Fascination and Horror

for Sarah Bancroft, by Suzanne Wilson

“I shouted at Dominic Cummings. He was in a cafe and I noticed him, so I shouted, ‘Ohh you horrible man, you!’ And he sort of…” Sarah mimics some grumbling-man noises, “…and off he went.”

Imagining Sarah’s expressive voice shouting over the hissing of barista machines and general cafe chatter at a beady-eyed, bespectacled git automatically makes the corners of my mouth tug upwards.

“I want Angela Merkel, but we’re not going to get Angela Merkel, are we?”

Even only knowing her speaking voice, and with no clue as to what she looks like, Sarah oozes charm, good humour, and a clear disdain of our current government. She is able to make me smile and laugh more than I thought I could over a conversation about Covid-19 and the experience of lockdown.

“I’ve had a really decent time of it,” Sarah tells me. She explains that, back in February, Covid seemed very far away, but when it started to hit Italy and they said that it was on its way over here, it became a sort of inevitability at that point.

“Especially when people were drawing parallels with the Spanish Flu of 1918, we all started to think ‘Gosh! People are just going to drop like flies.’”

There seemed to be a nonchalance about it at first, a sort of gung-ho attitude, and this was coming from nurses that she was seeing everyday while visiting her dear friend in hospital. It was a cancer ward, and Sarah was seeing people in dreadful situations while there, so she was already dealing with something quite profound. Sarah was already in an environment where everyone had to be very careful, for if anyone was to bring any infection into the ward, even a cold, those people already had very weak immune systems.

“… so I became very conscious that I had to keep my germs to myself. This, in turn, made me a bit more in touch with my mortality.”

Sarah describes herself as “being on pause”, as she is retired and has moved into temporary accommodation while she waits to move back into her own house. Being on pause is something that Sarah didn’t find easy, and her solution was to walk around London, covering between twelve and fifteen kilometers a day. Something completely free to fill her time with. A part of this was Sarah’s friend who, after leaving hospital, was then immediately told to shield in her studio flat. Once or twice a week, Sarah would walk from her home in Hackney to see this friend in Lisson Grove and take her groceries and supplies.

“She would open her door and I would sit outside in the car park of her tenement flat, we would have a cup of tea, and then I would walk back.”

Sarah compares the atmosphere she found walking alone in London to that in one of the opening scenes in 28 Days Later. “I highly recommend walking down Oxford Street during a lockdown, as there were only two people to be seen. Or Covent Garden and Neil’s Yard, which were completely deserted.

Also, Tottenham Court Road. I was able to walk all the way up and down without seeing a single car. I could wander to and fro across the Marylebone Road without even having to look. It was quite surreal and quite intoxicating, actually. Almost magical. And if you needed a wee, most train stations kept their toilets open even though there was no one there. I’ve got a picture of myself in Liverpool Street Station where I am the only one there. At the minute, when I go for a walk around the city, well, London isn’t quite as dead, but let’s just say that it’s not very well. The beauty of what I was experiencing mixed with the feeling of ‘Are we all going to die?’… I think encapsulated the bizarreness of the situation.”

To Sarah, London is so much better than the countryside. Villages and similar areas only have one road into them and one road out; aside from that, all of the fields and land is private property, so there aren’t that many places one can actually explore. In London, Sarah can walk out her front door and pick any direction; there will always be something new to see, no matter how familiar the area is.

“It has been a beautiful and artistic experience, which sounds really elitist and poncey, but that’s how it is. I’ve been very fortunate.” However, the idea of a second lockdown is a bit more daunting to her. “What if they tell everyone over fifty to stay inside and shield? I’m worried I’ll be told to go and live in a cupboard until next year or something. I couldn’t do that at all. Even if the only thing I do is walk around London in a circle.”

A major change that Sarah has noticed as she walks, is the sudden increase in traffic after lockdown restrictions began to be lifted in the summer. The City of London has closed off many roads to make way for new cycle-lanes. Sarah is a woman who does her research. She tells me that private car usage has gone up by one hundred and twenty percent since the year before. A lot of this increase has to do with reduced bus services, which are only running at thirty percent capacity. “So, if you shut all the roads that connect all the little bits, everybody is going to head to the main roads, which are completely rammed up.”

