I walk into the city alone. It feels strange. It’s still pretty quiet, but there are more people around than there were a few weeks ago. Loudspeakers boom out recorded warnings to maintain social distancing. Here and there tape and paint mark the pavements at two-metre intervals. Confusing one-way systems are inconsistently enforced by masked security guards.
Most people aren’t wearing face masks; those that are sport a wide array of styles - simple green ones reminiscent of hospital PPE, designer ones (mainly black, but sometimes in bright colours or patterns) or homemade knitted efforts. Most of the shops are empty but by half-past ten a queue already snakes around the outside of Primark and up towards the subway down through to the Bear Pit.
I sit in Castle Park for a while. The grass looks course, spotted with patches of yellow and bare zones of reddy-brown mud. The wind moves the clouds quickly overhead and makes the trees rustle and sigh. I can hear snatches of animated conversation from two young women somewhere behind me and the cries of the gulls above whose shadows dance across the ground. Across the park sit a couple in almost mirror-image T-shirts - his bright orange with black writing, hers the reverse. Deliberate or accidental? They aren’t talking, just sitting with their backs towards me looking out across the water.
A man suddenly sits down next to me, catching me by surprise and a bit too close for comfort in these times of pandemic. He asks for my help in a deep West African accent - he’s trying to log into an app on his phone and doesn’t understand the instructions. I squint at the screen, not getting too close. Something to do with his work - one field clearly says “Worker ID” so I suggest he try logging in with his ID or employee number.
The app digests this and his name appears, but he’s not sure of the password. Another squint, this time at a text message ostensibly with instructions, reveals a password in amongst the jumble of lower-case, unpunctuated information. He slowly taps it in, twice, then smiles, thanks me and leaves. I realise a moment later that, other than the odd functional interaction with a shop assistant or security guard, this is the first stranger I’ve talked to for months. I get up and start walking home.