Staying In

I have ordered grass seed and topsoil and fertiliser. I have cleared out the dead: the leaves, the twigs, the plants that didn’t survive the winter. The lawn is snarled with cold wedges of moss and weeds. I pull up the large green-leaved weeds that survive so much better than everything else, they fill a whole organic waste bag on their own. Left to their own devices they would flourish, fill the garden, grow into a delighted bush around Shakespeare’s greening head. There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as weeds, only plants growing in the wrong places, but I still delight in pulling them out. The thing to do is to get them by the throat to pull them free at the root. If you break off the leaves, they’ll be lush again in weeks. It is cold but the skies are blue; they are single-digit mornings, but maybe in a few weeks we will breach late teens. It is the time of year where you start to stop with scarves and hats, and make a few mistakes, and end up late and frozen in a too-thin coat; it is the time of year when I decide I can manage an outdoor swim, and feel that sensation of deadening lungs and a rising chill. It is that time of year. 

Adam has ordered a shed, dumb-bells, mats. It isn’t easy. The whole of Britain, apparently, is retiring inside to become fucking ripped, spending the minutes not on trains and not in pubs lifting and squatting in seclusion. In the meantime, Soho is boarded up against looters and the gyms are empty. 

This is the first weekend of isolation. I’m still going to the local store too much. I’ve forgotten how to plan a meal. I’ve almost forgotten how to cook without a recipe card, and every item organised for me in a brown paper bag. In an ordinary week, we will sometimes struggle to cook all three meals before the box comes again on Sunday. Adam plays football, we both see friends, we eat one dinner in a restaurant on Stroud Green road. Staying for the three nights necessary to cook three dinners is hard on weeks when there are birthdays and bad days and cards with friends. This morning I watched the delivery man put the Hello Fresh in our shed, with his mask on, then ring the doorbell and hurriedly depart. Hello Fresh, no doubt, is probably having the best few weeks since they first came up with the idea that overworked and overly-social millennials might not have the time or imagination to come up with their own meals. Good for them, I’m glad for them. 

I unpacked the bag, recycled the box. There is a lot more in our cupboards than usual. I don’t think it counts as prepping, because it’s still not that much food. We have gone from a household that never eats breakfast or lunch at home, and struggles to manage three home-cooked meals, to the opposite. I am going to save so much money, I think, as I buy another bottle of gin and order 5 more Kindle books. I’m going to be rich, I think, cancelling my airfare to NZ, three Air B’n’B’s, the internal flights. Silver linings everywhere, I repeat, on my hands and knees in the moss, pulling out the roots. 

I’m a good person because I am paying my cleaner, who cannot come because she is sick. I am a good person because I am buying groceries for an elderly neighbour and his wife. I am not a good person because I am writing about the things that make me good, massaging these small details into someone well-equipped for emergencies, who thinks of others before she thinks of herself. I think of myself all the time: how much I miss my far-flung family (in a time where South London feels as distant as the Southern Hemisphere), how my once book-loving brain seems unable to read anything longer than a 180-character panicked tweet, how important running is to me and how likely it is that I might have to stop doing even that soon. House prices, cancelled holidays, postponed weddings, the amount of laundry I’m generating even though I’ve worn the same pair of leggings for six straight days. 

I have never sent so many messages. I have never worn so little make-up. I have never been so obsessed with tins of corn and the expiration date on almond milk. My office closed on Tuesday; the pubs closed on Friday; they shut the Hampstead ponds yesterday; the cherry blossom tree in my yard is nearly fully in bloom. I think of us all as tiny blue dots on a giant map. The journey of my dot on a typical week, back and forth from the office, venturing south to see friends, a well-work route to the wine bar, the Londis, the gym. Now I move back and forth from the lounge to the bedroom, I follow the route of the sun and my long-suffering cat, a trapped insect buzzing up against the windows.

