Windswept and Winterstruck
So, for all my homesick yearnings and complaining about how mercilessly hot it is out here, it seems I have acclimatized after all. After three years, my internal thermostat must have recalibrated to Middle Eastern settings, because I was totally, profoundly shocked by how cold it was back home in England.
I don’t mean just “Brrrr – that’s a bit chilly;” I mean literally not caring about what I looked like so long as I was warm enough – frequently resorting to wearing all my clothes at once. Never before have I angrily ransacked my own suitcase, thinking to myself, What’s wrong with me? WHY don’t I own a balaclava? At times I had to improvise by pulling my bobble hat right down to my eyes and nestling my chin into several layers of thick jumpers. My feet were encased in so many pairs of socks that they resembled woolly trotters. Even so, my skin responded to the cold by cracking and peeling off, while my husband’s lungs went into shock and he developed some sort of wheezy, sub-zero-induced asthma. What had happened to us?
In my mind (and idealistic, highly selective memory), British spring days are brisk and blowy – showery perhaps – with brightly changeable weather and fresh, crisp air which promises warmth soon. Spring is a time of optimism: “Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers which bloom in May”; a season that is so energetic and cheerful it inspires (allegedly) the urge to spring clean (mercifully, I have never experienced this terrifying phenomenon).
Motivated by this entirely theoretical optimism, on one bleak, sleety morning in Rye, my husband and I set off for a walk in the beautiful Sussex countryside. It really was very cold. VERY cold. Bitter. We cut across the salt-marsh towards the sea and walked past a herd of sheep and their tiny lambs, shivering beside the ancient ruins of Camber Castle. After a few miles it started to rain and we stumbled numbly across a pub in which we sought refuge from the unseasonal weather. We sat beside the fire and sipped hot chocolate, watching the wind whip freezing rain against the window. We decided to walk home via the coast (I don’t know why we decided this. The cold must have dulled our powers of reason) and our spring stroll in the country somehow turned into a grey, eight-mile trudge, leaning into a frozen coastal headwind. Our hot chocolate-fuelled warmth and good humour soon faded. A grim silence fell between us as we both considered the possibility that we actually might die on the snowy wastes of Winchelsea. Like many Arctic explorers before us, we knew that there was nothing to do but keep walking. If only we’d thought to bring a team of trained huskies. We saw no one on our walk apart from one small cluster of hikers who had apparently made the same terrible mistake as us. As we passed them, we raised our eyes and looked into the blizzard, meeting the narrowed, terrified eyes that peered out from beneath their waterproof hoods.
We didn’t die. We caught a bus home. Back in the safety of our hotel room we turned the radiators up to full blast. I decided I needed a hot shower and was startled (not for the first time on this trip) by how brutally cold the water from the cold tap was; in Dubai the tap water never gets any colder than tepid. In the summer months, when the pipes are heated under the baking ground, you don’t even need to turn on the hot water to have a shower, it pours out of the ‘cold’ tap piping hot. This is of course a problem when you are desperate for cool refreshment. Last year I once resorted to putting ice cubes in the wash-basin. Sometimes I think my life has become bizarrely polarized. Back in Rye, I used the hairdryer to warm the bed up and snuggled beneath the piles of extra blankets I had asked for, at last deliciously, luxuriously warm… Until I woke in the middle of the night needing a glass of water. My husband deserves a medal for getting up and launching into the icy air for this selfless quest. He wrapped a thick dressing gown around himself and groped blindly through the frozen darkness, muttering the fatalistic words of Captain Oates – “I am just going outside and may be some time…”
One of the benefits of this unexpectedly cold weather was that it gave us an excuse to do little more with the rest of our holiday than sit in lovely pubs and tea rooms and eat delicious food and toast ourselves in front of roaring log fires. If I were to make a list of the things I miss most about home (other than friends or family of course), a log fire on a wintery afternoon would definitely be in my top ten. We gazed at the hypnotic miracle of the dancing orange flames. We sat in comfy chairs and dozed and did crosswords for hours at a time, sleepily absorbing the luxurious, crackling heat. We became experts at when it was time to ‘put a couple more logs on’. I think one pub landlord thought we had moved in, we made ourselves so much at home.
But the weather did change. One beautiful blue-skied Saturday, back home in Kent with my family, spring finally arrived. I went for a glorious walk with my brother for which neither balaclavas nor bobble hats were required (nor a team of huskies for that matter). There were the beginnings of buds and blossom on the trees. Spring flowers which had been frozen closed in a strange stasis finally decided to risk opening their petals. And high in the blue sky above us, a tiny dot of a skylark sang his little heart out with such zeal that it was as if he himself had banished the winter with his song of unalloyed joy. It seems spring is a time of optimism after all.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest…
from Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820