Anne Enright: The world did not actually stop, back in March. It just felt that way

A girl watches her mother light a candle in the window of their cottage in 1995. “Of all the rediscovered traditions we add to the festivities, it is the candle in the window that I like best.” Photograph:  Three Lions/Getty Images
The Booker-winning author reflects on CHRISTMAS EVE ON a year of hunkering down, through the looking glass

It was the year I went to Malahide for my birthday, on a getaway weekend. I was getting away with my husband, because clearly there was no getting away from him, not anymore, and he was bringing me to Malahide because it was inside the county lines. Those were the rules, that week. We were going, for legal reasons, to Malahide.

All along the M50 I had a feeble little fantasy that we would veer left to the airport, like that time, over two decades ago, when he pretended to have some urgent business in Santry and we ended up in Paris – he had put our passports in the boot, my good jacket, airplane tickets, and a booking for the cheapest room within reach of Notre Dame. (The Hotel Esmerelda, anyone? Yes, we too were there. Check it out, the decor has not changed.)

But, no. This time, we did not veer left to the airport. We trickled right instead, down to a hotel room that was quite near the airport, and to a takeaway dinner that I was, belatedly, starting to organise on my phone.

“It’s inside the county line!” he said, cheerfully. And I said, “You know, I have never been. I have never actually been to Malahide.”

It was dark when we arrived, so I couldn’t really judge the place, as a destination. But the food was great, even when eaten out of cardboard boxes, and the pubs had turned themselves inside out for the evening, with people eating and drinking on benches outside.

How had I avoided it, all these years? I had seen it from the train, I had seen it from the planes, I swam, as a child, a few miles north of this charming town by the sea. As we walked the beach at low tide the next day, sunlight filled the blank spaces on my map of north Dublin. I saw, for the first time, that view of Ireland’s Eye, an unexpected angle on the round tower at Portrane, the “wrong” side of Howth Head. It was like being around the back of things. I was through the looking glass, in Malahide.

Malahide, Co Dublin: “People think of gratitude as a gentle emotion but the feeling I had, walking on the morning beach, was quite fierce. The sharp October light. This huge strand, under a silent sky, now zombified by a crowd of slow-walking, scattered human beings. All of us so blessed by the view and by the weather.”
Malahide, Co Dublin: “People think of gratitude as a gentle emotion but the feeling I had, walking on the morning beach, was quite fierce. The sharp October light. This huge strand, under a silent sky, now zombified by a crowd of slow-walking, scattered human beings. All of us so blessed by the view and by the weather.”
Malahide Beach, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Malahide Beach, Co Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

People think of gratitude as a gentle emotion but the feeling I had, walking on the morning beach, was quite fierce. The sharp October light. This huge strand, under a silent sky, now zombified by a crowd of slow-walking, scattered human beings. All of us so blessed by the view and by the weather, and sometimes also by the person you can not get away from, who is walking at your side.

There had been so few opportunities for us to mark the passing of time, or the loss of the future we had expected and planned. It was hard to know what we felt, when the context for feelings had melted away.

I did not think I could do a birthday in a year when the world stood still. I am not entirely sure I can do Christmas, which is like everyone’s birthday all at once

I did not think I could do a birthday in a year when the world stood still. I am not entirely sure I can do Christmas, which is like everyone’s birthday all at once. But the fantastic thing about Christmas is that it can’t be cancelled, it just can’t. Because the world did not actually stop, back in March – it just felt that way. The planet is still spinning, with us on it. The days will definitely get longer, the spring trees can not withhold their blossom, and the year we are leaving behind will always be in the past, now. We are moving on.

But from what? Apart from apocalypse, disaster and ruin, how was it, for you?

I don’t want to brag but, in our house, 2020 was the year we taught the dog how to sing. The year I put on perfume for Zoom. The year the radiator leaked, and no one came, and it stopped leaking all by itself, while the world ended, elsewhere.

In the summer, we discovered what happens when teenagers live at will, beyond any consideration of daylight or darkness. We looked at the clock, just because it was there, and every night, as I put my head on the pillow, I thought, “Didn’t I just do this already?”

My dreams at the end of these mute days were frantic with hostage negotiations and prison cells, world travel, huge dramas involving exciting airplanes. And though it felt as though nothing had been achieved, in fact, those months were filled with unrelenting, small labour, as we ran up the down escalator, trying to keep normality going at a remove.

Meanwhile we were alone. Nobody came, nobody left. Emotions arrived instead – unheralded and sometimes unwelcome – and then were gone. They just blew through. It can be hard to know your state of mind, when there is no one else in the room.

But I was not actually alone. The year when all our luck ran dry was also a year when I was one of the very luckiest. I knew that, too. I had company, even though it was always the same company. One evening, I got in the car and drove. I parked in one and then another spot along Dublin Bay and I saw the carpark men, looking at their screens in the darkness, doing emails.

I wondered where their wives did theirs.

