The Way of The Lockdown

by Jack Pascoe – an autobiographical piece

Getting better all the time

but never really reaching my prime.

Something I needed was back where I left it

never changed or even affected.

April 24th 2020

Three in the morning!

I hack out a chesty cough and try to bring my head to a decent distance above the pillow. I settle with resting on my stomach propped up by my elbows with my forehead resting in my hands.

Outside my window the thick clouds are orange from the street lights of Cardiff. It feels like rain is brewing. A rising breeze blows in through the window and pushes the curtains away from the wall.

There’s a pile on the table next to my bed. Small bottles of shampoo and aftershave, off-white serviettes from various take-aways, empty soft drink cans and a few second hand books all intertwined with cables from various devices. It’s safe to say I’ve woken up to prettier sights.

I don’t even know why my body decides to wake me up at this time. Since the pandemic hit I’ve been working as a self-employed cycle courier and have taken it upon myself never to leave the house before 11am on any given day.

Had I been working at PGL Swindon (an outdoor activity centre for school groups and tourists) I would be up at 7.30am on my way to eat some awful breakfast in the canteen before rounding up herds of children and fixing them to the giant swing as their classmates laugh at their screams. Now, that is quite an alarm clock for six days out of the week.

However, it had been a turning point. In the middle of the season I was asked to teach English to foreign teenagers for a month or so. Before working for PGL, I had travelled to Morocco, Portugal and Thailand where I worked exclusively as an EFL teacher. My passion for the profession had worn off and I was keen to start a new career in the outdoor leisure. I dug out my old pastel shirt and buttoned it up once again ready for war. As I stood at the front of that dimly lit classroom I began to feel my chest sink and my shoulders get heavy like an anchor dragging along the bottom of some polluted bay. I would look through the dusty window at the endless tree lined paths running through the grounds of the centre. I wondered what was running though the undergrowth and dancing on the branches under the clear skies. Once my last class had finished, I vowed never to go back.

After the season, my hands were hardened and my lungs were fresh with country air. I returned to Cardiff to live with my mother during the winter period with a plan to return next year.

I took a job as a crew member with Five Guys which I hated. The boss was an ill-mannered baby gorilla with a fuse shorter than his hairy pinkie finger. It was also my first British winter in three years. The cold crawled into my bones each day and forced me to wear at least two more layers than everyone else. All this combined with a want to pursue my chosen path, free cheeseburgers and smoking weed to self-medicate didn’t make for a healthy body or mind. However, I always had a secret smirk as I cleaned grease off the walls and listened to his middle management bullshit. I knew I would be out of there soon.

My last day was the 10th of March. I was due to start back at PGL on the 20th. On the 19th I made my way to the train station with my head up and my suitcase wheels click-clacking on the pavement. I bought my ticket. I sat down in my seat. My phone rang.

              “Hi, is that Jack?”

              “Yes it is, who’s calling?”

              Hi there Jack. This is Tom from PGL recruitment. I’m afraid I have some bad news. Due to the recent Coronavirus outbreak we can’t allow any new staff to arrive at the centre at this time. We have had to suspend your start date until further notice.

I stood up, grabbed my bags and rushed to the door of the train before it closed. I stood outside the station for a while pacing and occasionally kicking the beige stone wall.

After a few minutes I called my friend Carl who lives a short distance from the station. I took my bags over to his flat and told him what had happened. My eyes flitted around his living room unable to focus. I stopped and started sentences like a car that was having trouble shifting gears. I kept repeating my own self pitying mantra; I was so close to freedom and just when I thought it was a done deal they pulled the rug away.

Ten days later I received an e-mail from PGL. I opened it with low expectations. My body slumped on Carl’s sofa barely collecting the energy to click.

The e-mail stated that I didn’t qualify for furlough as my start date was after the government cut-off point, the 10th of March. The government later reviewed this and changed the date to the 19th (still no use to me). I thought about that tiny room at my mother’s house with cobwebs in the corners, the bright green and yellow furniture at the job centre and the big fat zero soon to be showing on my bank account. Tears began to build and fall.

