Paris, March–May 2020 • The Corona Chronicles Episode 2
24 March 2020
Breath, Memories and Toilet Rolls
It is a glorious spring day. After a long, dismal winter, after the nights listening to the storms howl, watching the ever-depressing news of floods, and fires, and locust plagues, we finally have the first day of spring. Buds are everywhere. Hyacinths are in bloom. What a mockery, now we have weeks, if not months of imprisonment.
I walk past the Jardin de Luxembourg. Its gates are padlocked; I stop and look at a cherry tree with its first white blossoms. This is my contact with nature, now. Through thick green iron bars. I spend minutes gazing at the leaves of a plant in a flowerbed. It is hoof-shaped, covered with tiny veins. In my Parisian rush, I have probably walked past it hundreds of times and never noticed. Now that I am confined to the grey pavement, I stare at it in wonder.
At first I think they are condoms, these rubber scraps that punctuate the boulevard at regular intervals. Then I realize they are latex gloves. And what I thought were tissues are discarded facemasks. How utterly surreal, the litter of this strange new landscape.
A week ago – can it only have been a week ago? – I was carousing in a bistro celebrating a friend’s birthday. The waiters paraded the cake, elbowing their way through the throng of tables, customers, plates, wine bottles. We were laughing and singing. Three days later, our lives changed. It feels like months ago. This long, distended time of isolation. And it is not even twelve weeks ago since I watched the eerie images of a deserted Wuhan on TV and thought: “How CAN they isolate eleven million people?” in the vague way thoughts wander when one is not directly concerned. Now, with a floating feeling of disbelief and fear, I realize that in France, we are sixty-seven million. And all over the world, the streets are falling silent…
On the corner of the Boulevard Raspail and the Avenue Denfert Rochereau, there are six or seven armed policemen. They check my “attestation”. Shopping? They ask. I nod, although I haven’t bought anything yet. I thank God for the pack of toilet roll. They are friendly and wave me on.
I leave the long, deserted Boulevards, and head for the Rue Daguerre. Here, in this delightful pedestrian street, things feel almost normal. The cheese stalls boast their huge range of colours and textures. I buy a big slab of Shropshire Blue. I have never bought it in England, never tasted it. Why buy it now, in this French market stall? I’m not sure. Except. . . I have always lived between the two countries, become a regular on the Eurostar. I love both my countries. Now I am deprived of one of them. . . for how long? I want to take a taste of it home. I slip it into my bag. Then pause. Can food carry the virus? What if the virus is clinging, invisible, to the paper, the wrapper? The same with the two succulent rougets, the red mullets I buy at the fish stall. What if tiny drops of Corona are hiding between their scales? This lurking enemy to whom I barely paid attention as long as it was thousands of miles away in Wuhan, now begins to invade my thoughts as surely as it could invade my body. Door handles, doorbells, mailboxes, cereal packets, the scales of fish, cheese wrappings. . . fear is becoming an obsession.
I have to move away from it, fast.
I decide to walk home via “Memory Way”. It only a fifteen-minute walk, but it takes me past so many of the sites that mark my past.
“Live in the moment. Be here now.” That is the message from many of the world’s religions and philosophies. I’ve always rebelled. Why? If the past is so much nicer than the present, why not revisit? I think of my mother, at 99, returning in her mind to the Irish village home of her childhood, with the open fire and the griddle, brushing her mother’s long black hair or carrying the water back from the well in a bucket, with one of her eleven siblings. Why should she not return, in her dementia, to memories of warmth and security? Why stay in a lonely room, immobile, wrinkled and incontinent, thinking of all the loved ones who had passed away?
So I too, in these grim days, shall walk home on the paving stones of my past. There’s 43 years of it in Paris. And I only came for the weekend, in September 1977.
But knowing how way leads on to way…
79 Ave Denfert Rochereau, where I worked for many years. I stop and look up at the fifth floor, at my old office window. There are six windows on the floor – one for each of my colleagues’ offices, in the days when people had their own private space. We were the editorial team of a newspaper, Speakeasy, designed to teach English to French high school students. There were six of us. Some of us became friends for life. I can see us all now, slim and young and a bit wild, foreigners in this city of light. All of us a bit subversive, “marginaux”. Some of us compulsive travellers. Where did we not go? What adventures did we not seize? Travelling to the Amazon, Siberia, donkey riding in Anatolia, mule trips in the Atlas mountains, camel trekking in Outer Mongolia, ascending Mount Ararat.. We were strong, young, fit, fearless. If the world was violent then (and it was) we ignored it. We gossiped and shared jokes, tales of travels, love affairs, and personal tragedies. Some had terrible illnesses and recovered. Others did not. We have all been shredded, in some way, by life.
Down along the Avenue de l’Observatoire. Past N° 11. Dorty’s flat, where everything, from floor to ceiling, was made of wood, and we, a group of ten writers, would pile our food and drink onto the big oak table to feast and make merry before choosing a theme at random out of a shower cap and writing on it for 17 and a half minutes. A quirky time for a quirky group. I wrote on the terrace, a half-moon rising overhead, a grey cat winding itself around my legs and purring, looking out over l’Observatoire, where Cassini, the astronomer, made his discoveries by pointing his telescope to the stars.
The stars. They are now visible in the sky over Wuhan, so they say. From space, satellites show that pollution has cleared. Is that what this is all about? Gaia calling us to order? One microscopic virus has done what all our protests, all our climate summits, all Greta Thunberg’s wonderful speeches and David Attenborough’s extraordinary films, have failed to do. They have grounded 75% of the world’s planes, slashed factory production, eliminated huge amounts of traffic, frozen the frenzy of consumerism. Is that what this is all about?
But when it stops, if it stops, will we have learned anything about our relationship to nature?
Nature. We always talk about it as if it were something outside of us. Something to be plundered or protected. But we ARE nature. What else could we be?
We are part of the planet, and the planet is part of us.
I write a prose poem:
I breathed. By night and by day – long, deep breaths. By day, the great blue glare of the sky. By night, the long smooth breath of sleep, turning my face gently to the stars, to the black glove of the night. Oh, and the joy of the bustle of the seasons, of the animals – the woosh of the shoals of fish, swerving and curving under the surface of the sea; the pink flamingos painting the sky with the flash of their wings, the thunder of wild horses on the plains, the soft snow paw-fall of the black bear, hidden in the pine trees. And me, breathing in the whole of creation in long, deep breaths.
And then, and then. . . They came. A few of them at first. I could feel them on me, like insects, harmless at first. The crawl of their tiny feet. And then they multiplied, and multiplied, and multiplied. And then I could feel them all over me, inside me, around me. And everywhere, in everything. They were in the sea, and the sea turned brown. The dead fish floated in poison foam. They were on the plains. They butchered the horses and carved them for their tables. They caged the birds. They dug up the rich soil and paved the land. They built high buildings that blocked out the sky. Finally, they thickened the air. I could no longer see the sun, but through a yellow haze. I was gasping. I couldn’t breathe.
_And then suddenly, one day, it stopped. Something had come to kill the virus that was killing me. Its microbes died, or hid, or crawled away. The sun once more pierced the morning sky, again its clear blue. I could feel its brightness by day. I could turn to the clear stars at night, and sleep. The birds sang. The air sweetened.
I could breathe again. I could breathe so deeply, I could breathe out my name. EARTH. _