The Square

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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.

I have long been attuned to the seasons, but this year they have seemed all the more pronounced. With the days and weeks of the shutdown bleeding into one another in their uniformity, I have traced the ebb and flow of time not by my work calendar, Ed’s race schedule, or the usual hikes, daytrips, and camping holiday in Cornwall or France we make in the spring and summer months – because all of those usual milestones have been postponed or cancelled – but by the growth cycles of trees and flowers, by the trajectory of the sun casting beams across my living room wall, and by the rise and fall of the ‘excess deaths’ curve.

Since March I have walked the same loop of my neighbourhood almost every evening, and I have spent a lot of time stood in spaced queues in the square, waiting for my turn to enter the grocery store. The bare shelves in the early days took me by surprise, as during my lifetime I have been fortunate enough to never encounter national food shortages in the way that previous generations have. The widespread hysteria of the first few weeks of the pandemic led to panic buying and a national shortage of cleaning products, toilet paper, tinned tomatoes, tinned beans, milk, eggs, and all types of flour. With just four customers allowed in the store on the square at any one time, couples divided up shopping duties and the partner who remained outside the shop would issue wish lists prefaced with phrases such as “if they sell it”, “if they have any left”, “if not just get…”

My first evening walk in full daylight. On Elvetham, the magnolia tree is in bud and the student halls sit empty as the semester’s remaining lectures are moved online and the first years return to their hometowns. A bin bag lies across the street, torn open by hopeful foxes on a moonlit raid the night before. In the Co-op, long queues and bare shelves, but the streets are busy, office workers choosing to walk home and avoid public transport.

16.03.2020 // from my observations notebook

Seven months on from the start of the shutdown, statistics now show that the UK’s death toll from COVID-19 peaked in early April when more than 1000 people were dying from the virus every single day. A degree of uncertainty surrounds the statistics, as different ways of counting – cause of death, COVID-19 mentioned on death certificate, excess deaths, death within 28 days of diagnosis – all lead to different tallies. Whichever way you count, though, early April was when we were in the thick of it.

In the square, the mood and weather stood out in sharp contrast against the grim spring backdrop of an airliner or two’s worth of daily deaths, crowded ICUs, and government ineptitude. Young children who live on the estate nearby played out on their bicycles the way that I did in the 1990s, free from the constraints of parental supervision. I thought that way of life was confined to history and watched as they rode around in circles against a backdrop of shuttered non-essential shops – a wedding dress shop, a luxury travel agents – and played on the grass embankment, doing forward rolls and handstands with their phones as boom boxes, the older children and teenagers looking out for their younger brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbours. With much reduced traffic, and the community out and about as many adults were off work or working from home, the city streets felt safe enough for children to play freely for the first time in years. In the flats above the Co-op, south facing windows were propped open to let the breeze in, and a constant stream of couriers appeared to collect grocery orders, which more often than not amounted to bags filled with beer, wine and sweet pastries to while away furlough afternoons.

With pubs and bars closed, I soon came to spot a pattern in the queues outside the Co-op with the longest queues forming on sunny afternoons and the three Easter and May bank holiday weekends. As spring wore on and some of the restrictions were eased, friends and families began to meet up in parks and gardens, buying their alcohol from supermarkets and small grocery stores, the empties stacked up beside public bins providing an intimate glimpse into local drinking patterns and preferences. In my apartment building, too, the recycling bins overflowed with cardboard from online shopping, and bottles and cans from balcony drinking sessions.

Spotted on my evening walk: faded hopscotch, marked in chalk, a spaced queue outside the Co-op, and an elderly greyhound out for a stroll around the block with their favourite human.

01.04.2020 // from my observations notebook

One afternoon in the middle of spring, I measured the time I waited in the queue in the square by the number of laps a woman managed to jog a circuit of nearby streets before my turn came to venture into the shop. Jogging and walking the dog became excuses to get out of the house for a short while, and the streets and towpath were often busy with individuals establishing new fitness routines. Clad in a range of clothes from form fitting, fashionable athleisure wear, to oversized and stained cotton ‘painting and DIY’ clothes, those running could be neatly divided into categories of seasoned Parkrun devotees and club runners with a bit of speed in their step, and beginners, puffing around slowly as they worked their way through the popular ‘Couch to 5K’ program.

On dry, sunny days, the queue ran perpendicular to the shop front, and customers sat at 2m intervals on the low concrete wall next to a large bed of lavender, facing the main road. I entertained myself by counting the near empty buses that passed by, emblazoned with out of date advertising for films that came out last winter, watching the hobby joggers, and listening to the birds sing from the sap green boughs of the newly-in-leaf trees in the gardens over the road.

