Lockdown Walks #4 | Brian Lewis

Day twenty-two. 6.45pm. I can’t think of anything to add to the shopping list and so I stop, for a moment, I listen to the birdsong just beyond the window. It is quiet again. I think my way back to the morning song and the sound that followed, I couldn’t place it, I thought it was the bins at first, there was no engine, no movement, only the sound of the road being scraped. Then men. Men shouting over the noise they had made. This can’t last forever, I thought, and it’s true, nothing can last forever. They were gone by 8.30am. I’d woken two hours earlier, I’d woken from a dream, this is the dream, the dream was me waking to find that my life was two percent smaller than when I had gone to sleep and it would no longer fit properly. It wasn’t meant to be written down. I pick up the shopping list and tuck it inside my wallet. Then I shoulder my rucksack and leave the house. I am leaving the house to get things for the house, things that will help us to stay in the house, things that will make us feel safe in the house. I pass a Wetherspoons that used to be a public baths and cross the road to a shopping precinct that used to be an army barracks. The barracks was redeveloped in the 1980s but the shape of it is still clear and there are little red and green plaques on the stone walls that explain what the stone walls were built for. If I stop outside Osteoporosis 2000 I can read of how it used to be a military hospital. Then I forget. The parade ground is now a car park but I tell myself that I can still see the parade ground underneath. There is only so far you can go in any direction. I reach the steps and start my descent to Morrisons, the upper levels disappear from view, it is harder to see the footprint. I walk around and through the modified entrance and pass a vinyl policeman stuck to the window of the entrance and a security guard to the side of the entrance. I wait at a distance as the man in front of me picks up a basket, I move forward, I pick up a basket from a different pile. I forget where the things are and end up with the magazines, I don’t touch them, the aspirational magazines. We can dream a future, we can turn to the past, we can be anywhere but the present. The things that I am after are at the far end of the store. I go through the list and find nothing that is on the list. Apart from sponge scourers. The aisles seem tighter than before. A man inches forward, another man inches back, we make ourselves smaller to survive.

Day twenty-three. 7.05am. The men came again last night. They were here at 11pm, I saw them through the window as I was settling the house, their vans parked on the south side of the road. The sound didn’t disturb me, light industrial tones do not disturb me, it’s a comfort, a dull wash of grey noise. When I step into the street I expect to see a new road but nothing has changed. The machinery has gone. A patch of dust, some dented signs. I look up the road, past Travis Perkins, and I think I see the section they have been working on, it stops just short of the dentist, the pinkish grey surface, a night’s work. I turn back and cross the road and head towards the garage. It is bright and warm but most of the street is still in shadow. The shadows are cast from the tall south terraces and reach almost to the north terraces, the street is a Victorian street, what were my first impressions. I remember trying to find out when my house was built as I was moving in. I remember finding something from the 1860s, a plan or a census, it might have been a little later, a little earlier. James Murgatroyd the bootmaker lived here for several decades, an ironmonger lived in the house next door, a confectioner lived in the other house next door, though perhaps not at the same time. I pass the Hallam Veterinary Centre. In one of the shadows I find 10p which I pick up and put in my pocket. I wait for a tram to round the corner and I cross the road and then I cross the intersection. The cashpoint at Lloyds Bank has been smashed in, the glass and the plexiglass, the pieces have been swept from the pavement. Two lengths of black tape are stretched across the terminal to make an X. When I get to the garage forecourt I take a few moments to navigate the newspaper stand as some of the newspapers are back to front and I don’t recognise them. I go inside to pay for the newspaper, the cashier and I exchange our usual greetings, I turn to go, she says something as I leave, I don’t quite catch what it is, I pretend to hear, I pretend to understand, it might be nothing.

