Overuse of Usual

The night before I returned to London something happened that I had not been expecting: while sitting on the toilet, I was seized by an overwhelming pain in my gut. Due to all the flies about the house, I was often fixated with the idea that I might swallow some eggs and they would hatch and burrow into me. It was finally happening! I breathed deeply, attempting to regain myself, but the pain pushed against it. I had only to sit there and ride through. Lie down on the floor, I thought, it is cool down there; my body was burning up. Finally I summoned the strength, lifted myself up with tears in my eyes, and stood in the shower with the cold water falling on me.
    The next morning, I arose at half-five. Terrified of oversleeping, I jumped up, went around the room switching off all alarms and showered again in the slumbering house. Not even my father was awake. There was silence, so I opened the bathroom window to the birds, the musty haze they fluttered through, the back gardens reposed. My stomach was still uneasy, so I used the toilet again. Finally, I was ready to leave the house, and only a little late; I would have to make up my time on the walk. There were gulls on the lampposts overhead, and they tried to shit on me as I passed. So I shook my fist at them! Dodging left and right! They never got me. A man was walking his dog, staring at me. What was the protocol at this time of the morning in a seaside town? Did one say ‘hello’ or nod their head in acknowledgment? I was certain I had heard somewhere that there is a unique camaraderie between people who walk the street at half-six in the morning, a carpe-diem-smugness they all get caught up in, a salute exchanged. He did not take his eyes off me, so I left the gull alone, checked myself for shit, and went on my way as he ran into some bushes. A young woman jogged from behind me. She looked better than the sunrise, although it would have been rude of me to gawp at her buttocks for much longer; so I looked at her swinging ponytail and wondered—does it not irritate her the way it swings back & forth with every step? For some reason, I was nervous I would be attacked; there had been story in the newspaper that I could not shake. It was warm, it was windless, it was blue & gold.
    There were a few labourers in the carriage, unmasked, eating sandwiches unwrapped from paper, not saying a word. I sat down behind them, watching the way their fingers imprinted the bread, the way their crumbs tumbled and rolled. Seven years since I had caught a train out of that town to work, not so much nostalgia but a terror at passing time and a difficulty breathing through the mask. Beyond the window was beauty; I suppose, one had to say it was beautiful. It was imperative I catch some shut-eye, but the rushing scenery and the furor of my thoughts distracted me. At C—r, the carriage cleared out except for crumbs and paper wrappers. Solitary! I rested my head and sought to sleep but—old steel things left here by the Victorians—the train rocked so violently that I was thrown all over the place! A loud thud! We are going to derail! Holding my breath, then trying again for another rocking to toss me into the adjacent seat! This will not do! Trembling, I must have caught a few moments, for I awoke to find us pulling into Liverpool Street. There was no one else with me. Down the platform, I counted the commuters. Fifteen. What was usually one of the busiest stations possessed about it a tremendous and haunting hush. Ah, London! There were signs directing people—ignored—hand sanitisers, one-way paths, stairs, the humming escalator, a shiny floor for the PA to bounce off, arches and columns, the steam of summer. Once outside, I pulled down my mask and inhaled right into me the boiled firmament. Then I lit a cigarette and headed toward the office. I had walked through the city at so many times at weekends that to see it so barren of human life was not entirely alien; still, I was taken back by the scene before me. On a pavement that would usually be traipsed by hundreds, there were only four, and, devoid of their fellows, they trundled leisurely. In the coffee shop, usually rushed by long queues and dozens of shouted orders, there was a single man paying for a croissant and myself. Behind a mask—his eyes only—I recognised a gentleman who had served me five months previous; many of his colleagues had lost work.
    Up in the office it was bare, but with the smell of soap and bleach. I saw my friend anew, without a webcam, drying his hands over the sink and commenting on my appearance—‘You been burned.’ Bewildered, I walked past and found somewhere to sit; not my usual desk—last sat the thirteenth of March—but a chair that obeyed social distancing. The room was perfumed with summer. M—y said hello to me, all her skin showing, and happy because now she was in love and now she sunbathed and now we were all together again. I, somewhat shyly—‘Hmm, yes, the tan! I go for walks everyday and where I’ve been working, you see, it gets a lot of sun.’ I took out my laptop and got down to things. The day was meetings, catching up. It passed without incident and at a pace that prevented me from getting a good grip on things. All I knew was that I had a terrible headache, and I assumed that was from the lack of sleep. The director called time on a meeting, suggesting we all go get something to eat and resume after. 

