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It was a year last Saturday; thirteenth of March, a Friday back then; a whole year, but everyone’s anniversary is different. It was the day before my father’s birthday, and the onset of innocent colds led me to call my boss Sunday evening, offer up my caution, believing that we would simply hunker down for a few weeks before returning to normal.
    On Tuesday, sixteenth of March, I got on the tube for the first time in a year. At first, I did not realise it was so, that it had been a year, as I rushed and masked to the central line’s westbound platform. I was confused by the liberation that public transport afforded me, and at once by the uneasiness of travelling during a pandemic. Hopped through closing doors to West Ruislip – rushing, as I would not usually do – reinvigorated with excitement, and slumped while standing against the back, taking some pleasure, skill returned, in balancing without holding as the throttling train pushed forward and drew back. I looked around. How I had missed it! the faded smell of cleaning agents, of oil & grease, decades-old fabric pulled over chairs, coagulated dust in the tracts on the floor, the clotted scent of everybody aboard. Listening to music, there were the advertisements overhead and beyond the static windows; it was a life I very much missed, a city I very much missed and the transport network under its skin. Before I realised, I had reached my destination: Oxford Circus; double-checking. It was a locale that usually struck fear into my heart and one I actively avoided; the busiest shopping district in the country. Many of the exits were gated off. Next to the tubular light peering down the exit 5 tunnel, policemen stood, watching, and I sneered at them, ‘pigs’ under my breath, and then out into day again. It was quite the scene. At quarter-to-ten on any normal weekday morning, the streets would have already been busy with shoppers, local and tourist, yet now they were so quiet of anyone, barely anything. True, busses, cars, taxis, vans made their way past, lending a buzz, but the pavements were clear, and one could go for some distance before they passed another soul, when usually they would be fighting their way through. It was cool and fresh, the most perfect kind of northern hemisphere March morning when all is magic’d in some white sunshine, not too bright, the edges crisp, a fine mist of pollution or moisture, a gaiety that penetrates one’s lungs just happy enough to smile and permit the undoing of a top button or untangling of winter’s last scarf.
    Making my way down Regent Street (south, towards the river), I was half-absorbed in the spectacle of its desolation, and half in my own delight being back in the capital. As much as I despise the west end, its busyness and pomp, I had, at that moment, bereft of people, come to fall in love with it. How peaceful the most chaotic of environments had become in the grips of a global pandemic! The shops were locked up and post had collected on the patch of mat behind the glass doors—‘Hah,’ I chuckled to myself; it was a small detail but, of all things, it struck me as to how utterly rare it was; such real estate is seldom ignored so long. Then I snapped out of my thoughts as I bumped into a sandwich board that read BEST COFFEE IN TOWN. I regarded this chalk claim with momentary skepticism, a pinch of the salivary glands before glancing down the alley to which it pointed. A couple of well-dressed men stood at the counter where a Swedish woman with electric blue mascara prepared, over jovial offerings, their morning cups. ‘Good morning’ I said jollily, and her back to me. ‘How are you?’ she asked, and so on. This sweet human truly brightened my usually sour disposition. I remarked to myself how good it was to interact with a stranger once more! and a pleasant one, at that. How keen I was to put the hot drink to my lips – near quivering with anticipation! – but I spent too long remembering that I must remove my headphones to… must remove my mask before… must light my cigarette with… must hold my coffee with… must fasten my raincoat with… must walk on… Finally, I addressed myself and carried on my way.
    Down Piccadilly, I encountered many memories that seemed so long ago, further apart from me than a year. The coffee tasted good, very good, hot slid underneath the cold morning. Site-men were hurrying to and fro the width of the walkway, heads tilted at a large reel of cable being hoisted off the back of a truck. Outside Fortnum & Mason a mother with an empty pram was showing her child the window displays, taking their time, poking the glass, smiling, bent down to coo something in his ear. It was unheard of for me to arrive anywhere an hour ahead of schedule, but I had allowed myself ample time to enjoy the area. I found the place I was supposed to be, and then meandered for a while, collecting myself, before strolling into a café, buying some lunch and a pain au raisin for breakfast, which I scrunched into a ball small enough for my pocket; it was still warm. A walk around the park! More were in the park than on the streets. In fact, every bench was occupied so that after a while I surrendered any ambition I had to sit down, but instead kept going, aimlessly, looking side-to-side like a wide-eyed child: lovers sharing words and a giggle, old friends sipping coffee, a bicycle courier (his stead aside) staring at his phone, a drunk with a can and a backpack hocking & spitting, a fat businessman with one arm on the back of the bench sighing his belly out. And, of course, the dogs! Dogs everywhere! I marvelled that anyone – let alone someone whose age appeared not dissimilar to my own – lived in luxury enough to walk their dog in Green Park! The dogs crisscrossed each other, tottered daintily next to their coiffured owners, bounded after squirrels and pigeons, or chased a ball that bounced just so off the grass and was caught, expertly timed, between their running jaws.
    There was perspiration underneath my arms, and I swung them a little wider, occasionally the breeze would work its way against my skin. Walk until I find a bin for the smoked butt, hungry for the pastry now. I made it across the greenery to Constitution Hill and then around the Victoria Memorial, its grandiose imperialism and perfect lawn shone as the city around it changed, rotated almost around a point; ambulances and police vehicles siren’d their way in the direction of the flag, the day the prince was discharged from hospital, and discharge itself a horrible word but wide causeways so crackled under shells and horseshit. Coming up against the rim of apartment buildings overlooking the park, I stared in, sniffed this curious scent of watered flowerbeds and PRIVATE PROPERTY signs, opulence, a scant stillness of darkened windows with centered vase, brilliant bunches of picked daffodils, housekeepers & cleaners, the background noise of Tuesday chores and those who escaped their lockdown’d confines to take a call on the iron railings that border the park’s grass.
    By the time I had circled the small park – comparatively small, or maybe my pleasure rushing it by – I had come to my destination and, still early, decided to pass the time on a vacant bench. I perched and pulled out my phone, calling a (work)friend. Answered—
    ‘All right.’




