Sarah Coles



Last year, we thought Covid would come and go like Spanish flu – killing plenty, sure, but over after a few months.  In fact Covid has rumbled on since March 2020 and it’s now January 2021.  We are in our third lockdown, with spiky graphs climbing higher and higher, and reports of overflowing hospitals and a coffin shortage.  In ‘free’ periods not many people were about, and a plus was the joy travelling by train or going to the cinema because no one could sit beside you.

Now, again everywhere except essential shops (food, hardware, post office but I can’t think of anywhere else) are closed.  The Bell, the Globe, the Horse and Groom, and the Swan in Alresford are closed with a cold, desperate look.  Dark after night.  In shops masks must be worn.   Some food places like Caracoli do take away coffees (trendy now, to walk along with an outsize recyclable mug in your hand).   I wanted plastic folders for paper, and since the struggling stationers down the road was closed, I had to get some on the web.  The young man running the pet and bird food shop says every shop is desperate, wondering how long they can cling on.  He foresees independent shops going bankrupt and Tesco and the Coop surviving.  Freezing customers wait outside the chemist. Only two people are admitted at a time.

The half hourly 64 bus into Winchester continues.  Never seen a passenger aboard.  Empty and lit after dark, a ghost double-decker bus.

Masks!  Blue layered paper ones are the usual, though between lockdowns dressed shops displayed them glamorous coloured and patterned.   We must wear them in shops, and some people wear them in the street.   We can’t recognise friends.  We can’t hear anyone, their speech is muffled.  People swerve to avoid us on the street, as if we had the plague.  In Winchester there’s a monument to the 1660s plague of the 1660s, and there should be one for the 2020s Covid.

On pavements the earlier notices (‘maintain 2 metres distance’) have long  worn off, but coins of chewing gum remain.  This pandemic with its no touch, keep apart rules, no kissing, shaking hands, has made people more isolated than they have been. No parties. The careful hairdressers are shut now.

Friends divide.  First those who are ultra careful and we never see, the Bonham Carters, David Vellacott, Anne and David Hanson, Pru de Lavison except when I’m getting groceries for her – she’s had a knee op and can’t walk far.  Terror of death?  Or naturally law abiding?  Then, those who could not give a toss or are desperate to talk (usually about themselves), like Bob and me, Lucinda Pilbrow, Susanna Hardman, Rosemary Chambers, Rosie Sturgis and Jim Ekins.  It’s not that we’re in denial, we’re just not bothered.   No playing bridge for Bob now – his pals are terrified of being snitched to the police.  No golf either for Bob, it’s forbidden.  In Scotland it’s ok – Bill says Nicola Sturgeon has a keen golfer in her cabinet.

Bob and I, being over eighty, have had our first vaccines at the Holiday Inn.  All quick, efficient and friendly, though behind their masks we did not recognise smiles or greetings of friend or acquaintances.

Grandsons mourn school, sport, friends, and do lessons via Zoom.  Bella brings them cocoa at break.  I called in the farm with a pot of marmalade and G received it in his Zoom uniform – school tie, regulation shirt, with pyjama bottoms and slippers.  I took a photo and asked his permission to put it on Instagram – he said he’d rather I didn’t.  Here he is smiling but headless.

In the first lockdown churches were shut seven days a week, and at Easter Justin Welby the Archbishop of Canterbury was televised performing the eucharist in his kitchen, as if he acting in a Monty Python comedy film.

Winchester is virtually deserted, just a few stalls open for coffee.  At the doors of M & S, Tesco’s and the like assistants stand to check masks and spray perfumed anti bacterial liquid on our hands.  But worth coming for the cathedral, now open daily from 11 am to 3 pm.  No cost, just a touch card donation if you feel inclined. Inside the stone soars up, glorious, empty  – is there even a caretaker here? No clutter, no chairs, no groups with guides pointing at Jane Austen’s tomb, no droning voice through the microphone, no services, all utterly lovely as the winter light streams through the south clerestory windows on silver grey  arches, vaulting and lines of heads.  The floor of tomb slabs shines greys and blacks.  More spiritual than it has ever been.  Only marred by piercing blue screens with silent messages, today about domestic abuse.

Up near the choir a nativity is still on display.  Usually I hate sanctimonious religious sculpture, but this is simple and rough, and I love it.  The kneeling kings and standing shepherds are stunned silly at the sight of the baby (The sculptor = ?).  Only thing is, there’s an ox behind Mary, and until you get up close it looks as if she has horns.

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