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In Episode 47 of his new book, author Julian Roup celebrates his birthday, ignoring Covid-19.
In case you missed Episode 46, click here.
Life in a Time of Plague
Sussex, 18th May 2020
By Julian Roup
Finally, my birthday is here. I’ve made it to 70, despite the virus, and I am filled with gratitude, and something like a sense of achievement.
I have packed a fair bit into these seven decades, and I feel blessed. As I wake on this momentous day, I have so many mixed emotions. As ever, there is the feeling of awkwardness brought about by the knowledge that I will be the centre of attention today, and that always makes me nervous. So I am grateful for lockdown, as it eliminates any chance of parties or anything of that nature, which would just be embarrassing. And yet to be able to have had some sort of celebration, a meal out with family and friends, would have been good.
But the sun is up, and it is another beautiful day. Has there ever been a spring like it in England in the past 40 years we’ve called it home? I don’t think so; I certainly don’t remember anything like this. The good weather has become so good that we now take it for granted, just like we did the Cape Town summers all those many years ago.
Jan brings me coffee, gives me a hug and wishes me happy birthday. I am grateful to have her with me; we have walked a long and winding road together since I met her, aged 18, at the university where I had arrived as an older student. Her presence is the best gift of any I will receive this day. I know that even before I open my presents, which lie in a pile on the bed where she has placed them. We have lived together on three continents, Africa, Europe and North America, and we have created two amazing children who continue to astonish us. She has had much to contend with in our shared life. I have not been the easiest, kindest or most generous of partners. I come with a temper and many other failings, but throughout she has stood by me, even in our darkest times.
We lie in bed, sipping coffee, taking in the day and speaking a little of the past and about this strange day and its Covid-imposed stillness. There is a huge envelope among the presents, and I open it first and am amazed. It is a water-colour birthday card of me in all my ancient glory, sitting in my steamer chair with Callum looking over the stable door behind me at the top of the garden, Gus by my side and my trusty laptop on my knees, looking much as I have looked this past two and a half months while writing this book. Jan asked our friend, the artist Susie Rotberg, to produce this wonderful card, and she has done me proud. I now understand that their ‘socially-distanced’ walk yesterday with the dogs in the woods was also a handing-over of this spectacular card. The words inside are as beautiful and I am silenced, as ever, reading Jan’s words.
And then the stillness is broken. The phone begins to ring, and the texts bearing good wishes pile in. It is like no other birthday I have known. Usually I get calls from close family and a friend or two. This morning, the calls come non-stop from Cape Town, Santa Barbara, Bristol, with videos of siblings and family singing happy birthday, and texts and emails in the dozens.
One, from my daughter Imogen, in lockdown over near Rye with her godmother, brings me particular pleasure – wishing me a happy day and looking forward to another year. I wonder if she has any idea how much it means to me?
I eventually get into the shower and have breakfast sitting in the sunshine in the living room. My presents, a bone china mug for my coffee, hand-painted with the blue agapanthus of my childhood, books and more books, lie all around me, nature and travel and food writing, my favourites. I have the joy of weeks of reading to look forward to. Later, I sit out in the garden and luxuriate in the warmth of the sun and the company of the busy, dancing, swooping swallows. Who needs a celebration, when nature provides this display?
At 11am, Jan waves from the kitchen door, telling me to come down. I walk down the lawn and see Dom and Steph at the front door, loaded down with bags of food and drink and a huge cake box. I feel my throat constrict and my eyes prick with tears, which I hold back as hard as I can. With their help, Jan has orchestrated a truly splendid champagne picnic lunch which, sitting well apart, we enjoy under the Chinese dogwood tree. There is a huge salad to go with smoked salmon in dill, sourdough loaves, warm veggie quiches and fresh buttered asparagus. We eat and talk boats, and there is love and laughter, and I feel blessed, dear God, so blessed.
I am instructed to open another birthday card, this one from Dom, Jan and Steph, which this multi-talented woman has illustrated beautifully with travel scenes. It’s my real birthday present. Inside, there are words that once more grab at my chest and constrict my throat. I read on through the blur. There is a choice of three gifts laid out within the card. I can choose between a sailing trip from Italy to Greece, a sailing trip up the Caledonian Canal in Scotland, or a trip along the Canal du Midi in a barge, an ambition of mine, long-held but given up on now, as I do not feel fit enough to cope with locks, steering and French challenges. These people know me so well, they are not surprised when I opt for the canal journey in France. Dom and Steph will do everything for us that is needed, managing the boat and the locks. I will be able to relax on deck like the Queen of the Nile. Who could resist?
And so my day passes in chapters of happiness that will be hard-wired into my memory for as long as it lasts. Today will be a memory I will cherish forever.
And then Jan disappears to get coffee. Minutes later, I’m told to shut my eyes, and I open them to find the biggest birthday cake I have ever seen before me, with ‘Happy 70th Birthday Jules’ piped on the top. It’s from a French patisserie in Brighton, a huge cartwheel of a double sponge filled to bursting with raspberries and cream, and topped with a fresh-glazed raspberry jam compote and seven candles. It is stunning. Enough for 22 servings, they tell me as I start to cut huge slices that will reduce the servings by half. They laugh and we devour it, and have seconds.
Happiness usually creeps up on you, or looking back, you realise you were happy at some point, unaware of it at the time. Today, sitting in the garden, happiness pours down on me like Victoria Falls in flood. We spend the afternoon lazily talking boats and boat journeys.
