By Frieda Hughes
I live an incredibly quiet life with my animals, owls and motorbikes. As a painter, poet, and part-time person-centred therapist, I don’t achieve anything if I have a much of a social life. So, when we in the U.K. were told in early March to distance ourselves from others, my life didn’t change a great deal.
In February, COVID-19 had reached the U.K. What took us by surprise was the speed at which the whole country changed. One moment we were thinking “it’s over there (being China, then Italy and Spain),” the next, we were thinking “it’s over here, but they’ve got the guy who has it so….” But the global stock markets were already crashing.
With increasing frequency, additional cases were being identified, dotted around England, and we in Wales wished the border was more than just a squiggly line on a map. Then suddenly, coronavirus was over the border; little eruptions appearing on the skin of the United Kingdom now included Wales. Still, we thought we were relatively safe. A young man – one of the regulars at the gym where I work out three times a week – told me that he had a friend who lived in Wuhan; his friend had said that an employee in charge of the incineration of ex-experiment animals at a nearby laboratory had been caught selling them through the Wuhan wet market instead. (Or perhaps it was the aunt of the man who cleaned the toilets in the office block which was serviced by an electrical engineer known to the mother of the woman who sold a bicycle to the courier who took parcels to the experimental lab in Wuhan….)
A popular national newspaper showed a photograph of a supermarket shelf that was empty of toilet rolls – this was a mistake; within minutes, all the supermarket shelves in the UK were empty of toilet rolls, pasta, rice, flour, gluten-free flour, bread, gluten-free bread, baked beans, tinned vegetables and anything that would keep for two years in a bunker.
In order to do a normal shop – an ordinary shop that would take one visit and allow me to stay at home for a couple of weeks before I thought of entering a supermarket again – I had to go to the local supermarkets in two towns every day for two weeks; shopping became my job. These two small towns are seven miles in opposite directions – fourteen miles from each other. Each has a Tesco’s and a Morrison’s supermarket. One of the towns also has a Lidl, an Aldi and a B&Q. Then there are a couple of additional little shops, like the Spar chain, where one can usually get toilet rolls. Only, not this week – or the next, not for now. Not for a while. Panic buyers had gone in like locusts and cleared almost everything not nailed down. Only the most obscure foods remained. Their frenzied emptying of shelves had turned everyone else into competitors. I tried to become interested in strange-looking pasta sauces, but there was no pasta to put it on. Shelf stackers had spread out the tinned tuna, but I have never been a great lover of that either, although it was beginning to look more interesting on every visit.
It took me three days to find a loaf of brown bread and three weeks to find a pack of toilet rolls. I only managed to get Paracetamol because the woman on the till had confiscated some from the shopper before me.
Each day I’d come home with a few paltry items; three pears, a cucumber and a packet of cashew nuts. At one point I saw a stack of toilet rolls in a Spar and was so shocked that I had to buy some, even though I thought I was probably okay for a while, since I’m a pack rat even under normal circumstances.
At the very beginning of March, COVID-19 cases in the U.K. were still only in double digits, but on the basis of exponential growth I reckoned it wouldn’t be long before it was on the doorstep. I telephoned the organisers of all the poetry readings at which I was to perform this year and asked them if they going to cancel. No, was the decisive answer. Within three days I received emails from all of them cancelling and asking me if I would be happy to have them book me next year.
But the friend who was organising a 60th birthday dinner for me at her home in London on the 1st April was adamant that we should wait. Wait for what? I wanted to ask…the inevitable? I’d also organised a dinner at The Groucho Club in London the day after that, and a party at home in Wales the following weekend. Having spent January and February making careful bookings and arranging gatherings of friends, I now began the demoralising process of phoning them all to cancel, in between increasingly frustrating shopping expeditions.
By March 10th six people had died in the U.K, with 373 testing positive.
By March 16th the U.K.’s coronavirus death toll had risen to 55, with 1,543 confirmed cases, although it was inevitable that many more were infected. Numerous U.K. sporting events and large gatherings were cancelled.
