Sight Our first three months of lockdown were surrounded by the concrete and glass of the City of London. It was a sunny, barefaced spring. We walked miles along pavements, and we stared up at buildings, and across the tidal Thames. Emptiness gleamed around us, and as it got warmer, green shoots and pockets of blossom softened the lines. Then summer arrived and unlocked us a little more. It also introduced us to face masks. In August we spent two nights in Florence, where the old streets were either bright with light or deep in shade, and lifted by the lively colours of students and Italian tourists. Now, back in England, we’ve been herded inside again and the night comes early. This time we are not in London. Outside my window bare branches drip, and the fields are waterlogged. At night the sparkle of Christmas lights in windows reminds us of what could be.
Taste The first lockdown was like our breakfast porridge to start with – lumpy, with a bland, knuckle-down-and-get-on-with-it taste. We added honey, but there was only so much difference that could make. Red wine cheered us up, especially when we put the tasting down to research. Why exactly was the tongue-cloaking richness of this, so superior to the sharp, freshness of that? And, was it better? Confusion often remained, but so did a certainty in the proven superioriy of any bottle opened under a night sky in Italy, especially one that came with food. Right now, on the December solstice in England, the taste is one of anticipation. We wait for Christmas, for chocolate, and for too many Brussels sprouts. We imagine crisp, roast potatoes, mince pies and Christmas pudding. And we hope there will be leftovers, and after that … who knows?
Smell In London the air was clean during the first lockdown. There was no smell of chemicals, of construction dust, of diesel, nor of general traffic fumes. The great extractor fans of restaurants and takeaways were silent, and the market stalls vanished, along with their spices and coffee. Instead, other scents drifted through – the pillow-sinking softness of jasmine in a tiny, City garden, and the tumble of rose over a wall in Islington. In Florence the smells were even fewer. I’m not sure whether that was to do with clean air, or that we were masked for much of the time. Now, locked down again here, we wait for the scent of Christmas – for fir trees, and mulled wine, for ground coffee, and the gravied smell of a hot roast. We hope for them all, and for the families that Marcus Rashford has campaigned so hard to help.
Sound It is the almost-silence that I remember from the early part of the year in London. There were no sirens, no children in playgrounds, no traffic, and no construction noises. Instead we could hear the birds – the bubble of goldfinches in the St Paul’s area, the caw of a lone crow outside our window, and the purr of pigeons. There were no dogs barking, and no chatter from passing humans. The only shrieking came from the pedestrian lights in the St Mary Axe area at rush hour – a reminder of the thousands and thousands of workers who’d packed the pavements only weeks earlier. Along the river there was the padding footfall of runners, and by the Tate Modern a lone guitarist who strummed the air. The quiet did not last though. Between the lockdowns, the noise returned. Back came the traffic and sirens, the helicopters and aeroplanes, the drilling and the chat. Playgrounds filled, and the buskers moved back into their spots on the bridges and outside the shops. On the roads and the Thames Path the runners were soon crowded by cyclists and pedestrians. In Florence’s old centre it felt calmer. There were no joggers by the Arno, but we could hear the late night laughter that strolled up from the street that ran its edge. Now, away from either city, we are lucky to have the sounds of family life, and of owls and neighbouring dogs to carry us into the New Year.
Touch Whenever I think of that first lockdown I think of handwashing. Twenty seconds is what we were told, and for me it became a strangely calming ritual of soap, and warm water. We weren’t encouraged to touch much else. Door handles, light switches, trolleys, and parcels, and even our own faces, all had to be avoided. Over time those habits have weakened, and endless, dessicating hand sanitiser stations have filled the gap. They sprang up everywhere through a summer that was warm in London, and hot in Florence on the weekend we were there. On those two days in Italy the cafe umbrellas spritzed cool spray into the air, and the keepers of small shops stood out on their doorsteps to catch the slightest breeze. Now, as we return indoors this winter, that memory seems many worlds away. We’re in our warmest clothes, and interacting again with the smooth, hard surfaces of our keyboards and screens. The touch of these, and the fiddle of face masks, are what dominate our lives now. It is through them that we seek out the friendliness of families and others.
And always there is the sense of loss – of those we are missing, and of the lives we no longer have.
And there is also a sense of hope … hope that change will come soon.
That’s the end of my exercise through the senses. Perhaps you might try to pit yours against 2020. I know for sure that it will have been so different for each of us.
Thanks for your company.
My thanks to Saraswathi Sukumar, our creative writing leader, for her constant reminders to use all the senses.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2020