It’s a new world out there, that looks the same, but doesn’t feel the same.
I sit by the window. Looking outside is like looking into a screen at a distant world, only received as a faint signal, without body or consistency- an image carried on the surface, broken up by the breeze.
The light is white, bright and without its usual lilac hue.
Nights are darker than I’ve ever known them to be in this city.
The birds are loud, so loud their song sharpens my gaze. I can often spy a tiny finch singing in a tangle of branches high up above me without even squinting.
Silence is loud, too. It spreads through the streets and magnifies them, creating space, widening the sky.
Last Friday a helicopter rumbled above the house, and I was startled into panic at the sudden sound cutting through the mid-afternoon torpor. In that moment I realised how absent sonic disruption has been for the last few weeks, how quiet the skies above, except for a lonely plane occasionally crossing the empty space, leaving trails behind that, in these strange days, look to me like undecipherable runes, black then white in the unstoppable rhythms of night and day.
The trees that I meet every day on my walks are wildly in bloom, despite the stillness around- or perhaps because of it. The heavy white, pink, and maroon flowers press the branches towards the heads of the few people still daring to walk the streets, weaving extravagant choreographies around each other to avoid proximity. It’s a hard dance to fathom, dizzy as we all are, intoxicated by the oxygen feedback inside the protective masks that we wear.
I look inside a drain by the sidewalk, and it is full of fallen petals, glowing magnificently in the dappled sunlight.
I have silenced all the clocks in the house, removing the batteries from the digital alarm clock in the bedroom, and stilling the mechanisms of all the others, as I used to do when I was a child, just before going to bed at my grandparent’s home, where I would walk through the corridor meticulously visiting every single one of the many timekeepers dotted around the house, like a little, sudden death.
As for the light, I remain caught in its cycles, recurring and unbreakable, but the thought of hiding behind drawn curtains is worse even than the inescapable repetition of the days.
How long can this last?
A few days ago I walked down a quiet side street, and I watched the moon grow bigger and brighter from where I stood, surrounded by the tall bodies of the council blocks that leaned onto each other, brick on brick, tired and silent. I tried hard, but I couldn’t imagine an end to this, not even an apocalyptic one. The moon never grew too close. Only big enough to startle.
Death came to visit. The local cobbler was taken, together with his old father.
I have known Ahmet for the better part of the last two decades, he was a kind and funny man, who mended many of my shoes throughout the years, a loyal accomplice, his soles accompanying my relentless onward journeys through the city on foot.
His shop was a refuge for all the neighbourhood’s drifters and the lonely, who would stop by for some company, for a tenner, or a smile. An unkind irony for him to have to go so soon, and so unmercifully alone.
When I walked to his shop down the road to leave a tribute, I found a makeshift shrine had appeared- hand-written post-it notes stuck to the window, fresh flowers in cut plastic bottles, cards and notes huddled together in a proximity that after only a few weeks already feels like a dream. I looked through the window into the workshop: everything sat still but alive, an exact impression of Ahmet’s last day at work, minus his blackened palms and his blue overalls.
A monumental absence awaiting to be replanted with new seed- Ahmet’s son- once these strange days are through, and the brutal, solitary mourning is done.
I’ve been thinking of how this city is going to mark the newly reaped absence.
How will it deal with the empty spaces left?
How will it accommodate the new distance between people?
How will it teach them to grow close again, when that time comes?
Will it be possible to come together again once we have braved the unfathomable terror of dying alone?
Everything will change, and yet, as always, the city will carry its dead in its groin, in its bowels, it will grind them back to earth, together, and from them it will build again, as it always does.
That is its compassion and its cure, that is its spirit and vision, benign and malevolent at once.
The day before the lockdown began, I went for a walk into central London.
I walked from Stoke Newington down empty sidewalks, past Angel, through a silent Bloomsbury and into Soho, walking down the middle of a completely deserted Old Compton Street, where the lights of the theatre shone in the afternoon sun, a beacon for ghosts.
I crossed a silent Piccadilly Circus and walked on to Leicester Square, where the pigeons, bathing gladly in the shimmering waters of the fountain, by far outnumbered the people.
The only impression of movement were the immobile statues of Mary Poppins with a drawn umbrella, poised to take flight, and Shakespeare, sitting on top of the fountain, reminding us that there is no darkness but ignorance.
