by Eithne Cullen
This week, our theme of ‘Mind The Gap’ reminds us what a diverse bunch we are: our writing community, our neighbourhood, our city or country. It’s all part of the richness of the world we inhabit; we are not the same and do not all think and feel the same.
It’s a lovely coincidence that all the writing I’m sharing on the page today is from Pen to Print alumni. All four of us have been part of the initiative since the start. All of us have attended workshops and events and have been involved with the production of Write On! magazine. If you’ve been to our readings and events, you’ll have heard us read and perform. We’ve also all been fortunate to win prizes in the competitions over the years and, thanks to the Book Challenge, some of us are published authors .
Ann Dineen’s poem directly challenges us to decide on the way the virus has affected different groups.
All In This Together?
The sun shakes off its hibernation to salute the bluest of skies.
Reaching past shadows illuminating the inequality as for some
the weather is still inclement. No matter how many times they
hear that we are in this together. The bus driver used to look
in his wing mirror concentrating on traffic. Now he glances in
his mirror looking at us. Trying to see the unseen. He sees his
worry reflected in our faces. Will it slip on board this shift?
We strike our hands together to show our appreciation. Some
are clapping themselves, delighted not to be poor. Their days
spent sunbathing on chamomile lawns topping up tans, is it
too early in the year for Pimm’s? If we are all in the same boat
why do some have to row harder? The front line a favoured
soundbite. But NHS workers fight the battle, heads above the
parapet dodging bullets on every shift. The odds are stacked
against her as she stacks the shelves. Use by date gets closer.
Die has already been cast. If you start off on the back foot you
are always running to catch up. Hurrying to the bus stop she
quickens her pace. Steps on board hoping for a seat, looking
forward to getting off her feet. The driver notices her uniform
pulls away from the kerb and grips the wheel a little tighter.
Connect with Ann on Instagram: @Dineen.6 and Twitter: @anndineenann
Since lockdown began, people of all faiths have faced issues.
Many are missing the chance to find peace and calm by visiting their places of worship. Easter is an important time for Christians and the liturgy is central to their faith but many had to attend services via webcam. The Pope wrote special prayers for the world’s Catholics. The Church of England has set up a free phoneline to bring worship into people’s homes, including hymns, prayers, reflections and advice on COVID-19. Members of the Jewish community had to find ways of connecting at Passover; this year, many turned to Zoom for their family Seder meals. And in this holy month of Ramadan, it’s hard for people, like my elderly neighbour, who miss the comfort of the mosque.
The Old Man
The old man told me
he’s finding it very hard
he walks in the garden
paces round the house
and reads the Qur’an.
The old man told me
that in Pakistan
the way to pray is
shoulder to shoulder
he hopes his daughter
might take him for a drive
but the mosque is shut
the old man told me
across the garden fence
Connect with Eithne on Twitter: @Eithne_Cullen
Hugh Prior captures the mood and pace of our lockdown days in his story Time To Mind The Gap?
I love the description of the activity on the bird table and how the character, Gwen, sees its allegorical meaning, making sense of the world she finds herself in.
Time To Mind The Gap?
Gwen had learned a lot about gardening over the locked-down last six weeks. It wasn’t as boring as she’d always assumed, or as one-dimensional. Indeed, it was proving sharply insightful; profound, even. A pastime reflective and indicative of life.
Today had been a good example. She’d placed a slightly stale but still plush Cherry Bakewell on the bird table positioned mid-lawn at the back of the ex-council house her mother had scrimped so long and hard to buy.
Then she’d returned indoors and pulled up a kitchen stool to watch her newly-appreciated friends enjoy their treat. Two tiny sparrows were already delicately nibbling around its edges; content, at peace and grateful.
Suddenly, a large magpie arrived, instantly scaring the smaller birds away. Unceremoniously (with a single greedy, brutal and savage peck), it claimed, then swallowed the fruit.
The sparrows fluttered nervously as they witnessed the assault, huddled together now, marginalised on the garden fence. Mourning the cherry’s loss but still trusting in a second chance.
They had been disappointed. Worse injustice had followed. A devilish dark crow landed next. It scowled and prowled and completely cleared the lawn. Then, surveying the scene and eyeing the prize, it did just as it could, simply because it could. Callously grasping the whole cake, it smirked, then flew away, taking it to be devoured elsewhere. There would be no shared enjoyment now. All, once so pleasantly promised, had been heartlessly snatched away.
The agitated sparrows continued to chatter woefully, while staring at the emptied tinfoil cup. Still pitifully hopeful of scraps. Crumbs from the table.
The morning bulletins on the BBC had been depressing. Deprivation affects survival. It wasn’t rocket science, or even anything new, but the latest Covid stats had provided another stark reminder: we were not all equal. (Not post-creation, at least.) That had been a dispiriting thought.
Gwen was not unaware that such affirmations and reminders were dangerous to mental health. That, if she were to linger on such revelation– to ponder the facts and study the figures – she could easily slip into a state of angered melancholy. Which was understandable. It was easy to be bitter. Easier still to be outraged. Just as it was important to remember and right to protest.
But was now the time?
Gwen had recently been wondering about the after-life. Vivid dreams were an unexpected feature of self-isolation and lockdown. With no interruptive alarm clocks necessary, the unconscious mind was allowed more time to roam. And, upon wakening, there was the optional luxury of another hour or two free rein allocated to the imagining.
