The Lockdown Diaries 2
Excerpted from ‘Paperboy: A Memoir’
‘My formative years were filled with orderly lassitude, like those of a soldier posted to a peaceful backwater. They were days of strawberry jam on white bread, the squeak of chalk in hushed classrooms, Hancock’s Half-Hour, cold mutton on Mondays, back-fence arguments, kicking about in the garden and walking alone through empty, silent streets. The most exciting thing that happened that spring was the tortoise waking up. If someone bought a car, all the men in the street came out to look at it.
During weekdays the men were all off at work and their wives were busy waxing the linoleum in cool, shadowed hallways or in still, dead front rooms where even the dust hung motionless in the air. You could smell coal and lavender polish, cigarettes and steamed vegetables, mildew and fresh-cut grass. It was all so quiet and safe, full of purposefully pressed lips and chapped hands. The passing summer days were sensible, predictable and becalmed. Housewives’ Choice was on the radio, and the choice was always the same. There was very little noise. Mangles were turned by hand, workmen dug roads with pickaxes, houses were swept with brooms. On Sundays it was so quiet that you could hear your neighbours cleaning their shoes next door.
I felt that even here, behind the dullest daily routines, there was a dark and unruly strangeness that might somehow find a way to surface. It lay just behind a wooden fence, over a wall or through a hedge. It was hidden behind net curtains, in rooms where adults sat smoking in silhouette, in kitchens where wives washed up and whispered, in railway alleys where lovers clung guiltily to each other. It was tucked away just out of reach, on top shelves, in the backs of cupboards, deep under the stairs.’
Life under Lockdown has plunged me into a parallel world, so that the city of my childhood and the present have now disconcertingly overlapped and merged. The chimes of St Paul’s Cathedral ring clearly in the air to reach my kitchen window over two miles away. Someone’s radio is playing a Spanish guitar piece. On the pavement opposite, a heron beats blue-black wings like a pair of umbrellas to dry them, its head-ruff stretched forward, being stroked by the sun. The only clouds above us have formed ripples like sand on a wide flat beach at low tide, there being no contrails to disturb them. This is a childhood summer of unending heat and light and lassitude, five weeks of crystal skies and warm brick and windows that must be shaded between noon and four. When we began the Lockdown, the trees were black and skeletal.
The huge, rowdy family next door have laid an astroturf lawn and appear to have placed the entire contents of their home in their garden, chairs and tables, trampoline and roundabout, grill and paddling pool, day bed, toys, drinks trolley, much of it plastic. So have most of their neighbours, the exception being the Indian family who glanced at the rampant buddleia in their garden and simply decided to sit down in it. This being London, our exclusive, expensive little privately owned glass boxes are butted against their utilitarian brick houses, DINKies and low-income families respectively. We say hello but don’t socialise, the awkwardness being mostly on our side.
I did meet one neighbour once. When the incredibly heavy, lethal lid of our barbecue (too fashionably designed to ever be of use) was storm-tossed down into their garden, the amiable dad returned it, saying, ‘If you’d been a couple of feet further over you’d have taken my old woman’s head off an’ done us all a favour, har har.’ If the situation had been reversed, someone in our building would doubtless have prosecuted them. The middle class residents fret. The working class residents laugh. When a homeless person pitched camp on our building’s doorstep the flat-owners were torn between making him soup and setting down spikes.
Life under Lockdown is affecting the two groups differently. The big families are simply getting on with it without much change of habit, going to work in essential services or as drivers, builders, supermarket cashiers, watching TV as night falls or drinking beer in the garden. Without interior lives the flat owners are suffering. They’re used to being late, keeping cabs waiting, heading off somewhere before going on somewhere else. Now they’re busy blacklisting farmers’ markets that are failing to deliver, fighting for Ocado slots, unable to get refunds on flights and theatre tickets, unable to land any work as freelance media-whatsits, unsure what will happen when the money runs out and the world folds its arms against them, deciding that it needs a hospital cleaner more than it needs someone who does PR for an in-house magazine owned by a fashion conglomerate.
We watch the news. The freedom of release is receding, being regraduated into a series of concessions that will deny us the pleasure of celebration; a few stores will open here, a park will unlock there. Social distancing will breed a destructive, insidious suspicion that feels as if it has been intelligently targeted at undermining our social fabric. I watch old films for scenes set in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and sporting events with a sense of loss and nostalgia. We turn to each other and say; ‘Remember how we used to do that?’ Pre-Lockdown will become a term like Post-War, conjuring an unimaginable era of plenitude.
That was then. This now may be forever.