On wet days, the queue moved beneath the prefabricated overhang of the sixties facade, and tempers frayed as customers dithered in store, resulting in a longer wait for those of us who remained outside in the rain. It was beneath the overhang that I encountered my first conspiracy theorist in the flesh. Emerging from the store empty handed after an unsuccessful hunt for bread flour, I found Ed calling out the assertions of an angry man of South Asian ethnicity in his fifties or sixties who was citing a YouTube video he’d watched about 5G and laboratories in China as ‘evidence’ that the pandemic was planned, and ‘justification’ for his racist views of people of Chinese and East Asian ethnicity. I mention ethnicity, because I am forever surprised when I witness someone who may well have been on the receiving end of prejudice and hate speech because of their ethnicity spreading it themselves. Like women who criticise other women and decry feminism as unfeminine, I just don’t understand the absence of self awareness and a sense of solidarity.

Conspiracy theory street art on the canal towpath in central Birmingham

Sounds of a Sunday morning: birdsong, a plastic tricycle being rolled along concrete as a family go for a walk, and the voice of a young girl singing ‘happy birthday’ either in person, over the phone, or to herself to time washing her hands.

19.04.2020 // from my observations notebook

In years to come, when I think back to the plague year(s) we are currently living through, I will remember the sound of the early days of the pandemic. I will remember the strange silence of March 2020, as Birmingham city centre emptied of office workers and traffic was so light that Ed and I sometimes walked down the middle of the three lane road outside our flat laughing at the novelty of it all.

I will remember the birdsong, the chattering of magpies in the silver birch tree, the laughter of seagulls hunting for scraps, and the hooting of geese in flight at dawn. I will remember the haunting sound of the bells carrying across the city from the Ikon Gallery, a short distance from us, but usually drowned out by the cacophony of a pandemic-free city in full flow. I will remember the sound of children’s voices carrying from nearby flats and the street below, I will remember the “stay safe” greeting, a ubiquitous platitude that irritates me for reasons I still can’t quite put my finger on, and the absence of planes and contrails in the skies above our heads.

I will also remember the sirens. Living in the city centre, I’m used to sirens. I wake up to sirens and fall asleep to sirens, and think little of them in normal times. During the spring 2020 peak of the pandemic though, the sirens were a tangible reminder that all was not well as ambulances outnumbered police cars, passing by on their way to the Queen Elizabeth and City hospitals. Of course, this change in the city soundscape was short-lived.

The roads have slowly been getting busier as the warm weather and boredom drives people to push the limits of the lockdown rules. At 6pm, the Middleway is noticeably busier with cars in both directions, though I’m not sure where they’ve been or to where they are going, given that most work places and shops remain closed and we’re still not supposed to be visiting friends and family. Construction work has restarted on the building site on Communication Row this week, and together with the increased traffic the birdsong and bells from the Ikon have grown more distant, replaced by voices carrying from construction workers calling to one another from the top floor of the block of flats they are working on.

06.05.2020 // from my observations notebook

Over the summer, as the cherry trees passed the blossom baton to the branches of the apple trees, as the hawthorn bloomed and faded in a cloud of pungent scent, followed in quick succession by the arrival of showy displays of clematis and wisteria, faded petals gathered on the dry, dusty streets beneath my feet, and the atmosphere in the square shifted in tiny steps. The rule allowing just four customers in store at at any one time was lifted, and the queue outside the Co-op became shorter and shorter, until it ceased to exist altogether. Toilet paper stocks were the first to be replenished, followed a few weeks later by bread flour. The habits, expectations and status quo we’d adapted to in the spring months were quickly set aside as restrictions eased and the country slowly began to talk about reopening.

The lull after the first wave subsided was eerie, because up and down the country, our social and economic landscapes had changed, and tens of thousands of us were missing. While physical distancing and outdoor queues fell out of fashion, facemasks came in, helping to stop the spread of the virus but also limiting body language and the ability to share a friendly smile with a stranger. In the entrance to the Co-op, a cloth covered table was set up displaying a framed photograph of one young member of staff who I hadn’t seen since the very start of the pandemic, and a collection bucket to raise money in her honour. I assumed her absence meant she must have been shielding at home or that she’d changed job, so seeing the announcement that she had died at the start of April came as a shock. I didn’t know Natalie personally, but she was a favourite with the regulars, always making time to chat to each customer whilst scanning groceries. From the numerous times I had bought cat litter there and stood in line as Christmas music played and she sang along, reindeer headband bobbing, I knew that she was a cat person too, and that she loved the holiday season. Nothing stops you in your tracks quite like finding out that a young person in the prime of their life has died, long before their time. It’s so easy to get caught up in the statistics and become numb to it all, but across the world, hundreds of thousands of tiny communities bordering nondescript squares are grieving their individual losses.

Across the city, new patterns of life and ways of being have emerged with each passing month. Coming over the flyover from Perry Barr one summer evening as we headed home from a walk in Sutton Park, I was stunned to see all the billboards stripped bare. Above the train station, too, the digital billboards remained blank. Respite for the senses, I can’t say I miss the constant onslaught of advertising, but its absence is conspicuous. This pandemic has brought about the end of the world (as we knew it) and yet the performance of everyday life has continued unabated, simply morphing to fit the new rules, limitations, and understandings of the world.