At this point we were instructed by the Prime Minister to socially-distance, unless we were over 70, in which case we were to self-isolate for 12 weeks. Self-isolation became the new term for a form of self-inflicted torture that provokes a decline into madness, if not brain death from boredom, lack of human contact, inertia, or too many binged box sets and unregulated alcohol consumption. The hostess of my London birthday dinner party finally conceded defeat in the face of something invisible to the naked eye, and agreed to a postponement of the celebration of my ageing process.
As my 60th birthday celebrations had been cancelled, I decided that I would get almost up to the date, the actual 1st of April, and see what the world looked like then, with the idea that I phone as many of my local friends as possible to see who would be prepared to attend a big birthday supper at my home. Over the previous fortnight of several shopping trips, I’d managed to buy minced beef, sought-after tinned tomatoes, cheese and gluten-free lasagne sheets – just in case.
On one trip I bought nothing but birthday booze because there were no meat, fruit or vegetables to be had. The following day the supermarkets rationed staples to two items each and everything else to three items each, including wine. The moment they did that, the wine and beer sold out.
By Sunday 22nd March we were getting messages from the government in newspapers, and over the television and radio, that we weren’t trying hard enough to socially distance and we must try harder, or else….. the ‘or else’ was not specific, like a threat given to naughty children, and I was concerned that lockdown was imminent.
Then on Monday 23rd March I went to buy two boxes of frozen chicks (250 frozen chicks per box) on which I feed my owls – I have fifteen owls that have been given to me over the years, by people or zoos that no longer wanted them; two white faced scops owls, a tiny Tengmalms owl with wonky feet, a snowy owl with a damaged wing, six Eurasian eagle owls, four barn owls and an ageing Bengal eagle owl.
At home, I have a designated freezer in which I can store four weeks’ supply of frozen chicks. But today, I had a bad feeling – the shop where I buy my chicks told me that if the Prime Minister put us in lockdown, they would close, despite the fact they didn’t have to. They are the only pet shop I know that sell frozen chicks for all the local falconers, and for me and my owls.
Heart in mouth, I raced home, phoned the local electrical goods supply chain, and bought the last three (small, upright) freezers in Wales. Everything else had sold out; I only got these because they hadn’t been added to the books yet. The shop couldn’t deliver until Wednesday – not soon enough! And if they were shut down overnight, that would be the end of it.
I have a large van that I use to transport my art exhibitions and my motorbikes, so I hurried off to pick up the freezers, detouring via my chick supplier to buy 20 boxes of frozen chicks on the way home. I was still unwrapping the freezers when the government announced a lockdown and my chick-supply was cut off at the root. But at least I have enough chicks for two more months.
And I’ve found a pet shop that sells frozen mice for my Royal python, Shirley….ferret food for my 5 ferrets, chinchilla food for my 5 chinchillas, dog food for my 15-year-old Maltese terrier and my two rescue Huskies, Sam and Meg.
Being in lockdown means that everyone is ordered to live pretty much the way I live already. For me, the only real difference has been the fact that I can’t just go for a fun motorbike ride at the end of the working day, something that has always been vital to my state of mind, because that is when I take reference photos for my paintings, and sit and work on poems in trucker cafes, where I can be alone among people – where I can connect with the outside world, but don’t necessarily have to be part of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good party if I can put on a fabulous dress, but then I need solitude, or nothing happens; I get no work done. The trouble is, if there is nothing to do BUT work, because that is what surrounds me in every room, then my psychological constraints feel to tighten, my chest aches, my vocabulary withers at its root, my imagination feels as if it is being ground between two slabs of granite, and, in the end, I cease to mentally function effectively. My world all-too-easily shrinks to the size of a dried pea.
My daily motorbike rides are both my deadline for work, and my reward. I do my shopping by motorbike with top box and panniers. But now, I mustn’t look as if I am enjoying myself or the police will stop me – they stop bikers on sports bikes who don’t appear to be carting necessary supplies of any kind.
