I am not writing this week. Instead, I am doing the accounts for our business, a holiday house in Berwick, and it is a tedious task. The bank statements must be matched with receipts, the spouse harassed over missing items, mystery payments tracked down, and then it all has to be entered, item by item, onto the Excel spreadsheet. It is grindingly dull. Of course, if I did it month by month it would be a breeze. But I don’t. I wait till the third reminder letter comes from the accountant before knuckling down.
This year, though, the accounts have affected me differently. Halfway through I realised that an attentive researcher might spot that the accounts for the financial year 2020 – 2021 present certain notable differences from any previous set. I was creating a historic document. In a small way it is a journal of the plague year.
For the first three months of the year, the accounts are skeletal. There are the usual outgoings for water and electrics, for wifi and insurance, the bare bones of keeping a house going. But nothing else. Under usually-busy budget head 25: Sundry Income there is an empty blank. There are no payments under 58: Cleaning and Laundry. None of the regular trickle of outgoings under 38: Repairs and Renewals for a new set of saucepans, some extra towels, emergency carpet cleaning. Then, a couple of months in, an unprecedented entry: 191: Grant Income. A payment from Northumberland County Council. And another. Thanks to them 185: Monthly Drawings continued to pay out.
Reflected in the accounts is the traumatic trajectory of the pandemic. The first cancellation came on March 23rd 2020. Lockdown had started – that first lockdown when it all seemed unreal still, when suddenly we had to sever all social contact, when holidays stopped. There was a chaotic rush of cancellations and re-bookings, refunds and a rapidly emptying bank account. That lockdown went on all through April and May of 2020, into June.
But by July the accounts were filling out again. Budget head 25 has a lengthening list of figures. 38 features a notable payment of several hundred pounds for a fogging machine capable of disinfecting both air and surfaces and several payments for PPE equipment. Bleached and scoured, the house was back in business. We ate out to help out and the pandemic seemed, more or less, to be over.
But the autumn brought the second wave, when the promises of ‘Christmas as usual’ had to be abandoned. From November onwards the booking sheet shows booking after booking scored out and the accounts are as skinny as at the start of the year. It takes no time to enter them. Once again, nothing but utilities to record as the house sat empty and lifeless, month after month, through the long winter and spring of the second lockdown. Once again, those new entries: 191 Grant income. I was reminded of tree rings, where a particularly narrow band evidences a drought year.
Behind the objective record of documents such as accounts lies a story – in this case many stories. Each holiday is a longed-for, eagerly anticipated break – the girls’ annual reunion, the stressed out office workers’ chill-out, the Canadian grandmother’s meet-up with the children, the Londoners’ sight of the sea, the newly-weds’ honeymoon dream. As owners of the business we share the joy of it all – and wrestling with cancellations, we shared the heartbreak and disappointment.
My imaginary historian, looking at a set of accounts, would see the facts – but not the feelings. So it is with the C18 documents I am researching at the moment for my next novel. All that is left of my family’s joys and sorrows are entries in a parish ledger, a document of sale, a codicil in a will. My task is to enter imaginatively into what might have lain behind those blank entries. For example, the Births column in the register of Woodhorn church for 1744 shows the death of Ephraim, infant son of Grace. His brother Forster died the year before, and William the year before that. In all, Grace lost six sons in childbirth (all her daughters lived) before finally producing the family heir, John, when she was forty-two. The births and deaths are the objective record. We can only guess at the anguish and heart-break that must have lain behind it.
What will the accounts for 2021 – 2022 look like, I ponder. I’m not convinced yet it will be business as usual. But in the meantime, August is here and the house is busy. Our current guests first visited eight years ago, when D…. booked a pre-Christmas break as a surprise for his girlfriend. They are married now with two gorgeous girls and have been visiting ever since. The pandemic saw their Christmas break cancelled, then their Easter holidays. Back then, the dreariness of it all was interminable. It seemed life would never be normal again. But summer has finally come, the sun is shining and the girls are running to the beach waving shrimping nets. There is a special joy in the at-last holidays.