The novelist Suzanne Joinson continues her diary.
The children are bickering and violently stabbing each other with sticks, their faces pale from lack of vitamin D as we walk along Honeysuckle Lane. The lane winds through a slope of 1930s bungalows and a smattering of exclusive detached houses before reaching woodland and trailing off into the downs proper.
We’ve come this way for years, often combining a walk with enthusiastic storytelling. A chalk dragon sleeps under Cissbury Ring and must not be awoken. King Crow, mightiest of the Corvids is locked in fierce battle with creepy Zenaida the Mourning Dove who kidnaps children and traps them in her nest, and so on.
I like to think of myself as wafting through the woods twirling cow parsley and spinning yarns for enraptured children beneath a hazy, Wind in the Willows sort of sky. My tales a mix of Richard Jefferies’ Wood Magic, Enid Blyton Englishness and Alan Garner’s country-spookiness. Embellished for years, full of local detail and family jokes, the twists and turns of the plot connect with segments of the lane, as if story-shoots have seeded amongst the hedgerow.
But the children are no longer enraptured. They are sick of me and the never-ending narrative because birds carry Corona-SARS and nature will kill us. Humans are weak, parents can’t protect anyone. A home is neither fortress nor a castle and the only thing worth believing in is, for my daughter at least, a pet piece of string because, unlike school friends and relatives, string can’t die.
In the outside world my son is squinty and blinky from too much screen time and he scowls rudely at a couple coming towards us with their dog. I can tell these walkers are terrified of my disease-infested-contagious offspring, so we throw ourselves into bracken in order to give them the required distance to pass. I try a breezy ‘Afternoon!’ but get no reply.
‘Old people think we are lepers,’ my son says.
‘Everyone is just very, very worried,’ I say.
It’s normally such a happy place for us, Honeysuckle Lane. Here you feel the seasons. Months of rain make the chalk paths slimy and treacherous, but it’s worth it for spring. Summer is a blur of grasshopper-whizz and tiny blue butterflies, followed by buckets of blackberries that come earlier than they used to. In winter it’s chillingly gothic. But we can’t enjoy any of it. We are fractured and strung out in this weird time of broken concentration and exhaustion that comes from feeling severely disrupted, but not knowing who to blame. At home we’ve settled into a tedious series of compromises in which nobody does anything well, but we all try our best and regularly lose it.
‘Please let me tell you what happens with King Crow,’ I say, pathetic but desperate.
‘Can we go now?’
‘Let’s just walk up to Nancy Price’s bench at least.’
‘We just wanna go home now ….’
The bench is at a high point of Honeysuckle Lane where the vista opens and we can see the sea. Nancy Price was a ‘character’ who died in the 70s. A well-known actress of her day, she apparently stalked the lanes with a pet parrot called Boney on her shoulder. Even now, if you listen carefully you can hear the ghost of Boney in the trees. Help. Squawk. Get me away from this woman… According to her memoir she liked to chat to what she called ‘simple country folk’. I imagine she was insufferable, but she did manage one brilliant thing: she dedicated her formidable energies in the 1930s to halting the spread of ‘bungaloid growth’ on the downs and scraped enough to buy 60 acres and embed it legally as a sanctuary for birds and wildlife, accessible to everyone.
On Nancy’s bench I point out the Isle of Wight, as I always do, and try again with my Corvid tale. My son says, ‘Covid Tale!’
‘Crows are magnificent, don’t blame them. Although they do carry pathogens so let’s not ever touch a dead bird if we see one, okay?’
‘Yes. The crows are behind it all, surely?’
And I wonder: is it possible that crows might just relish the downfall of humanity? The children set off with renewed vigour. Warring against Nature they tell me it’s bad to be outside and that we shouldn’t trust birds, bats or pangolins.
‘It is not their fault that humans got too close.’
The tale begins to spin again, shifting from Poe-Gothic to horror. King Crow, always a conflicted hero, has now turned. He wants to annihilate humans. He wants all children to be trapped in houses and have grandparents die a horrible, suffocating death alone in hospitals full of people wearing masks. He is raging, he is unstoppable.
‘Look at the lovely robin hopping in the bushes, singing to us.’ I say.
‘He’s not singing,’ my daughter says, ‘he’s being territorial and telling us to …’
Together the children shout: ‘THE BIRDS WANT US TO DIE.’
‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘Nature is our friend, or at the very least, indifferent.’ My nine-year old daughter takes my hand and pats it with pity. ‘Is it though, mum? Is it?’
Ping. A WhatsApp message saying my sister-in-law has been taken to hospital. I squeeze my daughter’s hand and bop my son gently on the head with a leaf and just like that, it’s easy again. A happy lane. A place we love. A walk in the woods.
My son is telling me his strategy for a complicated online thing that I don’t understand, but I’m grateful that he is bothered to talk to me about it. For a person who thinks Nature is against her, my daughter has stuck a big trailing bit of ivy in her hair and is stomping ahead with a stick, introducing her pet string to insects.
We reach a point where dense woodland creates a natural theatre shape. In this spot we have been known – if there are no other dog walkers around – to re-enact the Parliament of the Birds, a great showdown between King Crow and Zenaida the Mourning Dove that gets rather tense. This time the kids dramatically drop to their knees, holding hands in the air in an imploring fashion (where do they learn this drama?).
‘King Crow,’ they shout, ‘we are sorry.’ We all listen; nothing but wind and a far-off tractor rumble.
‘King Crow, will you help us?’ Nothing. Then a disturbance in the undergrowth. The clucky, fussing of a disgruntled pheasant.
My daughter says solemnly, ‘Pheasant has spoken.’
‘Has it?’ I say. ‘What did it say?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘It spoke to my string and he doesn’t know how to talk.’
‘Which pretty much sums up,’ my son says, with the wisdom of the almost-teenager, ‘where we are with Covid-19, doesn’t it?’
‘NOWHERE’ they say, united.
On our return there is a face in the window of the most covetable of all the houses at the top of the lane. Eyes on us, I can’t tell if cross or ponderous. We are entitled to walk on this lane, we are locals and we are careful and respectful. I smile, restored in my mind now to a floating sort of Daphne du Maurier-esque Lady walking with infants after knocking off a chapter. I tip my hat. My daughter curtsies. It’s probably annoying, but we don’t mean it that way.
‘Don’t you speak Crow?’ My daughter asks.
‘Nope,’ I say.
‘Shame,’ she says. ‘I think it’s time you learnt.’
We walk home, quiet, trailing sticks, almost as if life is normal.
Suzanne Joinson is a writer and academic. Read her previous diary entries for The Clearing, Running for the Trees and Hortus Conclusus during a Pandemic. She has published two novels with Bloomsbury, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer’s Wife. Her writing appears widely and she and writes regularly for The New York Times. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester. Read more about Suzanne on her website.
The illustration is by the author.