In early March after a month on Tilos, when green leaves were just beginning to unfurl out on the fig trees, Mark and I flew to England for work and to see our families. I planned to stay just ten days or thereabouts, and didn't want to put the hound through the whole flying thing, so Stelios offered to look after Lisa. As she raced around his garden through grass still wet from the morning rainstorm, we sat in the dark listening to scops owls calling, and Stelios got Mark tipsy on raki.
The following morning, we caught the ferry at dawn. I’d been stressed about leaving Lisa and home, especially as coronavirus was already a threat, but the skies were so fantastically beautiful, a mix of cloud and sun, that I soon began to enjoy it. When we passed an empty island off Symi, I gazed at it and thought how, when I got back, I'd try to do some walking there in this wonderful time of year. The sky and sea were deep blue in Rhodes and we sat on our hotel balcony feeling the sun on our skin, then for hours on the quiet beach, our faces getting ever so slightly sunburned.
We were fairly relaxed as we flew out the next day, with no idea that within a couple of days, the situation would change as the news about coronavirus and its implications very quickly got worse. Plans to go to events and see people got changed and then cancelled. Soon it was a question of bringing forward my travel plans to make a dash for home before movement was restricted for no-one knew how long. Mark would stay with his mum, who although a trooper is 88, and near his children who are in their twenties, and complete the work he had planned.
On the 18th, I should have been on a plane to Athens then Rhodes. The days before were horrendous, trying to find out how this would go as things changed constantly. Greece had already shut down bars and restaurants and schools to reduce the spread of the virus, and declared its sensible, calm policy of ‘We’re Staying at Home’. I’d have to be quarantined for fourteen days, but would they allow me to travel home to do that? I noticed islanders on social media dissuading any arrivals from abroad. Even if I quarantined myself, what if I did carry the virus to Tilos with its very basic medical facilities?
Mark had encouraged me at first to go back, saying I’d be impossible if I stayed (who, me?), knowing how my sense of self is wrapped up in living in the wilds of a sunny island, walking and swimming. My parents, knowing the same, also encouraged me to go home where I’d be safer and happier, away from the madness.
But as we got up that morning and Mark drove me to Heathrow, both of us too upset too speak much, leaving seemed more and more wrong. Knowing anything could happen in the next months, should I go back to the place I love and more importantly Lisa, or stay with my family and my partner who wanted to look after me, with hugs and love? Nobody else could make this decision for me.
In the departures hall of Heathrow, where people of all nationalities walked grimly about in masks or in tears – nobody going on holiday – I still could get no information about how I’d be received in Greece. In the end, the only important consideration was Lisa, that dog I love so much. I called Stelios, and he told me to do whatever I thought was best but that he would be happy to keep looking after her. ‘She’s no problem,’ he said, ‘though she does snore a bit.’ He is, after all, the man who named her, who has always been a big part of her life.
Assured that Lisa would be protected and have everything she needs, I left the scary departures hall and walked back to the car, where Mark was waiting for me in the drop-off zone, and told him I was staying.
That afternoon, exhausted from an extremely tense few days, relieved to be together, we went for a walk around some lakes, near where Mark fished when he was a kid. We stopped in a hide and watched a little bit of sun poke through the clouds and light up the water, while the coots paddled closer. Mr Anorak had even brought a pair of binoculars we could use to watch the nesting grey herons and snow-white little egrets across the other side, and the great crested grebes diving and reappearing. There were quite a few people out walking or fishing, most of them happy to smile and chat a little.
I loved seeing little blue forget-me-nots, and plucky great tits making raids at a feeder while mallards foraged below; marsh marigolds, a noisy jay and a green woodpecker; tufted ducks with their jaunty black quiffs and bright eyes, pochard ducks with their lovely chocolate-brown heads and grey backs. Eventually, walking back along the canal at dusk, we stopped to listen to the quiet and the song of the blackbirds. In times of crisis, isn’t it wonderful to appreciate simple things like nature and a warm hug? Whatever we have to go through in the coming months, the cycle of nature will continue, the days will get longer.
The next day I walked alone through the fields in fine, drizzling rain. It was good to see the buds beginning to unfurl on the tips of bare branches. With life reduced like this, perhaps I appreciate more the feel of springy grass under my walking boots, the colours of lichen on a tree trunk and the songs of the birds even on a grey, wet day.
Just think how it will feel when the sun comes out.
This crisis is interrupting the distribution of print books temporarily, but my new book Wild Abandon will still be released in May – initially as an e-book, until things get back to normal. I hope it will provide a reminder of Greece for those who can’t get there. I may have to read it myself.