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.
Today I celebrate fifteen years of veganism. I turned vegan in the autumn of 2005 when I was nineteen and in my second year at university. Before turning vegan I ate a normal diet including meat, fish and dairy, and I didn’t pay too much attention to the non-food items I used either, other than to buy cruelty free cosmetics. The only thing I didn’t eat was beef which I stopped eating in the mid 1990s as a result of the BSE / CJD crisis in the UK. It was my decision to stop eating beef when I was ten, and I made that decision because I was so horrified by what I was seeing in the news and the knowledge that BSE was caused by feeding cows – herbivores – low quality food containing the remains of other animals. I was probably more aware of the BSE and CJD crisis than most children and teenagers would have been at the time because, after leaving midwifery in the late 1990s, my mum worked as a nurse and provided nursing home care for a young woman just a few years older than my brother and sister were who was dying from CJD. Knowing what I did, giving up beef was easy.
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.
It was in late winter as the vernal equinox approached and life as we knew it ceased to exist that the tape began to unfurl and snake out on the city streets before me. Yellow, white and red, usually shiny, always plastic, and hitherto mostly used at crime scenes and to control crowds at big events. At first, the taped lines were judicious and practical; marking out 2m for customers waiting in line outside the supermarket, illustrating one way systems in the shops that remained open, and encouraging customers to keep their distance from the tills to protect checkout staff from coughs and sneezes.