Thursday, November 19, 2020

Pandemic Meditations: Missing in Edinburgh by Regi Claire

Every week since September, creatives of all sorts have been sharing reflections on the pandemic. This week, please welcome writer Regi Claire, who sends us these words from Scotland.

 😷

Missing in Edinburgh

by Regi Claire

flattened, photograph by MV (fa73)
from flickr, used under CC license

These past few months I have felt increasingly flat. Flat from the bottom up. From the worn soles of my purple docs to my no-appetite belly to the limp cling of my hair. Some days, my skull feels like a thinly papered room whose inhabitants have moved out and taken the furniture with them. 

My lassitude has caused time to slow down, down, down. I dream and dawdle. And yet the months since March have passed in a blur. Saturdays come round rollercoaster-fast; it feels as if my orchids and other plants need constant, rather than weekly watering. Time contracts and relaxes erratically, like a giant heart out of sync. No more rhythm to the beat. No more sense.

There has been a seismic shift in my approach to writing. I have downsized, you might say. My words now tend towards the miniature rather than the vast canvas. Composing poetry seems the answer to my scattered unsettledness. It all started one morning in May, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus infections here in the UK, when I received an email telling me that my first-ever poem, ‘(Un)certainties’, about my sister’s death at sea, had been shortlisted for the Forward Prizes, the most prestigious poetry prizes in the British Isles. I felt jolted out of myself. Buoyed up. Tearful too, because the poem had been my attempt to deal with a grief that threatened to overwhelm me. Since the arrival of that email, I have written only poetry, putting my work-in-progress, a novel-of-stories, to one side. The poems have come to me in fits and starts, between sleep and awakening, while I am brushing my teeth, putting on makeup, or walking our golden retriever.

The pandemic has made me seek out more solitary places that don’t require complicated choreographies of avoidance: during lockdown in March I discovered the large Commonwealth cemetery in our neighbourhood, where I occasionally meet with a writer friend and her puppy dog. Beneath its majestic beeches, birches, oaks, Scots pines, bushes and cherry trees – yes, with real cherries, though small and hard as marbles, fit only for the dead – rows of weathered old tombstones and recent graves extend across bumpy, root-thickened grassland. There are crows here and magpies, squirrels, owls, foxes and (so I hope) hedgehogs.

My husband reads to me when I do the cooking and the washing up. A treat of the first order. Not surprisingly perhaps, we have now fallen back on Wodehouse’s Blandings novels – a totally escapist indulgence.

I miss not being able to visit friends in their homes or welcome them to our flat. Only once was it possible to enjoy a socially distanced meal (and movie) in the house of friends. But we have been to some delightful outdoor tea parties, even in numbing temperatures, also a fantastic barbecue and several sun-dappled al-fresco summer lunches complete with white tablecloths, wine and strawberries, as perfect as any French impressionist painting. My American writer friend, who lives at the other end of the Meadows park, has promised us a traditional Thanksgiving dinner next spring, or whenever local virus restrictions permit. And we look forward to reciprocating with them all.

I miss not being able to teach face to face. For a while I ran my creative writing and critical reading groups on Skype and Zoom, but the rapport, the magic that binds people together in one room as they breathe the same air, share biscuits and cups of coffee, that atmosphere of quick-flitting glances, nods and smiles just can’t be replicated on screen. For me, online workshops, despite all the laughter and easy familiarity, can never achieve that level of intimacy. Still, many of my students are keen to resume and I have decided to run my courses again in early 2021. I know this will inspire me to read more widely, and I hope my own creativity will take off in all sorts of exciting, unexpected directions.

And I miss not being able to travel. Our annual trip to Switzerland to see family and friends was cancelled by the airline. Thanks to generous Scottish friends who offered us their fabulous pieds-à-terre further down the coast and who drove us there and back, we had a holiday all the same (we don’t own a car anymore and with our compromised immune systems would have felt uneasy staying at a hotel or guesthouse). That week of sunshine retains a brightness and intensity in my mind that seems to illuminate the whole year – and to hold within it the immensity of the sea and the sky, the joy of our retriever chasing into the surf after sticks, the soar and swoop of birds, the orange flare of the sea buckthorn above the dunes, and the breeze recharging every fibre in our bodies. 

When not writing, walking the dog, doing housework, fiddling with my iPhone or calling friends and family, I spend chunks of time administering our life so we don’t have to go to the stores. Several friends with cars have been incredibly helpful with our shopping. We live in Edinburgh’s university district, which due to its high density of student accommodation has become one of Scotland’s coronavirus hotspots, and I currently buy almost everything online: groceries, dog food, vitamins, CBD oil, red wine, toner cartridges, printer paper, books, specialist lightbulbs for the tenement stairs, a spray shower hose, a toilet seat and, just the other week, a washing machine… 

Instead of novels and thrillers, I often read product reviews, especially the bad ones. Seldom in recent weeks have I laughed as hard as when checking out one-star reviews of toilet seats. The ‘best’ one included a video, complete with sound effects, of a slow-close lid that creaked so hideously it could have come straight out of a Hammer horror movie. It made for compulsive viewing, even at one o’clock in the morning.

Today I ordered a five-star shampoo and a conditioner promising gloss and volume. Tomorrow I will get myself a new pair of docs. And then I am going to bake an apple pie from the fruit picked in the orchard of friends. I will drop off a couple of slices for them and some more for our other friends; and we will sit in their winter-ready gardens, wrapped in our padded jackets, hands round a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and catch up on life. We will eat and drink and be merry (and celebrate the outcome of the US election) even in the midst of looming Brexit and this paralysing pandemic.

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Regi Claire and Leila, photo by Dawn Marie Jones (used with permission)
Regi Claire is a novelist (The Waiting, The Beauty Room), short story writer (Fighting It, Inside~Outside) and recent poet. Born and brought up in Switzerland, she now lives in Scotland with her husband, the author Ron Butlin, and their golden retriever.

Regi’s poem, ‘(Un)certainties’, won the Mslexia/Poetry Book Society Women’s Poetry Competition 2019 and was shortlisted for the Forward Prizes 2020 (for Best Single Poem). She is the winner of a UBS Cultural Foundation award and a two-time finalist for the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year awards.

Before the pandemic, Regi taught a class in creative writing at Edinburgh City Art Centre and a couple of critical reading groups, one of them at Edinburgh University.