God, I loathe January. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; the media would have us believe that loathing January has effectively become compulsory these days. You know the shtick: the sparkle and euphoria of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left in the tub are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia is shedding more leaves by the day, and the new year’s resolutions have long since been exposed as a work of fiction – again.
For me, though, January is not just a collection of media tropes and the blindingly obvious. For me, it is truly the season of sorrows. It is the month in which we repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, I spent endless, agonising days at the side of my sister’s bed in the hospice, watching cancer steal her life from her. And exactly two years after that in the hospital right next door, it was the month in which I spent almost identical endless, agonising days at the side of my mother’s almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.
January is the month in which I became an only child. January is the month in which I became an orphan.
In the UK, the crushing weight of that immense sorrow was almost unbearable. For then it was accompanied and intensified by January’s ceaseless, dank and frigid gloom. Although technically the days were lengthening, the increase in daylight was imperceptible. Darkness reigned: we went to work in the dark; we came home in the dark; the lights were always on. It was a world drained of life; a world drained of colour, with black, naked trees and lifeless, sepia-coloured fields over which hung leaden skies that the watery winter sun was seldom able to penetrate. Then there was the exhausting misery of the damp, bone-chilling cold that seeped into the very core of my being and that turned every day into an unwinnable battle to keep its effects at bay. Without fail, my mood would darken, and without fail, in a matter of days I would find myself tumbling into a gaping chasm of wretchedness from which I could only manage to haul myself when spring at last beckoned.
But here in Le Marche, a thousand miles to the south, the contrast could hardly be greater – this January at least. Since well before Christmas we have been blessed with benign temperatures, often in double figures. For weeks on end a honeyed sun has shone from a baby-blue sky. And on the days when its gentle rays have been filtered through a veil of fine mist, the land has been bathed in a soft golden light that has given everything an ethereal, dreamlike quality. It is a world full of colour, with hilltop villages flushed pink in the soft-focus sunlight and spring crops already carpeting the fields in vivid green. Tiny white and blue flowers now dot the hedgerows, while splashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom are starting to appear, and many of the trees – including all the olives, of course – always remain as green as they were in full summer. On occasion, the breeze even carries the soft murmur of birdsong.
Despite the renewal and growth and life that are evident everywhere, January remains the season of sorrows, mind – as I suspect it always will do; the multiples layers of loss simply run too deep. But the warmth and colour of a Mediterranean winter at least make the weight of that lasting sorrow bearable, and the brightness of a southern sky helps dim the shadows it continues to cast over me. They lift and sustain me and their reassuring embrace keeps me from falling into that annual chasm of wretchedness. They have, in part at least, redefined the January Blues.