We are living through strange, eerie times. What may have seemed ordinary or unexceptional experiences a couple of weeks ago may now be filtered via a heightened sense of awareness.
About 2 weeks ago, I decided to break out of my voluntary self-isolation and take a walk in Regent’s Park. In normal times, I often do this around 5.00 pm but this time, obsessed with BBC news, I didn’t get into the park until about 6.20. The weather was not great, coldish and grey. I set out on my default route, about 90 minutes’ walk through the park, up Primrose Hill, back to Regent’s Park, round the lake, through the Rose Garden, up the Broadwalk and home.
I was convinced that the gates to the park were not locked until 8.00 pm during March. How wrong I was. Half way round my circuit, I did start to think it was getting quite dark. Strange, I thought, it’s usually still a little light when the gates are shut. Not many people around. It was then I twigged that closing time was 7.00 pm until British Summer Time begins on 29 March. Durrr. A glance at the iPhone showed the time now was 7.20. I was by the exit gate near Baker Street by then. Clearly shut. No sweat, I’ll walk over the bridge and try the gates opposite the Open-air Theatre. No joy, securely padlocked. I am stuffed.
In normal circumstances, at this point, I may have felt a twinge of anxiety but no, we are living in extraordinary circumstances, would this kind of setback have fazed people during the Blitz? After all, Boris Johnson has urged us all to summon up the wartime spirit and send this invisible killer packing.
I return to the Baker Street gate again, hoping there might be people around to appeal to for help. The area was deserted. What to do? No point in googling the Corporation of London – just end up with an endless round of recorded messages. Police? That would be a bit pathetic. I have my pride.
I began to realise I was uncharacteristically calm and carrying on. Serendipity. Two young male joggers appeared around the corner, chatting, foreign, Italian I surmised. I asked if they had seen an open gate anywhere. No, they hadn’t. How were they going to get out, then? They laughed, they would jump over a gate – they were happy to help me over too. At this point, an irrational and rather shameful flash of fear bubbled up from my sub-conscious. Italian, young, had they just arrived in London, full of virus? Assisting me over the gate would involve bodily contact. Can I risk it?
I demurred, thanking them for their kindness, pointing over at the American university building that had some lights on. I’ll see if I can find a way out from there, I mumbled. The runners smiled, I’d like to think they thought I was scared of climbing over the gate. I hope they didn’t see through me. I am definitely a heel. For all I know, they’re off duty doctors, shoring up our understaffed NHS.
No response at the university. I’m on my own now, serve me right, I have spurned the obvious escape from this quandary. There is another locked exit gate nearby. I size it up. It’s about 5 feet high, I am 6 feet tall. My sharpened senses detect that the spikes on the gate are rounded at the top, not sharp. A piece of cake. But hang on, I’m in my late 70s, what if I get stuck?
Nothing ventured and all that. Think positive. Think, if I don’t get out of here, I’m going to have a very uncomfortable night. Think, why am I so bloody unbothered? One foot wedged between the railing, swing the other leg up and over, that’s the way to do it. You can do it, get that foot up higher. Whoops, a little ripping sound from my rain jacket but then, a torn garment is a small price to pay for…..freedom.
I land on the other side, jubilantly. I raise both fists in a gesture of triumph. That was the moment the security van cruised up beside me. Front it out, man. I nodded imperiously at the driver. He took one quick look at me and obviously decided I was no threat to humanity, rather a doddery old eccentric, probably confused, too. Well, I was a bit shabbily dressed. The guard moved off.
I walk around the corner into the Inner Circle. I am feeling good. I have faced the dragon and come out on top. 15 metres in front of me, a beautiful sleek, hungry looking fox glides out of the Rose Garden and crosses the road. As he passes, he glances briefly and indifferently at me, then slips through the railings, making for the lake. Watch out, ducks.
I feel exhilarated. The fox and I, two companions of the road, both driven by the need for survival. I start to hear the night sounds of the park with great clarity, from the lake, from the trees, from the bushes, in a way I have never done before. It’s as though my banal mini-crisis has opened up my senses and enhanced my personal relationship to this enormous national emergency.
I walk home to Parkway, feeling somehow a more complete human being.