From September 2020 until November 2021, I lived alone in a small one-bedroom flat in Cork. I could count on my fingers the number of people I knew in the city — indeed, the country — and for the majority of the time I lived there, none of them were allowed in my house. This was particularly true in the early part of 2021, when Ireland returned to lockdown. My few in-person MA classes moved online, and my social life consisted of shivering through meetings with my supervisor on a bench outside on campus, and sometimes talking to my landlady through an open window. When I signed my book deal for The Butterfly Assassin, I celebrated with a trip to Tesco, and then to the Lough, a nearby urban lake, to tell the waterfowl the news. (I could tell the ducks were impressed.)
As long as I have the internet, and therefore the opportunity to inflict my weirdnesses on other people, I have a reasonably high tolerance for being alone. Pain and fatigue make in-person socialising difficult, before we’ve even come onto the question of my food disabilities and how to work around those. I like alone time, and I liked the freedom of living by myself: not having to sneak around when I stayed up until 3am by mistake again, and knowing that everything in the kitchen was safe for me to eat because I was the one who put it there.
But I can’t deny that it was an incredibly lonely fourteen months, even so. A loneliness which dragged on when I moved back to the UK: although I lived with my parents for a couple of months, I then moved out into another flat, alone, and was for the entire time I lived there either preparing for or recovering from surgery, meaning I was functionally still in lockdown. All in all, I had around eighteen months of profound isolation.
This had its effects on me. Most noticeably, when I eventually did move in with other people, people I hadn’t known before then, I found it much harder than I’d anticipated. I’d heard people talking about the pandemic as “traumatic”, but since I hadn’t been too badly affected (I’d been furloughed with full pay early on; I’d managed to complete my MA; I’d made progress with my writing career; I hadn’t yet caught COVID myself), it felt presumptuous to imagine that such a term applied to me. Trauma was for the essential workers and the nurses and those who’d been unable to see their loved ones before they died — not for being alone in a tiny flat for a year.
So I ignored the way my anxiety spiked around my new housemates, the way I never felt safe at home, the sheer discomfort of being forced into proximity with others and the constant sensory overload simply from sharing space. I figured I’d get over it, and until then, I would grin and bear it. I did a terrible job of this, had more panic attacks than I had done since about 2014, and hit the point where I was keeping snacks in a box under my bed so that if I couldn’t face going into the kitchen in case I met a housemate there or en route, I would at least have something to eat. But I was fine, clearly.
(I probably should have been kinder to myself. It might have made that transition easier.)
I’m giving this as necessary context to explain that I am not, in what follows, trying to romanticise lockdown. If anything, it was the profound loneliness of this period that I want to underline. It was loneliness that meant I spent so much time at the Lough in Cork, talking to the swans and the geese.
But during that long period of being alone, I started to notice things I’d never paid attention to before. I watched the birds in my landlady’s back garden, and learned how to recognise a jackdaw, a hoodied crow, a rook, a pied wagtail. When I walked to the Lough, I passed a house where there were often starlings in the front garden. I learned to know a coot from a moorhen, to recognise a tufted duck when previously I’d only known mallards. I came to recognise black-headed gulls and their distinctive “headphones” look in winter, something I can now never unsee when I look at them.
When I moved in with strangers last year and found my anxiety overwhelming me, it was the nearby woods that offered an escape. I downloaded an app that would tell me what the trees around me were, and grew to love the hornbeams and the way their trunks entwine around each other, hugging, growing in each others’ embrace. I watched the green of the leaves change gradually over the course of the three months that I was there, the light splintering the floor in new patterns.
I wanted to see the seasons turn, but that didn’t work out, and I moved away and left the woods behind me.
But now, even in my dull, newbuild housing estate, there is nature. Back in October, after moving house five times in ten months, I made a promise to myself: I would still be here in the spring. As a symbol of that promise, I planted tulips and daffodils in the front flowerbed, so that I would need to be here to see them flower. And they have flowered, and I am still here. Some of the tulips were stolen, but those that remain are red and yellow and a combination of the two, droopy because they grew too tall but brightening up the house for everyone who passes by.
And: there were eight starlings in my garden today. My housemate drew my attention yesterday to a goldfinch on our garden fence. I often go for walks in a nearby park, a little over ten minutes away by bike, and am learning to recognise the trees there, too. I have watched them bud, and now the earliest leaves are emerging, and blossom flourishes. There are robins abundant, and sometimes I catch sight of wrens and bluetits.