My love of motorbikes is so great that any day I do not ride one is wasted; I didn’t pass my test until the age of 48 and I’ve been making up for lost time ever since. The sense of freedom they give me cannot be gained from any other outlet; I have loved them since I first saw a 250cc Suzuki at the age of 15. Since passing my motorbike test I have ridden almost every racetrack in the UK on track days (some of them several times) and I have taken my Hayabusa 1300cc Suzuki around the Nurburgring in Germany.
So, without the escape they offer, my mind becomes stagnant – even writing this makes me feel that I’m fumbling for the words and the images in my head are less clear, as are the points I want to mention; I find that working on poems is almost impossible because without stimulus, I am losing my ability to recall words. I need to read more – beginning with the dictionary. There is no conversation that lifts me because when talking to friends, it’s all about coronavirus, and, like Brexit beforehand, I’ve had enough of it now. I’m saturated with bad news updates. Having been locked down for over three weeks, we are now embarking on another three weeks. And then what? The elderly will be the loneliest long-term suffers imaginable of these measures. There is only so much that Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype can do. There is nothing that can truly replace human contact – a proper conversation and physical touch; the freedom to walk into a shoe shop and touch shoes. We took our freedom for granted and now we’ve been made all too aware of that.
And while outside the sun shines and the birds sing their little hearts out, some of my elderly neighbours tell me that they are already depressed; it doesn’t matter that we live in one of the most beautiful areas of the U.K. – they haven’t been outside for weeks because they take the government instructions literally, where some others might bend them a bit…., and they are not exercising because the will to do so has been eaten away by indolence and food programs on TV. They are of a generation that doesn’t see the need to exercise as paramount to preventing muscular and mental atrophy. And perhaps even if they did, the effort is just too great when their bones are over 80. When necessary, I run errands for them. If they are not allowed out for many more months, as has been mooted, then it is not COVID-19 that will kill them.
With my garden of flowering trees and shrubs and the fact that I can walk the Huskies down my road and see fields of sheep, I have no reason to complain. I am one of the lucky ones. In my mind’s eye is a woman in lockdown with a violent and abusive husband twelve floors up in a high-rise, with three screaming kids under the age of ten. This imaginary woman reminds me of my luck, but it doesn’t stop my brain from fraying at the edges from the lack of freedom of movement. My fingertips are split and bleeding from so much washing of hands and alcohol sanitiser, despite industrial quantities of hand cream.
When the 31st March arrived, it was the day before my birthday and one week into lockdown. I was supposed to be standing on stage at the Oxford Literary Festival reading from my two most recent poetry collections, Out of the Ashes and Alternative Values. Afterwards, the organisers and I were going to celebrate the beginning of my birthday week before the London dinner parties and Welsh party. This was to be the week in which I would re-engage with the world and with the people I love and care about, whom I see all too rarely. But now the world was closing down, and not just my world, but the entire world.
So instead, I put on the glittering red dress I had intended to wear at my birthday dinner the following day and, as it slipped past midnight into my actual birthday, I recorded an Instagram and YouTube birthday message in the company of a bottle of red wine and ten packets of chocolate peanuts.
Then I cooked up four enormous lasagnes from the ingredients I’d earmarked for an impromptu birthday supper and froze them. Eventually I hope to share them with people I love – although I may have to replace the birthday booze.
On the 14th April I had a phone call from a friend who had a mallard duck nest against the wall of his house. He’d posted a happy photo on Instagram of the mother duck taking her six ducklings across the field from his garden to the river. Then he discovered that there were four ducklings left in the nest – they hadn’t been ready to leave when the mother realised that she had to save the ones she could; any longer in the nest and the never-ending cheeping of her offspring would have attracted the nearest fox.
He took them inside to safety until I got there. When I collected them two hours later there were four ducklings – and one egg – in a small cardboard box. Stopping only to pick up some chick crumbs that another friend left out for me on the way home, I put the egg into the incubator I keep for owl eggs; I thought there might be hope for it because it cheeped at me when I spoke to it. It hatched at 3:30 am the following morning, so now there are five chicks that think I’m their mother: my lockdown ducklings.