When it is over, and it will be over, I think I will miss the bursty face we do, now that hugs are banned. The eyes rolling over the mask, hands flapping, as we try not to touch

It was the year of hunkering down. Which for me meant, nothing extra please. People newly working from home said they missed the banter but they did not miss the commute and they certainly did not miss the office politics, and that rang true. In this pandemic year, I couldn’t do bullshit, or attitude. I couldn’t do jostling, or status, or getting ahead, because, hang on, there was no longer any place to “get”. It was the year freelancing went into free-fall.

I was sad for my new book, which had taken so many years to write. On a publishing tour in America, in early March, I was travelling through airports that had run out of hand-sanitiser, to venues that were running out of cheery denial. The night Trump closed flights from Europe down, I scrambled a ticket home. And when I got back to Dublin, I rescheduled and cancelled, waited and cancelled, stood up and stood down again, over 30 live events in five different countries, trains and planes and subways and cars, at least 6,000 readers’ faces I would never see: April, May, June. By July it was all done. And I felt a bit better, actually.

I went back to the desk, where I am slow but happy. Back to my writing students and their hopeful pages, which may one day travel without them. Or bring them along.

It was the year we all went out for a walk. We put one foot in front of the other. Back in April, the local park was blighted by (yes, usually) middle-aged men who came aggressively close. Where have they gone? I dread to think. As the silence descends and the gossip fades, we know less and less about difficulties behind closed doors.

The fresh air brigade are looking after themselves. Now and then, I see someone who is unravelling, or I meet someone who has been terrified, every day, non-stop since the damn thing began. But there is no telling how much a person has lost, by the way they walk past.

It was the year when people stopped telling you how they were.

As words failed we turned to numbers: median, logarithmic, the fabled R; we read them like runes.

It was the year we all stopped consulting our horoscopes, even though they were slightly more accurate than the American election polls.

Meanwhile, we queued, and smelt our own breath coming back at us, and felt any sense of entitlement ebb away. And that made sense, too, because we were doing this for other people, not for ourselves.

There was only one topic of conversation: it was never dull and it was never entirely real. Until it became very real indeed. “I got the virus,” one person texted me, “And I thought it was just what I wanted.” He was looking for something he could fight – win or lose. But he ended up in hospital, young as he was, and some weeks later, he said, it was no fun at all.

In November, I closed down my computer on 17 unread articles: one about motivation that I couldn’t be bothered to read; a piece on resilience, abandoned, half way through; advice from astronauts, endurance athletes, people who fixed radiators; discussions about social anxiety, “I don’t feel I have anything to talk about, anymore”.

I watched The Crown and saw how they got Diana’s shirt collars exactly right and the year of the hunger strikes casually wrong. And because I was around for both these things, my life seemed to pass in front of me. How could we have known, back in the day, that the future would be so silly? I might, in 1981, have imagined apocalypse, or even pandemic. But I could never have foreseen the longevity, the near-poetic necessity, of a neon-coloured Peruvian jumper on a blushing girl.

Whatever we find important about the present moment, the future will have another take on all that. So it is important to me, for a little while, to hold the truth of this year close

Whatever we find important about the present moment, the future will have another take on all that. So it is important to me, for another little while, to hold the truth of this year close.

This all happened.

When it is over, and it will be over, I think I will miss the bursty face we do, now that hugs are banned. The eyes rolling over the mask, hands flapping, as we try not to touch. People are so exciting, this weather. We are all that child who trills and gets jiggy, and does not know how to manage her delight.

I will miss the tenderness with which we avoid one another, the way we make allowances, how considerate we became. The way we checked with each other about what was possible, or desirable. The way potential disagreements surged silently and were, for the most part, allowed to fade.

We have let so much emotion go, this year. How are we expected to gather it all up again, for Christmas? How can we manage merriment and yule, when we are separated or sad? Well, you know, we were never that happy, in those Christmases of yore. We were always just putting on a damn fine show.

Christmas was always an imitation of something, which is one reason it is so lovely. We need this fiction in our lives. We need it to fix our love in a way we can remember, keep

Christmas was always an imitation of something, which is one reason it is so lovely. We need this fiction in our lives. We need it to fix our love in a way we can remember, photograph, keep. We need to see pictures of children in freshly ironed cotton pyjamas, taken by mothers who pretend the maid did all that, or perhaps it was an elf. Sentimental, expensive, fraudulent, exhausting, sad and glorious. Our memory will do something with this one too. It will turn it into the bravest Christmas ever.

Of all the rediscovered traditions we add to the festivities, it is the candle in the window that I like best. This fragile light has taken on a national intensity, since Mary Robinson set one in the window of Áras an Uachtarán, and it seems to burn, each year, with a more heartfelt flame. A symbol of welcome that is also powerfully alone, it is a sign, going from room to room, house to house, that we are alive, we are hopeful, we are sending light.

Anne Enright won the Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering and was the first laureate for Irish fiction. Her latest novel is Actress (Jonathan Cape)