    ‘All right, geez.’ The cold wood came up through my thin work trousers, unused for three months. ‘Not work or anything, just some shit that came to mind.’ I recalled a story to him about an engineer on one of my father’s jobs who had made quite the cock-up. We sought comfort in the errors of others, that we were not so useless. I went through the story, and at the end of it – all the way though – he kept saying was: ‘Ah, poor bloke!’ ‘That poor bastard!’ ‘I feel sorry for him!’ ‘Omy god, poor cunt.’ I laughed; we both of us knew what the young lad was going through. It was both a pleasure and intense empathy for this stranger I only heard of through my father.
    Began eating the pain au raisin, somehow retained its warmth, and crusted crumbled between my lips, all butter and flake, dropping onto the pathway. Throughout lockdown, working as closely as we did, and all of our meetings that ended with casual conversation, he was a comforting presence through the telephone lines, or off the satellites. ‘You know what I keep thinking?’ he asked, gobful of toast—‘How much worse all this shit is when you’re working from home? Like, when you’re in the office, it ain’t so bad, you got people around you, y’know, and you can moan to them about it or whatever, you kinda feel like you’re in it together. But working from home you just feel so… alone. A shit situation becomes shittier because you dunno who to turn to or talk to or anything, and you just kinda stew with your anxiety or whatever.’
    I smiled, put the pastry to my mouth, clutched in its waxed paper—‘You nailed it right there. It’s that sitting alone at home. It really fucks you up.’ The park was so peaceful, and yet so was the surrounding city, and they intermingled, soil and cement, calmly.
    ‘When you feel so isolated, and everything just seems a thousand times worse.’
    Nodding, but he could not see it. This admission of his, felt many times before, drove me to wanting to shout ‘Yes!’ and embrace him. Instead, I  nothing until he—
    ‘What you saying, anyway?’
     ‘Currently in Green Park, waiting for this survey to begin.’ Out the other side of a thin cloud, the sun put down on grass all around. An elderly woman in a fur coat walked past with some haughty dog at her heels, proclaiming its luscious coat with cocksure side-eyes, bulbous overbred orbs, tongue dangling. I laughed at the dog, at nothing, the view before me splendid and without the buildings a gentle terrain that rolled over & about to the bedhead of the queen.
    Afterwards, I sat there, checking my watch. During the course of the call, I had pushed & shoved the waxed paper into a ball, as compact as could be, an object of distraction. Part of me wanted to throw it as far as I could into the park, see if one of the many dogs would run for it. I slipped it back into my pocket and walked towards the site, where I was greeted outside of the station by a Serbian with a mask half-hanging off his face. He greeted me warmly, and I was happy to see him after our video conversations. His bust had finally come to life and, for fifteen minutes, we walked loops around the four walls. He looked very much like an actor I had seen. There were chauffeurs waiting behind tinted windows, deliverymen in green & grey tapping, there was work going on, traffic going by, there was a short road off the main that dwelled in silence.

Mark

Thank you for reading. It really does mean so much to me.