Today, stuck in Covid-19 lockdown with my energetic, healthy husband (officially “vulnerable”) we two seventy-plus-year-olds have taken our mile-long walk along the shore, hied ourselves off to our separate workshops – he to make musical instruments, me to write stories – both looking a long way forward to new clients and new publications for our current endeavours. We may have to wait for another year before we can meet to rehearse with the rest of the band let alone perform in public again. The historic houses and palaces we play for speak of two years hence. Those tomorrows stretch a long way.
Like anyone who lives in an old house (1904) we had a list of repairs and renewals that we would get round to either when cash reserves allowed or when we had time to do them ourselves. Always tomorrow, but when we suddenly find ourselves confined to the house and garden and for the first time in years, the month of May rolls out day after day of bright sunshine, there’s no excuse. So tomorrow shrinks to the time it takes to find the right paint – is everyone in the village painting their railings ? – and we live for three days in the present, preserving our cast-iron railings for another future when they will become a feature on a sales board.
The birth of a fourth grandchild has pitched me back to the time when I had babies of my own and the future was measured in hours. Next feed, next nappy change, next sleep (oh please, next sleep), next wash in the twin rub, next session with the ironing board. Repeat ad infinitum until, one happy day, the baby smiles, gurgles, sits up, crawls and the future stretches to include re-arranging the furniture for safe play, gathering a box of things never designed to be toys – wooden spoons, saucepans, feather dusters – and longer, more predictable sleeps. But the future with small babies is counted in hours.
Was there a time when I lived without the idea of a future? I think of my school years between the age of six and nine years old in Malta, a pupil at RN Verdala, the school for Naval children, living in Sliema, and remember a long series of events and experiences that flicker like a slideshow in my mind, each a self-contained image of a life lived in the moment. Tomorrow meant another day at the beach – Royal Naval wives did not take employment – with only the precise spot for our picnic varying, a good distance away from the Maltese men who speared octopus and cooked them over an oil barrel fire, the aroma of the seared flesh tempting me close until my mother chided me. Or the kite shop, a colourful cavern three doors down, or the rough sisal mesh on the school climbing frame built for grown men to exercise on but heaven for adventurous children, or the clear turquoise water in which lay treacherous sea urchins that sank their black spines into little feet. All these sensations, the thrills and the pain, are sealed in their time capsules with their own beginnings and endings. One day my parents said we were “going home” and what was that but a promise of a future somewhere I did not really remember except as a pale version of “home” here?
I did not want to go, I did not want to leave my technicolour present and throw myself into a future in the grey village school that was all I remembered of life before Malta. My mother laughed and promised me a meeting with my grandmother, who I suddenly remembered was a sly pincher of legs when displeased. I fixed myself firmly in my present and refused to budge.
I reattached myself to a notion of the future in my giddy teenage years when rock and roll, clothes and boys seemed like an undefined promise of something desirable. If the future is a place imagined, I threw myself into the wilder edges of that promise land by becoming a dancer, a model, an object of unquenchable love as I moved among my peers in my school uniform. I would, I knew, soon distinguish myself among them by bursting forth like a butterfly loosed from its crusty shell. Nothing in my present was of the least interest to me, it was merely a waiting place for my future to happen. Perhaps it did not matter that this was a case of “jam tomorrow” which moved away at the exact pace that time passed.
I was not entirely sure what I would do with a declaration of unquenchable love, certainly not from any boy I knew and the difficulty of being spotted as the coming model or the ablest dancer in a small west country village were remote. But what comfort to a not especially pretty teenager this future seemed.
It ebbs and flows, this notion of the future. I suppose the existence of my four grandchildren, and perhaps more to come, pitch a stake in it on my behalf. But I often think of the child I was in the bright Mediterranean light, drinking in each day’s sensations without thinking that each experience must lead to another. For her, for me, the moment was and is enough.