In late August as the seasons were on the turn and the first leaves were starting to fall from the trees, the final heatwave of summer gave way to cooler days. Stepping out of the Co-op one evening, I unwrapped the white cotton scarf I had been using as a face covering from around my nose and mouth and walked down the steps from the square, passing by the big yellow salt bin that sits dormant by the roadside during the warmer months, waiting for winter. On its lid lay a soggy, misshapen pillow. Abandoned months before, it once belonged to a young man of about twenty who arrived on the streets in early January and took up a nightly residence in the square.
I remember him clearly, because the square lies just outside the city centre, and it’s not a common haunt amongst the homeless. From his age, appearance and demeanour I sensed that he was new to the streets, so I stopped to ask if he needed anything from the shop and if he knew of the places he might seek help, shelter, and hot meals in the local area.
This was before the pandemic, whilst the virus that has altered every facet of our lives was still largely confined to Wuhan in China. I haven’t seen him since April. When the UK shut down at the end of March to bring the national outbreak under control, funding was put in place to ensure that our sizeable homeless population could be put up in hostels and hotels. One day he was sat outside in the early spring sunshine, wrapped in his sleeping bag, dust mask around his neck whilst he rolled a cigarette, and the next day he was gone, leaving his pillow and his sleeping bag behind, draped across the salt bin.
Turning a conker in my hands I walk my usual loop of Edgbaston in twilight drizzle, passing by the regulars who walk the neighbourhood at the same time as me each evening. Dressed in trousers and coats rather than shorts and t-shirts, the seasons are changing but the ritual remains the same. Deep in the bellies of the Georgian mansions, lights illuminate front rooms and hallways, making the grand homes up long driveways and behind tall gates look ever so domestic and inviting.
Just before 4pm I arrive at the swimming pool to discover that the university has painted new markings beneath the cloisters and up the steps to the front door in advance of the new academic year. For more than 100m, row upon row of neat white circles enclosing tiny feet and the words “stand here” have been stamped on the ground to help organise the queueing system before the students return. Six months into the pandemic, there are still moments that stop me in my tracks and make me feel like I’m living in a parallel universe or that I’ve fallen into the pages of a science fiction novel, and this is one of them.
On my way home, I cut across a silent campus for the first time since March following the freshly painted one way system that’s been put down for freshers’ week and beyond. A group of school boys from the local private school over the road are stood outside the law faculty building bouncing freshly fallen conkers and acorns off the concrete, blazers and rucksacks in a pile beside them, but there’s nobody else around. Staff House sits empty, the Friday Beers tradition abandoned for the foreseeable future.
Stepping down onto the canal, I glue my eyes to the railings in search of late season blackberries, the low golden light flickering through the metal slats and hedgerows as I head home.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself in a nondescript motorway service station on the M1 somewhere between Nottingham and Chesterfield, waiting for Ed to buy a cup of coffee before we continued north for a much longed for day out in the Peak District to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Physical distancing rules meant that I couldn’t join him in the queue – it was restricted to one adult per household – so I stood by the exit instead, watching people come and go.
The streets are dusty and yellow, the first leaves fallen from the linden trees providing crunch under foot on my evening walk. The air feels thick and heavy with fumes again, as people choose to drive everywhere rather than risk the bus or train. On Elvetham, my favourite neighbourhood cat conducts a spot bath on the warm bonnet of her human’s car, left foot stretched out into the last of the day’s sunshine, toes splayed, oblivious to the comings and goings around her.
In the co-op, I wait for another customer to make his selections before entering the aisle myself, behaviour which feels positively retro by July’s standards. For the time being, the requirement for spaced queues outside supermarkets has been set aside, and personal space in shops has shrunk, too. Facemasks make people bolder and more willing to cast aside the 2m rule, a thin strip of cloth encouraging them to feel invincible. I wear my mask, but keep my distance too.
At the moment life feels much calmer, but I can’t help but sense that it’s a pause, not the end, and that ‘normal’ is still a long way off. These heady days of summer feel like a brief reprieve before we head indoors when the weather cools and the infection rate climbs again in the autumn. I hope I’m just being a pessimist.