself a fright. But somehow, there I was, still swimming. I clambered back into my metaphorical boat, wet and shivering, and set my course.
I think, as I write this – is this what everyone has been doing? Has everyone been having those days when the water closed over their head? And then making the decision to paddle and plunge and scrabble their way back to the light? Does everyone get that streaming sense of relief when they realise they will live to fight another day? (And for some people, I know, this is not a figure of speech.) I think: yes. Yes, none of us is alone in this. This lockdown, this pandemic, this world crisis, is the human condition writ large. This is Spinal Tap eleven; it’s Dolby stereo; it’s surround sound. Everything is magnified, so our startle reflex is on a hair trigger and a tiny thing, something which normally would not matter, can feel like the last, fatal blow.
I’m mixing my metaphors like crazy now, but I don’t care. I’m so passionately grateful that this latest stretch of white water is behind me. I feel as if I am in a state of grace, even if that means I can’t construct my most perfect sentences.
Todays, three beautiful things happened, as if to welcome me back to the world. Two of the oldest of the old friends rang up, one after another. We’ve been together since we were eighteen and we’ve seen each other through all the glad days and the glory days and the tragic days and we are still here and we still love each other. The conversations were festivals of laughter and memory and absurdity and seriousness and just general joy. We even made plans. Plans. As if the world might one day steady on its axis and we could do something as once-ordinary and now hardly dreamt of as go to a Hebridean island.
Those two conversations put me back into my community, the community of the known and cherished and understood. That’s the thing with the very old friends: you don’t have to explain anything, not one single thing. They know all your frailties, and they adore you still. They follow your nonsense and your wild tangents and your tangled trains of thought. They are in your corner, on your side, and there is nothing else quite like that.
And the third thing was just as simple and just as magical. My posse and I took the horses out for a walk, past the hills and across the big meadows and into the deep woods. Another friend had come down the valley to visit so that we could have a socially distanced and officially sanctioned walk in the open air.
Seeing actual humans in real life feels like such a luxury now, and I basked in the delight. The sun was shining and Scotland glittered with frost, and the mares looked glorious with their velvety winter coats. My grand companion, my red mare, the one who has anchored me in reality through all the unreality, walked by my side, beaming with strength and confidence and ease. I sometimes forget what a curious thing it is to wander in perfect ease with a half-ton thoroughbred matching your every move. I don’t have to lead her; I have a fingertip on the rope. She stays with me as if we are connected by something beyond human imagining. It’s a spirit to spirit thing, and it’s one of the most precious sensations I know.
So I had the actual humans and I had the vivid horses and I had the absurd Scottish beauty and the earth steadied under my feet and I thought: yes, yes, this is what matters and this is what keeps me whole and this is why I never give up.
And then I went home and did my work and lit all my fairy lights and made a gorgeous winter soup and the snow is falling outside and I type these last words and I think that it doesn’t matter that I never quite wrote all the lovely things. I caught enough of them, as they flew past, on the wing. There is the darkness, and there is the light too. There is that little candle, and how far it throws its beams.