The situation in London is comparable to living in a castle. Certain drawbridges go up at certain times, making it a very difficult place to navigate and leave. She points out that the government hasn’t started fining people yet, but it will only be a matter of time before fines will be dished out, opening another revenue source for making money. Sarah’s turn of phrase is striking: “All the major arteries in and out of London have been clogged up.” It really drives home the image of London as the supposed ‘beating heart’ of the UK. Sarah is aware that our current government intends to keep the financial and political focus on the capital city, starving other areas of funding and aid. It appears, however, from her description, that the capital has had too many servings of bumbling, blond, saturated fats and is now developing a serious case of coronary heart disease.

“I’m walking back from the river, and it’s just one long line of traffic, all trying to get onto the highway and then out of the city,” she begins to tell me as she walks during our phone call, showing an environmental consciousness that we both share. “At least there’s more than one person sharing a car in this huge line of traffic,” she comments, but then she stops herself. “Oh no, here we go.” she begins to list the occupants under her breath: “single white man, single white man, single white man…”

With the more recent restrictions that have been put in place, Sarah’s local swimming pool will soon be closed again. She goes swimming three times a week, covering over a kilometer each time. It really comes to light just how active Sarah is, a powerhouse of energy zooming around London and her local leisure centre. “They reopened in July again, but just the pool itself. All of the changing rooms and showers are closed off, so you literally walk in, have a swim, and walk back out again.” Recently, she has been working on perfecting a flawless front crawl. Her inspiration is a video of a Japanese professional athlete called Shinji Takeuchi. He glides through the water in a manner that is more fish than human, barely making a splash with his head totally submerged. “His arms come up like the fin of a shark cutting through the water,” Sarah describes, “It’s the beauty of those movements that I aim to teach myself.”

Teaching herself seems to be something that she does a lot; maybe in a situation such as this one, it helps. I related to her on this; knitting was a hobby I decided to try and master over lockdown, as it was something I always had difficulty with, much to my grandmother’s despair. It resulted in a very lumpy, mismatched scarf that my partner will be forced to wear in the winter.

“It’s been slightly easier for us introverts, hasn’t it?” Sarah elaborates on how she can see people who are more extroverted struggling with the anti-social aspect of lockdown. “I could see young people out on Halloween evening, dressed up and trying to have fun, but there was only so much they could do. I feel for them because if I was in my twenties or thirties right now, I would be doing as much partying as I could.” At the moment, in contrast, Sarah becomes personally offended if someone decides to knock on her front door. This is very relatable. I’m asked as ‘a member of the under forties’ if I have been out partying. I tell Sarah that we are happy enough getting merry in our flat, considering how uncertain everything is.

“It’s alright if you can have a few drinks at home, but there is something about being out and around people. If you get a bit drunk and fancy a chat, there’s no one to really talk to. It’s the company of strangers one can miss more than the company of your familiars in certain situations.” Apparently, people working construction on the roads are really good to have a chat with. Firstly, they are classed as essential workers, so they are always there, and secondly, “They’re doing a job, digging that big hole or whatever, so if you start chatting to them they have to stay, they can’t really escape, can they?” Sarah gives one of her warm chuckles as I decide to myself that next time I want to speak to someone new, I can go and have a chinwag at the roadworks.

Not all her quests yield results, though. “One of the biggest things I did this week actually turned out to be a huge disappointment. My Tai Chi instructor told me that a big stone circle had been discovered underneath Victoria Park. And I thought, ‘This is fantastic’, so I looked the article up in the East London Advertiser and got really excited. I went out to Vicky Park and I’m imagining this circle. But then I thought that this circle, it’s a bit close to the river, I’m sure this would have been a floodplain about five thousand years ago, but never mind. I couldn’t find anything, so I checked back on the article and it was from 1st April. I was so disappointed. I felt as though I was off on a mythical quest and I imagined all of these great festivities going on around the stone circle.” I see Sarah as some sort of Frodo Baggins-esque figure, with a bag of supplies on her back, trying to decode a magic map that leads her to the stone circle where the druids and pixie folk gather. “But alas, ‘twas just a folly. I’ve lost faith completely in that instructor.”

As our weekly conversation moves towards its end, it inevitably turns to the US Presidential elections, which are happening very soon. “I think over thirty percent have already voted anyway.” Sarah tells me, “I do hope that Trumpy doesn’t win. It would be very nice. Maybe we could turn a corner with populism, and maybe go back to things that actually make sense. But that might be too optimistic.”

I wonder if she watched the results with the equal parts of horror and fascination as I did; these two feelings seem to go together so often this year. As I say goodbye to her and hang up the phone, I hope for Sarah and the rest of us that the next major world event doesn’t turn out to be another unreachable magical stone circle.

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