Dom and Steph leave in the late afternoon. Jan and I doze on the lawn, as this most perfect day draws to a close. And over more drinks Jan says she has one last surprise; she has conjured up a fresh duck from the high street butcher to roast for our dinner. I am so touched. It is my favourite, and is always our festive meal, but both of us are just too full from our long lunch, and we decided to freeze the bird for another time. There are only so many treats you can manage in one day.
I cannot help but contrast my day with the state of the world. We need to try harder to be so much better. We have been given the gift of consciousness. What does that mean? It means that, unlike other animals, we know the score. We know we are going to die. We know we are failing. We know we are destroying our world. And so, as we know this, know it consciously, yet do nothing to help ourselves and our world, that is a death sentence written by ourselves. And it means we deserve to die as a species. It seems we have made a conscious decision to choose death, to choose annihilation. As a species, it seems we’ve opted for suicide. Is it self-hatred? It might very well be. It is a desperately sad thought. But I do not wish to end my day, this precious day, on such a miserable note .
As I collapse into bed, my mind wanders from the day just past to the past itself. This time in lockdown fosters daydreaming. But I’ve been doing that for seven decades now. It started by taking me out of my school desk in the Cape Town suburb of Newlands, out over the playing fields with their cricket pitches and up the mountain, to look out over the Cape Flats, the Hottentot Holland Mountains and the beaches on either side of the Peninsula, where I spent my time riding or fishing or swimming. This ability to wish myself away from the present became a lifelong habit; and this night, while tied down by Covid-19, it does not take much for my mind to get up out of bed to go walkabout, as the Aborigines like to say.
Inevitably, it takes me to my horse next door. In my mind’s eye, it is once more early morning when I brush him down and saddle him up, and soon we are in the green tree tunnel down to the lake and up the hill past Susie and Ed’s home, and then out into the open reaches of the forest itself, gorse, bracken, heather and grass, with the signature stands of dark brooding pines on the highest hills of the forest. These pine clumps look like meeting places for witches’ covens or druidic ceremonies. Nothing grows beneath them because of the load of pine needles they shed, making the ground beneath infertile. It is dark and cool within the copses on a warm summer’s day and cold, dark and windy in winter.
As this is daydreaming, time travel, my horse is on his best behaviour, moving smoothly through his paces as needed, shying at nothing, doing my bidding so as not to upset the flow of my thoughts, a moving meditation. We turn down into Five Hundred Acre Wood of Pooh Bear fame, and I note the lightning-struck beech tree that I think of as family. It is within its shattered trunk at human head height, six foot up, that Jan and I would hide one last special birthday or Christmas present for our children, gifts from Pooh Bear and his friends, Roo, Piglet and the donkey Eeyore. I smile, remembering their delight at sitting on my shoulders to find a gift once again. And I smile too, recalling the philosophical humour at the heart of A.A. Milne’s books that kept parents reading, for the umpteenth time, to children also addicted to the stories.
Further on into the wood, there is a circle of giants, beech trees standing in what looks like a century-deep family conversation. And I know now that they are indeed talking; science tells us so. Their root systems and the fungal fibres that bind them together underground are in effect a nervous system, a brain of sorts. A tree among them struck with an axe, or feeling fire, will telegraph the news to its neighbours. There is an intelligence at work.
As Callum and I step softly in among them, they pause their talk and listen. They know we are there, our footfall, some half-ton in weight, has been noted; it can scarcely be missed. And they are quite still, listening, waiting. They have no reason to trust man or horse; both have a history of damaging their kind, so they wait to see if these two, Callum and I, will do what we most do, stand and stare, before moving on to stroke a trunk, marking out the carved hearts and initials with a finger, nibble on bark or grab a mouthful of leaves. They sigh, but perhaps it is only the wind in their highest branches. Or maybe it is an exhalation of breath as they recognise me. After all, I have been coming here for decades. I have laughed here and cried here and prayed among them. They know me. I feel watched, but in a benign way.
I pick up the reins, and the big copper horse strides ever deeper into the wood. I raise a hand to fend off a branch or to pluck a leaf. As we start to move downhill, I collect him, bringing his haunches in under him to make him careful of the ground. I do not want him to slip. We reach the pond, where we like to stop and watch the reflections, and then there is a good leg-stretching gallop up the hill, keeping an eye out for dog walkers all the while. This horse has a ground-eating length of stride like nothing I have ever known. Soon we have crested the hill and I let him blow to catch his breath; his flanks heave but soon settle; he is fit as a fiddle. He knows we are headed home; he has a compass in his head that set itself a month after arriving here, which tells him which direction home lies, wherever we are in the forest. And he knows every path, every fork and every turning, and will take it unswervingly if I give him his head. But he also likes to stop now and then, and just look.
His home-going stride lengthens into an almost running rhythm and I sit deep in the dressage saddle, feel the warmth of his flanks, the silken sway of his mane, the ears that seem to have a life of their own. It is not long before we are on the last hill home and then the stables come into view. I unsaddle, wash him down, mop his eyes and nose and put him back in his stable after checking his haynet and water.
I open my eyes, and look at the shadows on the ceiling above our bed; I have once more escaped lockdown for an hour, deep in the woods with Callum. It is a trick that never fails. My school taught me well.
I made it to 70! That is no mean achievement. There will be new challenges to face in the days that lie ahead, Covid-19 not least among them. But for now, I let slip the lines and feel the breeze take me out onto a dark sea. Who knows when or how the journey will end, but I will go with it.
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