Seven weeks have passed since the Spanish Prime Minister first addressed the nation to announce the harshest of lockdowns. Seven weeks in which I’ve not walked as much as a kilometre for pleasure.
Do you need food, something from the pharmacy? Then make it quick, but don’t linger. Keep your distance, get your things, head back home.
You have a dog? Well OK, twice a day around the block.
A few people improvise, but it doesn’t last, and by the second week there are no more stories of cats or goats being walked on leads.
What persists is the confinement of children, whose developmental needs trail behind a dog’s need to shit in the street. I phone my friends with small children to see how they are doing, cooped up together in apartments with only a balcony for outdoor space. We’re getting by, they say.
I go out to buy bread and discover that childless streets are the saddest of places. After six weeks they are finally allowed out, not for long, but it is something, and it shows on the faces of young and old alike.
Now, on this first Saturday in May, it is our turn, an opening for those of us who wish simply to walk without purpose, to work up a sweat, to pedal like there was no tomorrow.
It is still early, a little after 8 when P. and I leave the house. The rules are as follows. As two people from the same household we are allowed to walk side by side, but if we’re venturing out to practise sport then we need to separate and go it alone. I wonder where the line is drawn. At what speed, or with what gait, does walking become something other than itself? And what about the fact that we have dressed for the occasion in our best outdoor gear? Do our trail shoes and hiking shorts place us in the world of sport, even if we keep to an amble? In the space of fifty days the absurd has become a topic of ordinary questioning.
We live near the edge of town and are soon making our way down a narrow path between dry stone walls. To the east the sun is already well above the line of hills beyond which lies the sea we are not allowed to visit. But there is more than enough to satisfy our longing. Grasses hang firm and free across the path, and give way gracefully to our passing shins. To either side the hedgerows are putting on a festival of spring flowers, none of which had emerged when last we walked this way. Is borage always this blue, are poppies always so red, or have my senses been altered by so much confinement? I bend down to pick a single poppy from a cluster and walk over to where P. is standing, lost in reverie as she gazes out across the vineyards. I hand her the flower, she smiles, kisses me once and slips the poppy into a shoulder loop of her little backpack.
From time to time we meet others along the way, and I greet them all with a Bon dia. Some return the salutation, others — invariably the maskwearers — glance at me in silence from the corner of an eye. People are afraid, wary of others. If I offer to lend a hand, will you trust me that it’s clean? L’enfer, c’est les autres. Sartre’s words echo across the years with a new twist in meaning. But it is not what I feel. Hell is not other people, it is being unable to embrace them, to laugh and cry together, to raise a glass in sickness and in health. So take off your mask, show your face, ready your lips. This is what I dream of now.
When we reach home again I stop in front of the gate and kneel at the kerb to inspect our new pavement companion, Diplotaxis muralis, the annual wall-rocket. Each day I am half surprised and full of joy to find the plant still there, standing ever taller where normally it would have no place, its yellow flowers a beacon of hope. I doubt it will make it through to summer. Sooner or later, it will be uprooted or stamped on by someone who sees it as an affront to normality rather than a reminder of what is possible. One hand flat against the paving stones, I reach out with the other and rest a finger against a delicate petal, and in that touching I remember something that Leonard Cohen wrote in a poem, a song: there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
I push myself upright and head indoors. The cat is asleep in her chair, the kitchen smells of freshly ground coffee, and all our things are where we left them. For an instant all is right with the world, but then it cuts through, the voice of the poet singer, his eye on the future, coming at me clear from the tower of song.
Things are going to slide
Slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore.