Caught by the River


23rd April 2021

Jessie Greengrass contemplates the current season; a Spring most unlike its predecessors.

The spring is a rough tide this year, moving up the coast from the south. Easter has already gone. April is almost halfway to May. Yesterday, hailstones fell from a single black cloud in an otherwise clear sky. The wind is fast and cold. Snow comes in flurries. The daffodils in the garden sulk, heads bowed, punch-drunk, or they have fallen over completely and lie, glaring belligerently upwards, until someone, on the way to the compost bins, steps on them. A friend of a friend who is a surfing instructor messaged to say that we should stay out of the sea, it’s too dangerous, but the warning is unnecessary. Off the end of the breakwater the waves churn, white over brown. At least there’s no blossom on the fruit trees, yet – not much for the frost to kill – but I’m tired of being cold. I wish I could go out without a jumper under my coat. I wish I didn’t need such thick socks. I got bored of winter weeks ago, and now the unsettled weather grates. The bright sun is a practical joke – we go out into it, expecting warmth, and instead there is a knife edge in the air, an ice sheet on the pond. 

How different last year was. I can’t remember the last time we had an April like this, a man I know to nod at said, both of us stood at our best approximation of two metres apart. We spoke furtively, not wanting anyone to see us like that, stood in the street illegally talking. Someone else – an old friend hunched into their square on my computer screen – said, At least the weather’s good, but god, I wished it wasn’t. Taking the children out for their mandatory daily exercise, feeling the sun on my skin, seeing the sun on the water, the sun shining through the new green leaves, wishing desperately that I could be magnanimous with the year’s first ice creams from the ice cream van, that I could go to the beach, see friends, shed fear, these spring days untroubled by wind or rain felt like a designed obscenity. I was permanently breathless, on the edge of tears, choked up for that other year, the one we should have had, and that we couldn’t find our way back to. During the day, I tried to occupy the children, thinking of ways to distinguish one day from the next. In the evening I drank too much – gin in bed – two people lying side by side, silent.

That good weather, though, and now the bad. It feels like we’re in mourning for a world undone. Not just the pandemic. It was coming anyway, ushered in by hurricanes in the Caribbean and wildfires in Australia, by icecaps gone liquid, emaciated polar bears, starving birds: a background hum of worry, grown from whine to shriek, drowning out joy. Winter is a blunt instrument; what follows it finely graded – the incremental changes, the ordered unfurlings. It is so easy to imagine it unravelling – 

I can’t stop taking the temperature of things. When my oldest daughter was a toddler, every cold she got, every sticky outbreak of snot, ushered in a vapour trail of wheeze. While her chest crackled, I tried to get her to sit still so that I could count her breaths, or attach to her big toe the pulse oximeter we bought to try and make this easier, but which was really only another data point to try, and fail, to read. At night I hovered over her, listening. I laid my hand against her forehead, her back, her chest, in a gesture half way to incantation – and this is how I watch the spring, now. There is the same anxiety, the same desire to know what it all means. Is the weather too warm, the frost too thick? Should these storms be blowing, or should the sea, when I wade into it, be colder than it is? Snow at Easter is not unheard of. Perhaps I am making things up. Is it all just standard deviation, and the other thing at all? I would like to believe that this sense of things falling is only a sign that I am getting older, ao that the past, for me, has taken on a sheen: things were better, once, than they will ever be again. I wish I could make myself believe it. I wish I could fall into untrammelled sentiment. I wish I could say: remember how springs used to be? Remember the cherry tree bursting into blossom outside the big Asda at Leyton Mills? Remember the easter bank holiday weekend at B&Q, the trolleys full of bedding plants – busy lizzies and begonias, fuchsias, pansies – all of it made glorious by the sudden lifting of our hearts? The thrill of going out without a coat. The way people smiled on buses. That one first week of good weather when London was transfigured by joviality and late afternoon beer garden cider, the smell of barbeques, the sound of other peoples’ radios. The joy of it. The love. One good week before the weather broke and we were all stuck wearing spring shoes through another month of rain. I wish I could say, you don’t get springs like that anymore, and not fear it might be true. I think that we are living in the between times, now. It is such a strange, such an unsettling place to be.   


‘The High House’ by Jessie Greengrass, published by Swift Press, is out now. Read Katharine Norbury’s review of the book here. You can buy a copy here.