I checked the government guidelines on their website and discovered that I could be put on furlough by Five Guys if I called and asked to be re-hired. I immediately called the baby gorilla who told me it couldn’t be done that way. My eyes felt like they were on fire and my blood felt like rocket fuel. After several heated debates via phone and Whatsapp I managed to convince him that it was completely above board and that I was in fact entitled to it. I closed the conversation filled with quotes from the government website and awaited the furlough confirmation from their head office.

Carl works with ambulance despatch now, but before that he had worked as a delivery partner for Uber eats and still had an account with them that which could be used by a substitute cyclist of his choice.

“If you want I can lend you my account and my delivery bag. You could get out on the streets and earn some money while things are being sorted out.”

The tension began to release from my chest. Naturally, I leapt at the chance. I had no choice.

All that was about a month ago now. My diet now consists of sporadic doses of fast food, sugar injected drinks and the occasional pot brownie to numb the pain amongst a steady ritual of dope smoking. My thoughts are consumed with memories of the continent hopping EFL teacher I used to be and the delivery boy I am now. As I sit in the room where I spent most of my teenage life, I find myself noticing my increasing heart rate and my shortness of breath punctuated by an unfamiliar wheezing noise.

As another breeze rolls into the room, I put some Dylan on to see if he can comfortingly mirror the appropriate level of melancholy with my own………………..absolutely fuck all.

I begin to rummage through the documents on my laptop. I see something I wrote on the way back to Cardiff from Heathrow after returning from Thailand. It stood on the screen in rhyming verse. My eyes fell on one particular section:

So, I carry my suitcase one more time

past that familiar borderline

after the pace of the trains and planes

and the various spiritual aches and pains

hoping this place I call home can redeem me

This must be the last thing I wrote before moving away from writing all together. I haven’t felt the need to write anything since. It seems as though I’ve been lead away from that side of my life. Creativity never paid the bills in my case and so I just left it somewhere in the back of my memories where it wouldn’t bother me or distract me from moving along this new path.

I pick holes in it for about twenty minutes before giving up and closing the document. I better start thinking about getting back to bed. I stick my hand into the pile of crap next to the bed and produce a strip of Lorazepam tablets that were prescribed to me by a private doctor in Lisbon. I drop one down my throat with no water and wait for the effects to take control and send me into a much needed deep sleep.

September 10th 2020

Twenty past ten in the morning.

I gently raise up and and open my eyes to glance out of the window.

The sun is shining brightly on the back garden covered in white gravel with a pristine picnic table dead in the centre. Across the alley, on the roof of his shed, an older gentleman is tending to his sunflower collection. Beyond the tops of the terrace houses I see the flags from the Hindu temple gently sway. I smile gently.

My newly purchased e-bike is parked next to the picnic bench tucked up in its rain cover. I begin to feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that a few months ago I was doing my deliveries on Carl’s little blue one-speed push bike exhausting myself in the process. The e-bike allowed me to double my takings overnight and helped me to get a place of my own.

I take a shower and brush my teeth before unlocking my bike, put my ears buds in, throw the big red box bag on to my shoulders, raise the back garden entrance with the silver fob key and head out on to the street.

As I approach the banks of the river opposite the old Brains Brewery, I stop peddling and let the wheels roll as I watch the newly orange leaves drift to the ground. I exhale.

Within five minutes I reach the centre of Cardiff. The streets are beginning to come to life now that the people have had a chance to wake up. However, everyone seems distracted. As of yesterday Caerphilly county was thrown back into strict lockdown measures following a rise in Covid-19 cases. A couple of schools in Cardiff had also been closed after reports of students feeling unwell.

I catch a glimpse of a woman in a black lightweight jacket and skinny jeans taking long strides down St Mary Street with her arms crossed and brow crumpled. Her eyes were fixed on the pavement in front of her. As a rather ragged looking man turns out of Church street and gets in her path she halts and assesses the distance between them. She jolts, changes direction and gives a good two metres.

