Yesterday, non-essential shops in England were allowed to reopen. My mum, my sister and I took the chance to go to a shop selling something other than food and drink for the first time in several months.
During the strictest part of lockdown, my family had compiled a list of things we wanted to change about our house. We were then, like almost everyone else, spending an unbearable amount of time indoors. No longer pulled from out of the house by friends, work, school, university, we would move around the same space again and again. We began to notice little details we had never focused on before. Faded paint on sections of the walls, unpainted furniture and doors, pictures and photographs which were meant to have been hung up but never were. What we noticed most were the traces of the previous owners, from whom we had bought the house not that many years ago: their touches remained ghostly visible on the doors, the walls, the choices of décor. A space which had become our only real room for existence had to also become ours. There was one stool in the kitchen which my mum decided she wanted to have repainted yellow – a Van Gogh yellow, she said to us as we ate supper one evening, one which can be seen on the petals of sunflowers in low evening sun. So, this morning, we decided to get into the car and drive to buy this poetic, yellow paint.
We drove along the North Circular on the way to the paint shop. This is a type of road which dashes force into two lanes, sometimes even three – it has the controlled boundaries of a motorway but within a city. Today, it was busier than it has been for the past few weeks. Each car moved slowly along in its chosen lane, separated from the others around it by a defined amount of space. As I sat in my seat, I saw other people draw up alongside my window. Sometimes the windows were tinted, and I couldn’t see in, but at other times, I watched the strangers beside me. Our bodies were parallel to one another’s and the streaks of rain on my window would distort their ears, their eyes, their hair. Ever since coronavirus, I have grown acutely aware of the distance between people. When they are too close, I now reflexively flinch: watching films, I instinctively become uncomfortable when two strangers draw near one another or when crowds of people mix. On the North Circular, inside the car, though, I felt safe even as I sat so close to others. Cars have become like socially distanced boxes, carrying within them and containing the world of its inhabitant and their traces. For a brief time, a cyclist was beside me. He was so close to me, that I could read the labels on his clothing and make out small droplets of sweat around his face. But his germs, his breath, bounced up against the glass, invisible, as he strained his way up the hill. We drove past him, on to the shop.
We parked the car and made our way over. I waited outside and watched through the shop front as my mum and sister opened the door with nudges of their shoes. Once inside, they stood by the door. They couldn’t have moved any further into the shop if they had wanted to, for the shopkeeper had set a large table between himself and anyone coming in from the outside world. My mum began to talk to him and as she gestured towards cans of paint, I heard the noise of the street behind me. Cars drove across the window. A bus moved unflinchingly towards a pink chair; a person carrying bags of shopping slowly walked over a green table and the bus-stop sign found itself attached to three mirrors inside the shop. I remembered reading a rubbish collector’s Facebook account of how he would approach houses to empty their bins in the early days of lockdown and he would notice children’s eyes and faces looking out at him from behind drawn curtains. Sometimes, he wrote, they would be scared and move away from the window. Sometimes, they would part the curtains, smile, and wave to him: he wrote that he liked those moments best. Since then, our windows have grown colourful: they have become filled with rainbows. Lacking in balconies like the Italians or the Spanish, we have written out our gratitude and words of motivation on the glass between us and everyone else. I thought about these portal-boundaries as my mum and sister moved towards the glass exit, holding a can of ‘Dutch Yellow’. At the door, my mum stopped and turned to the bottle of hand-sanitizer that had been attached to the wall. It automatically poured disinfectant into her open palms. She covered her hands in it and then wiped the can of paint clean, too. Then, they opened the door and joined me on the pavement.
The day is ending with me painting the kitchen stool yellow in the garden. I leave it on the grass and step back. It is bright in the evening shadows. I imagine how it will stand in the kitchen and on hot days, it will make me think of sand or cornfields, bits of impossible summer, yellow and warm. I imagine all of this and I think about how I will tell the friends who will visit us one day that this stool was painted during lockdown: it will become for them, for me, a window into that past, odd, distanced era of covid.