In a cave once used as a stable and now abandoned, I found a wooden crate containing a dozen tiny clay flowerpots. They were of a simple design and looked old. I found two packets of seeds in a bric-à-brac drawer — sunflowers and nasturtiums — and I sowed them in the pots, which I arranged in a row on a shelf on the terrace. It was my first attempt at growing anything since 1979, when I raised six cannabis plants in my father’s greenhouse with such spectacular success that I had to permanently leave the roof panes open to accommodate them.
Rarely have sunflower and nasturtium seeds commanded such loving and indefatigable attention from the sower. When the little green sunflower shoots appeared wearing the split-open pod husks like little hats, I danced before them like David before the Lord. On sunny days I moved the seedlings from the shelf to the full sunlight of the outside table. If the breeze stiffened, I protected them with an improvised windbreak. On colder evenings I brought them indoors. I loved and admired my infant shoots and cherished them as individuals. I’d neglected to label them and for a long time I believed that the nasturtiums were sunflowers and vice versa.
Then came the big day: I had to separate the young shoots and replant them in bigger pots. At this point my little green children stood about two inches high at the shoulder. The operation was as traumatic for me as it was for them. As I scooped them out of their pots, I was amazed that the spindly nasturtiums — or sunflowers — had already put out such a dense mass of tiny roots that they were nearly potbound. Thousands dead and the world economy collapsing was nothing compared with my surprise at upending a flowerpot and noticing the extent of the root system already put out by a two-week-old seedling.
It was during this intricate and emotional repotting procedure that Catriona came out on to the terrace to announce that M. Macron had extended the present lockdown to 15 April. She found me cradling an uprooted seedling in my palm and goggling at the ramified roots.
I now take all my news secondhand from Catriona. On her advice, I stopped reading or listening to the news about a week ago. It was making me depressed, she thought. She imparts her edited news highlights sparingly and I use the considerable amount of time that I used to waste reading the news staring at my seedlings or brushing up my French. For the latter occupation I’m memorising a little French phrase book issued to overseas-bound British troops in 1914, bought on eBay. The short and simple patriotic phrases, such as ‘À la victoire!’ and ‘Combattons bien!’, must, I imagine, have been aimed primarily at the privates.
So on receiving news of our further detention, and remembering my most recent French lesson, I said: ‘Prisonnier? Moi? Et pourquoi? Je suis ami! Anglais. Simple soldat!’
And in the garden later, I was digging a hole when Catriona brought out cups of tea. ‘Je vais creuser une tranchée,’ I confessed. (I’m going to dig a trench.) ‘Il y a des tireurs d’élite (there are snipers) dans le jardin. Derrière les haies! (Behind the hedge!) Ils sont là depuis ce matin! (They’ve been there all morning!) Tirez, ou prenez-les! (Either shoot them or take them prisoner!)’
And randomly and very annoyingly throughout the day, I’ve been asking her: ‘Peut-être pourriez vous m’aider?’ (Perhaps you can help me?) ‘J’ai les pieds bien mouillés et j’ai été blessé par un obus.’ (I have very wet feet and I have been blown up by a shell.)
Even Catriona’s judicious selection from the international news headlines fit to pass on to a depressive has begun to stretch all credulity. I was out on the terrace the other evening singing to my repotted seedlings in the moonlight. A couple of them had yet to recover from their uprooting and replanting and I was anxious about their welfare. Catriona came outside and said in a voice quite unlike her usual newscaster’s one, and alive with excitement: ‘Boris is in intensive care!’
‘Boris? In intensive care?’ I said. ‘Êtes-vous bien sur?’ I said (omitting the second part of the first world war phrase, which goes on to ask whether this water has been poisoned and was it still possible to make tea with it).
‘It’s precautionary,’ said Catriona. ‘He’s still breathing unaided.’ Even taking into account that Boris was involved in it, the news was incredible and I found it impossible to fully take it in. ‘And this one’s quite poorly, too,’ I said, pointing to a pathetically limp sunflower seedling — or was it a nasturtium?
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