(With lots of speculation about another possible lockdown – here is my experience of London city during March 2020. This piece is part of a collection called A Wall Of Hearts, which is my memories of the world during the pandemic. Here going in to work for a shift during the first and only true lockdown.)
A Wall Of Hearts: A Solitary Seagull
My footsteps echo on the station floor, so loudly I’m fooled into believing somebody is behind me. That somebody else walks along the platform edge. They do not. I am alone. It is only me who has embarked from the train, the 07:24 to Victoria London. This train usually packed with office workers, heels hitting the station floor hard, briefcase bashing knees, the sound of headphones playing music. But today it is just me. As I get towards the ticket barrier I turn around, the empty platform stretches before me. The driver climbs down from his carriage, a bag slung over his shoulder. He walks in the direction I have just come from; heading towards the other side of the deserted train. I wonder if he too is fooled by his feet. If he too hears his own footsteps too loudly, but like me is comforted by the sound. Something to break the silence. He will drive the train back up the line, empty, deserted and then back again. A monotonous journey, back and forth. He is driving a ghost train, in a ghost town.
The announcement of the next train to leave platform 6 startles me. I flinch as I continue towards the ticket barriers. Who is it talking too, this loud booming voice that I usually can’t hear? That I usually pay no attention too. Not one single person is getting on that next train, nor the one after, or nor the one after that probably. A pigeon flies low above my head, it lands searching the ground for dropped chips, crumbs from the sandwiches of the usual commuters. The floors are bear, no crumbs have fallen. The food shops are locked up, no-doubt food already starting to rot behind the shutters. The pigeon coos as he waddles along, he will find no food here. I wonder if he is unsure as to where the usual flock of humans are. If the pigeon is confused by the bleakness? I’m confused by the bleakness. I expected maybe a trickle of hospital staff or other keyworkers. Maybe they will emerge soon, hurry along with heads down through the empty Victoria station. But right now, I can’t see them. A station staff member stands next to the barrier. He nods at me then his eyes wander off in another direction. He doesn’t want to look at me, he doesn’t want to acknowledge why I’m the only one heading into central London.
I walk out into the cool March morning. Early sun-rays dance on the rooftop of the theatre as if compensating for the lack of performers feet. The sun making its debut, the stage solely hers. She lights up the golden ballerina on Victoria Palace. An angel watching over us all, goodness knows we need it. An empty red bus moves slowly along the road. Once it passes, I cross not waiting for a green light, it doesn’t matter the road is now empty. I can still hear the sound of my feet; they are still with me. Have followed me out onto Victoria Street. Where shops are shut and windows closed. In a few days some of these very shop windows will be boarded up, huge walls of wood hammered onto the sidewalk. At times I’ll forget which shops are even behind them. For now, shoes on display, no feet to fill them, books that will not be read for many months. Coats hang like headless bodies in the window of a clothes shop, floating like ghosts. Neon lights that will not shine, some will never be lit again.
I think I can hear a noise, more footsteps, not mine. Someone is behind me; someone is close by. Another person on this deserted route. I sigh in relief, glad I’m not alone. But my relief is short lived, what if this person wants to attack me? rob me? hurt me? I could scream loudly but the sound would only echo through the empty street, disturbing only the flock of hungry pigeons exploring an empty bin. Somewhere further down Victoria Street a bus moves past, flickering in my vision like a mirage. It’s gone, past by as quickly as it came. I’m alone with my fear, my vulnerability. I want to turn, to face this person I’m sharing the street with. Face my fear. But I realise the sound of their steps have ceased, I’m alone again. Was I always alone? Was their ever really anyone behind me? Was it all along the ghost like coats hanging in the shop windows, I blink away the image of their arms held out towards me? My imagination running wild. Little did I know that this lonely walk would cause me fear on almost every shift thereafter the initial privilege of seeing London bare and exposed soon to feel sinister and scary.
I pass Westminster Abbey, where Big Ben remains behind the scaffolding, the builders sheets, his face hidden like he’s wearing a mask. The wall along the Thames footpath that will one day will be covered in hearts, the shrine to those we have lost is still empty, plain. The wall not yet aware of how symbolic it is destined to one day become. Me still unaware of what is to come, of the months of lockdown we are about to face. For now, there is just a plain wall and I just a nurse walking my way into the unknown.
A Seagull laughs at me, great loud guffaws. He stands on Westminster Bridge watching me as I walk, his eyes following mine. His plump feathered body looks almost too heavy for his scrawny orange legs. I am invading his space; I am invading his world. A world where a solidary seagull occupies what is usually one of the busiest bridges in London. A world where this seagull has become the king. He is the ruler. I hurry on past him towards the hospital, where I’m almost late for my shift.