Gardening

I want to be a good gardener. I like the idea of it. There is something obviously nice about coaxing life out of the dirt. I also like the frivolity of it. I am allowed to go to a store and spend money on nice plants, pretty things. It makes me a home-maker, a grown-up, to go home, de-pot them, soak their roots, plant them facing the sun. Buying arm-loads of plants is the very opposite of buying three cheap dresses from H&M because it is sunny and because it is pretty, but it is also the same. It satisfies the same urges, but it comes without judgment. I do not need the dresses. My wardrobe is full of dresses. But I also do not need the plants.

I do not like the uncertainty of it, though. I know what will happen to the dresses. I will wear them once, or twice. I will shrink them in the wash. One will rip. One will never have fit in the first place. They will take up space, I will try them on and discard them, and then eventually I will donate them. The donation will make me feel good, as I will imagine someone finding them, and loving them, and wearing them to death; someone kind and less well-off and better-shaped than me giving them a happy home, and blessing the frivolity of me, the original hapless buyer. I know the truth is that they will be shredded, turned to nothing, buried, burnt. Did you know that China is expanding its size in landmass equal to Singapore every year, reclaiming land from the sea with trash? My dresses are doing that.

Most of my plants will die. This is a fact. It’s not even because I’m a bad or a careless gardener. In the garden centre, they have tags, which you can read to learn about the plants. “Likes full sun. Plant in July.” Rows and rows of them. I don’t understand why they’re there. It is not July, and London is subject to full sun about 5 times a year. Who put them there, put them in their pots, lined them up all purple and pretty, to die? “Puppies, free to a good home, as long as they eat dogs.” I don’t understand it.

We bought some anyway because we’d walked all the way to the garden centre, and because I’ve decided that I’m prepared to believe in miracles. Boys are rescued from caves and cancer disappears, and it’s entirely possible that my garden will turn out to be the equivalent of full sun in July, when it is encroaching winter in September.

You’re supposed to plant them with their tags, so you can remember their names and characteristics, like Pokemon cards. But I forgot and threw them out, so all I know is that one has red and yellow leaves and looks autumnal, and the other has grey and silver spider leg leaves, and that I probably shouldn’t get attached because they won’t last the winter.

The hardest are the pansies. We put them in the planter box outside my bedroom window, and they are thriving. They are large and purple, and I don’t even like pansies very much, but we bought them because my sister likes their angry faces. They don’t look angry – they look delighted to be on my flaking window sill with a lovely view of our 4 rubbish bins and the shed that contains my broken suitcase. They are doing their very best to make an honest gardener out of me.

When we planted the others, first of all, Mum had me dig up the soil with a trowel, turn it over, break up the lumps. This is probably obvious to most people, but I am often late to obvious things. I couldn’t boil rice at 18. I hope there is someone to blame other than myself.

As I turned it up and broke up the clods, a big worm rose to the surface. My Mum was delighted. “That means you have good soil! Look at him.” He did look like he was probably good at his job.

But I had been stabbing at, and turning over the dirt for at least 10 minutes. Worms are fast, but they’re not that fast. I’d probably murdered his whole family. Soil is a mess of corpses. All the roots clinging bravely on were long dead. That worm’s wife and children now food for my silver-grey plant.

The circle of life is a sensible thing. I am glad it is a circle. I am now part of a very big circle that has a very large circumference, and one day I will be food for this worm, and some of his kin. This is fine. This does not frighten me, at least not yet. I am glad that there is life in death, and death in life, ashes and dust and soil and dirt and I do not doubt my ability to be much better fertiliser than I am a gardener, but also why do we bother? Here in my garden learning to be a gardener from my mother, I am hacking back the ivy. I am pulling up the weeds. I am deciding, in all my benevolence, which should live and which should die – that my pansies deserve pampering, but that I must take to the spiny crawler than curls over from my neighbour’s overgrown garden every day with clippers. Off with its head, even though it just grows another.

There is a lesson in my garden, in my pansies which I paid £5 for, doomed to die in three months or less, but my neighbour’s thorny terror making a Sleeping Beauty of me if I sleep on cutting him back for even a week or two. But I like the way the pansies face the sun.