And the lakes there — overfull after a wet spring — offer swans and geese and mallards and tufted ducks and black-headed gulls and coots and moorhens, all my old friends from the Cork Lough. But also cormorants, which I had never seen before. In February, they perched on the bare branches of a forgotten tree protruding from a small island in the lake; now, after two months of rain, that is almost underwater. I don’t know where the cormorants have gone. I watch for them anyway, waiting for them to come back.
Then, this evening, I cycled a little way to the Science Park in the north of Cambridge, which is absolutely teeming with wild rabbits — and their babies, hopping among them. In the late evening, with the Science Park deserted for the weekend and the traffic thin and distant, I heard bird calls I didn’t recognise at all, joyously loud.
I am a nature-deprived suburbanite. In the corner of London where I grew up, there are sparrows, and pigeons, and parakeets; these last green invaders are prone to chasing off many of the other smaller birds, so that’s more or less it for regular visitors. There are squirrels and mangy urban foxes, but few other creatures. I had never seen a hedgehog until university when, as an undergrad in Cambridge, I caught sight of one as I walked home from an event. It is still the only hedgehog I have ever seen in real life. I’ve seen deer, but most often in Knole Park, a National Trust property in Kent, and not anywhere less managed.
I commented on this a couple of years ago, when I was working on a book where the seasons and the natural world were more relevant. I felt like I had no connection to that aspect of things. For me, seasons were something that happened on the calendar, something that determined how many clothes I wore and how wet I got while cycling to work, but nothing that meant something. My characters lived at the whims of nature, and would have tasted the seasons on their tongue as they roamed their medieval forests; I couldn’t imagine that. I wondered if I needed to move to the countryside for a while for ‘research’, but my inability to drive made this impractical as a strategy.
Now, though, I can imagine the hope that those early buds on the trees would have offered a man who hardly survived the winter. I can imagine the way the light changes from spring to summer as it filters through the green canopy overhead — the leaves at first pale and thin, the colour deepening as the year turns. I can picture the rapid flitting of a wren, startled by a passing human; the businesslike scurrying of a pied wagtail that seems to have forgotten it can fly; the audacity of a squirrel certain that you’re intruding (although, I remind myself, it would be red squirrels that enjoyed those medieval woods, and not my bold, domineering greys). In my mind, I can see starlings resplendent in their finery, and blue tits squabbling in the branches, and small wild rabbits with their tails flashing white as they hop hastily away.
I still don’t know what all of the trees are around my favourite park. I am hoping to find out, once more of them have leaves that will make them easier to identify. There are hornbeams here, too, a few of them: not as many as there were in North London, but they’re there, like old friends. And oaks, too, I think. But the rest I don’t have an eye for, yet, and when I walk there sometimes all I can think is I want to stay, I want to stay, I want to stay. I want to know what they look like in the summer and into the autumn. I want to watch the year turn and the seasons change. I want to know what manner of creatures I’ll spot once the rain lets up for five minutes.
Maybe there will be hedgehogs, eventually. I would like that.
I don’t have my characters’ experience of the world. Nobody does, in this modern day and age, though others get closer to it than I do. But I have learned to appreciate the small changes that I never noticed from a bus window on my way to work. To notice the birds that sit on our fence, and those that squabble in the grass. To watch the ducks slip on ice in winter and stomp disgustedly across sodden footpaths in the damp spring. To hear the coots calling out across the water as they make ripples with their lonely journeys.
Perhaps I’d have learned to see these things without lockdown. I’ve always liked looking at animals whenever I’ve been somewhere to see them — it just didn’t occur to me to look for them in other places. But there was something particular about that isolation in Cork, where I sometimes had little to do except make a few circuits of the Lough and read the signs there that told me about the birds of the area. There was something about the anxiety in North London, that sent me fleeing to the woods for comfort. And although neither the loneliness nor the anxiety was something I would want to repeat, they did give me this gift.
The next time I have news to share about a book, I will go to the lakes to tell the waterfowl, but not because I’m not allowed to see anyone else. This time, it will be because my stories owe a debt to the time I spend stomping around the park while trying to figure out a plot point, talking to the beasts because it’s easier than talking to myself. It will be because the swans taught me to appreciate a beautiful strength. And it will be because I want the trees to know, too.
I am still very allergic to nature (so allergic to pollen I can’t eat fruit in case my immune system tries to kill me), and still only just capable of keeping a succulent alive, but I feel a little better connected to the world now. I’m learning its rhythms, which for so long I didn’t know. And I hope this year, I will stay in the same place long enough to see the seasons turn.
But for now, it is spring, and there are wild baby bunnies, and the trees are heavy with blossom and the promise of leaves.