I woke up this morning thinking about words, how we have no patience with long words any more, how we prep stuff, not prepare it, how we go to uni, not university, how crime novels refer to SOCOs, not scene of crime officers, to perps, not perpetrators, and our sinister COVID-19 stands for Coronavirus Disease 2019, but sounds like a member of the crow family. In normal times, we are always in such a hurry, but being locked down by this sinister new affliction invites a more slow-paced contemplation of our world.
A friend has sent a group of us, friends for 50 years this year and hoping to meet up when we can, a puzzle. A text in French in which are hidden the names of 30 well known French writers. The French love wordplay. Some were easy, like 'les maux passants' or 'racines'. Others emerged more slowly, like 'ces eaux-là' or 'Mus, c'est le mot' or 'une tribu goguenard'. So far, between us we have found 28, we think. I'm ready to throw in the towel and find a solution. But a couple of my friends are still holding out.
My husband and I went out for a walk on Wednesday. Our hottest day so far. Maybe our only one in Edinburgh this year. As a pupil sitting exams, and later a teacher invigilating them, I used to think the best of the Scottish summer happened in May, when we couldn't get out to enjoy it. We took a wander along one of north Edinburgh's underpaths, once part of a suburban railway route linking places like Newhaven and Granton to Goldenacre and Warriston, Broughton and Haymarket and east to Portobello. We thought it might be quiet. Perhaps it was quieter than Portobello beach, but helmeted cyclists constantly whizzed past us, either in silence, taking us by surprise, or with softly whirring electrics. Joggers puffed by, not so much the slimline young ones in lycra with fitbits, but those more hopeful of shedding the pounds from the look of them. Kids with scooters, kids on wee colourful bikes unable to keep up with muscly dads in shorts, mothers with pushchairs and couples young and old like us.
Two kids up a tree at the top of the vegetation rich bank reminded me of my childhood climbing trees by the River Almond out west. I waved nostalgically. They can have no idea this white-haired lady was once like them. 'What's this?' asks my husband, uneducated in British wild plant life. 'Brambles,' I say. He frowns. 'They look like black raspberries. You pick them in autumn,' I say. 'And what do you call this?' he asks. 'We call it houriga in Arabic.' I like the sound of that. It has a sinister ring. 'Nettles,' I tell him. He repeats it carefully. 'And these are dock leaves,' I point out. 'When we got nettle stings we used to rub them on to soothe the pain.' That's new to him.
Then there are the flowers. Two yellow bushes, one with prickles, one without. 'Gorse,' I say, 'and Broom,' hoping I'm right. There are tiny clusters of dwarf bluebells, mauve spears of tufted vetch and delicate white Star of Bethlehem amid dandelions and clumps of cow parsley and buttercups, their petals glazed like enamel in the sunlight. 'We used to hold these under our chins,' I say, 'and if they reflected yellow on our skin that was a sign we liked butter'. Well, we did like butter after postwar margarine rationing and before dieting became such a fad. I still do.
My husband is now into the final week of Ramadan. It has been more of a trial for him this year as he hasn't been able to attend the mosque, meet his friends or celebrate occasions like the Night of Destiny when believers are expected to reflect on their past sins and resolve to do better. Also, after 30 years of supporting him through it, I am more impatient of its restrictions, the way it alters daily rhythms, disrupts evening activities and can make him grumpy to live with till he has broken his fast. This year, the time for breaking his fast ran from 8.40pm at the start to 9.40pm at the end, in incremental stages of one or two minutes at a time over the four weeks. And so on Monday, he fell into an argument with our next door neighbour, a retired nurse who had worked in Saudi and should know about Ramadan and its effects.
Since moving next door into our city tenement block, she had taken it upon herself to transform our somewhat moribund communal back drying green into more of a garden. We were delighted she was willing to do this and cheered her on until we discovered that she rather resented no one helping her. No-one ever had the enthusiasm, or the skill, or stayed long enough for it to be an issue. Many of the residents do not use it. When we arrived, and were working full-time, it was usually awash with washing so there was no incentive. We would have been happy to contribute to the purchase of plants but our neighbour never asked, although we contribute to paying for someone to cut the grass regularly.
One day, prowling the back green during his housebound restlessness, my husband noticed what he thought was an unsightly dead plant beneath our bedroom window and yanked it out. When our neighbour saw what had been done her fury was a sight to behold. She flew across the green with all the fervour of Betsy Trotwood in pursuit of straying donkeys. 'Who has uprooted my buddleia?' she stormed. I knew nothing about it, but my husband straight away confessed.
We have apologised, nay grovelled more than once, and offered restitution, but we remain unforgiven. She scooped up the plant like a parent removing a recalcitrant child by the scruff of its neck and the following day strode past our patio doors with a spade to replant it. It is now recovering, feebly. On Monday, stopping for a chat over our front railing, she obliquely referred to it. My husband understood at once what she meant and, tired, cross, thirsty, and after shaving his head not exactly looking his best, retaliated in undiplomatic self-defence in his less than perfect English, with which she was having no truck and strode off in high dudgeon. Now we look out on her white sheets, billowing innocently in the breeze. Communication has yet to be resumed.