It’s turned cold now, here in the south of England. September stayed warm and, somehow, for me, there is a disbelief that winter is coming. Last night, it rained heavily. The puddle outside our house, by the garages, has expanded and no longer resembles Ireland.
I walk up the straight road, with the old people’s home and, then, the secondary school grounds on one side and the local store on the other. I see the green of the field between the slats in the fence. I think of the opportunity I turned down, as I look at my shoes. I’m wearing a cap to keep my unkempt hair out of sight.
I had been accepted on an English teaching assistant placement to work in a school in the German countryside. For two months, I had wrestled with what to do to. I had tried to imagine it – getting on the plane, taking a taxi and settling into my on-site accommodation and every scene was a struggle to imagine. I have never lived without family members, rarely cooked for myself and never worked in a school – and rarely been abroad by myself.
I couldn’t talk to anyone, it seemed, as I doubted my ability to articulate my dilemma of desperation. The placement felt like a gift, as I had not been interviewed for it, nor tested on my German. So, I simply fretted thoughtlessly and let the days pile up. After asking for delays, finally, I was pressed to make a decision and I found myself typing an email withdrawing.
I felt relief from the weeks of uncertainty and then a vague sense of loss and grief. Could I have managed? I don’t know but I need change. When I finally and reluctantly spoke to my counseler of the decision, she suggested that incremental change might be safer. I couldn’t explain that I am already stranded and that I can’t seem to move. Every temporary job ends without any progress and my anxiety is severe. I need real change, with support, but don’t know where to turn.
I cross the two lane road which, going right, takes you up to the town centre. I passed over the small stream which, in the opposite direction, joins a river which, eventually, joins the River Thames over in the large town where I had once briefly worked in a stockroom. I headed down a quiet suburban road, towards the train tracks. I cross the concrete bridge, covered in fresh graffiti, that takes me over the train tracks and onto a road that heads towards a village. The town and it’s neighbouring village have been my home for my whole conscious life.
I don’t walk far. In the past, during my times of unemployment or underemployment, I would make for one of the local libraries to pass the time. However, due to the pandemic, none of them have seating. Moreover, I’ve hung around them so much, it brings about melancholy to stay there too long. In the world of working from home, it’s no longer so suspect to sit in your room all day.
Instead, I make for a small park, which sits on the road of variously shaped village houses, with names like Park View and Owl Cottage. Roses and lavender line some of the small front gardens. Over the past year, there have been a number of for sale and, then, sold, signs on posts outside these picturesque row of homes. I don’t know if the turnaround is more than usual but it could well be. The pandemic has encouraged a life reconsideration for many people, with many homeowners deciding to cash in on high house prices and move, often further out to the countryside. The government suspended a tax on house sales which kept the price bubble rising this year.
I try to imagine myself living in one of these quaint houses where, no doubt, everyone on the street knows everyone else. I try to imagine myself selling up to move somewhere else – starting a new chapter in life. I wonder what it takes to make such decisions. It would be hard to have a private shouting match without most hearing it, I suspect. My mum always wanted to own a nice house and is very good with house keeping and has green fingers. My mum deserves it but, unfortunately, it’s not how the world works. My mum would fit in here well, I think. I can imagine her working on the small front garden and chatting to the dog walkers and neighbours who pass by.
There’s not many in the park at this time, except people making their way home from work, from the train station and the odd parent and child, heading home too from, perhaps, after school activities. It’s cold and everything seems a little grey.
The park is square, almost like a village green, with a path that runs the perimeter and a pavilion building and bowling green at one end. Beyond that, are train tracks that go to the local station which lies between London and the county town to the south, where I had travelled to to attend university lectures, years ago. The two beige rectangles of the cricket batting strips that lay in the middle of the green, like the moon and her reflection, had faded as the grass had grown back. The cricket season was over now and white lines mark out two football pitches and gleaming white goal posts stand at either ends.
In the past winter, when I had discovered the park, I had routinely jogged around twice and walked once. I had practised my vocal training, using techniques I had learnt in recent classes. On my walking lap, I would quietly sing Amazing Grace and try to project my voice through resonation of the front and upper part of my head. I had felt as if I had made some progress but, I had barely practised for a year.
