We leave lockdown just as the T5 grinds, literally and horribly, to a halt, half a mile from home. A harsh scraping, nothing in the gears and I freewheel to kerbside safety.
A two-hour wait for a tow is fortified by chocolate and a hot flask, packed by one teen and delivered by the other. In the rear view mirror, I see him ambling along the kerb towards the van and my heart hurts. His hug warms me more than the tea; I watch him amble off again and resume my wait.
I reach the garage in darkness, drop the keys through the letterbox and return to a teen-cleaned home and teen-cooked pasta. I’m fine, beacause vans are fixable and I have my teens. The next day brings the worst diagnosis; the gearbox is broken. I don’t have the money for a new gearbox at exactly the time I do, finally, have permission to drive to the mountains. I’m a good half mile from fine.
Some weeks before the van breaks, in the belly of a black winter, I speak to a GP. She’s busy and interruptive. I can’t find my voice, end the call and sign up to a counselling service. Without detailing every late appointment, administrative obstacle and professional failing, after 10 weeks I’ve had precisely one hour and 20 minutes of talking therapy. I need counselling to get over the counselling. A senior person admits that I’ve been let down very badly and refers me to a very senior person. I ask him to investigate as a human being and not to hide behind corporate jargon. ‘Dear Rebeccca Lees,’ he responds, and I wonder which ‘human being’ memo this counselling service missed.
I speak with another GP, who has all the time in the world. He talks about the mechanics of medicines – without hiding behind medical jargon – and helps me see the extent to which I struggle through winter. It’s not rocket science, is it? October’s gleam tarnishes to November, the clocks go back and the fragility settles in. That’s in a good year. Add months of Covid anxiety, sadness and restrictions and so many of us sink, imperceptibly, beneath our coping threshold. The GP with all the time stretches a stronger safety net just above my coping threshold and I exhale the relief of simply being listened to.
My other cornerstones – minus the mountains – are determindly held to. Morning runs still fire my day but they are accompanied now by faster, noisier traffic, cutting its way through my thinking space. I long for the orangey-grey of early spring but, when it comes, I find myself strangely missing the winter blackness that wraps my running in invisibility from the passing world.
The bedside stack of books doesn’t grow any smaller and I take comfort in Val McDermid and Cathy Newman. There’s nothing, after all, like a gruesome murder or a pioneering female World War II aeronautical engineer to bring back a spot of perspective. I excitedly unwrap The Salt Path and plough in, buoyed by all those ‘best book ever’ reviews. Three-fifths in, I divert from the path, unexpectedly chilled and dispirited. Are the two central characters not deeply enough drawn or, in this post-winter fog, is it me who’s becoming a two-dimensional cut-out? I offer out my copy to the good folk of Instagram and post it off to a more welcoming home.
The T5 is loaded onto a recovery truck and disappears down a lane made dusty by spring warmth, to a specialist garage. The next day brings the best diagnosis; the gearbox isn’t broken. The drive shaft’s not looking too well but that’s fixable, and cheaper. I have the van back by teatime and shake open some maps.
I climb Pumlumon in baking April sunshine, putting on the ‘big’ coat at the summit because it’s started to snow. I say hello to a fellow hiker hunkering down in the shelter, but he hunkers up pretty quickly and scurries off. Anyone would think he came here to get away from it all, I ponder, looking across the unpeopled vastness of Nant y Moch.
Above Aberyswyth and the sea, a still, celeste sky. East, above sprawling Cambrian upland, a rolling, snowy mist, and I remember it’s sometimes as simple as choosing which way you want to face. I bag an errant disposable mask as it somersaults through the snowflakes, many hundred feet higher than its last known wearer, and handrail my way along the ridge and into the cwm.
Back home, a teen asks if we can climb a mountain together the following weekend. I’m just recovering from the shock when the other teen signs up, too – willingly – and seven days later we’re setting out early (early!) to a mountain that has all the best views of Pen y Fan and precisely three of the people. We eat lunch at the dragon-adorned trigpoint at 10.45am. With the sun on my skin and the teens breaking into chocolate intended for much later than not-even-elevenses, I think about which way to face. Today, on our mountain, every compass point shows still, celeste skies.