By Harry Stocker
The Great Western train was in poor shape. They all seemed to be. It wheezed and groaned, and finally rumbled away under a steely grey sky. My fellow passengers and I sat at careful distances from each other, politeness mingled with precaution, and perhaps, even a tinge of revulsion.
This was my first time on public transport in months. I struggled to remember the last, finally settling on a drunken night in mid-March.
It was the dying hours of a night out, celebrating my friend Beatrix’s birthday. By now, it was closer to 4am. A contingent of fifteen or twenty of us, had piled onto a bus shuttling down Gloucester Road. We took turns recounting the night’s events, laughing at fading memories, arguing about chronologies; fresh, but already threatening to be forgotten. I had somehow managed to wangle a free slice of pizza from a girl outside a takeaway, for which I was particularly smug. We came across an office chair in the street, and a friend pulled a few G’s as we sent her pinwheeling to the dark.
I sat back a little further into my seat and felt a stupid smile stick to my face.
But there was something else on everyone’s minds that night.
Whispered rumours had wound their way from people’s mouths, gathering like clouds. Beatrix had banned any discussion of Covid-19, but it was impossible; we were on the eve of something great and terrible and we could all taste it. Apocryphal tales flited between us: Tanks transported in long columns destined for London, the imminent closure of Clifton Suspension Bridge or a friend of a friend having caught the disease for certain. The mythos was merging and blending, growing before us, far larger than anything we could tangibly imagine or take seriously. It was all too much, and so in that moment, drunk and with friends, it was nothing at all.
It was now August. Alone on the train, I thought about how difficult the last six months have been to put into words. ‘Lost’, I decide. I think about how I would explain the world to myself, sat on that bus. The so-called ‘new normal’. But the thought depresses me, so I stop.
I looked out the window and watched as the landscape rushed past me: Open fields of grass and iron gates, solar panels, and troughs of pooling rainwater. Hay bales and horse boxes, church spires and Union flags, homespun farmsteads, carving rivers and crumbling fences. Hedgerow boundaries, flocks of sheep and cows languishing among a great rolling tapestry of worked land. Railwaymen in orange overalls, powerlines, rotting caravans, great oaks and little saplings wrapped in plastic tree shelters, fragile stems reaching upwards.
The landscape seemed as if it had not changed in years and would have little reason to do so. The Cumbrian Shepard and writer, James Rebanks, wrote in his stirring, rural memoir, The Shepard’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District, that, “there is no beginning and there is no end”. The life of a farmer is an endless cycle working in careful contract with nature. This transcends any one person. Farms are passed generationally, as are flocks. To farm is to enact in something far greater than yourself, to take your place in a grand narrative of the land itself, spanning thousands of years.
I took comfort in the unspoilt and sparse beauty. I took comfort that while cities and towns have become unrecognisable, the countryside remains, largely as it ever was, and as it will continue to be.
Suddenly, the train shot through a tunnel. The window was plunged into black. I was confronted my reflection. My hair, much too long. Dark circles around my eyes, and my blue surgical mask.
I tried to fall asleep to the rocking of the train. My stop was still an hour away.