Kate Feld learns the ropes of lockdown life on the West Pennine Moors.
My dreams are packed with flying serpents, supermarkets. I sleep a tight 5 hours and wake at dawn with a headache. Then my mind must accommodate all this now. Every morning, all this now kicks in the door and there it stands shining in the fullness of its horror which is a kind of splendour. What can one say to all this now removing the air from the room, all this now blocking the rest of the picture, all this now rearranging every aspect of the day in relation to itself? It goes on moving the furniture in there for a long time.
Before is defunct. All roads leading to beforeland are closed.
I decide we are going to move into the spirit world for a while. But first I’ll need to pick up a few things.
One-item lists collect in drifts around the house, pastel squares that cross the register from reminder to catechism to yelp: every day I will take my fear out for a walk – rest – strong bread flour – I will allow my children to see that I am appropriately but not excessively scared – strong flour – breathe – call about broadband – can’t breathe – strong flour and the pansies. I’m thinking about the pansies a lot but it’s too early to put the bedding plants out, the big white and purple pansies I always buy are not frost hardy and they don’t sell them online and I’m scared to go to the garden centre even with my makeshift bandito bandana in case I kill someone it’s the day after the vernal equinox and I can’t my mind keeps getting stuck on the pansies, keeps returning me to the pansies because that night what we were starting to suspect might be the last night at the pub and I couldn’t stop myself hugging though everyone did in the end.
Because I know how important a timeline is I keep trying to find a definitive point. That last night at the pub was Thursday the 12th of March, 2020 between the hours of five and ten pm – a week and a day before time of writing. All this now even then waiting in the wings. Things were beginning to distort though we tried to hold it back with our own arms, our dirty hands – no, not that night, it was later. The sense of normality clung though every day it degraded a little more. I try and try again to drop a pin into the moment where it all fundamentally changed and realise I am standing in it. It is this moment. Filled with the sound of before calving off now and the rush of air into the space between.
I keep to the margins. Pack horse trails, unmapped rights of way and obscure paths crossing the lower slopes behind the textile works. The moor leans heavy over the town here. A few remote farms pock the hill – barking dogs and a mean feeling about them. Hard times burnt into the land; old misery seeps up through the stones of the Rossendale Way. Dark even in brighter days but now the stench of time is blinding and all of our lights are going out. Nothing passes but the wind calling through the trees, horoo horoo.
The weather turns fine. There’s a brace of warm and dreamy days with a persistent condition of late Sunday morning where all is potential, domestic, unhurried, nothing much required but finding pleasant low-level occupation. Somewhere there is fighting to breathe and frantic striving to help to cure to make us all safe but here the sheets and pillowcases billow on the line and I lose – how long? – to watching them.
A friend posts her drawings of the Moon Jelly Cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and I go watch it for a while. There is droney music and a celestial blue expanse in which jellyfish pulse and drift into each other and drift apart, like clouds. There is movement without consequence. It is a way to fill the mind with currents of unceasing beauty.
They tell us over and over to stay home but I get hung up on the contrast between my view of billowing sheets and pillowcases from the zero gravity sun lounger and the aerial photos of mass graves, the queue of gurneys in the mortuary corridor and the refrigerated trucks idling outside hospitals. And what is happening in the care homes?
Near the horizon a cloud gathers itself into the suggestion of a form. For the chaos is not evenly distributed and we already know the dying isn’t.
My youngest daughter hops up and turns the radio off when the news music starts. Unless I do first. My daughters and I started doing that when we realized having news reports repeating in the background made us anxious. They always start with the death count and it was scary to hear. My new problem is that it isn’t, not anymore and I don’t know what to do about that. I devote Saturday to staying informed but the newspaper’s thinner every week and there’s not much news in it, just analysis and speculation and ten best recipes for feel-good family treats to bake with what’s on hand. All the sponges are gummy with flour. I watch the cotton fill with sunlight and air, then drop and fill, drop and fill again.