If only everyone was that considerate. Not everybody in Cardiff seems to get the urgency of the problem. The weekend just gone saw new stories of many young people turning up to clubs and gathering in large groups while drunkenly dancing and singing in the smoking shelters. Matt Hancock the current health secretary would have turned whiter than he already is. My opinion is that he has nobody to blame but himself. The messages from government have been mixed at best. On the one hand they want the economy to start up so are more than willing to open up shops and cafes, on the other hand they want everybody to stay apart and control the virus. They seemed to be overlooking one tiny flaw in the plan; there’s no real way of policing these restrictions especially with a haphazard-do-everything-by-the-seat-of-your-pants attitude of South Wales police.

About a month back I watched groups of people at the Roath Park recreation ground being broken up and sent home from sunbathing. I haven’t seen anything like that since, but still this crowding continues. It certainly doesn’t look like local plod want the deal with anyone breaking the restrictions. I would suspect that on their days off they are probably doing the same. I mean, if Dominic Cummings can swing it then it’s OK, right?

When you mix a general distrust of government with isolation and frustration, you’re going to get an angry population. You can certainly feel it in the streets of Cardiff. Everybody is walking around wary of each other while totally ignoring the bright yellow arrows painted on the streets. I don’t know who may be carrying the virus without knowing it and neither does anyone else. Consequently everybody is checking out everybody else to see if they are breaking the rules like they are. A very paranoid environment where everybody seems to be guilty on some level.

Last week I was picking up an order in Taco Bell. The staff had laid out the floor so that the counter was separated by a line of tables with a small opening for people to enter. The only way you could access the counter was to go through this opening.

Standing next to the opening was a portly man wearing a light blue collared shirt tucked into his Marks and Spencer’s jeans. His face was red from too much sun, bad diet and frustration. At this point in the pandemic I was tired of asking people to keep their distance. I said ‘excuse me’ as I passed him with my mask on to approach the counter and enquire about my order. The staff member handed me a cup of water and asked me to wait a short while. As I walked back to through the opening, the portly man piped up.

“Keep two metres apart, you fucking twat!”

I stopped and turned towards him. “Excuse me?”

“Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on?” Saliva sprayed from his red face. “Keep your fucking distance!”

I was used to being spoken down to by staff members with short tempers and a deep loathing for their work, but this just took the biscuit. Little did he know he had triggered something in me that I never thought would rise up and make itself heard.

I took my mask off and maintained eye contact while stepping towards him. I stopped about three feet away from the self-righteous prick.

“Listen bro,” I held up my cup of water. “D’you want me to tip this over your fucking head and smack you in the mouth?” Everybody’s ears in the restaurant stood to attention.

His eyes began to widen in the realisation that he had picked on the wrong guy. I continued.

“Because the way you’re talking to me right now, it sounds like that’s what you want. Is that it?” He looked down at the floor trying to ignore me. I didn’t let up.

“Don’t you ever swear at me again, got it? If you don’t want to be within two metres of anyone, don’t stand in the spot where everybody has to pass you.” The staff members behind the counter looked at each other as if to say ‘he’s got you there’. The prick was looking at the ground ashamed of himself. I punctuated my outburst with a finishing comment:

“Now, I’m going back to my space to wait for my order. While I’m there I don’t wanna hear a peep out of you. Now shut the fuck up.”

I walked over to my area and sat down with my heart beating between my ears. Nothing more was said on the issue. The prick collected his order and scuttled out.

At the start of the pandemic there was no way I would have gone down that route. Isolation and frustration had driven me to the point where I was able to speak up for myself. I was never able to do that before.

It was this moment that had started a trail of thought in me. I needed to do things for myself and never trust anybody else to do anything for me. I hatched a plan not to return to PGL after the pandemic. If my outdoor career was the progress I would have to pursue it through independent qualification assessors on my own terms. I was not going to wait for someone to give me the experience or qualifications that he or she thought was right for me.

I now knew what I needed and how I was going to get it. Had it not been for the pandemic I would never have had the time to reflect and come to this conclusion.

I pump my legs in a high gear as I ride down the street towards the castle. The ear buds play Dylan’s ‘Dignity’ as I dodge the people of Cardiff all trying their best to adapt to the changes.

With heavy heart and empty hand

pining for an open page

to write new history, free from rage.

As I reach the castle gates, my phone goes off. It’s a message from my friend Sam Dodd asking if I’d like to write a piece for CityLife. I accept thankfully. I feel I’m ready to write again.

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