Young couples who live in sheltered accommodation nearby continue to take to the streets in the early hours of the morning to publicly air their grievances with each other, screaming at the top of their lungs as if 100m apart despite standing nose to nose. It is an age old ritual I’ll never understand. Throughout summer, construction vehicles passed by on their way to and from one of the many new build student towers, rushing to finish in time for the new academic year, and the wealthy retirees who live in the detached homes on Edgbaston’s most expensive streets walked their dogs at 6pm on the dot each evening, avoiding the crowds and sticking to the side streets. These days I no longer need to dodge piles of vomit on every street corner on Saturday and Sunday mornings, as Broad Street with its binge drinking culture remains shuttered for the foreseeable future. One afternoon as a fine drizzle fell and crowds gathered in Chamberlain Square for the first of a series of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, I passed by two young men sat an awkward distance from each other on a quiet street corner, all the nervousness of a first date accentuated by the continued closures meaning they were unable to meet in a pub, café, or at the cinema.

As summer ebbed and flowed, the pubs reopened, and the death toll remained low, talk began to turn to the return of schools and universities. As a society we ‘ate out to help out’, were encouraged to holiday abroad, and then rushed back early, fuming, before the newly instated ‘air bridges’ to Spain, France, and now much of mainland Europe were closed at short notice. I must say I found the idea of ‘air bridges’ and us closing them when overseas infection rates climbed – but still remained lower than ours – amusing; with the worst statistics in Europe, I’m surprised the Spanish and French ever wanted us Brits in the first place. Still, with the rate of infection falling across the UK throughout the summer, the announcement came that the jobs retention scheme would be phased out by Halloween, echoing last year’s promise that we would leave the EU on the same date. Meanwhile, whole industries remain shuttered with no return date in sight. Theatres, cinemas, concert venues and events spaces are banned from opening by law, yet those of us who make a living in these industries have been left hung out to dry.

Halloween is upon us, and with it a second national shutdown feels imminent, Wales having already called a two week ‘firebreak’ to coincide with schools’ half term holiday, which begins on Friday. The relative calm of summer together with the government’s desperate attempts to restart the economy lulled us into a false sense of security, but since the schools returned in early September the infection rate has soared to new heights and SERCO Test & Trace – cynically and incorrectly named NHS Test & Trace – has failed to meet demand. Birmingham has been in a ‘local lockdown’ for about a month now, the restrictions preventing us from gathering together in each other’s homes, though we can still sit shoulder to shoulder in an office, pub or mosque. I know I’m not alone in feeling it’s all a little pointless. The new measures are enough to shutter the economy, but not to drive infection rates down. Passing by the square I often spot queues snaking out the door and across the concrete paving stones, signalling that Natalie’s replacement – who is understandably strict with physical distancing – is on shift. The notice board in store no longer carries Natalie’s memorial portrait or fundraiser, but an assortment of personal ads for a missing cat, private video yoga sessions, maths lessons to help children crib for the 11+, and a local handyman searching for work.

Meanwhile, on Friday evening, Ed came in from school, passing by our local Tesco on the way home to pick up some groceries for dinner, and shared the news with me that Pat has died. Pat, who has worked at Tesco for at least the decade we’ve lived in the neighbourhood, if not longer. Pat, a West Brom fan who loves his garden and especially his geraniums, and who was so happy to celebrate his marriage a couple of years ago, in his fifties, with a much longed for honeymoon to Spain. Like Natalie, Pat loves Halloween and Christmas. I should say loved. Past tense. But it feels so wrong. I’m going to miss his presence, his friendly small talk about the weather and the seasons, and his love for ridiculous holiday hats like the upside down stuffed turkey with flashing lights he digs out each December.

The number of ‘excess deaths’ is rising, but behind each statistic is a person. They might have pre-existing health conditions – Pat was morbidly obese and Natalie’s memorial raised funds for a charity supporting people with an autoimmune condition – but their deaths are no less of a tragedy. Their deaths are no less untimely. I feel conflicted because there is no end in sight and I’m fed up with having my life put on hold indefinitely, but then I remember all those who have died.

In the square and on the city streets I know like the back of my hand, the mood is shifting yet again as we head into another difficult winter. No longer jovial, no more a sense that we’re all in it together, the children are back inside behind closed doors, and fitness and self improvement programmes have long been abandoned in favour of Netflix and a pint of icecream. We’re tired, we’re frustrated, and we’re all fed up with the restrictions and want life to return to normal. Many of us are grieving the deaths of loved ones we still haven’t been able to hold funerals for, community members whose absence we note every day, lost jobs, and our old lifestyles that seem so far out of reach at the moment. Some people refuse to cover their faces, others cower in fear behind face masks and face shields, turning away from the path with great suspicion if someone comes within 10 metres of them. As with Brexit, we’re a nation divided when it comes to risk assessment and the pandemic. I wish I knew what the next few months or even year will look like, but the future is unknowable at the best of times. In this year of plague and protest, and with a government incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery, let alone a functional track and trace system, there are no easy answers and no clear path forward. In years to come we will look back on this time and be able to analyse what went right and what went wrong at a national level, but it is the local, personal stories of the everyday I want to remember the most as the days stack up and months become years. I don’t want to forget what it felt like, what it feels like, to live through history as it is written.

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