Caught by the River

In Quarantine: a diary (Day 2)

Tim Dee | 19th May 2021

Tim Dee’s captivity continues.

Tuesday 18th May

This last year the wise words of old Pascal have been trotted out a fair few times: All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly alone in a room. It has been quite a test for many of us and certainly for me.

These last years I have got less and less good at staying still. A middle of the row seat on a plane journey is a panicky prospect for me now. I can feel my chest tightening even as I type the words. Wanting to move, I freeze. Even a short car journey as a passenger can stiffen me into creaks and groans when I pull my somehow disassembled and static self up and out from the seat. I need to walk for a good while to feel rebuilt or whole once more. Attempted ordinary nights of sleep can be snapped open with murderous calf-cramps that have me, Lazarus-like, trying to pick up myself and walk. I yelp as I go, stamping down for the ground, wanting to be earthed and wanting to be moving on it.

I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2017. Aside from the awkwardness and yelps that come from repressed motion my symptoms thus far are not too horrible. They will get worse but at the moment a low dose of medicine, and as much movement as I can manage, keeps me going forwards and more or less upright. We are all falling, at varying speeds, of course – such is life. Each of us falls from our own height, no matter how mean our elevation. But my PD draws my attention to this, and more perhaps than it would occur to those who are better-balanced. 

When I still lived in Bristol, I joined a tailor-made PD exercise class in a gym. Thanks to the pandemic, the class went online, and I have been able to keep up via Zoom, with my fellow movers and shakers, three times a week from my back yard in Cape Town, 11,000 km away. The exercises Alistair and Kev put our gang through each session have names. I like them for what they suggest: many offer a means of escape from our condition, a mobility, an ataraxy or flow, while others have us imitating the more able-bodied world. We do the Crocodile Snap and the Penguin Waddle. We Cross the River and go Over the Moon. We imitate the Can Can and describe the Spirit of Ecstasy. It is all very helpful for me. On days in South Africa when I don’t jump, I know I must push young Adam in his pushchair along the gravel verge of the road to Misty Cliffs, or I must run in a gasping slick of myself in the other direction up the road towards Red Hill. For the first time in my life, brushing sixty, I am wearing trainers every day.

I took my pair off when I was delivered to my room in the quarantine hotel on Sunday and hadn’t put them on again until late this afternoon. On Monday I spent a whole day without shoes. Aside from a few days in hospital, I don’t think I’ve gone shoeless for as long since I was a baby. It was a worry coming here – how might I be allowed to move, how not be cramped. I’ve written to friends describing my arrival as like being inserted into a rock niche on a cliff face on Mount Athos in Greece where, I believe, especially hardcore (pun intended) monks slid (perhaps still slide), like bivouacking alpinists, to lie for ages in a cocoon of devotion or penitence. I can’t think of much worse a confinement. 

So, I was keen to move. Twenty minutes a day, they told me I would be allowed out of the hutch. Yesterday I jumped, online via Zoom and barefoot, on the carpet of my little niche, going over the river and more although there is barely room to swing a cat. Today, I called down to the gruff voices who man the security detail and asked for a walk. 

My feet seem to have swollen – the shoes felt stiff to wear. The guard (hi viz, drooping mask, mobile phone, blue gloves) escorted me from my room. My first interior view in forty-eight hours – the carpeted long corridor – of a distance more than three metres was rather dizzying; I’m not sure if that was Parkinson’s or elation. We turned into a lift, went down, we exited the lift, turned more corners and swayed along corridors. I felt like I was being led to job interview or maybe my execution. How quickly we lose all sorts of our way when we are following another. Everything went past in slow car-crash style: the dark-stained veneer on the walls, a chandelier above the cannibalised reception area, golden bannisters, a marble stair, and then we were in a new hall, a conservatory-like space, square and glass-walled all around, and there were palm trees and a grand piano and a band rostrum. The palms were plastic, the keys of the piano had been crudely gaffer-taped out of reach and there was a resident, a man of my age, groaning in the midst of a calf-stretching exercise and leaning against the band stand. The Titanic came to mind. And Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective.

Twenty minutes, my hi viz said before walking off and sitting down. The palm hall had doors on either side leading out to a paved terrace. It was possible, I discovered, to walk a circuit across the dance floor below the palms and out onto the terrace and then circle around the rear of the hall and come in through the opposite door and be back where you started. Three others (one woman), including the groaner, were absorbed in such circumnavigations. I followed them at first. A dozen other men stood smoking on the terrace. Another dozen guards looked at their phones. I started off and picked up a bit of speed. It felt like having to act walking in a play. The walking that is required is the same as what you normally do except that when you think about walking it becomes a really odd action. I went around and around, marching almost, swinging my arms, performing exercise, and thinking of Foucault and The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Rudolf Hess in Spandau, but my legs liked it and I found I was lifting my face to the sky above the terrace which was dishcloth grey but amazingly fresh to me. And the open air! It, I was discovering, as if I was naked for the first time, has feelings and can be felt. Even the smoke of the smokers came lively to my mask.

Then I saw a man coming down an outside staircase which ran from the conservatory up the side of the hotel with doors into it at each floor. A fire escape, I guess. I asked if I could climb the stairs. I couldn’t hear what was said – everything in that place had the sound of a space-walk to my ears so de-echoed were they by days of carpet. I started to climb, and it was wonderful. Never before had such a commonplace ascent felt so much like a lift off. I was gaining height, coming into the weather, touching the sky. The top flight of stairs took me higher than most of the surrounding rooftop canopy and gave a panorama view. I knew it, I’ve seen it many times, from planes on their approach to Heathrow, from the flat of a long ago girl-friend, from walks towards Gipsy Hill. I knew it but never had I loved it enough. That is what it told me. Then it made me cry. A male blackbird sang loud enough and near enough to cut through the traffic slush. It must have been perched high up near the Natural History Museum and looking towards me.

It was the first blackbird I had heard in more than a year. Such balm in its soft scattering. It was the first blackbird I had ever heard when in a cage.


More from Tim tomorrow.