Barak and I had five days’ hard riding northwards since then, the roads
in a bad state after that wet summer of 1541.
Since the start of the lockdown, I have read three, and just started my fourth C J Sansom novel. The quote above is taken from the third, Sovereign. They’re set in the 16th century, and they’re crime thrillers featuring his trusty lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, and, in this book and the next, Shardlake’s assistant, Jack Barak. This is not, as anyone who knows me will tell you, my usual preferred reading material. What is it about the situation we find ourselves in that has drawn me to it? Escapism? Yes, definitely, and oh my god the 16th century would have been a difficult time to live in. (Especially if you were one of Henry VIII’s wives).
But I got to thinking just now about how small the world was then. In the above quote, Shardlake and Barak are journeying on horses from Lichfield to York, which Google Maps tells me is 149 miles. It takes them five days to make a journey we could do in the car in (consults Google maps) 2hrs 42 minutes (fastest route, the usual traffic). Shardlake lives in London, where two destinations now connected by the underground were then separate villages. In the 450 years since, look how we have expanded outwards, the places we can reach using our technologies not even limited by the solar system now (hello, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2).
And yet, today, I went out for a walk…up and down my street. I walked up one side, down the other, then did it again. I didn’t want to go any further because last time I left the house, three days ago, and walked through my part of the city to a local shop, I came back and had the first panic attack I’ve had for years.
I am a writer, and usually I daydream as I wander along alone, composing bits and pieces in my head. But there is no daydreaming during social distancing, because then I might step into someone else’s 2-metre exclusion zone, or they might turn the corner into mine.
And there is no daydreaming, because then I might touch my face, scratch an itch, rub my eye. I have trained myself not to do that any more the minute I leave the house – but only by keeping a constant watch on where my hands are.
I got flustered the other day because I went out wearing gloves, regular gloves. I thought somehow it would make things simpler – but then when I got home, I became confused between what I’d touched with the gloves on, then with the gloves off, and kept re-washing my hands… and then: panic attack. It was fine, nothing serious, just a not-unexpected result of the unsettledness. I know I am far from alone in this. It’s new, a new normal that may yet shift into a different new normal.
So, to avoid a repeat of that, I took my walk locally today. Very locally indeed, so that there would be no hidden corners and I could take in the whole picture. As I walked up and down, smiling at the two neighbours walking the dog across the wide street, at the woman washing her car, at the cat sitting on someone’s doormat (so hard not to go and stroke the cat, don’t stroke the cat), I suddenly realised that this has shrunk our world again. Everything, like in Shardlake’s time, has become smaller. Not as small, of course: we have trains, buses, cars. And thankfully we have modern medicine. But local shops, local parks for daily exercise, just the streets that form our block.
And isn’t there, I thought as I walked, something beautiful in that smallness, in that zooming in (no pun intended regarding the online meeting tool we are all becoming best friends with). I noticed things – and people, cats – on my street I’d never seen before. I saw a bird. I saw the building work that one of my neighbours was having done, that has paused now, of course. I walked on a side of my street I hadn’t walked down. And up. I didn’t feel silly for a minute, because everyone will know why I was doing it. In this, I am not the weirdo.
After two laps, I peeked out from the end of my street onto the very busy road it feeds into, and saw people, quite a few, this being a very warm April day. No, I thought, I’m happy here, right here. And, without touching my face at all, just noticing the itch that was building (hello, itch), I went back in, and washed my hands. Twice.
Tania Hershman is the author of 8 books of short stories, poetry and hybrids. Her poetry pamphlet, How ‘High Did She Fly’, was joint winner of the 2019 Live Canon Pamphlet Competition, and her hybrid book inspired by particle physics, ‘and what if we were all allowed to disappear’, was published in March 2020 by Guillemot Press. www.taniahershman.com www.twitter.com/taniahershman