In the East Asian supermarket with Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor looping in my head from my morning’s piano practice, Ed and I perform a dance of our own in the narrow aisles. We hang back, waiting for the refrigerator to be free so that we can pick up some galangal, only for someone else to give us space in the noodle aisle.
Outside Tesco while we wait in our designated bay, a cloud of cigarette smoke makes me cough, and then panic that the security guard will think I have the virus and deny me entry. Our turn comes to enter the shop and we pick up a single lime and two vegan magnums, shuffling forward through the queue, maintaining a constant marked distance of 2m from customers and staff. I could get used to this new normal when it comes to the etiquette of personal space.
As we approach the spring equinox, rush hour coincides with sunset. On Lee Bank Middleway at 6pm, a Mr Whippy icecream van crawls up the hill and the blossom trees and new growth are backlit by the crepuscular deep blue of headlights and the coming night.From my observations notebook // 18th March 2019
On New Street, representatives from every belief system stand on their soap boxes and behind their stress test tables preaching about the end times to curiously responsive groups of office workers and shoppers. For the first time in all the years I’ve called Birmingham home, they have an audience. At 5pm on Broad Street, the offices are empty and I sit alone in Oozells Square watching the cherry blossom dance and fall.From my observations notebook // 17th March 2020
In the swimming pool, all is calm. A normally busy afternoon lengths session is thinned to a handful of swimmers, and I have a whole lane to myself. It’s not yet the university holidays, so I’m surprised at how quiet and peaceful the sports centre is.
On my way home I head to the big supermarket nearby for a bag of bread flour and a few bits and pieces for dinner. As I lock my bike up outside the shop, I notice there are more cars in the carpark than normal for a weekday afternoon, and inside I’m met by apocalyptic scenes. Hundreds of terrified Brummies react to Johnson’s “sort yourselves out, and don’t bother calling us unless you’re dying” speech by skipping work and emptying the shelves of grains, tins, long life milk, toilet paper, and the supermarket’s entire range of cleaning products.
In the flour aisle, all that remains is a single bag of organic 00 pasta flour, the rest of the shelving unit stripped bare.
In Symphony Hall at ten minutes to six I trade places with the office workers making their way home from the city, using the ICC as a thoroughfare to avoid construction work on Broad Street. For once, the random bag inspection stations at both entrances remain unstaffed. In place of the spot checks for knives and explosives we’ve come to accept as a normal part of everyday life in the city, a single bottle of hand sanitiser sits on the inspection table, a defence against another hidden threat to our everyday lives and freedoms.
In the Birmingham and Midland Institute on Margaret Street I stand at the back of the meeting room, filming a set of academic talks on women in theatre. A member of the audience descends into a fit of coughing mid-event and gets up from their seat to pour themself a glass of water. My eyes scan the water jug, which I have just used to pour myself a drink. Whilst checking audio levels on my camera as a video starts to play, I plot the path between the room in which I stand and the street outside, picturing all of the door handles, knobs and buttons I need to interact with before I leave. All contaminated with whatever form of cold, flu, or twenty-first century plague the delegate has contracted. If they have come down with COVID-19, we all have. I resign myself to the inevitable and try not to touch my face until I get home and can wash my hands.
On silent side streets, a cloud of marijuana hangs in the air. It is the first still night after a week of storms. Alone under a cloudless sky, I look up at the flats to see if there’s someone smoking high up on a balcony, but my eyes fall upon a lone resident on a stairwell, his face illuminated by his phone rather than a roll-up. In a car a little further down two people sit in the front seats sharing a joint, windows cracked, engine idling, radio down low. I hope they’re just using the car as an extension of their living room away from the prying eyes of family members, but this is Birmingham, so I doubt it.
Headbutt the cat sees me coming and races across the front gardens to greet me in her namesake fashion, though tonight she spares me the little thumb nip she administered out of excitement the last time I saw her. Pausing in her display of affection to listen for approaching traffic, she dances in tight circles around my legs and tries to follow me to the corner shop before I shoo her back to the safety of home, away from the main road.
Back within the middle ring road of Motor City, the diesel fumes are unbearable. Heavy, acrid, inescapable. I love this city, but I hate the way it smells.