DAY 11 Of the Royal Pest. Wednesday March 25th 2020
Parliament closes tonight. I made my final walk into town. Describing a strange and lonely sojourn through an unknown land.
10am. Our little, local hardware shop is closed, all the colourful boxes of Spring plants for sale put away. Walk for about half a mile without seeing any person or moving car. It’s surprisingly warm but keep my gloves for pressing the pedestrian traffic signals. The Cowley Rd is quiet, the few people around not ‘social distancing’ because they are talking on their mobiles. Keep having to avoid them. A Polish shop has decanted piles off stuff outside on the pavement in jars; dried spaghetti in tall packets like the sort we used to buy in the 1970s, and enormous bags of giant cheesy wotsits, who on earth has a craving for them?
A bus passes heading for the John Radcliffe hospital, only one person visible on board. No cars or people on the beautiful Magdalen Bridge into town, only a lone magpie pecking at a discarded tub of ice-cream.
By Magdalen College where the pavement narrows, two young people hurtle towards me pushing an office chair. I say, ‘Six feet apart, please,’ but we pass too quickly to make any exchange. See up ahead of me the ancient High Street, totally deserted, like a painting by someone who is afraid of depicting people, a nightmarish townscape by Giorgio de Chirico, or the after effect of a neutron bomb.
Near the crusty ancient doors of the University Church, now firmly closed, see two bus-men slouched against the college wall in the sunshine. Buses pass, completely empty. An old lady tries to board one, using her mobility frame, everyone else has either walked, cycled or stayed at home.
In Queen’s Street all the shops are closed except Holland & Barrett where people are being let in one at a time, eager for potions and lotions and pills in the vain hope of boosting their immunity against the unseen enemy.
‘Why not pop in for a bra?’ it says in one window, whoever put that up would have been astonished by the answer. Westgate shopping folly is closed. One coughing vagrant sits looking disconsolate in Bonn Square, where I suggested meeting X yesterday. I once saw a pigeon hanging from a tree there, its round tummy swinging above me like a Christmas bauble. I was told by a street cleaner that it had strangled on a bit of festive decoration left over in the tree. It looked eerily human as its head hung down sideways with eyes closed.
Carry on down the hill, past the moat where a Norman castle stood, to the station. Not everywhere is so empty; catch sight of a discarded Metro newspaper with a photo of people, mostly foreign looking men, pressed nose to nose on the London tube. Their faces racked with anxiety and fatigue, they’ll probably become fodder for the epidemic when it really hits.
The forecourt of the station has turned into a resting place for empty buses and taxis. The ‘Hackney-carriage’ men stand jabbering in worrying clusters. The friendly little station, which for some reason has never expanded to meet the burgeoning size of the town, is dead, only one girl teller, sitting barely visible behind thick glass. As we chat, me standing carefully to the side, a familiar voice announces: ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right speak to staff. See it, say it sorted.’ A throw back to a distant age before, ‘Catch it, Bin it, Kill it.’ Now meaningless in a world from which even ISIS terrorists have retreated, fuelled now by a different fear.
11am. On my way back, more people have appeared, a whole line along Cornmarket street, evenly spaced out, silently waiting to collect their prescriptions from Boots. Start negotiating people coming towards me on the narrow pavements and through alleys of scaffolding. I usually tear through them but now I wait while a dignified man walks towards me.
He says, ‘Thank you,’ and I smile back rather flirtatiously, just trying to lighten the mood.