Time is all out of order and odd things are being shaken loose. Songs I haven’t heard for decades bob up to the surface. Old friends call forcing me to put on old selves I can’t button all the way up. Hey, who are you now? One day I do nothing but drink grape Kool Aid and walk with a kind of demented focus, walking miles in the sun while playing the complete works of Weird Al Yankovic on my headphones. Sometimes I stop to stare at blossoms. I don’t understand the euphoria, but I’ll take it.
My mind doesn’t know what to do with all this space after too many somehow-anyhow years sustaining the unsustainable. For a single mother with at least two jobs, sometimes quarantine seems like a heavenly pause that will end too soon. Other days I know I’m mithering myself into a temper well out of my natural range, lifting one foot then the other on a shit-encrusted perch I’d once have passed over without notice flying high in my jetstream of tasks, interactions and minor engagements.
This solitude is a long, collarless thing. I wanted to write shared solitude, but I’m not sure that’s possible. It begins to feel like a long time since I’ve been synced with the zeitgeist. Decoupled from the mainframe, I float free in my interiority. Free to evolve in whatever strange directions I may, my traits and deviations selecting themselves for life on my own weirdass island. I think a lot about the concept of ‘dead air’ and what comes out of it. I wonder what I will grow into, left to rise in the wild yeast of my spirit.
If there is still a functioning we here, what can we say of this time? Nothing is certain except the fact that everything is provisional. We are tired. We make camp in each day and it’s exhausting having to carry everything we might need. Already customs, relationships, words are being jettisoned. What we need for this life may not resemble what we needed before. But we can’t see far ahead and the present can be perilous enough.
People who have had the pleasure of winter driving in the far north know the terror of snow hypnosis, when a blizzard hits at night on the road. Snowflakes whirling out of the black make a thousand points of light that catch your eyes in a relentless dot matrix. You have to look past all that and maintain focus on the two lines, faint and wavering, which mark the boundaries of your road. Your headlights don’t help much. The only way to drive through a snowstorm is very slowly. And so each one of us is in first gear, knuckles white on the wheel. We all drive alone.
I’m waiting to be let in to this meeting in a side room of the spirit world. Come to your window where we drink remotely together, swallowing more and more of it until we’re fully void, and further apart than ever. It’s the best we can do. Slow broadband chokes my broadcast, all glitch and stammer, which comes to feel like I’ve lost my voice. The nature of presence is changing. Our together is falling apart.
I drink too much in the spirit world and in the kitchen after drop a pint glass, made jittery by the transition from fake together to alone again, or finding I can’t fit back into my solitude, expecting to be seen now, having gotten a taste of it. It was the second to last pint glass and where will I get another? But on Good Friday I stop running to stretch and find a Greene King pint glass on its side in the weeds behind the Hare & Hounds. A relic of beforeland when this day would have been the Rammy Mile with daydrinkers careening from pub to pub and this one the lairy terminus. Would once have been. I come back with a carrier bag and take the pint glass home to wash and put in the cupboard – which is strange, but seems important to do. I don’t make the rules. Traffic cones have appeared up and down Lumb Carr Road, signs that start NOTICE with a crossed red circle then coronavirus, snake of a word. The authorities are scared of people gathering to roll eggs down Holcombe Hill on Easter Sunday. As if that will be what finally makes us break rank and risk lives – our stubborn adherence to pagan tradition. The hill’s deserted on Sunday. Or I imagine it is. I stay off it.
The signs are still up. The wind has bent some of them so they just say
My daughter and I noticed a heron by the brook in Redisher Wood (‘oh yeah, that heron’ said a friend we ran into later.) As it folded up into the canopy another bird flying low and fast connected and the woods rang. It was shocking. On the same walk we noticed the leaves coming out of their winter skins over a scatter of reddy-pink cups on the ground. The new leaves green as you never saw, sparkles on their palms – the tenderest things one could imagine. We stared at them with a bottomless attention I have only experienced on hallucinogens.
