It is just before eight in the morning and two little birds are singing outside my window. One has a high, light, staccato beat, a kind of tik-tik-tik. One is singing lower and longer, a bass note by comparison. They sing in harmonious unison for a while; sometimes together, sometimes as a call and response.
I know nothing of birds or birdsong and I suddenly wish passionately that I did. I’d love to know who those birds are and why they sing their special song.
But it was magical and it meant something and I thought: it is going to be things exactly like that which will get us through.
I also think it is faintly ironic that I decided to stop calling my lockdown diary The Lockdown Diary four days before we went back into hard-core lockdown. Everyone I know thinks this is going to go on to the spring this time, so I really should revert to the old name. But I feel, in some obscure way, that this would be a mark of defeat. I’m not going to go on counting those days – all two hundred and eighty-eight of them so far – and headlining with the lockdown. It’s a huge thing, but I don’t want it to be a defining thing. (And then I remind myself how lucky I am, because all my jobs are ones I can do from home, so although I live alone and do miss humans during the severe lockdowns, I can at least work. Not being able to work would be a level of strain I can hardly imagine.)
Yesterday, I wrote about a brilliant and bold horse. I sometimes have slight angst after writing the horse stories. I’m aware it is a minority pursuit. Beyond that, I always worry I shall have got something wrong. (I write the horse stories in a heightened state of passion and I fear that accuracy may fly out of the window.) After sending that story out into the world I found that, despite my determination to be stoical and cheerful, the lockdown did come crashing down on my head a bit, so that I was sitting rather tight and tense at my desk when the email pinged. In my inbox, there was the loveliest email I’d ever had in my life. It was from a member of the family of Seeyouatmidnight. This gentleman told me of the love they all had for the horse and of the tears and disappointments along the way and the times they almost gave up hope and then the old boy came roaring back and none of them could quite believe it.
He spoke of the heartbreak and the joy, the combination I remember so well from my childhood days with my father and his chasers and all his hopes and dreams.
Then there was another message, even more lovely, from another member of the family, along the same lines.
I burst into tears.
It was that thing, I think, when you get bad news and bad news and bad news and you maintain a stern resolution in the face of it, and you carry on, and you don’t make a fuss. And then the good news comes and undoes you. It’s the good news, in the end, that makes you cry.
It was that which brought the tears, after a long day filled with rotten news. It was the kindness and goodness and generosity of spirit. It was the beautiful, authentic words of strangers. The day had not been filled with loveliness, and suddenly there was loveliness, like a shooting star in a black night.
So I had a jolly good cry and laughed ruefully at myself and felt better.
Years ago, there was a very clever and funny and poignant film called Broadcast News and Holly Hunter played a high-flying news producer and in one of her very first scenes she unplugs the telephone, works her face a bit, shouts herself into sobs, cries hard for about ninety seconds, then pulls herself together and plugs in the telephone and starts giving orders for the next day’s news.
I always thought I should do that and I always forget. Sylvia Plath said there are few things in the world that can’t be made better by a hot bath and I think she’s right even if it didn’t work for her in the end, because her heart was too broken; now I think there are quite a lot of things in the world that are made better by a good cry.
I can’t bear the victims and the drama queens, but I do think that a stiff upper lip will kill you in the end. I think there has to be a balance, between the stoical and the emotional. Maybe one quick Holly burst a day is the perfect solution: not enough to frighten the horses, just enough to get the rubbish out.
And kindness – that’s the other thing that will make all the difference. It wasn’t just two members of the family who sent me messages yesterday. There were many generous words from people I know and people I don’t, and they all touched my bruised spirits. Those words all add to the sum total of human happiness. They all bring human hearts together.
I have an odd shyness on social media. I quite often won’t leave comments because I think people don’t want to be bothered, as if the words of a stranger are an imposition, an intrusion, even an impertinence. (I was brought up not to bother people. Don’t bother people and don’t be a bore.) But I think that’s going to be my other lockdown thing: I’m going to try to get braver and say the thing and risk ridicule. Because the kind words do make a difference.
It will be the small things, in the end, that get me through, that get all of us through. It will be the small choices: kind or unkind, smile or frown, hope or despair. And that will all add up to survival, so that one day we shall all look back on this strange time and shake our heads and say, ‘Yes, yes, we got through that with cussedness and kindness and jokes and cake and birdsong and dauntlessness and swearing and gin and holding on by our fingertips and helping each other out and knowing we would never give up. We got through that because we knew we were not alone.’
I think that will be what we will say. I hope so.