Monday, 23 March 2020

As the petals fall

The whispered conversations between a mother, a young woman with long blonde hair and parka, and her curly-headed daughter, made me wonder. Were they looking for the house of an elderly neighbour in need of a visit? That was what they seemed to be whispering.

Mother and child were unsmiling as I walked down our steps and into the lane. 
Bright sunlight on the road shone like a mirror and made me screw up my eyes. The new, smooth tarmac looked like a skating rink. There was warmth in the sun, just right for sitting out, newspaper and glass in hand. In this time of corona admiring patio flowers and being out in the sunshine and fresh air might raise my feel-good dopamine levels. Got to enjoy your ice cream before it melts.

Two children, sitting on a blanket on the pavement’s edge, took it in turns to brush and plait each other’s hair. Did they know the world has changed? A mother, in one of the rented flats by the shop, sat on a step with a piece of chalk. Her son had no garden to play in. He marked his white cross in the grid mum had chalked for him on their concrete stair. Then it was her turn. She made a nought with her red stick of chalk. A man, on the opposite side of the road, pushed pieces of corrugated cardboard through the slats of a drain cover. I’m sure, as the world waits for the pandemic to pass this way, he had his reasons. 

But it was a good day for a walk, a good day to clock up eight thousand steps, read The Observer and stay well. 

People weren’t keeping their distance in our local shop, though. Perhaps things will improve. The papers hadn’t sold out, nor had the orange juice. It felt like it was going to be a good day.

But my joy quickly evaporated. Never had I seen shelves completely empty of milk. Our local shop never runs out. 

A group of three elderly women, two sisters and another, quietly entered the shop. I wondered how they felt. They don’t drive, and are frail-looking, but at least they had each other. 

At the counter I saw someone I knew and I sounded off about the lack of milk. Unusually for me I felt dread. Now what should I do? I needed milk. Most of us do. I don’t drink ready-made ‘Horlicks’ or hot chocolate; they are laced with sugar. And I don’t like black tea.

‘It’s all right, I have milk for you,’ said Sofroni at his busy till. He hadn’t got round to replenishing his stock. My anxiety levels dropped like I was casting off a heavy rucksack.

I walked home, clutching my four pints of skimmed. An elderly couple swerved away from me, practising their social distancing technique, as we passed in the lane. And they too talked in hushed tones. Three smokers fell out of a battered red car and stumbled towards the shop. They were already drunk. Would Sofroni serve them?

Back home purple petals had dropped from my birthday tulips and my cards, displayed on the shelf, looked crooked and surplus to requirements. The roses had flopped too. No longer cheerful, just withered and dying. 

What a difference a few days can make. We’d had such a lovely time by the sea: cutting chocolate cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. We were looking forward. Now I feared I couldn’t even buy milk. The world is changing and we have no vaccine against a deadly virus. I wanted to plant a flower for Mothering Sunday in ‘mum’s garden’. But it was like the Sundays of my childhood. Almost everything was shut. I was reminded of a film where Bette Davis is planting daffodils in bright sunlight but believed it had gone dark and overcast. It hadn’t. It was only her world that had lost the light. Her character in ‘Dark Victory’ was dying from a brain tumour. 

But this is real, not a film. There’s a virus on the loose and we have to beat it before it beats us. But who has it? Who is immune? And who will really need a hospital bed? 

I took my walk and sat out in the sun. I found another shop which sold milk. In a third store a customer did practise social distancing. I was glad of it. Queueing has to change if we are to save lives. 

We are waiting and being careful, daring not to travel far nor mix. Grocery gifts and loose change are left on each other’s steps. When is the best time to shop, I ponder incessantly, and will the shelves be empty? We can’t live on takeaway pizza and curries just because they are the foods still being delivered. We may have to eat and drink what we can get, hardly whispering our fears to each other. We may have to settle for being grateful that we can still buy fresh milk.

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