When spring and then summer came, I didn’t want to run or walk but wanted to sit down. I had a temporary job, working from home and during my vaguely timed hour lunch break, I liked to collect the free newspaper from the train station, just over another bridge, and sit on benches beneath the corkscrew willows and read the news section from cover to cover. Sometimes, there would be bowls matches going on in the fenced off green in front of me, with the, primarily, seniors playing in their all whites/cream attire. I kept my head down, rather than understand the game but wondered how it was that they could reach such a ripe age and still enjoy a mere game. I supposed that they were vastly stronger than me.
Today, I settle down to read the newspaper with no game going on and a slight chill reaching beneath my coat and hoodie. I have my back to the dog-walkers and two boys kicking a ball. Reading the newspaper makes me afraid for the future of Britain. Perhaps, it is partly why I applied for the placement in Germany. The pandemic, Brexit and global crises are combining to create a shortage of workers in the country, particularly, delivery and lorry drivers, who, apparently left en masse to their home countries in the past year or so, and, meanwhile, the cost of living is rising sharply. There is talk of Christmas supplies not reaching shelves and there is an ongoing run on petrol, causing shortages and queues across the country.
An environmental protest group, an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, have taken to blocking roads, calling for the government to insulate the social housing it owns to save on energy usage and provide better living conditions. The newspaper articles focus mostly on the disruption they are causing, including apparently, to emergency services. The images of protesters in fluorescent orange high vis vests sat on the road surrounded by police and, sometimes, angry drivers, go with promises by government officials to get tough on the protesters. There is talk of two-year prison sentences but, so far, they have not, I think, been applied.
I look at the daily coronavirus cases in the UK, which remain over 30,000, with a relatively stable number of under one hundred dying per day, on average. Part of me pines for a return to lockdown, when everyone became, to an extent, stranded and stagnant, and I didn’t feel so afraid and alone. It’s unlikely to happen. The UK government have relaxed most restrictions and cases are likely to rise but they haven’t exploded, as some feared, even with schools and universities restarting. Moreover, the relatively high vaccine take-up, which is being expanded to children over 12, has meant that not so many people are dying or becoming seriously ill. Nonetheless, the UK’s national health service (NHS), which provides free healthcare at point of service, and is funded by taxation, is struggling under the weight of procedures delayed by Covid and high staff strain and sick rates. The NHS is under-staffed too – like, it seems, most industries in the UK.
The free newspaper is a helpfully brief paper and has a mix of notable national and international news with small segments on the curious – such as the excavation of a horde of ancient coins found in some place or other. It can be read, I think, in a sitting of forty-five minutes. It was an enjoyable way to pass my hour commute into central London, pre-pandemic, and I have tried to read it most days even without a commute or work to go to. During the pandemic lockdown, I nearly always walked to collect the paper from the train station but, once I brought it home, rarely was able to sit myself down and read it.
I decide to do one more walk around the park. I sense that other walkers look at me suspiciously. I am a lone brown man in a hoody and cap, with, perhaps, a sullen look to go with it. I somehow want to capture these moments in memory, for, I sense time and life slipping away. However, as I pass trees that line the path and the sound of starlings twittering noisily high on pine trees that line the train tracks, I can’t think. I want to feel some emotion – perhaps, sorrow or rage but I simply see the path taking me around, past the lime trees and the clematis on the fence that sprung flowers and scent back in Spring and towards the small car park at the entrance. It’s almost like being on antidepressants again.
“Still going round?” a woman asks me, as she enters the park. “I haven’t seen you for a few months.”
I smile and nod. She’s of Indian or Pakistani heritage, perhaps, in her fifties and is a frequent walker around the park. When I came here at lunch-time, during my breaks from the remote home job, I’d meet her almost every day. Finally, I had had a brief, socially-distanced, conversation and she had told me that she lived in a house nearby which she and her husband had bought cheaply decades ago and had returned to it after living in America for a while. Her husband, it turned out, was another frequent walker in the park who I exchanged nods with. He was a former dentist and the couple walked separately, as he was a fast walker and she slow, she told me. “You don’t need to run,” he once said to me, “you need to go to the gym and get stronger.” He raised a fist to show a flexing motion. We returned to silently nodding at each other afterwards.
“Yeah,” I replied, “just walking around.”
“They’re going to close it soon,” she said. “Just a quick one…”
It was around six pm and the park rangers close the gates sometime before sunset. I hurried away and found myself doing another circuit of the park. Part of the way around, for some reason, I broke into a run and then walked home.
5 Oct, 2021