Day twenty-four. 10.25am. I hear birdsong from the upstairs rear windows and I know that if I step into the garden it will be gone. I go downstairs and into the kitchen and stop to listen where I stand, at the rear kitchen doors, I do nothing but listen, even so it is gone. It is not that the birds have gone, it is not that the birds are not there. It’s the air shifting, I think, it can’t carry as much. I don’t know what I mean by this and so I let the thought go. I step into the garden and hear what sounds like a light aircraft and take several more steps into the garden and look up at the sky and at the end of the sky there is a light aircraft. It is going into the south with a banner stretched behind it. The morning is cloudless, bright blue overhead, the sun’s glare hits the banner’s length, it is a blank space, all I read there is light. The aircraft dips below the terraces and the sound dies out. I try to remember why I came downstairs, it seems obvious now, the birdsong at my window can only be heard from my window. I go back upstairs. What else do I hear from my window, the traffic at the front of the house, quieter in the last month, the neighbours in their yards and gardens, hanging out washing, taking in washing, the dogs in the streets, near and far. I am at my desk as I think this over and I turn to a book in which I find sound maps of the Outer Hebrides compiled by Cathy Lane. The sketches record some of the acts of listening, individual and collective, that have taken place throughout the islands in the time that she has spent there, the sounds are plotted from memory. I think I am looking at South Uist. I read the map anticlockwise, Corncrake 2006, Substation Hum 2008, Generator Hum 2006. I try to visualise an audio map of the terrace, the sounds I have accumulated at my desk, some of them suspended for weeks (the extractor chimney of the Chinese takeaway, the building work at the former hairdresser’s, people on their way home from the pub), some of them amplified (the voices of neighbours at a near distance, the vibration from the defective drain cover on the main road), some of them lost. I have to stop and think about this. I don’t even know my own street. I go downstairs. I go outside. I am going to the garage for the second time today, there were no newspapers earlier, perhaps there will be newspapers now, somehow I don’t think so. I stop at the derelict site where the end terrace used to be. The rear of the property is in bad shape, the stone, the brick, the slates. All that remains of the front and the middle are a steel beam and the first few courses of the side walls. The site has been like this since the 1980s. It used to be a cafe. It was burnt down for the insurance, but the insurance never paid out, because it was burnt down for the insurance. My next-door neighbour told me this. She told me other things about the site but I wasn’t listening properly. When I moved in seven or eight years ago the plot was defended by something like chipboard, in six or seven sections, all different sizes, motley and grey. A few years later the makeshift fence was replaced with heavier wooden panels, the owner had them painted orange, this soon became a canvas for local graffiti artists, the panels were repainted after a few months, the graffiti returned within weeks. The other thing about the site was that there was a tree, or several trees, that had taken root in the cellar, it was something to see when it was in leaf. In February the wooden fence was removed and the tree or trees were cut down and the site was secured with corrugated steel panels. All the work took place within a day, there was a large team, there seemed to be some urgency. What are you doing, I wanted to say, look at yourselves. I don’t know where the birds are now but they’re around here somewhere.

Day twenty-five. 6.45pm. The corridor in which I store the bins is overflowing with miscellaneous plastics that cannot be collected by the kerbside recycling service teams so I gather the miscellaneous plastics into a large plastic holdall that was originally the single-use packaging for a double duvet. There’s a recycling site at the back of Morrisons that accepts miscellaneous plastics. I will go there, then I will go to Morrisons, I have earned this. I manoeuvre the holdall over several thresholds and into the street. I lock the door, cross the road, and attempt to relax into a stride. It is still light, it is too light, it has been getting lighter since the late afternoon. Although there are very few people around I am feeling slightly embarrassed, no, ill at ease, the stage before embarrassment. The holdall is transparent and it is full of rubbish. I cross to the entrance of the shopping precinct and shift the holdall from hand to hand. I read the text of the red and green plaque on the stone turret that used to mark a boundary of the barracks and now marks a boundary of a retail complex. The plaque is titled TURRET AND WALL and offers a condensed history of the site and its uses. I am perplexed by a sentence that reads in its entirety THE ARMY LEFT IN 1930 AND WAS THEN OCCUPIED BY BURDALL’S CHEMISTS. There’s not much more to the plaque. As I pass through the precinct, I notice another red and green plaque on a stone wall, it is titled THE HOSPITAL. I start to read it and then realise that the text below the title is identical to that which appeared on the previous plaque. The precinct is covered with what I assume is a thermoplastic roof, a polycarbonate roof, I could be wrong or half wrong. The roof doesn’t quite fit and other features have been added to compensate for this. I look up at the anti-pigeon nets and anti-pigeon spikes. Then I leave the precinct and start to cross the upper level of the supermarket car park. The recycling site is left then left again, behind the petrol station and the main delivery yard, there are no signs or markings for the recycling site. I arrive at the recycling site and set down the plastic holdall and take bunches of miscellaneous plastics in my hands and stuff them into a large green recycling bin. When I have finished I notice other miscellaneous plastics at the foot of the recycling bin and I gather these in bunches and stuff them in the bin. Is it repetition that wears us down, I think. I look out beyond the bins and glimpse a section of the Don valley as it leaves Owlerton and crosses into Neepsend. The slopes of the valley are pegged by pylons. It seems that they have nestled there forever. When I was very small I would name each pylon that we passed on the motorway from the back seat of my parents’ car and count them in my head. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. Pylon. I felt that the pylons belonged to me, if only because no-one else seemed to want them. I was always so happy to see them.