Whenever I pick up one of the tiny, fluffy marshmallow bodies, with little webbed feet paddling the air, rudimentary wing stumps and a perfectly formed beak, I am filled with gratitude for the distraction.
With my poetry readings at various literary festivals cancelled, and my birthday week celebrations cancelled, the only thing left to cancel now is an exhibition of my artwork at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London in mid-November.
Chris is optimistic this COVID-19 worldwide disaster will all be over by then, but others believe that social distancing will prevent any gathering until well into next year.
So, I am now attempting to work out how to better combine my painting, my poetry, and my training as a person-centred therapist, while fostering my lockdown ducklings. I am trying to think about an ‘online’ future when I am a hands-on person, and when I feel that computer-work devours the hours needed to create anything worthwhile – anything physical that proves a day or a week or a month hasn’t all been wasted.
In the meantime, I have friends who have lost their livelihoods, and two friends who are dying of cancer, not to mention others who are living with it – apprehensive of their future if they should get COVID-19. I have friends who have had COVID-19, although I don’t know anyone who has died from it, except twice-removed and at a distance. However, a nearby care home (seven miles away) now has it; it is coming closer.
Several of us in my area believe we had it in early December, long before the first mention of coronavirus; I had three days of unbelievable exhaustion and fever, passing out on the sofa daily, too weak to drive a car. I thought I’d been overworking; I was incapable of anything. Then three weeks of a cough so dry that I remember it clearly for thinking ‘why do I have a cough? I’m not coughing anything up…’
We in the countryside look at those in the city and can understand why time outside must be limited – there are too many hundreds of thousands – or millions – of people to keep apart.
But, surrounded by space, we walk our dogs or take our daily exercise on miles of almost traffic-free roads between high hedges, beyond which are fields of sheep and cattle, and wonder why it should only be an hour, once a day. And should we pass someone in the roadway, we almost climb into the hedges to keep our distance of oh, twenty feet or more. At first, people wouldn’t even speak to each other, as if coronavirus was caught by sound – the exchange of voices – but now, day by day, people are becoming a little more friendly, although the mean-spirited and self-righteous are becoming noticeable, sticking sourly out of the hedgerows like disapproving weeds….we are also learning who our friends are, when the phone doesn’t ring and the silence is deafening.
When I have to shop, queuing two metres apart round the supermarket car park, I see the mothers who have small children at home; prayers are written all over their faces for an end to the torture of togetherness; I see fathers with their new stubble and old track pants, wondering if their life-choice partner is the one they really should have chosen, desperate to escape kitchen duties….all around me people are fraying at their edges, gritting their teeth and fervently hoping that this will be over next week, and next week and next week…..
I watch my little ducklings fatten and grow, flapping their wing-stumps as if there is something to flap about, and have to hope that we will be free before they are able to fly in another ten weeks or so, or there is something wrong….
Born in London in 1960, Frieda Hughes is a poet and figurative and abstract painter. She was the U.K. Times Poetry columnist from 2006 – 2008, and has also written a number of children’s books, and numerous articles for magazines and newspapers over the years, about poetry, motorbikes and gardening among other things.
Her poetry collections to date include Wooroloo, Stonepicker, Waxworks, Forty-Five, The Book of Mirrors, Alternative Values and Out of the Ashes. Alternative Values became her first illustrated collection when Frieda used the subject of her poems to inform the accompanying abstract images.
One of Frieda’s recent exhibitions was in Chichester Cathedral, and included paintings from Alternative Values, and a mammoth project, ‘400 DAYS’, an abstract visual diary of 400 consecutive days painted in oils on 400 canvases. The finished work was approximately 13 feet high and 29 feet long, but is now being sold as individual pieces.
Frieda’s most recent poetry collection, Out of the Ashes, is a selection from four of her earlier collections, and was published in 2018 by Bloodaxe Books UK. She is currently working on two new collections and an art exhibition that is scheduled (coronavirus permitting) for the week of November 16th this year, at the Chris Beetles Gallery in London.