In Streetly on the way home from Sutton Park, we pass a petrol station with an empty forecourt, all nozzles bedecked with yellow hoods to indicate that they are out of fuel. Triggered in part by self-perpetuating media reports of fuel shortages, by the ongoing post-Brexit haulage and logistics problems, by HGV driver shortages, and by high levels of distrust in government and politicians, those who rely on their cars to get to work descended on petrol stations en masse, panic buying fuel in scenes reminiscent of the toilet paper crisis of March 2020.
“Will someone please think of the teachers”, “will someone please think of the nurses”, “key workers should get priority and be able to jump the queue”, “don’t be selfish and think of others” and other cries mimic every other crisis, shortage and challenge we’ve faced over the course of the past eleven two years under the Conservatives. During the pandemic alone we’ve heard these narratives on everything from face masks, to the use of public transport, to bags of bread flour. However, we are a nation of self-interested idiots or, if you’re feeling generous, desperate folk just trying to get by. The only effective opposition we have is a football player turned children’s poverty activist, the Labour party hell-bent on tearing themselves a new one and sitting on fences rather than taking a kick at an open goal. To the toilet paper aisle we go. To the fuel pumps we go. These crises are borne of fear, frustration, and the absolute failure of state.
The sky is painted in shades of pink, orange, and red, an apocalyptic sunset after a day of torrential rain. It is a fitting backdrop for what feels like a stage play but is sadly real life in this has-been country, riddled with nostalgia for yesteryear, and falling apart at the seams.
On my way to Tesco in an oversized cotton dress and battered espadrilles bought two summers ago in an alpine Carrefour, I pass a young woman with a tabby cat tucked neatly under her arm. I can’t help but smile. The cat, wearing a neon pink leash and harness, looks so content and completely unfazed by the heavy traffic passing by. I pull my face mask out of my bag and hook it around my ears, an exercise in futility these days given that most people don’t bother, and head in to pick up a few bits for dinner.
Rather than go straight home, I make a beeline for the park instead, and settle down on the hot stone wall with a vegan magnum to people watch for a short while. Summer is coming to an end, and after a soggy August we’re enjoying a last hurrah of good weather before the equinox winds arrive, pulling the dry leaves off trees and ushering in autumn. Hot September days feel extra special, if a little bittersweet.
The tabby cat and its human stroll past, heading home to an apartment overlooking the park, whilst a toddler dressed in a summer dress and beach hat throws a ball for an overexcited terrier. Dotted around the park in small groups, friends gather together for drinks and picnics, children play, and the sound of cutlery on plates carries from the balconies high up on the south facing side of the apartment complex. Picking up my tote bag and turning the empty magnum stick between my sticky fingers, I head home myself.
A pile of limbs litter the floor of the wedding dress shop on the square, recently reopened after the final restrictions were lifted a month ago today, allowing weddings to resume as they were in the days before the pandemic. In the window, a teenage boy fondles the naked plastic breast of a mannequin he and his mother or aunt are in the process of dressing for a window display.
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.