I don’t even know how to start writing this. How can I write while using both hands to cover my face in shame and simultaneously rending my clothes and rubbing ashes in my hair in contrition?
I don’t know how I can have gone so long without writing to you. Or rather, I do, but I still feel bad about it. I wordlessly hang my head and look up at you with sorrowful eyes, like some weird two-legged puppy who has chewed your slippers.
It’s no excuse, but I have started writing this on a number of occasions. There have been at least four different versions of this letter over the last few months, spaced several weeks apart, and I have abandoned each of them, always with the same thought: who cares?
It’s not just letters to you that I’ve left unfinished. On a sunny afternoon not so long ago I took my editor for a walk on the promenade, deep-breathing through the sickly, heavy feeling in my chest that I more closely associate with break-ups, and explained to her that I would not be delivering the book I promised to write. She tried to persuade me that perhaps I should, but I explained that I have nothing to say, and I don’t know how to say it, and that I cannot persuade myself that anyone would want to read it anyway, especially not me. That’s the problem, you see: they tell you to always write the book you’d want to read, but I had grown so heartily sick of myself that the thought of reading anything I’d written made me want to give up reading, let alone writing.
At the beginning of the first week of the first lockdown I was told that the newspaper for which I wrote my weekly column couldn’t afford me any more. This is a disadvantage of being a good negotiator of fees: when a pandemic strikes, you’re the first one they can’t afford, and there’s a little glint in their eye when they tell you so.
Then at the end of the first week of lockdown, I was officially told what I’d already guessed: that my first play, which was scheduled to premiere in the second half of the year, would not premiere in the second half of the year.
In the second week of lockdown, I bought land in Greece. This was both surprising and not surprising. I very seldom buy things. I am by nature something of a miser and a spendthrift. My family was very poor when I was young and we seemed to be constantly teetering on the lip of the financial volcano, so for me money in the bank has always been a rope around my waist lest I start sliding towards the lava. The only time I part with money is just after a loss, and in the second week of the first lockdown I had lost my column, my play and freedom of personal movement, which, I have discovered, seems to matter disproportionately more to me than to most of the people around me, so I bought, along with my partner, a hillside on the Peloponnese: 8200 square metres of olive trees and spring flowers and views of the Saronic Gulf.
I have never set foot on the land – I have never seen it real life. My partner found it on the internet, not far from an island where we spent part of last year, and within a day we had bought it. There is no house on this land, and no electricity or piped water: these are all things we’ll have to design, build and install. I can do none of these things. What we bought, more than a piece of land in a country I love immoderately, was the illusion of agency. It was an impulse-purchase assertion of the ability to make my own choices and determine my own future. Of course, none of us can really determine our own futures, but illusions are there to save your life. I decided that I would use the house as a kind of lever to learn things: how to build, how to wire things, how to speak Greek, how to make a garden, how to wrangle bureaucracy, how to keep bees, how to be patient, how to DIY, how to be happy.
We have been working with some Greek architects to design the house. We want it to be something like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli, on a peninsula of the Peloponnese not too far away. We want it to be thick-walled and cool in summer and protected from the north wind in winter, and we want shaded terraces and views of the sea and of the weather and vessels that come in from the sea. We want book-lined studies for us and guesthouses for our friends. All of this, our new Greek home-building friends inform us, costs money.
The mention of money and the prospect of parting with it caused me some concern, especially when I chewed my pencil and worked out that I’m some way short of being able to easily pay for it. There would be some cash-flow problem in about a year’s time, I calculated, unless I had some windfalls between now and then. But then my partner reminded me of something I wrote in my last book: “Of all the things we absolutely need,” she intoned, jabbing a finger at the final page, “money’s the easiest to get more of.”
It is hard to argue with your own better self, but it seemed very clear to me that that had been written at a moment when I didn’t feel quite so urgently the need to get more money. Oh well. In for a penny, in for quite a lot of euros.
I do have some irons in the windfall fire, but one of the things that made me feel better about committing is the fact that for the past twelve years I have had a day-job with a local television soap. It pays well and doesn’t take up much time and I’m good at it and the show does well – it has 5.2 million daily viewers and last year won its umpteenth South African Film and Television Award for Best Local Soap Opera. When I’m feeling melodramatic I complain about it as a form of bonded servitude, but I can work on it from anywhere, and I had made calculations of how many bricks on the Greek house each hour of work would buy, and I am very grateful for the past twelve years. On this Friday just past, for reasons that seem to involve some clash of executive personalities, the show was cancelled by the channel.
And with that fourth loss – the column, the play, the book, the day-job – I felt a great weight lift from me, an easing of a nagging psychic burden. There is a lightness to the worst happening, because the worst is never as bad as you think it is. Nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it will be. Things change because they always change, and there is nothing to do but to continue, not with the donkey-trudge of a dumb beast going uphill, but with a new nimbleness in the heels. I feel a sort of lightness now, a clarity of mind and heart. I honestly feel – and I don’t think this is just the denial-phase of grief – a kind of joy, a sense of possibility. I feel somewhat liberated from myself. I feel as though I can write to you again.
I’m sorry this letter has taken so long, and I’m sorry about all your troubles and worries. I’m sorry that the world is uncertain and hard right now. (I’m sorry that it is always uncertain, and often hard, but that it feels even more so now.) I can offer nothing except this fine and perhaps fleeting feeling I have that it’s going to be okay.
Shall we stay in touch? I would like to. I have a feeling that I’ll be better company in the future. In a year or so, maybe you can come and visit on our hillside, and we can sip retsina in the cool of the evening and watch the sea turn purple and we can remember 2020 and how it could have been worse.
Much love to you