Little good has come from the pandemic, although it has taught me how much others mean to me. I now know that I cannot do without family and friends. I can’t imagine how I would have managed this last year without the close and steadfast companionship of my wife, Rohan, and the precious visits – real or virtual – of other members of my family. Here, however, I am talking about an occasion with friends outside the family. It was an extraordinary meal just a few weeks ago that made me aware of just how important friendships are.
The government’s road-map for leading us out of the pandemic, which was published on 22 February, announced how, just over a month later, six people would be allowed to eat together in their gardens. Within a day of publication, arrangements had been made with four neighbours to eat together in early April to celebrate.
Throughout the last twelve months, we, that is those living in our Avenue, have taken tea together in our front gardens, initially every afternoon, and then, as conditions eased, twice a week. Because of the arrangement of our houses it was possible to have our tea-time chats ‘over-the-garden fence’ and, with us all ‘socially distanced’, being and talking together was possible. Those occasions proved invaluable.
Although there are seven houses in our Avenue, what with two houses for sale and some owners away, teas rarely involved more than six of us. It was these stalwarts who would celebrate. Plans were soon made and, most importantly, it was to be a dinner to which everybody would contribute. Number 1 would bring the drinks; Number 4, a salmon and cheese starter; Number 7, apple crumble with a vanilla custard; and Number 2 – that’s us as hosts – a main course of blanquette de veau, some cheeses and homemade oatcakes.
We had never before eaten together in this way. While Avenue members are a close-knit group, we carefully balance respect for each other’s privacy with, for example, being guardians of a neighbour’s second set of front door keys or helping out at short notice when cooking ingredients are missing. Accordingly, I, for one, rarely go into neighbours’ houses let alone dine with them. Our celebratory meal was going to be special.
It was a cool evening and eating outside needed the warmth from a set of outdoor heaters. The table was large enough to allow us to eat comfortably with seating appropriately distanced (see illustration). During the meal, as well as a buzz of pleasure and excitement as friendships were consolidated, there were repeated anecdotes telling how much more difficult the lockdown would have been without each other’s support. We all agreed – we had been very lucky.
It is the case that when people want to celebrate, regardless of culture or religion they do it gathered together over a feast. It is a wonderful way of strengthening communities. With the road-map suggesting that recovery was in sight, after a horrible year of confinement, the promise of freedom was indeed worth celebrating, and that is certainly what we did. And, in addition to the delight of a good meal, we were celebrating new and deeper friendships, our survival in the face of a vicious virus and the prospect that life should be returning to normal or a semblance of such.
While our celebration served to tell me how I have a fundamental need for others, I was soon to learn how such a need would have started in childhood. A few days ago, my elder son Joshua, his wife Ali and their three year-old son River returned to London after spending almost four months away in Canada with Ali’s parents.
We met them at the airport and after warm hugs all round I was left holding River’s hand as his parents packed the car. Little was said between us but when it was time for them to leave – Rohan would drive them to their home in North London while I would travel to Richmond by Underground – a pensive River turned to me and said “Grandad, I need you”.
As they drove off I was tearful. He had touched something now so important to me and which I understood. How wonderfully wise he is to understand how people need one another and how it is a feeling worth sharing with his old Grandad.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Jennie, Jo, Kaye, Peter, Rohan and Vivien.
The illustration is a photo of five of the six guests at our celebratory meal. The picture was taken by me, who would otherwise be sitting at the near end of the table.