When my husband and I were first married we lived — due to his job and my need to be near a mainline rail station to London for mine — in a town in central England called Market Harborough. Our house (the first we’d owned) was a stone’s throw from a delightful path that went right through perfectly lovely countryside. We simply walked out our door, crossed the road, passed the butcher’s shop, crossed another road, passed the pub, cut through the corner of the beautiful chestnut-tree-lined park, passed some allotment gardens full of runner bean vines and rows of cabbage, and found ourselves in the middle of beautiful fields in five minutes flat.
The hills around us were rolling and gentle, but the path itself was straight as an arrow, smooth and flat. It was wide, but not obtrusively so, and neatly maintained. We loved to take long walks there on the weekends, when we saw such things as dormice nestling in the brambles and — on warm August nights — the diamond trails of meteor showers.
My husband is an avid cyclist (or was before his lack of knee cartilage made it too painful to persist with his beloved hobby), and so he had the idea to cycle down this path. We had previously acquired a friend’s tandem bicycle, which had resulted in some dreadful-at-the-time-but-hilarious-in-hindsight escapades before I finally learned to master my role: sit on the back, pedal often (but not necessarily constantly, since he generated enough momentum for both of us), hold on to the handlebars, and close my eyes when things got dicey.
We’d had a few mishaps, thankfully minor, which could have been far worse. But after spending a birthday afternoon in a country pub and then having my only-slightly-intoxicated husband pedal hell for leather down an extremely steep hill, with my rather-more-intoxicated self holding on for dear life behind, I’d announced I was not getting back onto that bike, ever.
He wisely waited a while, and then cautiously proposed that we stick instead to the country path. Even for a complete chicken like me, it was perfect: no traffic, no hills, nothing to fear.
Except that there was.
The reason that the path was so smooth and flat was that it was an old railroad track, which had — in a delightful example of the excellence of European infrastructure and planning — been graded over and transformed into a walking path when that particular rail branch had become defunct. And like any self-respecting railway line, it had a few tunnels along the way. If you have never been inside a disused railway tunnel, I can assure you: you never should. Startlingly long, so much so that the other end is just a pinprick of light, the worst tunnel on the path (for there were more, but the rest ranged from merely worrying to simply scary) was absolutely terrifying in its utter pitch-blackness.
Ever-prepared, my husband had a head-lamp as well as a good, bright headlight on the bicycle, but this pair of normally-bright lights did little to penetrate the depth of the gloom. Along the way there were a few wells of light from openings high in the walls of the tunnel, but they did little other than to cast a bit of light through their prison-like bars and make the darkness on either side all the worse.
As an experienced spelunker, my husband proceeded undaunted, while I — not at all put off by heights, large cities, foreign languages, adventurous travel off the beaten path or other such potential dangers — clung perfectly petrified onto the back. As we entered, my goosebumps were as much from the deep chill which pervaded the tunnel as from pure, abject terror that took hold of me as soon as the light behind us disappeared, which it did shockingly quickly. My eyes screwed shut tight, I could not see the potholes around which he navigated us (usually, for sometimes they loomed ahead too quickly for him to avoid them) and which were mysteriously filled with water, even though no rain could fall there.
There was something elemental and primal about that darkness, and I was completely convinced that at any moment something winged and dreadful would reach out from the icy stillness and pull me to another realm from which I would never return. It did not help of course that we could hear rustling, of bats or rats or both, in that darkness. I would start off singing and talking, to ward off the fear, but the happy tune I whistled inevitably petered out as the lump in my throat and the clutching at my heart grew.
That tunnel scared me more than the tunnels through which we drove in rural Norway, which went on for miles through mountains, rough-hewn and unfinished with any niceties of concrete, looking as if they had been forged by trolls who might be lurking around the next corner, ready to devour any invaders who dared breach their fortress. Those tunnels were so bad they made even my preternaturally calm husband quaver a bit, as we wondered if the rocky roof might cave in at any minute and bury us all in the mountain, or whether someone had forgotten to finish the way out and we would wander forever in a stony labyrinth.
But this one was worse.
There was always a point, usually about halfway through, when I would look back, wishing we could turn around, knowing we would have to return through this place. More than once, we did, because my husband was fearless but not unkind. It was the sort of place where horror movies are set, or Gothic novels. It was not deliciously scary, like that ride down the hill (which was really rather thrilling): it was properly, soul-curdlingly sinister.
With time and hindsight and the maturity that comes from living through truly terrifying experiences, like the serious illness of a child, that tunnel has lost its power over me. I can see that it was nothing more than dark and cool, and that I was never anything but perfectly safe as my husband bravely (and never patronizingly) carried me through the shadows and out to the light.
But sometimes the things that we fear are real, and they are not the product of a ridiculously overactive imagination.
So when everyone — myself included — began to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel that has been the pandemic, I thought immediately of that tunnel.
Because, yes, there is light: our rates are down, especially here in California; an increasingly high percentage of people in the UK and US are vaccinated, especially here in California; vaccinations are being trialled for children; there is federal funding for testing, treatment and vaccination, at unprecedented levels.
The light is very much there.
But there is also darkness between there and here.
I did not think that Rochelle Walensky (who, for my overseas friends, is the new head of the US Centre for Disease Control, and a breath of scientific fresh air after the former appointee/ apologist) was a Cassandra when she said felt a sense of “impending doom” at the end of March.
She understands that between where we are now and that pinprick of light on the horizon there are untold terrors lurking: new variants, vaccine hesitancy (and outright resistance), a developing world which has not even begun to turn the tide, a European fourth surge (for they have not begun to turn the tide yet, either), reports from India of a new variant and a rise in hospitalisations of people in their 20s and 30s.
Of children sickening to the point that they too need hospital care.
When our children are at risk, I can hear the rustling wings of those primitive, unknowable beasts that lurk in the darkness.
So even as I relish the selfish knowledge that the magical elixir of the Pfizer vaccine is flowing through my body, I am afraid. I am afraid for my as-yet-unvaccinated loved ones in the US, in Britain, in Ireland, in Spain, in Canada, for friends in France, amigos in Argentina, in Brazil, in Ecuador, Dubai, the Bahamas, and beyond.
I am afraid for my children; I am afraid for yours.
Last month I had some symptoms. Not the fire-ants-eating-my-lungs, food-tasting-of-cardboard symptoms I had last March, but enough of a cough, enough of a sore throat, enough of an aching body to drag myself in for a test. I was negative. But in the 24 hours while I awaited a result, I thought: I didn’t want to be the soldier who falls at 10:59 on Armistice Day; I didn’t want to fall at this final hurdle.
Now, thanks to the ingenuity of scientists and a president who is fighting this war like it should be fought, I won’t.
But others will.
I hope — fervently, with all that I am — that I will not lose another loved one to this scourge. And because we live mostly in the mostly developed world, I may well not.
But others will.
Lose loved ones. Livelihoods. Lives.
So there is light, but it is far.
However, with the liquid courage of my own vaccination keeping me afloat, I owe it to the rest of the world to remember, to keep them in my sightline, to hold onto hope for us all.
I will keep my eyes on the light this time, not closing them and letting someone else lead me through.
I will focus less on the ominous rustlings in the dark, and more on the road ahead.
I will brush off that sense of impending doom.
Because it is far, but there is light.