I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something eerie about the Sanctuary today. It’s my first visit back since this all began, and almost six months to the day that I sat on this bench with a pal, feeling the warmth of the early spring sun on our faces and, in its heat, the promise of the summer to come. But there was menace in the air too – we knew the virus was approaching but hadn’t fully understood what it would entail. This time will pass, we observed with sagacity, and pondered the implications of working from home – possibly for as long as six weeks.
I started coming back in to the office a fortnight ago; just a couple days a week, for a change of scenery as much as anything else. I’m in the minority. There aren’t many people around at all – it feels strange there, too. Definitely time for a lunchtime escape to the comfort of the Sanctuary. But there was a chill in the air as I came in through the gate, out of the sun and into the shade. The unmistakable whiff of autumn, and the annual tug on the heartstrings – I’m not sure if my fragile constitution is up to mellow fruitfulness right now. I take a deep breath and walk on, pausing only for a handful of tart and irresistible blackberries.
There is a willow down; it lies in the water, presumably a victim of hurricane Laura but it is the water itself that catches my attention. It’s green. A thick layer of algae sits on the still and lifeless lake. It feels oppressive, dank and otherworldly. I stroll onward, startling a pair of panicky pigeons who crash through the leaves above me. The unsettling atmosphere hangs heavy in this corner – it is usually here that I spot the muntjac, but not so today. I hurry on to the far side of the water, to where the sun and the bench can be found. And, as I sit, I realise what it is that is so odd – there is an almost entire absence of birdsong. In fact, of birds altogether! There is a swan preening itself on water, and some pigeons churring sweet nothings to each other; otherwise, nothing.
It is as if the unreal world outside has seeped into this magical place, subduing what lies within. I am sitting, looking over the still waters and, once again, feeling the sun on my face; I can scarcely believe that half a year has passed. Of course, I am quite wrong – there may be a lull in the proceedings, but time never really stands still here. The life force is too strong. Any thoughts of gloom are soon interrupted by a sudden kerfuffle. I look up into the lovely oak that towers over me and see that two squirrels are racing around. They are collecting acorns, although, judging by the number that are falling around me, not with any great care. It has become precarious, so I get up to walk away before I get hit; turning, I am astounded by a golden vision, caught in a pool of light; ragwort, for all its undesirability, glorious and resplendent.