A postcard from the end of the world
The holiday lights are up on New Street, the atmosphere a strange mix of Christmas Eve and the end of the world. On the cusp of England’s second lockdown, the shops are heaving with people stocking up on essentials from businesses that don’t have an online presence, and the cafés and restaurants are packed with friends getting together one last time before everything shuts again for a month or more. At the Bullring end of New Street, trestle tables have been set up outside Zara and Waterstones, staffed by the devout offering religious literature to those who pass by. Two groups of young men face each other across the shopping square volleying the names of Jesus and Allah back and forth, performing their faith and devotion in public before the indifferent eyes and ears of the final audience of the season. Overhead, a huge digital advertising screen on the side of a shuttered shop flashes the faces, names, ages, and last known whereabouts of Birmingham’s missing people. I cast my eyes down, reach inside my coat pocket for my phone, and refresh the Guardian’s live blog coverage of the US election results. I don’t usually carry my phone with me when I go for a walk or head into town unless I am meeting someone, but I haven’t been able to detach myself from it all week.
There’s a strong police presence across the city centre following recent terror attacks in France and Austria, vans parked on every street corner, helicopters circling overhead, as both precaution and deterrent. Where Victoria Square meets New Street, additional crowd protection infrastructure has been installed to help guard against vehicular attack, joining the heavy barriers 200m further down that were put in place on a temporary basis in the aftermath of the attacks in Nice and Berlin in 2016, but which are now a permanent part of the city’s streets. Birmingham city centre is a fortress, impenetrable by car, though little can be done to stop a person running wild with a knife in the name of their god, and so the risk remains.
At the library, I wait for the security guard to allow me through the track and trace system at the door, and then make my way through the maze of hazard tape carving up the fiction aisles, picking out books to see me through the coming weeks and months. I forego War and Peace in favour of two collections of short stories by Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. My attention span is in tatters following eight months of 24 hour news cycle addiction in this wildfire of a year, and I decide to set aside the ambitious reading projects in favour of bite sized escapism.
Back at home as dusk falls, I drop my bag of books and shake off my coat, shoes, and then my jeans, hot and sweating from having overdressed for the mild autumn weather. Throwing the groceries I’d picked up in Tesco into the fridge I glance again at my phone and notice both a text message and missed call from Dad. Deciding that the other bags can wait, I sit down bare legged in the dark on the living room floor as my seventeen year old cat Minou circles me before settling on my lap, and call him back. We chat politics, lockdown, and the state of the world, before he passes the phone to Mum so I can have a catch up with her too. Side stepping all of the topics of conversation that I know upset her, or that are simply too complicated or loaded with history and emotion, we settle on small talk about the weather, my nephews, and cats.
I tell Mum about how Minou is getting on with her pancreatitis and arthritis, and my latest attempts to get her to gain some weight, all the while fussing her and casting a gentle palm over her bony spine with my free hand. Seemingly from nowhere as is often the case these days, Mum throws the conversation back more than thirty years into the past, and she begins to reminisce about breast feeding me as a baby, her mind escaping the present with all its hurt, sadness and complications, and taking her back to a happier time in the 1980s, her halcyon days as a mother of three young children. I inhale deeply and exhale slowly to calm myself down and keep from interrupting her, letting her tell her story and live in the moment for a while longer. I need to get better at this.
Against a backdrop of amber windows in the block of flats across the road from me, I watch the string lights on the balcony flicker on, then off, then on again, the solar panel that powers them undecided on whether we too should call time on the day.