The next week those little skins of hatched out buds were everywhere: along the tops of stone walls, clotting at the edge of a puddle. The flag of beforeland – a hatched-from skin, its edges dissolving. And there was more to notice. The difference of trees with leaves on; how that changed the shape of the light, the colour of the hills and the sound of outside. Another friend tells me how she spent half an hour lying on her belly watching hoverflies move over the water in a drain. There’s nothing to watch but spring. I think it’s the only thing moving.
We walk in Redisher Wood, Tagg Wood, Grants Wood, Top Wood, Ox Hey Wood, Carr Barn Wood, Buckden Wood, Lumb Wood, Broad Hey Wood and the woods between Holcombe and Hazlehurst we know most and best. My daughters and I are learning them by heart now. Every fraying toss-a-rope swing, the developmental stage of the tadpoles in the murky pond, how many bluebells on the slopes between the plank bridges have opened and how many are still closed. We learn the names as they appear: lesser celandine, cowslip, herb robert rising to the first flushed whins, the hectic gorse. We build stick dens, they knock them down. We come back and build them again.
Night is impossible to enforce. Out here on the edge, illegal gatherings in the forest sauvage and down each clough notional lovers rustle in the underbrush. We listen for transmissions between stations. On a ghost frequency overlapping the official line we can just make out a thin and persistent guerrilla descant passing between, leaping bodies.
Moors burning again near Winter Hill. Night people started a fire up there. Day people putting it out. On my walk I see a car that someone has driven right up on Holcombe Moor and abandoned, a silver SUV with a cracked windscreen. How did they get it up here? And did I see it on the moor or did I just see a picture of it on social media? Afterwards I can’t remember.
I take an after dinner walk up the spine of Redisher Ridge, the hinge between wood and moorland. Above the reservoir voices around the valley bottom tell me more than two people, and there is the faint crease in the lower register that means traffic on the M66. I am alert to sound in a new way and also another input, an awareness of people moving in my broad proximity extending across to Tottington or Brandlesholme. Maybe I can only feel it because everything else has been turned down. Or it’s what they call fight-or-flight. It is a long time since this animal has been out after dark and my heart is beating fast.
Dusk in the woods. I had forgotten how the dirt smell comes out of the cold air when dark is falling and how the closeness of the earth looms up to weave itself into a unity with the night. I press my hand into the dirt just to feel it. Watching the sun set out by the horse farms is good but back on the pavement the streetlights are wrong and it all settles into an uncomfortable position. See, that’s the way night can twist right out of your hands.
Evenings, there is beginning to be that light again on the moor. Last year’s grass straw bright and the new greening up under. But not yet. Gold wind light and furrows in the brow of Holcombe Hill – soft when I lie back and watch puffs of cottongrass nodding and bowing to each other. But the wind says move along please. The ground is cold, cold under and long shadow fingers reach for the town.
If the moor is our sea the wind is the tide that sucks the houses up the hill on the returning swell. By inches every year we are gathered into the hill, pulled ever moorward, for we made our home in the shadow of a question, 90 square miles of it. A blank with regard to the affairs of people these many years, a place which was never the point. Our hill – the first big hill – marks the place where Pennines start, with its landmark Peel Tower at the top. But our houses faced the towers thirteen miles south across the plain – how long those miles have grown. Now we go to work in our bedrooms. We commute to beforeland in our dreams. We sleep in the shadow of a question, we always have but now it’s got so quiet we can hear it asking us all night, asking and asking.
Shadows fall over the town as the sun sets behind Holcombe Hill and Harcles Hill; White Hill, Bull Hill and Beetle Hill. The city I loved is gone and what is there now I do not know. There’s enough to do here. Late one day I watched two runners cross the long shadow of Peel Tower, which cut across their trail like spilt tar. How long it took them to pass through the shadow. A curious distortion, as if time was heavier in there.
This work was commissioned by Greater Manchester Combined Authority as part of its Covid-19 Creative Commission programme, which created a new archive of artistic responses to the coronavirus pandemic during spring 2020.