Coronavirus lockdown: My first proper trip to the shops in weeks had a ghostly feel – Laura Waddell

Laura Waddell takes a long walk to the chemist and finds the effects of the pandemic lockdown surreal, with tension in the stillness.

The world is now a place where statues, like Mary Barbour in Glasgow, wear masks and humans seldom venture outside (Picture: John Devlin)
The world is now a place where statues, like Mary Barbour in Glasgow, wear masks and humans seldom venture outside (Picture: John Devlin)

Apparently the transporting of drugs stands out more amidst the hush of lockdown. Police in Sussex have reported arresting more drug dealers than is typical. I notice that the statement came on the eve of the 20 April, otherwise known as 4:20, long marked as an unofficial, counter-cultural holiday for cannabis smokers, some of whom take the opportunity for civil disobedience to protest against drugs laws.

What I hadn’t known until I looked it up out of curiosity is the quaint backstory to the date. Numbers are ripe for all kinds of interpretations and urban legend claims 420 as a police radio code, but the sequence has also been traced to five high school students in California, who in 1973 set out on a quest to recover a deserted cannabis crop marked on a map like green treasure.

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They were to meet by a statue at the time of 4.20pm, thereafter incorporating the numbers as code in their letters to one another. They didn’t find the field in the end, but the real trip was probably enjoying themselves along the way. Enid Blyton-esque parodies of the fivesome practically write themselves. The final chapter being that California has since legalised the drug, undoubtedly met with throat-burning lashings of ginger beer all round.

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In a 2009 addition to the Famous Five series, which has gone on a commercial journey far beyond Blyton’s 1968 death as guest writers have been commissioned to pick up her pen, the cute yesteryear picnics of sandwiches and currant buns were replaced by slices of pizza, and instead of whisky smugglers hiding in island coves the kids took on a pirate DVD operation operating under some environmentalist guise.

It is probably for the best that George, Dick and co are no longer taking boats out on the water by moonlight, even if they do have mobile phones now, but even just typing that last sentence made me feel hazy minded.

When The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr was shown on TV at Christmastime, in a truly magical hand-drawn cartoon adaptation that retained all the purring, stripy-tailed charm of the original, I insisted many adults my own age and much older watch it.

Pizza out, sausage and chips in

I had been asked to review it for the Christmas Eve Janice Forsyth radio show, and did so with a sense of critical duty, but ended up hooked on its fantastical glee. Kerr’s input into the production before she passed away included insistence that pizza be banished from a scene where the little family eats in a cafe together, and that the animators stick to the book’s original sausage and chips. Quite right, too. I’m all for pizza at any time, not least on special dates, but some things needn’t be messed with.

It’s true that quieter streets give less cover to the freakish. Were roaming aimlessly permitted, the oddities of lockdown would be a photographer’s dream. This week I took a long walk to pick up a prescription, preferring to go on foot rather than take one of the eerily quiet buses that glide smoothly by frequently unmanned stops.

On my way I passed a smashed pair of dentures, their pink gums a sticky accumulation of grey grit and debris, the exploded teeth blasted to clusters of twos and threes, pointing in every direction and casting tiny spiky shadows.

On a main city road, I watched an empty can with its hollow rattle roll straight down the middle of the left hand lane, taking the place of traffic. Who knows where it was going. Perhaps to deposit itself in the recycling bin.

By nature of lockdown stillness, these everyday objects become abstracted. Shuttered shop signs pasted a month ago promise to return to serve customers soon, peeling at their edges.

Their language is the mode of the day – a mishmash of panic and optimism, as though unsure which tone is the most appropriate. I passed a Polish shop. On an already fading A4 sign taped to the glass door, side by side with its English language counterpart, I learned ‘awuga’ means ‘attention’. This short bold word printed in red ink caught mine. It makes me realise there will be signs like it, in every language, in every country.

A prickle of paranoia

In the end I didn’t enjoy the walk, despite anticipating my first proper trip to the shops in weeks would be stimulating. It was too odd to see the ordinarily busy streets free of cars, pleasant under any other circumstances. The emptiness feels portentous, full of the ghosts of normalcy.

We become ghosts ourselves walking through the streets. Walking past a pub and being confronted with boarded-up windows reminds us only two months ago we might have bought a drink and tipped it up into our bodies. The padlocks and chains on the doors rattle and we regret taking it all for granted.

The specific sensation of being surrounded by an unnaturally subdued high street is difficult to place. There is tension in the stillness. Up blooms a prickle of paranoia that something unpleasant is waiting to happen, something to fill in the gaps where nothing is happening, when everything is deathly peaceful but for a stranger’s footsteps off in the distance, echoing louder than expected with the acoustics all around askew.

But turning away from the city, some things are as they ought to be. Nature is newly reassuring. Spring is budding day by day.

I notice the height of trees that existed long before I was born with a new sense of wonder for their robustness and strength. Some of them are so tall. I hadn’t even noticed before now.

The bright spring sunlight filters the leaves a brilliant green until they shimmer like a mirage against April’s creamy, dreamy blue sky. I half expect to see the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland grinning back from an upper branch. Everything is a little unreal, nowadays.

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