The Wanderer

for Steve Brooks, by Sophie Brown

As you get older you notice the minor changes. Things around you are so familiar, the streets are like the back of your hand, so when a new freckle appears you notice. Steve was sat watching TV when he spotted the change: media outlets playing down the onslaught that was about to come. People put it to the back of their minds; instead, he educated himself by reading up on epidemics, preparing for that new freckle. Slowly, but surely, life ground to a halt. No more Zumba at community centres or pub quizzes at the Pipe Major. People locked themselves in, threw away the key, drew the curtains and pretended nobody was home. Except him.

He began to roam and explore, walking wherever his feet would take him, head full of thoughts and a pocket full of change. You would not believe how gloriously green Dagenham could be. He hopped from park to park where great oaks cast shadows over glimmering lakes. How perfect the weather was, it was one of those springs you could never forget, where all you could do was watch the flowers bloom; a spring where life and death took on new meanings.

Standing at the water’s edge, the wind rippling on its surface and ruffling feathers on the waterfowl, he noticed a swan. A mother hiding in the bushes guarding the nest whilst the father glided across the water, basking in the freedom of no pleasure boaters to dodge. For weeks, he watched the family to be until cygnets appeared, following their parents in an obedient curtain call. “You must see these cygnets,” He told his friend, and soon they were off on a wild swan chase he goes with friends in tow. Overcome by stage fright, the cygnets of this particular swan lake took refuge upon different water, until finally they were coaxed out to twirl effortlessly by the shore. Soon they lost their dark down and plumes of white were primped and preened. From there, the ‘walk and talk’ began.

He called up friends from Zumba and all over. “Why don’t we get out? It would be good to catch up, it’s good for you,” He told them. Only he would find a club in a pandemic. It started with walking and talking, socially distanced of course, until he was imploring the lady at the community centre to let him run yoga classes. “Only you, Steve,” as she begrudgingly said yes to what could be the cheeky smile of a lady’s man. But that is the smile he flashes to those he cares about, connected in his ever-growing circle. A single man who wishes to never be alone, knowing what those dark times feel like a well with oil-slicked walls that only you can provide the rope to escape. You must climb out yourself, no one else can do it. Only you stand in your own way.

He remembered the wandering souls who used to come to him for help when he worked on the mental health wards, doing what was right and all he could for them, from behind the front desk, the face they needed to see. And now he is getting people like himself out of the house, cherishing human conversation, and Lord knows he can talk. A familiar voice of an old friend, someone you can trust, who welcomes you. No wonder he had an overflowing social schedule. Despite being disconnected from the world wide web, he was more linked to others than one imagined.

“It’s not about what you know, but who you know,” He proved through his rendezvous with the black market of horticulture, paying premium for flowers sold by neighbours, friends of friends, friends, and sketchy farm shops. He took deliveries in the dead of night to transform his garden into an explosion of colour, a personal paradise for his eyes only. Planting the pansies and magnolias, knowing he is one of the lucky ones really, gave him joy. The trees sang to him as he worked, the leaves encouraging the beautiful hanging objects to shimmer in approval, objects saved from the streets, combed them from the sidewalks as if he were back at the beach again. The chalk gnomes too would applaud the days he spent with dirt under his nails, not knowing it was their turn next as he produced tins of paint. They would scuttle under the bushes and behind the bins in terror of his brush, but one by one they would receive a new lease of life in a lick of paint.

Life goes on. We must accept and adapt, he thinks as autumn turns into winter, learning to text and use apps as the weather gets colder and the nights longer. Now the wind batters him and the trees on his solitary walk and talks, but it doesn’t make them any less interesting. The skies are just as blue as they were before, and even if things aren’t as green, they’re still full of life. They just sing a new song now; no longer the leaves, battering branches instead, a more minor key percussion section.

He notices the ducks follow him around, instead of scattering at his shadow. ‘They must be hungry,’ he thinks, ‘of course they are, no one’s about.’ The parks are now barren and bare, people are hiding away once more, this time from the weather. He feels guilty he’s forgotten to bring some bread, feeling bad for not looking after the waifs and strays. But he doesn’t forget them, taking leftovers to the donkeys and ponies in the nearby fields, dropping fruit and veg to the floor, cracking the frozen mud the animals roam in. They may try and nip, out of love and a certain desperation; not everyone treats them as well as he does.

And as Christmas rolls around, he plans to celebrate, bring light and warmth into his friends’ lives’ once more. He has three (yes, three), Christmas meals planned. A true socialite; a real man about town. Only one goes ahead before plans are scuppered. But it’s a beautiful day, overlooking the park, large windows letting that light and warmth in, in more ways than one. They laugh and eat and drink and everyone feels full again, not just from Christmas pudding and turkey, but with life. It’s the days like this they must be thankful for. Even though the other meals can’t happen, his mood is not entirely dampened.

Then comes the alert that says he must self-isolate. But how? Why? He’s been so careful. But he hides away now, with others helping to do his shopping and just a phone call away. He becomes acquainted with Netflix and watches The Last Kingdom. He’s read all the books and could quite literally recite all the rulers of England until kingdom come. Bernard Cornwell writes of Agincourt and Vikings slaughtering Saxons, but he doesn’t write of this battle we face now. Still, for a while he can lose himself in another man’s life, Uhtred fighting for his life, kingdom, family, and friends. But around and about is a silent killer, no one can see coming; at least with a Viking you know where you stand.

His world, the real world, isn’t without loss; it seems no one is safe. He loses loved ones to the virus. It’s heart breaking to hear; how fragile life is always shocks. And we can talk of walks and meals and pub quizzes, but we cannot appreciate the light without the dark. He mourns, grieves but he is strong. Steve Brooks is strong. That fact is undeniable.

Now turning three-score-and-ten, he jokes he’s living on borrowed time. I don’t believe it. Steve Brooks is still so full of life. If a pandemic cannot crush his spirits, God only knows what can.

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