There’s a plum tree in our garden. It has little white blossoms on it. In a few months it will be groaning with plums. I don’t what variety: I know they’re purple, and wasps like them, a lot. I stand up to sketch them in the early morning sunshine, and Reuben sits nearby. His nerves are in bits, because he has a weakness for birds, and they are giddy in the morning, and goad him. Geese fly just overhead, with the temerity to honk right above our lawn. A pheasant gloats in the undergrowth. Songbirds are everywhere and the air is full of their mating calls. Reuben’s head snaps around at each new avian sound, but he’s a good boy and by and large he stays where he is. Sometimes he gives chase, but he has yet to work out that the birds are UP and he is DOWN and so he ends up tearing off in the wrong direction, because he hasn’t worked things out. While he runs hither and thither I sketch the pretty branches, drawing the most papery petals with the thin side of my nib, and painting the limest lime for the fresh young leaves.
I have a blank space on the page, and I consider painting a Japanese lady appreciating the plum blossom from an Ukiyo-e print. In the end I decide against it, as my sketches are all about the local, even though I have painted Ukiyo-e since I was about fourteen years old. Instead, I decide to paint another species of plum blossom on the bottom left: this one is a bullace. Many years ago, my husband Marcel and I found wild bullace windfalls in a field, and made delicious jam. Marcel decided he had to have his own bullace trees, but all these years later I have yet to see a fruit. They look pretty in spring, though.
I run a zoom art class with my young charges. They make the most gorgeous drawings and paintings of little birds, from the worksheet of line drawings I have sent them, and follow step by step as I paint. I don’t know if this is especially creative on their parts, but I have learned over the years that most kids want to have something that looks good in their sketchbook (I do, too). I tell them to look outside in their gardens and find these birds. I have always loved songbirds – who doesn’t love a songbird? – but we don’t notice them half enough. They’re small. We’re in cars. Now we’re not in our cars, and many of us are on foot desperately getting our 2km of exercise…and there they are, adorable little beauties cheeping and flitting around us. This is the best time of year for the little birds, I think. I am happy to watch them when I can. Perhaps I will become a twitcher and hide in a tent to watch them all day long.
I chat with my mum on the phone. We talk about social distancing and how some people aren’t getting it. She tells me she has noticed that some older people are dismissive of the whole thing. Neither of us knows what that might be about. I suggest that some people are not happy about getting older and do not like having their vulnerabilities pointed out to them. Mum tells me about someone she met on the road, someone she knows, who had no regard for keeping two metres apart. She tried to drop a hint but it’s not easy when it’s someone you know. When it’s your husband or kids who are playing fast and loose with everyone’s health you can say what you like and the devil take the consequences, but it’s not so easy to smile nicely and disapprove of your friends’ behaviour. Then we discuss how wearing a mask in public means we can’t smile to show we’re friendly (as my neighbour expressed when she told me she found me scary in a mask). “I try to make an extra effort when I pass people,” I tell Mum, “I wave and call out a greeting.” But it’s not enough for some. “What do veiled Muslim women do to show they’re friendly?” I ask. “They can probably show friendliness in their eyes,” says Mum. “I can’t,” I say, “my eyes only do one shape.” Genuine question: what do partially-veiled women, or men for that matter, do to show they are friendly? Can I do it too?
I go for my evening walk. The sun is so warm that I wear shorts. Ugh. I get about halfway around the block and spot some pretty white flowers on the side of the road. I break a little piece off, rub it between my fingers and breathe in…yes, it’s wild garlic. I sit on a grassy hump and make myself very comfortable. Late afternoon sun, birds, faint garlicky scent, fresh new grass. But I am in mild peril: cars cannot see me tucked into the little space between hedges and zoom past as if they have just heard their house is on fire. All they have to do is meet another car and try to pass each other just at the spot where I am, and I will be a nasty mess of tyres, paint and hedgerow. Sadly, I am a catastrophist. No such disaster befalls me this time; I finish my sketch and stretch out my stiff legs which are no longer as bendy and supple as they once were. The sun is starting to set, and I make my way home past the fields.