Lines

for Charlie Burke, by Elif Soyler

The first time Charlie speaks to me we are about one hundred miles apart, but we share a grey, shadowy sky. Out of his window, in his flat in Stratford, the East London skyscrapers of Canary Wharf are smothered in a low-hanging fog. The neighbourhoods of the East End that lie between these two points – West Ham, Canning Town, Bow and Poplar – are blurred from view. But Charlie’s voice is cheerful and warm; I can hear his smile in the words he speaks down the telephone line. Though lockdown has been mind-numbingly boring and every day has felt the same for weeks on end, you couldn’t tell it from the lightness in his voice.

He describes himself jovially as an “elderly, old-aged pensioner” and I learn that he’s turning seventy-five next April. He’s quietly hoping that it will be safe enough to see family and friends when the day comes. He has a daughter, Julie, and a granddaughter, Eden Rose.

“They’re my two babies,” Charlie sighs. Charlie’s very close to his daughter; they talk on the phone more than once a day. They live in Dagenham, close to where Charlie grew up as a kid. “Things were different back then, neighbours were in and out of everyone’s houses, chatting, drinking cups of tea. There were always kids playing outside in the streets and there was always someone keeping an eye on them. Things are different now,” He tells me.

These days, Julie has more than one lock on her front door as well as a security camera running day and night. On the plus side, this has allowed them to get friendly with a local fox, who comes over in the evenings to sniff around the bins so now, Julie leaves food out for it. From upstairs, Charlie, Julie and Eden Rose watch the fox share the food with her cubs.

This year has been incredibly difficult for him. He used to live in Canning Town; he spent twenty-three years there and misses those days terribly. He misses knocking on his neighbour Jim’s door every morning on the floor below and enjoying “a cuppa tea and a chin wag”. As he moved to sheltered accommodation in Stratford just over a year ago, his new start coincided perfectly with the start of the global Coronavirus pandemic. This made things quite lonely at times.

Charlie is lucky and he knows it. He has his family and a psychiatrist for support. But during the first lockdown, there was a point when he felt so low, he couldn’t handle it: “The light at the end of the tunnel was getting dim, almost dark,” he says. Everything was getting him down; the loneliness, the fear and the feeling it was never going to end were getting too much. He didn’t want to worry Julie, but she could sense that there was something seriously wrong. Even though he was saying he was all right, his daughter knew.

The next call he got was from the psychiatrist. He said: “So Charlie, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Having someone to listen to you is really important,” Charlie says. 

The end of October rolls around, the clocks go back and it gets darker and colder and harder in just a matter of days. Then, the second national lockdown is announced. When we started talking in early autumn, neither Charlie nor I anticipated this.

It’s now often too cold for walks around the garden with the other residents in the flats and with the catered meals being brought up to his door, three times a week, Charlie doesn’t spend much time socialising these days. Throughout November, week after week, we call, we make each other laugh and remind each other of the things we can still appreciate.

“I talk to me daughter about three or four times a day, she texts me late before she goes to bed, saying: ‘God bless, see you tomorrow’. Them words mean a lot to me.”

I picture him sitting in his armchair on a carpeted floor by a large window, with his view of East London and cup of coffee in hand. We share a moment as he describes looking out across the city. He is gazing at its skyline of tall buildings, their different shapes and volumes, utterly familiar to my mind, and for a minute I feel like I, too, am home in London. My father is an electrical engineer in the Financial Conduct Authority, one of the skyscrapers Charlie was looking at. Charlie and I are still, imagining the inner workings of the towering oblongs of metal, like anthills housing hundreds of workers. Nowadays, though, they are mostly empty; sometimes my father is the only body on the premises.

We talk about Charlie’s life before lockdown, before the pandemic. He tells me he drove London buses on one line or another for thirty-two years. When he was a driver, Charlie’s favourite shift was New Year’s Eve. He remembers the way people would cheer as they saw his doubledecker red bus careening around the corner towards their stop. He felt like everyone’s hero, like he was driving a fire engine, the champion of the night.

“When they started putting the barriers up, and changing the locks, you see, now they open the doors from the inside. I didn’t like none of that,” He says. He preferred being closer to people. We talk about public transport, the way he remembers it, which is very different from the way I know it. The last time I saw a ‘bendy bus’ was when I was about nine or ten years old and I have no memories of the driver’s seat being as accessible as he describes.

