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A call from my stepfather causes consternation: our Bad Tortoise, banished to his yard for sex crimes, has vanished. We’re not too worried – he once disappeared for 18 months – but my husband goes to investigate. It is autumn, after all, the season of weighing tortoises on kitchen scales before boxing them up in the fridge for winter (correct tortoise husbandry practice, he claims).
I have never been more conscious of the shifting natural world: the blackberries on the cycle path have shrivelled, a squirrel is competing with Yard Rat for the seed in my bird feeders and every dog walk feels less green and more yellowy-brown. I love it – mists, leaves, blah, I’ll spare you – but I now understand how bereft summer people feel when they furlough their barbecues and comtemplate closed-toe shoes. It’s goodbye to more than sandal chafe and wasps this year – as daylight recedes we are losing the brief, perhaps unwise, burst of freedom summer brought; what my friend Marianne called “the sense of life as a gift waiting to be unwrapped”.
We’re still allowed out as I write this. The streets are packed with girls and lads gathering ye rosebuds while ye may (or contemporary equivalent, which seems to be “gathering riotously outside the Slug and Lettuce in inadequate clothing”). Perhaps by the time you read it, we won’t be. A week is a long time in pandemic policy – long enough for four nonsensical slogans and a lockdown.
Either way, it’s time to restart our stockpiles. Have you thought about yours? I have tinned peaches and some weird rice my husband panic-bought in March – my online baskets promise assorted flours, plus mealworms to keep Yard Rat and Yard Squirrel going when the street kebabs dry up. But I have failed to stock up on the most important thing: fun.
“We should have had much more government-mandated fun while we could,” I lament to a friend comparing tallies. Three restaurants and a concert for her, a pub trip, two lunches and a dinner for me. Mainly I stayed home, worked and worried, all options fully available to me during any future lockdown. I should have visited museums, taken non-essential journeys and ordered “sharing plates” (even though they are stupid, with all the items inexplicably served in threes). It’s the La Fontaine fable in reverse – I should have been more partying grasshopper, less sensible ant.
Conscious I’ve wasted my (semi) freedom, I have spent a few days scrabbling to stockpile pleasures. I queue outside TK Maxx to manhandle discounted face creams and wheedle my stepfather into visiting a garden bar “while the weather lasts”, before he’s back to jigsaws, Russian literature and me posting tubs of hummus through his letterbox. Even though he’s dog tired, he agrees. “Human contact a rare treat,” he texts. He’s hoarding, too.
It’s chillier than we expected but we are thrilled to be drinking in the weak dusk sun, admiring other people in nice clothes at a safe distance. Dragonflies whir and the cathedral peregrines screech to each other. “It might be time for La Peste,” he says. “What, again?” I say. “You’ve only just reread it!” I know he was part of the wave of spring readers for the plague-lit classic because all our email exchanges in April were me telling him a wholemeal loaf and two pints of semi-skimmed were on the way and him replying with unrelated titbits: “Camus has just killed off Richard, the temporising Senior Doctor, in half a line.” It’s strange rereading these messages; they remind me how frightened I felt all the time. I should probably still be frightened, but it’s unsustainable, isn’t it?
“Camus is comforting,” he says. “We’re not sending trams full of dead bodies to the coast yet” – something the government comms team may wish to consider putting on a poster.
Tentatively I ask my friend Les (dodgy chest, over 70) whether it’s too late for a Bettys trip. Bettys tea room, the Swiss-Yorkshire pearl of the North, with waitresses in broderie anglaise and baked goods fit to give a cardiologist nightmares, reopened in summer, but we dithered and failed to go. Is it worth running the gauntlet of aerosols for fondant fancies? She’s keen, “before I’m entombed again,” she puts it, cheerily. We eat breakfast at a corner window table, savouring the people-watching as much as the buttered pikelets. Isn’t this lovely, we say. And it is: another treat added to the stockpile.
My husband returns from his hunt with a dirty black lump in a bag for life: Bad Tortoise was buried a foot deep, soil in every crevice, in premature hibernation. “It’s 22 degrees!” he chastises him, brushing him down and grating cuttlefish over his dandelions, like a solicitous waiter proffering parmesan. “You’re not fat enough yet!” But perhaps Bad Tortoise has the right idea. Imagine hibernating through this and emerging in spring to a – possibly, hopefully – less grim world. Wouldn’t we all take the fridge option if we could?
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling
Source: The Guardian
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