I reached Trafalgar Square: a lone DJ had set up his equipment on a small foldable table under the entrance to the National Gallery, and was playing his loud set for the emptiness unravelling over the white marble esplanade before him, for the stone lions and the sporadic adventurers moving through the dense silence like cosmonauts or deep sea divers, trying to capture the strangeness of the moment with their telescopic lenses. Sunlight poured over everything with a brightness that almost erased it, sealing the images in space, as though that eerie moment could only ever exist as a fleeting impression in the eye. I moved on towards Covent Garden, where nothing stirred. A woman sat at the information cart, wearing a protective mask and gloves, scanning the emptiness for someone who might need some help, some direction through this new wilderness.
I crossed to the other side of the market, and I found a lonely busker, playing his guitar and singing to a homeless man as he laid his cardboard sheets over the threshold of one of the many shuttered shops, settling down for the night at the height of the afternoon.
As I made my way back north I saw other homeless men settling down for the night while the sun still shone over the empty, eerie city, over its static shape, a monstrous engine ground to a halt. The seams begin to show.
Skim the fat from the surface and the waters become clear. You can see all the small lives crowding at the bottom, where the bottom is now the surface, and all hierarchies of space and time are dissolved.
All bodies grow powerful, visible again in their undeniable presence- in want, in need, or in fugue. In defiance too- after all staying at home implies having a home to shelter in.
The city flickers in and out of existence in this strange new slumber, cackling like a radio slipping in and out of signal. I remember that the river is somewhere beyond the pale, phantasmic buildings that now stand before me like a hand-drawn theatre backdrop. I reach with my finger and tear through one of them, just a small hole through which I can look to the other side. But there is nothing there, only bright white light past this paper frontier. The dripping inside a pipe hanging from the side of a building reaches me loud and clear, like an amplified signal from another dimension.
I hear metal roll across the pavement- coins? screws? bottle caps?
I hear my footfall, and broken glass crackle underfoot- the sound of this great pause.
The waters of the ponds in the park collect me every day. Different species of ducks flicker like fires over the water, diving after beams of light, courting or fighting, populating the air with calls and song. Birds and trees stir, and the liveness of everything fills me up despite my anxiety and exhaustion, like an empty bottle replenished at a cool fountain. With time, I watch the surface settle, from endless ripples into perfect stillness, mending me in the process.
Then suddenly dusk returns, and night, and another day comes to an end.
Nights are unearthly these days, silent like the ones I remember from my childhood in the South of Italy, bejewelled with stars. I am louder than the night, alert- I can hear my breathing, I can hear my foot stirring in my slipper.
Tomorrow I will awake from a night of broken sleep and fragmented dreams, and everything will be strangely the same.
But then maybe the rain will come and freshen up the air, tease the smells out of the sleeping grass, and I will be able to travel farther than today.
On the first day of the lockdown I found a £10 note on the floor, outside the bakery, shuttered like most of the other shops on the street.
It was flapping calmly in a pool of sunlight, going nowhere. There was nobody around, and I wondered whether it might have fallen from the sky, divine providence delivering an omen to me, knowing that the thrill of it would have to last me through the drought of the lockdown.
I miss that the most- the chance collisions that the city provokes, the intoxicating alchemy of different stories rubbing against one another, inexplicable juxtapositions that illuminate my days, humble miracles, tender sidewalk transcendence, the kind that works if you’re keeping one eye shut, welcoming the hand showing through the seams.
I’ve always liked the Wizard of OZ behind his curtain, little man keeping the phantasmagoria moving along while we all find the time to remember how complete and divine we already are.
This city is OZ, a prism of refracted light, a palace of smoke and mirrors, a fairground ride in which you either laugh or scream in terror.
Right now I am sitting on my bed as my house is lifted into the eye of the tornado. Outside the window everyone hurtles by, squirrels, bicycles and people flying about- six feet apart from one another- as though they too were refracted images from another dream. I am barefoot, no red slippers yet and no way back home- the borders of most countries remain closed, and the only flights permitted are those of the imagination.
But I know that when my house lands on the wicked witch, killing her, I will wear her charmed shoes, and there will be a yellow brick road to follow with a company of friends, most of them broken, startled, tired from the last few months alone. We won’t know the way at first, but we will be able to remember how to sing and dance our way through our fear and loneliness together again, and that will be half the journey done.