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.
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.