    With trepidation, I anticipated my lunchtime walk. Indeed, for months, throughout lockdown, I had been thinking—remembering fondly—my lunchtime walks. They were a staple of my normality, the normality that had fallen before spring began. What state would I find the route in? The Dutch church in summer was host to the many nearby office-workers who came to eat their lunch in its shade; two people sat on a bench; neither were friends and did not talk. Once upon a time, in front of it, there was the falafel van and the coffee van, right there, halfway in sun and halfway in shade. Now, there were neither. I walked past the sushi restaurant I went to with H—n just before she travelled back to Finland; that was October and a lifetime ago; I am a different man now; I am sadder, my family do not recognise me; I have trembled through every colour of sadness; thousands have died; I watched with blurry eyes the faintest glimmer wobble and fade. A bistro that usually, during summer, would burst its boundaries and overspill onto the road, was now boarded up; the racket of executive lunches absent, the suits and dresses in polythene bags, the waiters unemployed, the fridges and kitchen empty. I continued through the backstreets to the guildhall where they have the food market. Nothing. A few people were eating their lunch in the shadow of a church, wherein the one o’clock choir did not ebb but everywhere sparse traffic and no nattering. It was very hot; I perspired heavily but hurried along, as if being chased. And so it was. Benches where streetcleaners usually relaxed and fed the pigeons were unburdened. I paused in front of the Italian delicatessen and saw a limited selection, the owner shuffling metal trays before the taxi rank that gave him half his business. Usually the cabbies rested there, got coffee, chatted amongst themselves, leaning on bonnets, passing fags about; today, no cars. I cast my eye upon everyone who passed me by, as though to say—‘What is going on?’ But they did not look at me, barely pulling their downcast eyes from the pavement. These are such solemn roads, I thought. How magnificent London is during the summer! But now it was nothing, it had been stripped and resembled something pitiful. Usually every horizontal surface was supporting a bottom, an expensive lunch, an hour of people-watching or gentle gossip. Usually every pub was swollen with drinkers budging themselves onto the pavements outside, broken glass, spilled drinks. Usually they drank long into the evenings and went home drunk. Usually there were couples on dates, usually there were lovers. Usually there was an atmosphere, an atmosphere that ricocheted off every Georgian counting-house, off every pane of abysmal skyscraper, shredded to bits by cyclists, put back together by bulbous busses, an atmosphere that swum in and out of underground stations, enveloped in heat and dust, an atmosphere that throttled down Cheapside and sped along Bishopsgate in the backseat of a cab. It was nowhere to be seen. Everything grand about the city was gone. I walked on.
    The rest of the afternoon was full of meetings. When I found the chance, I would go downstairs for a smoke. Through a wall of heat at the front of the building, one found more quiet. Positioned as we are on one of the main arteries, it was often packed with traffic in both directions, however one of the lanes had been closed—to afford a wider berth for pedestrians, who were absent—and still the road was empty. If a bus went by then it was cause for attention, a spectacle, like an eclipse or a parade. At four o’clock, the office began to clear out. Two friends went down the pub, inviting me along with them. I was feeling so peculiar that I declined. In fact, I made it out of the office at five, and managed to catch the 17:32 out of town; that was the service I always caught when I were younger and thirty-four-year-old me craved that same thing, the normality—whatever normality I could capture.
    Being in the depot all day beneath the baking sun, redundant from a reduced timetable, the train was unfathomably hot. Whoever made it into the carriage first went down the length of it, unclipping the windows, but no air entered. One had only to sit there and bear it. Usually there would be no spare seats, people standing, but now everyone had a booth to themselves. I could not sleep for the heat. I itched from the dribbling sweat and forty-year-old seats. Again I looked to my fellow passengers, to ask with my eyes—‘What is going on?’ but they read the free newspapers and got on with it. Ah, to have such tolerance! The mask suffocated me still, now soaked through and trickling down my throat. Not being able to sleep infuriated me considerably. We got back to C—n at the same time as many of the day-trippers were leaving, carrying beach bags, stinking of sun cream, one mother beckoning her two kids along platform three which leaves in four minutes; I could not help but to regard them enviously. The mask was removed with a sense of euphoric freedom! Everything down S—e Ave. was still, except for a group of men drinking in front of their flats. The gulls remained atop the lampposts. One of them tried to shit on me again. I dodged it just in time. There was a drunk resting against a garden fence, his can of beer on the post, trying to roll a cigarette. I walked past him and saw my parents house with the sun on it. ‘Why don’t you take a swim, to cool off?’ I dove in the water and slimed all the perspiration & grime off my body. I exhaled until I sunk to the bottom of the pool and lay there, not moving, feeling the tremors of water tussle my hair. The sun was setting. The houses behind had turned peach. I tapped the thermometer my father keeps pinned to the wall by the shed. ‘Told you. Depressing, isn’t it?’ he said at dinner. ‘Yes,’ I replied—‘very.’