My street is a quiet one, tucked away in the nether regions of Islington, a few minutes from Regent’s Canal. Its stillness normally comes at a price since at any given time there are repairs underway—a window frame, a roof, a facade—and the moment one job is done another springs up a few doors down, turning our street into an open-air workshop. But the main movement these days is the come-and-go of delivery vans from Ocado, Iceland, and Sainsburys, and the odd person getting their morning exercise as they shout into their phone. Every now and then an ambulance wails in the distance. It’s hard to ignore the eerie disconnect between the silenced street and the tumult of urgency and emergency elsewhere.
Across the garden from my bedroom looms a giant scaffolding that went up in a noisy burst in early March. There is a limit to how much a family’s roof extension can be considered essential, so there it sits, awaiting reactivation. Its tarpaulin flaps at night, its metal frames rattle in the wind, and I often can’t help thinking it embodies the country’s incomplete standstill. For all the talk of normal life being suspended here, London’s lockdown has been somewhat of a sham, and much of business has been allowed to continue as usual. Workers’ fates remain at the discretion of their bosses, and many offices, factories, and warehouses have not been forced to close.
So far, the UK has the second-highest death toll in the world (fourth in Europe in terms of deaths per capita), numbers still climbing, largely thanks to the government’s shambolic planning and indecision and its great reluctance to harm the economy. Its priorities have been made resoundingly clear. Most large construction projects have not been put on hold, and across the city corporate buildings continue their ascension. And not only in the capital: the government recently gave the green light to HS2, a massive rail project connecting London to the north, which will destroy 108 ancient woodlands, taking the birds and bats nesting in their trees. There’s not enough money for the NHS, they claim, yet over $143 billion available for this ecocidal project, scheduled to commence in a fortnight. As for the city’s vast homeless population, 90 percent have supposedly been housed in empty hotels, but it’s unclear what awaits them once the hotels reopen.
During the lockdown we contemplate our structures and infrastructures, those greater infrastructures which until now seemed to hold so much of life in place but have collapsed or been put on pause, and the new structures we must create for ourselves in order to give shape and meaning to the days.
On my daily walks I try to vary my circuits. Parallel streets I’ve never taken, squares I’ve never crossed. Every action feels like mimesis, an approximation of real life or a weird reenactment, and walking a bit farther than usual, say all the way down to Clerkenwell or the City, seems almost transgressive. Most of the time, I stay within the vague parameters of my neighborhood. If I turn left onto Gerard Road I soon arrive at the Pixie house, a tree stump with a door attached to its base, a window overhead, and a sign reading PIXIE. Ever since it first appeared a year or two ago I’ve seen children stop and stare, enchanted, and adults crouching down to take photos. At the moment it seems lived in, no longer part of an imaginary world. The pixie is in quarantine, behind her closed door and shuttered window. Not long ago, fairytale thinking took on another form in a large white house around the corner on Colebrooke Row, where Boris Johnson resided during the entire Brexit campaign. Wild promises were made, none of the fantasies delivered. A shrugging off of the law seems to linger in the area, mainly in the gardens facing his house, where most people ignore the signs painted on the footpath asking for two-meter distancing and requests to enter the park at one end only. The ribbons of tape strung across benches are also defied; visitors remove them and sit down.
If I turn right outside my house I soon arrive at St. Peter’s Street, which extends from Essex Road down to Noel Road before transforming into Wharf Road at the canal. One street away lives a poet friend, nearly 80, who hasn’t set foot outside for six weeks. He is one of a number of friends over 70 whom I check on regularly, wondering when I shall see them again. The numbers of those felled by the virus in the UK are dizzying, 800 deaths a day, sometimes closer to 900, and, as elsewhere, a vast percentage of them have been elderly.
In the thicket of data, statistics, and exponential graphs, in the reports of old people dying abandoned in their flats or in care homes, I seek an individual. And each time I seek one, the face of Patricia Sigl rises to mind. Old, solitary, and impoverished, she is the exact sort of person who would get lost in the storm.
I first saw her years ago at the British Library, sitting in a corner of Rare Books & Music in front of a mountain of books, her cane propped beside her. Severely hunchbacked, a headscarf tied under her chin, her legs swathed in layers of bandages. At some point I stopped seeing her at the library but began to notice her in my neighborhood, particularly on St. Peter’s Street, always alone, grasping onto railings as she advanced, with a cane and many shopping bags. One evening last October I glimpsed her outside the local Tesco eating a bag of crisps and went up to say hello. She seemed so surprised that someone was addressing her, I had to repeat my greeting before she swiveled her head to squint up at me with shiny, vivid eyes. I mentioned I would see her at the library. Yes, she said, she used to go there, but it was no longer possible. She then told me she was American, from Wisconsin, and had been living in London since the Sixties. Her name was Patricia. She was in her mid-eighties, yet her expression remained youthful, her voice almost childlike. She had a PhD in 18th-century literature. No friends or family, she added, but many books. She lived in a one-room council flat near Shoreditch. She smiled as she spoke, as if a little astonished to be hearing her own voice.
We form but one layer of existence, one chapter in the history, of a place. I’m reminded of that as I arrive at Camden Passage, a pedestrian strip lined with small shops, restaurants, and tea salons, usually interspersed with weekly market stalls selling books and vintage trinkets. Now the dimmed shop fronts and absent market stalls represent the shadow selves of human enterprise. At the Camden Head pub only the windows on the top floor, where perhaps the publican lives, remain open. Fifty million pints are threatened to go to waste if the lockdown continues into June, warns the industry.