Day twenty-six. 7.30am. The house is cold and the pavement is cold. There is a cloud that sometimes comes, off-white, thick, and low, it has come today, it flattens everything, it drains the streets of shadow, depth, and distance. I used to live for days like this. I used to set out early with a camera and photograph the crispness of the buildings under taut blank skies. I still have the photographs somewhere but I couldn’t say with any certainty where or when most of them were taken. It was part of what I was then. The street is very still, small sounds die without echo, houses are drawn tight and close. Some of the houses could do with some work, I think, my own house included. My father would know what to do. My father would have known what to do. I could go on like this, correcting myself, to think that I would know what my father would think, to think that I would know what my father would know. He never saw this street. He was five years gone when I moved here. I’d stopped taking photographs by then. I pass the Hillsborough Pharmacy and the facade of the Tramways Medical Centre. It is easy to imagine him here, stepping back to read the brickwork of the former depot, piecing it all together, how it was built, when it was built. I don’t have his knowledge, though, I don’t have his eye. I don’t know what he would have made of this street. It is no consolation to make an image of someone, to project a set of values onto that image, to see yourself reflected in that image. It is no good. The sky presses down on Cash Converters and its flat barbed roof. When things come back, they come back to me indirectly, I am often thinking of something else. I am thinking of a walk in central London, it was March or April 2007, a Sunday, a beautiful warm spring day. I remember walking from Paddington railway station to Kensington Gardens, I remember walking through the gardens, I remember thinking back to the thoughts that passed through me on the train, that the walk would be nice, that the walk would do me good, I remember walking out of the gardens, I remember walking on to Exhibition Road, to Onslow Square and Sydney Street, I remember that there was blossom on the street trees. I remember meeting my mother at the main entrance of the Royal Brompton Hospital. I remember taking the lift with my mother to the ward that my father was on. I remember that my father was asleep and that we talked quietly until he came round. I remember leaving the ward with my mother and eating with her in the hospital canteen. I remember walking her back to her lodgings and then walking myself back to Paddington. I remember the call that came two or three days later, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, it was the afternoon, I was in the office, I was at my desk, it was my mother, calling from the Brompton, the results were back, the tests, the biopsy, they had done what they could, but there was nothing more that they could do, nothing more that anyone could do. I remember that the call came to an end and I left my desk and left the office and walked down three flights of stairs to the street. The office complex was adjacent to the bus station and I took a moment to find a wall that I could lean against without anyone seeing me and I leant there for several minutes. Then I went back to the office and returned to my desk. A few minutes later I took a call from a financial adviser who was querying a delay to a commission payment of £30. I handled the query to the best of my ability, no, that’s not true, I handled the query in a perfunctory manner. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the calls that my mother had had to make, alone, that day, to my brothers, to other family members, starting from nothing, then dialling the number. It wasn’t until later that I thought of her, sitting with my father as they waited for the results, everything changing in seconds, having to leave my father on the ward, finding her way back to her lodgings. It wasn’t until later that I thought of the things she said after she brought my father home, how my father had listened to what the consultant had to say, what had happened, what would happen, and that he had thanked him, that he shook his hand and he thanked him, for everything that he had done. He knew what work was. He knew that the consultant had done his best. He knew what that meant. The thought is never far from me now. I pass the garden at Hillsborough Place and glance up at the cherry blossom tree. The branches are greening and the cherry blossom is gone. I look again and see the petals still clinging to the inmost and furthest branches, there are too many to count, little clusters and sprays. I don’t have a camera with me so I try to remember them as they are.

 

Sheffield, 14–18 April 2020.

Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. Longbarrow Press is continuing to fulfil book orders via its website during the COVID-19 pandemic; all hardback titles are post-free in the UK, and deliveries to Sheffield addresses are made on foot. Orders are prepared, packaged and posted in accordance with recommended hand hygiene and other preventive measures. Click here for a full list of our current hardbacks and to order titles.

The first instalment of ‘Lockdown Walks’ can be found here; you can read the second and third instalments here and here. Photographs taken in north and south-west Sheffield, April 2020.

 



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