Walking south along the canal on my way to my appointment for my second dose, I pass a narrowboat heading north back to the city. The people on board are dressed in smart clothes and sat at tables, enjoying an intimate wedding reception cruise. It used to be a common sight on Saturdays in summer, but I haven’t seen a tour boat in nearly two years. I can’t help but smile.
The towpath is lined with foxgloves, campion, honeysuckle and columbine, all grown wild and tall in the midsummer sun, yet to be cut back from the water’s edge by the Canal and River Trust. I secretly hope they’ve forgotten this year and that the overgrown look is here to stay.
A group of students sit by the secret lake at Winterbourne, quietly enjoying a picnic of homemade sandwiches stowed in recycled icecream tubs, keeping their distance from one another to observe physical distancing restrictions. As little birds glide in, newly returned from overwintering down south, the late winter sunshine illuminates the reeds at the water’s edge and for a moment it feels like spring.
On our way home past the Vale, a group of students piled into a silver convertible, roof down, pull out of the gate by the first year halls of residence and drive less than 20m to park up in the lay-by on the side of the lake that’s open to the public. The 18 year old driver anxiously asks her friends in the back to check her parking for her, unfamiliar with the dimensions of the car and nervous that she might have left it sticking out too far into the road.
Sat in the wooden teahouse in the Japanese garden at the Botanical Gardens with the wind chimes sounding and the rain falling, Ed comments: “It’s like we’re in one of those Japanese art house films where everyone is miserable but nothing really happens”.
In Cannon Hill Park under a dull grey sky, a family of three spend the afternoon roller-skating in front of the shuttered and boarded MAC tracing lines up and down the path as the seagulls swoop low over the lake, hunting for scraps. The three figures are accompanied by many other local residents out for a walk, a jog, or simply to feed the birds and get out of the house for an hour or so.
I add three laps of the park to my own tally and weekly target of 50 miles / 80km before heading back up the steep hill on Priory Road, away from the heavy traffic and fumes on the main arterial roads in and out of the city centre. With the country in lockdown again, I can’t understand why there are still so many cars on the roads. Not everyone can be heading out to work, especially at 3PM, and everything else is closed.
On my way home I pass by the local budget Petri dish. Aldi is so busy that customers are lined up down every aisle, enjoying a good old fashioned British queue whilst they stock up on Friday night drinks and snacks, poorly fitting masks sagging to expose a nose, or pulled down low to protect a hundred chins from pestilence.
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.