Driving buses were some of the best years of Charlie’s life. He remembers it fondly, but he wouldn’t go back to it if he had the chance now. “People out there, getting on the buses and the trains without no masks, and I have to bite my lips. If I was younger I’d tell ’em. At my age, I can’t do nothing.”

Cases are high in London and have been throughout this crisis. When Charlie does venture out into the cold away from the safety of his flat he sees how little some people care. He even witnessed someone spitting at a policeman. There are usually a couple of officers standing guard near the bus station, occasionally stopping people without masks from boarding. The drivers, however, almost never bother. Charlie strongly disapproves:

“If I was still driving I’d definitely be wearing one. Got to keep people safe, got to set a good example.”

With Christmas and the New Year approaching, he asks me if I am travelling back, coming home to be with family. I reply that thankfully I am being picked up to avoid the two hour train and tube journey on the other side. It’s going to be a strange festive period, we agree. I can hear Sky News playing in the background, explaining the tier system and the new rules.

We stay in touch over the winter break. On December 19th, I am collected by my mum and driven home. Barely an hour after I’ve kicked my shoes off and drunk a cup of coffee, the government announces a new tier, Tier 4. Almost immediately I think of Charlie, suddenly unable to spend Christmas Day with the two people he loves the most. I listen to the announcement and try to make sense of the news; it seems that people who live alone are still allowed to mix for just a day. I text Charlie, hoping to explain or help in any way possible, and he replies with awful news.

“I saw Julie and Eden last week as normal, came home and then Julie rang me and said that Eden and others in her class had tested positive.”

This meant, Tier 4 or no Tier 4, Charlie has been pinged by Track and Trace and instructed to isolate for at least ten days, at the most wonderful time of the year.

I tell him that being back home now, in Ilford, hardly even around the corner, my family and I could help with shopping or providing a friendly face from outside. But Charlie tells me not to worry, that his neighbours were good to him and that he would be “rocking around my Christmas tree with my walking stick. Stay safe my friend.”

I smiled at my phone. I thought about his three-foot tall, plastic tree, propped up in the corner of his sitting room. I pictured him in that same armchair, the crossword in his lap. The white paper changed colour every couple of minutes, first blue, then pink, red, orange, bright green and gold, the twinkling of the fairy lights reflected in the lenses of his reading glasses.

We speak again, one week into the New Year. Britain’s third national lockdown had been announced a couple of days prior. I expect Charlie to sound tired and miserable, because that’s how I am feeling, but he didn’t. I am glad to hear that a downstairs neighbour had brought up a plate of Christmas dinner for him, on that special day. We talk for an hour or longer, about smaller and bigger things.

“That Boris. I’m going to buy him a pair of bloody hair clippers!”

In the background, I can hear many more sirens than usual. After the third one, Charlie acknowledges them dejectedly, admitting that the ambulances have been racing past on the main road by his flat non-stop for almost two weeks. He then goes quiet. I sense the worry creeping in from the corners of his mind. I cracked a joke about making tea for my brother with a spoonful of salt instead of sugar, after he coughed twice in one morning, and I get half a chuckle in response.

To my surprise, Charlie tells me how one afternoon, he was sat reading as he normally did and then out of nowhere, he just burst into tears. He rang Julie and told her about it, not sure what was wrong with him. “Nothing, Dad. That’s normal, it happens to everyone. And it’s good to let it out. Nothing to be ashamed of,” She said.

I agree with her, I tell him. Then I share with Charlie how low I had been feeling too, worried about not being able to complete my dissertation, not being able to return to uni, missing my friends. The new variant of Covid-19 had burst the bubble of hope we had been cautiously blowing into in just a matter of days.

But there is always hope. I tell Charlie that it’s not like last year, we have vaccines on the way, there’s more hope, there is an end in sight, a light at the end of the tunnel. Soon, Charlie is prompted by his G.P. to set up an appointment for his first dose. He rang up and finds himself number thirty-seven in the queue.

“Some phone calls are worth waiting for, and I’m not afraid of needles!” He says through an audible smile.

This is not the only important call he got recently. An old friend of Charlie’s recently got back in touch with him. It had been months since they last spoke. Her name is Michelle. He learnt that she had been struggling with depression and loneliness, which Charlie has far too much experience of. I think he was relieved to hear that she was doing better, slightly. She was trying to reach out to friends and loved ones instead of isolating herself. People worry, the police were sent round once, and they almost broke her front door off its hinges.

“Help is always out there, but you have to ask,” Charlie reminds me.

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