Camden Passage has been above all the realm of antiquarians, with fourteen shops in the Pierrepont Arcade selling old toys, maps, porcelain, prints, furniture, watches, and fountain pens, and an outdoor market on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The white indented awning and a string of colored light bulbs give off the aura of an abandoned seaside pavilion. Without modern-day people populating the passage’s little alleys, it is easy to imagine a past reality, almost see the specters of former traders and those who used the commonplace objects now sold as antiques and curiosities. Today I can still glimpse Finbar McDonnell with his long coat and scraggly beard, Angel’s longest-standing antiques dealer, who passed away last autumn. A much loved character in the neighborhood, he spent pretty much every day of his life in his print shop; it’s hard to imagine how he would have endured the quarantine.
There are few antiques to be found at Criterion, the auction house on Essex Road, which usually offers a generous opportunity for window shopping. The shelves by the window have been emptied, and inside only the most unenticing items of furniture remain. All seems quiet at the century-old funeral parlor further down the street, too. WG MILLER, SUPERIOR FUNERALS reads the sign, advertising CREMATIONS and EMBALMING. White slatted blinds are drawn against its black lacquer exterior. Most days an array of flower bouquets sits on the pavement outside, but today there’s only a fernlike plant called mother-in-law’s tongue in the window and a man in a cap adding a fresh layer of paint to the sill. Funerals have recently been limited to close family, with some directors suggesting livestreaming of burials.
Glimpses of an afterlife are more visible at Get Stuffed, the taxidermy shop on the corner, where the stiff dogs in the display have been given white face masks. The more exotic species dwell at the rear of the shop, unmasked and in the shadows, pretty much emblematic of the animal kingdom’s current predicament. Since the lockdown began, people around the world have been commenting on how close they feel to nature, how reconnected to all the flora and fauna. I too have reveled in enthralling images of animals reclaiming urban space, including photographs of a herd of deer lolling about in a garden in east London and the splendid white shaggy goats roaming the streets of Llandudno. Yet my feeling of connectedness to nature has mostly taken on another shape, more tortured and abstract. I think instead about the bats, pangolins, and other live animals in the wet markets in China (and Indonesia) and the cosmic scale of their suffering. The exact origin of this virus has yet to be confirmed but there is no doubt these markets are hubs of cruelty and disease, and I fervently hope this pandemic will bring the consumption of wildlife to an end.
Yet I try not to let the news completely invade my mental space, and work on my novel. Is it still relevant? Does it matter? Well, it happens to feature two people sequestered from the outside world. And bats. I work at my desk, in the company of my cat, books, and life decisions. Often I despair at being so far from my parents in Mexico and my sister and niece in New York. We’ve been keeping a chronicle in four voices, a Tale of Three Cities, charting the evolving horror and incompetent leadership in each of our countries. There’s no guarantee of a flight between London and Mexico City, and I can’t help asking myself how I ended up so far from my family and origins.
My second encounter with Patricia Sigl took place late last autumn, again at dusk, on the corner of St. Peter’s and Devonia. Upon spotting her hunched silhouette, I called out her name. She seemed to recognize my voice before she was able to see my face, again swiveling her head around and tilting it upward—Chloe, right? She held onto a nearby railing, never loosening her grip on her collection of shopping bags, as we stood and chatted. She told me she was managing despite her ailments, and was much more interested in talking about her PhD at Swansea University on an 18th-century playwright named Elizabeth Inchbald whom no one reads anymore. I tried to imagine the path from scholarship to such poverty, and promised myself that the next time I saw her I would invite her to tea at a pub or cafe nearby.
Islington is one of the most diverse boroughs in London, half of its homes privately owned or rented, and half council housing. My street is pretty much split down the middle. The people who have lived here the longest congregate on the pavement, sitting on their steps with cigarettes and cups of tea, a familiarity that extends to the street; they know each other and chat, while most of the private owners withdraw behind their renovated facades. Only the eight o’clock clap for the NHS every Thursday night brings everyone together, a rare moment of communion, when faces appear at windows and doorways to cheer on our beleaguered health care workers.
During lockdown we are forced to revisit all the decisions we have made in life, and so must this government. Starved by a decade of Tory austerity, the NHS is understaffed and underfunded and in total disarray. There are also constant reminders of the staggering folly that is Brexit, its idiocy put further on display as the UK missed out on an EU ventilator scheme and PPE distribution, and British doctors and nurses were pulled out of retirement to make up for the shortage of NHS staff after many of the European nurses and doctors lost their right to remain in the country. One can only hope that Boris Johnson, having recovered from Covid-19 himself and now singing the glories of the NHS with particular praise for the two nurses, both immigrants, who didn’t leave his bedside while he was in intensive care, will do far more to guarantee its survival. One hopes he will no longer miss emergency meetings to address the pandemic. One hopes the British media, until now complacent to the point of complicity, can finally bring itself to hold the government accountable for the unfolding catastrophe. One hopes.
It was the NHS surgery on St. Peter’s Street that Patricia Sigl would visit regularly, and during these days of crisis I scan the street for a hunched silhouette. It’s been several months since I last saw her. I wonder how she is weathering the lockdown. Who checks in on her, who brings her food? Well, the truth is I wonder whether she is still alive. Was she one of the 686 who perished on April 12 or one of the 843 from April 25? Or perhaps, like Finbar McDonnell, she passed away before the nightmare began. Someday, when this crisis is over, I may come across an early edition of Elizabeth Inchbald at one of the antiquarian stalls in Camden Passage, inscribed by a “Miss Patricia Sigl, an American resident in London, authority on the eighteenth century theatre,” as I once saw her referred to in a footnote. When this is over, there will be far too many footnotes.