David Maughan Brown in York: Covid dilemmas

October 17th

Covid-19 has brought with it a spate of novel dilemmas – some of great moment, some infinitesimally small in comparison.  But such are the peculiar circumstances of our time that even the very smallest can seem, at least to individuals, to loom disproportionately large.

The dilemmas of great moment are the ones at national level that one can do virtually nothing about: the simultaneously impending train smashes resulting from the wrong choices being made at UK government level where the Covid-19 (read ‘government of England’ for this one) and Brexit dilemmas are concerned. All one can really do with regard to Covid is make as sure as one can that one doesn’t become infected oneself, and that one doesn’t do anything that might pass it on to someone else, in the very unlikely event that one has become asymptomatically infected.  Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have thought it was an insuperable dilemma to choose between saving lives and saving jobs – but that assumes that the pandemic is being competently handled at the national level, which all too obviously is not the case.  Where the obsessive self-laceration of Brexit is concerned, all one can do is try to stock up on the non-prescription drugs one needs that probably won’t be available for many weeks after January 1st, and watch the slow-motion train smash unfolding.   It is going to be difficult to avoid both the despair and the schadenfreude of seeing it being forced home on the Brexiteers just how fundamentally delusional their dream of a thriving post-“independence” economy is going to prove.   Too many people will have died; too many families will have fallen into destitution.

It is the small dilemmas that loom so large in a largely locked-down world in which we can seldom see, and never hug, our children and grandchildren that concern me here.  One example will have to do.

All that is left to harvest on the allotment now are the last of the apples and a few potatoes.   The conference pears should still be there, but I spotted a week or so ago that some seemed to have disappeared mysteriously overnight, with neither the rats nor birds being apparently blameworthy on this occasion.  Three or four years ago the entire tree was stripped some time in August and all the still green pears were lying, unpecked, on the ground.  A couple of magpies were sitting in a nearby tree cackling at me, from which I drew my own deductions.   This time I picked what pears remained and am still hoping that they will ripen.  The Charles Ross, as large as big cooking apples but a lot more attractive, were ready four weeks ago; the Ellison’s Orange a week after that.  More recently most of the Fiesta and Jupiter apples were ready, both with heavy crops considering that they have been cordoned.  That leaves the two trees of cooking apples – Bramleys and Howgate Wonders – and the final row of cordons, mainly russets, to pick later this month and into next.   The Ashmead Kernels and Tydeman Late Oranges are cropping particularly heavily this year and have the advantage of, at least in theory, keeping through the winter.  Three-year old Rosie hasn’t ever picked apples or helped with lifting potatoes, so Anthony brought her and James round for some socially distanced harvesting last weekend.

James, a wonderfully caring twelve-year old elder brother, took Rosie off to see whether they could find some very late autumn raspberries on the Joan G canes, whose leaves were already yellowing.  I watched from a distance as they shared the few they could find.   Then, from her low vantage point, Rosie spotted the hidden treasure of an unusually large and perfectly formed berry hiding under a leaf near the top of one of the canes and asked James to pick it for her.  James duly did so and gave it to her to eat.  She received it eagerly, but I then watched her deliberating over it for much longer than I would have expected.  She was clearly longing to eat it, but she looked up and saw me watching her, walked tentatively over to me with shining eyes and a winning smile, and held her treasure up as a gift for me. 

 What was I to do?  She had spent the week with 6-8 other children at childcare while the number of coronavirus infections in York grew at the rate of roughly 40% a day.  Seven months of careful Covid precautions could have been wasted had I accepted her raspberry from her well-licked fingers and eaten it.  But to suggest to her that she should eat it herself, however kindly, would have been to reject her gift of love, and what seemed to me the remarkable degree of selflessness it embodied.   In normal times I would have been able to give her a hug and either enjoy the raspberry myself or share it with her.  So what did I do?  I accepted her gift gratefully, gave a convincing pretence of enjoying it, and dropped the raspberry she had so clearly wanted to eat into a bush behind me, before rubbing sanitiser on my hand.  I have felt a sense of having betrayed her love ever since, but suspect I would have felt exactly the same had I somehow managed to reject her gift without upsetting her.  A Covid-19 dilemma: infinitely trivial in the grand scheme of things, but in a world in which I can only see her briefly perhaps once a week, and never get to hold, or hug, or read to, or even touch her, it assumed absurdly disproportionate dimensions. I guess very small things have loomed very large for most of us at times over the past few months.

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