Gwen had mulled over many possible and fantastic scenarios as she’d lain in bed listening to the dawn chorus and beyond. She was fully aware it was probably fair to conclude that, come the end, where we lived would largely dictate how long we lived. That wasn’t a happy thought – but then another thought had come. What if there was a better life waiting? Maybe faith would be rewarded and the tables splendidly turned? Gwen smiled as she imagined what might lie in wait upon her arrival.
“Hi, Gwen. Welcome. Yes, I know you suffered, but that’s Barking and Dagenham for you and in any case it’s all over now. It’s my pleasure to inform you that you’ve had a result: you didn’t suffer anywhere near as long as the average resident of Kensington. They’re still at it down there, while you’re enjoying yourself up here. You’ve won. You’ve beaten them to the prize. They have many more months and years of all that earthly nonsense to endure. The last laugh is undeniably yours. Congratulations! Now relax, kick back and enjoy!”
It could happen…
Hmm. Then she’d stretched and wondered some more and concluded that, in the precarious meantime here and now, we had only one simple task: to continue to be kind to ourselves. We had to get through this latest period of trial as best we could. We had to try not to let any garishly visible gap widen our distaste for life, or diminish any of its possibility.
Gwen turned her pillow and thought on. We could always flip the coin and see the positive, she decided. Some gaps had narrowed already: we’d formed groups and reached out. We’d been Zooming and Teaming. We’d been calling cousins to check in. We’d reconnected with old friends. We’d seen generations chuckle and bond over technical issues. The youth had done their best to protect and inform the old. We’d smiled and grown proud.
Gwen’s cogs had been fully whirring then. She was riding a veritable thought rollercoaster, realising that we’d rectified and repaired other gaps too. We’d stood on doorsteps and waved to neighbours on Thursday nights. We’d begun to better understand and appreciate the true concept of community. We’d continue to smile and chat when this was all over. Any suspicions would have eased. We were in this life together. We knew that now. We’d felt the warmth of shared experience. We recognised and accepted we were stronger and safer when pulling together.
Gwen continued to ponder, understanding that, where necessary, we’d also admirably adapted to and embraced the need for ‘gapping’. We’d respected space by widening certain gaps; for example, my trolley will not cut-up yours. You’ll walk on one side of the pavement and I’ll walk on the other. We’ll happily take the paths less travelled. And we’ll smile in appreciation. Offer a nod to understanding.
There was so much more to consider, too. Maybe some traditional gaps were already narrowing? Why not imagine? Why not give it some John Lennon? Perhaps the experience of a seriously ill public-school educated Prime Minister being tended to by poorly-paid but thoroughly dedicated and professional public sector workers would have lasting repercussions? Realisation can come in many ways: it needn’t all be on the road to Damascus. Why mightn’t an intensive care experience ignite an enlightenment? Maybe proud (and honourable) legacies could be forged in these darkest of times? Maybe opportunity for genuine greatness was always presented to the powerful if only it could be recognised, then grasped? Maybe soundbite talk of ‘One Nation’ could be transformed into truth.
But, whatever the case, the extra time for thought, induced as a consequence of virus avoidance, had been welcome and her meanderings had now led Gwen back to her opening question: should we mind the gap? And now the answer was clear. Of course we should. Perhaps not now, but definitely then. And she was newly convinced that, when all this was over, we’d emerge as strengthened survivors: renewed, re-enthused, re-invigorated, re-educated and less prepared to accept such gaps. Maybe change would finally seem a genuine possibility. After all, together we’d successfully adapted to one new normal, so why not resolve to forge another?
When Gwen went to boil the kettle to fill her flask again, preparing for the next bout of mind-numbing but lockdown-deflecting afternoon TV again, she looked out of her kitchen window again. A robin had arrived, its proud breast not too dissimilar in colour to that of the cherry taken. It stood prominent amidst what appeared to be a greater community of sparrows. A trusted and determined leader. Or so you could easily believe, now you had the time. It seemed to look directly towards Gwen. Caught her eye, then jerked its head as if to provide affirmation. It was holding its ground and a flock was gathering. There was hope. Gwen nodded back. She was newly determined that the next cake would be meticulously divided and justly shared.
H.B. O’Neill May 2020
You can follow Hugh on Twitter and Instagram: @hb_oneill. Website: hboneill.com
In this sonnet, Patsy Middleton raises some points about difference: the difference between love and lust. She also draws our attention to the perspectives of the different genders on the subject.
Lust And Love
A great gulf lies between sweet love and lust
How often we find one and not the other
The first eternal, all else is but dust
Love enhances, lust will make us suffer.
Love lives within the heart and in the soul
Lust lives with licence, selfishness and sinning
And our desire runs free without control
Love is compassionate and also giving.
What man does not desire female beauty?
Likewise a woman craves a handsome man.
But lust is fickle with no sense of duty
And will run from commitment when it can.
But love and lust live side by side within
And who am I to say they are not kin?
I’m rushing off to get on with sewing, eating a homemade cake, changing out of my yoga clothes, scheduling a Zoom meeting and working in the garden. I’m learning new skills and honing skills I’ve already got, and I don’t think I’m the only one! If you have anything to share about Upskilling in a time of Covid, keep sending your writing in to Write On! Extra and the Pen to Print competitions.
It’s generally accepted that, after this state of lockdown, the fear and anxiety we suffer will be with us for some time.