Yesterday Jeanne and I took our daily lockdown walk, and we went a little further than usual. It was March the last time I walked further than the Arches down Gloucester Road. Since then, all our late afternoon strolls have seen us weaving through suburbs, exploring sleepy avenues and cul-de-sacs. On a whim, however, last night we decided to continue on, right the way down to the harbourside we’ve not seen in so very long. What a bleeding mistake that was.
From where we live up in Horfield and all the way down to the Arches, things are mostly fine. Bristol is never going to win any ‘cleanest streets’ awards, but around our way it looks reasonably smart. However, I’m not sure whether this is because nobody is tidying up during lockdown or because I’ve grown accustomed to the preened front lawns of suburbia, but Jesus fuck Stokes Croft is a mess.
As we wandered down the road, the pavement underfoot grew increasingly speckled with gobbed chuddy and bird shit, and crisp packets rolled by like tumbleweed, tickling our ankles as they passed. Layers of peeling posters dated from March and April were plastered across all bus stops, corrugated iron fences, lampposts, and the windows of derelict businesses. Puddles of piss and vomit were congealing in every right angle of masonry, and upon the barren garden of Turbo Island, scorched limbs of old sofas lay smoking in the evening sun.
As we walked and grimaced, I began to realise why these streets I’d always rather loved walking down suddenly looked so grim: for the past two months, I’ve cringed away from touching anything from a public bench to the door handle of my local off license. Having had a frothing germ phobia hammered into me to the point where I am now terrified of using a shopping trolley at the Big Tesco, there’s no wonder I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be met with the bum-stained flagstones that line the road to Bristol’s centre.
Another reason for the sudden abjectness of those streets is the fact that nowhere is open. Walking home from work in the dark winter months – big coat on, collar turned up, hands plunged into pockets, head down against the whip of a chill wind – the grime felt oddly romantic and sexy. A kicked-over dustbin spilling soggy cardboard and falafel remnants into the road looks quite grungy and artistic when illuminated by the flickering red neon of a kebab shop next door, and soundtracked by throbbing techno coming from some unseen basement bar. I felt like Harrison Ford, scurrying through the electric alleyways of Blade Runner’s dystopic Los Angeles, or Clive Owen striding through the ruins of an end-of-days London in Children of Men, or hell, even just a side character in a Beat novel or a Pogues song, dancing over the cobbles, young and in love and blind to the muck that surrounds.
But without all of that – without the Mexican waves of laughter rippling through heaving terraces, without the clink of glassware from wine bars, without jazz tripping from tapas restaurants and the pulse of techno booming and crashing with the passing of some tit-head boy racer – it all feels a bit flat. A kicked over bin in the midst of a bouncing festival is an emblem of the sweet chaos of sudden and ephemeral liberation; a kicked over bin in a street void of life is… well, it’s a kicked over bin.
Down at the harbourside things were similarly bizarre. It didn’t look like a Sunday afternoon or whatever – when one might expect business to be shut – because on your typical Sunday afternoon, despite everything being closed, there are still lights left on, there are signs of life inside. This was different, however; the businesses and restaurants at the harbourside didn’t look closed, they looked derelict. Lights shut off, blinds down, chairs flipped upside down and stacked on tables, piled against the front door.
We queued up outside Sainsburys, and I was allowed inside while Jeanne was made to wait in the street. I bought a bottle of Pepsi – trying not to booze quite so much – and panicked at the self-checkout when I realised I would have to touch the same screen a thousand people had no doubt touched over the course of the day, and we’d not had the foresight to bring hand sanitiser. Pressing the option to pay by card with only the daintiest prick of my little finger, I paid up and hurried out of the shop, convinced I could almost see the deadly miasma floating around my head. I felt dirty for the rest of the afternoon after that, fearful and distrusting of my little fingertip. I wiped it desperately on the back of my jeans, and whenever I sipped from the Pepsi I held it aloft like a Duchess sipping an earl grey.
We headed to Arnolfini, an art gallery and bar/café by the edge of the water. I’d pictured the area quiet and sleepy, with perhaps a lone artist or two perched on the quayside, sketching the few barges that remain. Instead we found a hundred people or so lining the banks, sipping cans of lager, blasting music from speakers. We sat down, dangling our legs over the water, and gawped at the scenes around us; the laughter and litter and indifference to the dead.
“Bit weird,” I told Jeanne, after several silent minutes.
“Bit weird,” she replied.
Without the ambience of bars, cafes and restaurants, without the culture of museums and galleries, the streets felt hollow, like the cold, surreal scenes one finds the morning after a festival closes; those few that are still refusing to accept reality continue to binge, while the rest of us pack up our tents to head home. With everything closed and shut off in hibernation, there was no sense of the world turning beyond that little enclave of harbourside boozers. It felt uncanny, like all the clocks had stopped, and all the people had been zapped out of existence, and all that was left was this small bundle of Fosters-quaffing people cackling across the harbour.
I watched them with wide eyes, horrified at their gaiety, like a Ringwraith-pursued Frodo staring around at the boozing patrons of the Prancing Pony, all doubling over with monstrous roars of laughter, knocking back frothing flagons of ale, all oblivious to the horrors lurking in the night beyond the cosy candlelit walls of the inn.
“I feel a bit anxious.”
“Let’s go home.”
And so, after walking three miles and sitting for only five minutes, we got up and started the long walk home. And I tell you what – I’ve never been so happy to see kempt lawns and diligent recycling in all my life.