423 days into lockdown, I meticulously planned a quick endurance trip to London, not to increase lung capacity but to check my state of mind when surrounded by people. Lots of people. That was my last image of London.
The idea of walking endlessly down aisles of different supermarkets, not just in a search for food, but people, real people, and someone to talk to outside of my familiar circle, become tenacious. The idea of a mini-adventure to London seemed like a good idea.
The train platform basked in the cold sun, dotted by faces covered in trendy new face masks, seemed like a scene from the latest science fiction movie. Looking at them, the sudden thud of realization of being the odd one out flooded over me. In the excitement of a mini-adventure, I had left my face mask nicely folded at home. The horror of missing a train that was already delayed sent me into a rage. Who do I ask for help? A guy with a face covered in red velvet or a girl with black rubber across her face standing next to the lady with a big company logo on her cheeks? I was scared to approach any of them, as I was different.
“Excuse me, can I get on the train without a mask?”
A ticket officer showed only a small twitch in the corner of his perfect face at the stupidity of my question, and politely passed me a new, blue, surgical mask. Worrying if I would fit in with all these fancy masks around me, I ran onto the stationary train without saying thank you.
The carriage was half empty with blue signs wrapped around every other seat like a scarf, saying not to use it and keep a social distance. I stopped to read the whole lengthy message, without glasses, then digest it and take action, like a foreigner for the first time in a new country, while the people behind me, accustomed to the new regulations, to my surprise, waited for me to do so without rancor.
At the almost empty Marylebone station, no one was following lifesaving social distancing rules. We were all like cattle running around to find an empty ticket slot to let us out to London. Some habits die hard, even during the pandemic.
The air outside of the station was stale. The usual hustle of a big city was missing, making me anxious. People were a rarity, and those who were to be seen were dawdling, like TV in slow motion. Did I enter the wrong dimension? The slow one?
At the small bus station, buses, like overflowing water, were pouring over their allocated spaces. With no passengers and no cars on the road, distances are covered quicker, something no one anticipated and not ready to adjust to, even after all this time. The local café owner with two tables outside on the pavement, probably his only source of income, was not happy with a third bus parked in front of his clients. Coffee served with free bus fumes is not appealing.
My over-enthusiastic greeting to a bus driver made him raise his eyebrows, not understanding inane happiness at chatting to my first human in London. We rode to Great Portland Street, the driver and me, on the empty road, with only traffic lights making us stop while I counted three pubs closed down with colorless, boarded windows. As no passengers were getting on or off, there was no need to make stops.
A well-known chain of sandwich shops kept the ones with outside tables open, but those tables were full of thick dust, clearly visible from the top deck window. There were few people on the streets, and those I did see scuttled off like lizards to the nearest cave. The idea of wearing a crisp suit and tie seemed so passé. Everyone was in jeans or tracksuits, men and women. The blaring car horns, humming engines, shouts from bicycles and casual swearing were all missing. The tube station, the crossroads of two world-renowned shopping streets, Oxford and Regent, once a throng of people, that day was so spacious you could even see the pavement, something impossible in the pre-Covid era.
Two girls entered the bus at the stop in Regent Street, disturbing the perfect zen harmony between the driver and me. They were loud, and at one moment, I cursed them for their inconsiderateness, but then I remembered how it used to be, full of people, chatter, noise, and I quickly stopped being a martyr.
Regent Street was like a race track, empty with the occasional bus, black cab, or white van. The shops, the ones with open doors, were empty. Others who didn’t make it this long, were boarded with signs To Let, in fancy fonts and happy smiling couples. Instead of a simple “Shop to Let” this time around, marketing was in full swing with many added adjectives. We sailed through a bare Piccadilly Circus. The only live things were four enormous screens above Boots, with flashing adverts of the corporations that have too much money and a minuscule amount of common sense considering the tropical sun lotion they advertise. So inappropriate for these pandemic times.
We passed a renowned hotel in Haymarket, which I am very fond of, and it felt like passing a stranded flagship, slowly decaying in low tide. There was no sign of life, and the windows that once saw ineffable service and food were covered in layers of grime. I got off in the front of the High Commission of Canada, intending to walk all the way to Covent Garden. The idea of a lunch-time concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields followed by a big bowl of soup in the Crypt seemed like a dream. Nelson, high up in the clouds, looked alone, as there was no one below to admire him. The fourth plinth, adorned with a giant ice cream, fly and drone that is called art these days, had an appropriate title: “The End.” The drone is transmitting your image live through the website if you are within a 20-meter radius of the sculpture. After reading the small print, I ran off, like most people.
Trafalgar Square, once a hub of London’s tourism industry, looks so small when empty. There were builders in one corner, a police van in the other, and an occasional passer-by, running through the eerily deserted space.
The walk to Seven Dials took me through a cemetery of theatres. The intense feeling of walking through the abandoned front line of a great battle where all the participants flee from the enemy at the last minute, ditching their belongings, was staggering. The only signs of past life were the posters with recognizable faces in the windows from their last performance. They are still smiling, still in costume.
My favorite pub was shut. Tired, disappointed, angry and scared, and with a question — when and if will we ever get back to normal — I walked back to a famous department store on Piccadilly to cheer myself up. It was open, but empty. With all the employees behind the counters, two managers on the floor and me, I counted all together nine people.
The next day I chased a shop assistant at the local supermarket to tell me which aisle was reserved for honey, even though I know the layout better than she does. We had a chat about the weather, vaccinations, lockdown, dogs, like two lost friends meeting after a long time apart.