Letter 1

by Marcus Bateson

   Summer, 2020. I hopped on my bike, precariously balancing a paper bag full of kale tied loosely onto the back. I’d spent the fifteen minutes before, picking the best dark green leaves from my allotment garden, listening to the sparrows and chaffinches, catching the fresh sunlight on my face and taking the morning in. This is just like Italy, I thought wishfully. I closed my eyes, latched onto the smells of grass and pollen, and found myself on a farm in Lombardy. There were Cicadas singing where the grasshoppers had been. My vision was of a simple life, growing my own food, baking my own bread and spending the balmy afternoons exploring the hills on my old yellow bicycle. Nearby, there was a river dappled in leafy shade, deep enough to swim in. I’d pass there after dinner, to read classic novels and cool down. I had opened my eyes to the blue sky and gathered my produce in a wicker bowl. Italy, I had thought.

   As I started to wheel down the hill, I practiced Italian phrases in my head. Conversations with the weathered village shopkeeper, who I would buy my pasta and Pecorino from every week. She would greet me with a welcoming Ciao and I would reply the same. I would practice asking how much things cost and where I could find them, even when the prices were on a label and the shelves were marked with names. Quanto? Dove? Grazie.
   Half-way down the hill, I pressed my brakes to stop at the gate of a neighbour. At a small English style cottage garnished with summer flowers and beans of every variety. I heard her Golden Retriever bark at my arrival. The grey Toyota Estate was parked in the gravelled drive, boot open with beach towels drying from her daily swim. Only, the brakes did nothing, they hung limply and lame, and I hurtled foolishly by. The bottom of the hill was now a long way off. Here I was, suddenly on an un-serviced bike, flying down a steep muddy hill in West Cork, a bag of kale threatening to throw itself over board, and all I could hear were Irish crows, mocking my inelegant attempts to slow down with the scraping of my shoe. I crashed to an uneasy stop. The romantic vision of Olive Groves quickly vanished. My toe hurt.
   As I trundled back up to the cottage, my elderly neighbour caught sight of me and waved. “I have some French beans for you. And Runners too!’ I smiled without words, too flustered to say much. How pleased she seemed to see another person. She didn’t seem to notice my near calamity. I reached for the kale on the bike I’d leant against her fence, and she exclaimed. ‘Oh my, that looks gorgeous! How do you cook it?’ I explained how I make it for breakfast. She pulled a face. I laughed. ‘It’s really good on toast with mushrooms and Maldon sea salt’, I enthused. She told me she’d try it, that she hadn’t thought of having kale for breakfast before. ‘It’s pretty standard for brunch in Dublin’, I said. My words echoed a different world, one that seemed far from here. “Well we’ll just have to bring Brunch culture to West Cork,” she grinned. I guess we will.
   I didn’t used to know my neighbour’s name. The thought struck me as she advised me on growing carrots for winter. This didn’t feel like home used to feel. The countryside looked familiar, the way the hills reached up to meet the sky, but this exchange of words and ideas was not. My neighbour was talking to me about her hobbies. She was cultured in books and caring of the planet. Admittedly, she’d be described as a blow-in like me, and perhaps that’s part of the connection. I don’t know.

   I thanked her for the beans and cycled back home to make coffee. Coffee bought from a local micro-roastery that wouldn’t be out of place somewhere like Stoneybatter. And so, I began my well-trodden ritual. I played Sylvan Esso on Spotify, while reading a story in The New Yorker and eating a croissant. I opened the doors out to the patio and allowed myself to imagine I was in a cool café in somewhere like Shoreditch or Friedrichshain. I even caught myself in the mirror, with sunglasses and an oversized shirt, and thought this is exactly what I would wear. I laid out last week’s Irish Times and The Guardian, in case others wanted to read the news. In case I did, I suppose. And although it was only me there, I allowed myself to envisage the other urban people. Drinking orange juice and catching up.

   Sometimes I listen to the BBC World Service. Sometimes I read The New York Times. Sometimes I translate Le Monde Diplomatique. Sometimes, when I’m alone, I talk to myself in French and pretend I’m living in Paris. And then I’ll take a Mandarin lesson, or Google bookshops in Melbourne and my mind will wander free.
   Because it seems the more isolated I am, the less my mind is wont to stay put. Even somewhere as beautiful as West Cork, I play and pretend, just as my childhood mind always did. I recall and summon the streetlights and the music of overseas. I think it’s survival. I think it’s a learned response to trauma and to a world that is often hard and disappointing. I think it’s the creative part of me, the dreamer always painting pictures on the walls. At least your mind can leave I think, even if your body must remain.
   This year, in this pandemic especially, I have yearned to be somewhere I’m not. Be it for Milan or London, the mind takes flight. At times, this year has become so lonely that I have prayed (to the universe and the stars) for someone to talk to and for the isolation to end. I have cried at my solitude. I have found myself in moments of such darkness that I have wondered if to leave my body entirely would be the best choice. Out of body, the theme of our exhibition, speaks of this too. The truly low moments. I say this not out of pity or despair, but just as a fact. This is hard. Solitude can make us so unhappy; we can struggle to find a glimmer of hope at all. I know how easy it is to feel alone. I get it. I’ve been there. It sucks. And sometimes all the Zoom calls and letters in the world can’t seem to fix it.
But there is power in taking a breath and rooting yourself in the immediate, in grounding in what is present and within reach. I don’t wish to sound trite. But I say it because I’ve found it to be true and helpful. Perhaps there is a neighbour you’ve never spoken to who would happily discuss baking and plants, or a local school friend you haven’t met in a few years. It needn’t be big; connection starts with the smallest of gestures. A nod of acknowledgment as walkers pass each other by. When we acknowledge others, we acknowledge ourselves.
   I want to promise you that you are not alone, that this feeling of loneliness is ironically universal. Please don’t be afraid to share how you feel with loved ones. I promise, I promise, they’ll understand. I promise that they’ll connect with your vulnerability, with your expression of raw honesty. But if the thought of this is too high a mountain to climb, talk about something like kale. It’s a good enough place to start.
   I wonder when this pandemic is over, and we can socialise and travel and hug again, will I view my home a little differently? Will I appreciate it a bit more? Not as somewhere to leave, but somewhere to stay. Maybe. Because since meeting my neighbours, and swapping sourdough starters and gardening tools, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned that dreaming is good. Dreaming is important. But dreaming can also be hollow. Sometimes, when we are so eager to leave our body and surroundings behind, we miss that the connection we desire, is only a short cycle down the road.