Tim Dee’s mandatory 10-day quarantine continues, and so too does his diary.
The late John Dee doing his birds in his Minehead garden
Friday 21st May
I have been thinking about that episode of Porridge when Fletch (Ronnie Barker) is granted compassionate leave to go home and try to save his marriage from threatened disintegration. He’s escorted by a screw (is it the kindly wet Mr Barrowclough?) and enters his family house to the long and distraught face of his wife. He’s monosyllabic in return. The relationship looks done for. Man and wife awkwardly manage a stiff hello. The screw, recognising that he’s cramping everyone, backs off, to allow the couple their difficult tête-à-tête. He closes the door behind him and leaves. There is a marvellously extended pause and Mr and Mrs maintain their sour expressions until they cannot hold out any longer and collapse into loving mirth as it becomes clear they’ve tricked the authorities into granting them some emergency nookie. If my memory serves, we even see them, later, in bed together.
I walked my allotted twenty-minute walk in cold May rain. It was a blueless day. The circuit through the palm hall and around the terrace was busy with my fellow inmates so I majored on the fire-escape: fourteen concrete flights each of eight stairs; five times up, five down. I’m slower on the down because the railings are thin and the ground below them scarily far away and a toppling-forward vertigo wobbles me. I was also troubled by my belt. It broke. The leather has long been wounded around the hole that used to buckle me up but today a wider crack opened like running magma and quickly split. I felt my shorts slip. I knew this was coming but I hoped I could hold out, and be held up, until I got to claim my inheritance from my dead dad’s wardrobe in Minehead (my destination when I am sprung from here). In his last years he had bad scoliosis and was jack-knifed forwards when he tried to stand upright. That bend and his geriatric weight loss meant that belts no longer served. He held himself together with braces. But he held on to his belts.
Clearing some of my dad’s stuff is one of my coming tasks. The belts will be still in his wardrobe. He was, mostly, broader than me but I hope one might fit. I’d like to be held up by something leftover of him. Sixty now I am, and with a little scoliosis of my own, and I wonder if I might be starting my last belt. How many belts in the life of a man? I’ve always only had one at a time. I imagine my next one will see me out.
There will be shoes in the wardrobe too. By the end of his life, when walking was no fun and his feet swelled horribly, my dad was wearing soft plastic Velcro-fastened slip-ons. They were as wretched and sad as that sounds. Among the last radio dramas I produced at the BBC before I too slipped off my work-shoes was a play that Jonathan Holloway made out of an idea about the final day of Shakespeare. Our play, it was called BigTime, was broadcast on 23rd April 2016 – Shakespeare’s 400th death day. The same day, Cervantes died as well. Or did he? That date is listed for the author of Don Quixote but at that time Spain and Britain were using different calendars. Noticing this, I figured that if Cervantes had got wind of his death date he – seasoned sailor that he was – could slip away from Spain and miss his big day and maybe even scoop up the sickly and also death-appointed Shakespeare and they could both – fabulist masters that they were – outwit death, jump the life to come, and live on for further adventures I started with an image in my mind of the two of them together in one bed, like Eric and Ernie talking about the plays and other things what they wrote. That scene didn’t make it, but Jonathan created a great final minute where Cervantes is trying to manhandle the sickly Shakespeare from his sickly house (Shakespeare, grieving most especially for his dead son, had taken to storing glass demijohns of his own urine at every one of his windows). What shoes do you want? Cervantes asks (it was Simon Callow and he produced a stand-out Spanglish). Shakespeare (a brilliantly frail Nicky Henson) struggles but wheezes a reply: The comfortable ones.
I think, tonight, that that is my favourite line in all literature.
On the fire-escape I hoicked up my trousers and continued as best I could with my wholesome puffs. It was the novelist Maxim Gorky, I remembered, who in his job as a cultural commissar for Stalin, scrubbed out the request by the banished poet Osip Mandelstam for a new pair of soviet pants to replace his threadbare trousers. Mandelstam’s widow (he died as a prisoner in a camp) remembered Gorky’s cruel refusal for a long time.
I asked my nature writing students, who I have been trying to teach via Zoom this week, to quickly sketch any memory they had of flying in their dreams. Several looked a little askance at my request. I tried to make it fit with everything else we’ve been talking about, but maybe I was just betraying my current status. I don’t dream of flying and I’ve always believed that is because I spend so much of my waking time observing those creatures that do. But I don’t recall ever seeing so few birds in any day as I have this week in the quarantine hotel, and I have never been a captive before, nor so enamoured of any successful escape artist. Perhaps, therefore, tonight…