‘I realised no virus was strong enough to overcome our mutual loathing’

London Letter: Streets empty and businesses abandoned amid sense of foreboding

 A painter paints a scene of Horse Guards Parade in central London. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

A painter paints a scene of Horse Guards Parade in central London. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

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Whitehall was so quiet that, passing the scarlet-caped, mounted sentries at Horse Guards, you could hear the clanking of their horses’ silver chains and bits. Trafalgar Square was empty apart from a kilted piper among the pigeons outside the National Gallery and a handful of skateboarders below having the time of their lives.

Some of the clubs along Pall Mall were closed but others remained open for now, confident that their vast rooms could accommodate all the social distancing their members needed. Inside one of them, two young men in expensively cut suits were passing the afternoon in a couple of armchairs, eating sandwiches and crisps and drinking espresso martinis.

The man at the dry cleaners said business was “down, down, down” because people working from home “don’t care what they look like”

The kiosks selling coffee in St James’s Park were still in business but with all the tourists gone, there was no business to be done. Office buildings close to the park were dark now that everyone was working from home and the House of Fraser department store on Victoria Street was deserted – but then it usually is.

On the other side of Victoria Station, the toy shop appeared to be thriving, with a stream of well-heeled children walking in past a sign saying “Warning: Children left unattended will be sold to the circus”. The flower shop, which has been in the same spot for almost a century, was also open but the florist said her stock was limited because so little was available at the flower market.

Barber shop

The man at the dry cleaners said business was “down, down, down” because people working from home “don’t care what they look like”. Mohammed, the Egyptian barber around the corner, was shaving a customer in the chair by the window but his brother Ahmed told me he was following the advice their father, also a barber, gave them when they were growing up in Alexandria.

“You have to be good at cutting hair fast and slow because when it’s busy you need to be quick so nobody has to wait too long but when it’s slow you’ve got to keep them in the chair for as long as you can because nobody likes going into an empty barber shop,” he said.

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The chemist is the most cheerful shopkeeper in the neighbourhood, boasting of his fresh supply of face masks (five for £10 or a box of 50 for £75) and hand sanitiser (£12 for a small bottle). 

The local newsagent and I have always disliked one another and although my rudeness was originally a response to his, it’s no longer easy to say which of us is worse. We have not made eye contact or exchanged a word for years, instead going through a bad-tempered daily ritual in which I put the newspapers on the counter and he pretends not to notice for a while before grunting out the price, which I pretend at first not to hear.

The fishmonger at his stall in the weekly market saw no chance that everything will be fine for all, telling me he felt sure things would get much worse

As I thought the other day about keeping him guessing about whether I would pay cash or contactless, I saw how silly and inappropriate this silent feuding was at a time like this. But when I looked up and saw him, his hands wrapped in blue latex gloves and his face in a greasy, malevolent smirk, I realised that no virus was strong enough to overcome our mutual loathing.

Italian restaurant

One street over, Wafae was smoking a cigarette outside her Italian restaurant as her chef stood next to her in his whites, his head bowed, shoulders slumped and hands deep in his pockets. 

“We’re like Boris, we want everything to stay open. But look,” she said, waving towards the empty tables inside.

Workers helping to expand the capacity of the mortuary at Westminster Coroner’s Court, London. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images
Workers helping to expand the capacity of the mortuary at Westminster Coroner’s Court, London. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier that day, I had met a waiter with a permanent job at a big West End restaurant who was planning to take three weeks’ unpaid leave in the hope that some of his freelance colleagues would be kept on for longer. His impulse was heroic in its generosity but it was already clear that almost all of London’s restaurants would be closed by the weekend, and two days later, I saw a notice on the door of Wafae’s restaurant.

“To all our lovely costumers: given the exceptional of the situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the most sensible and responsible thing is that we all stay at home…we will reopen on 27th mars if everything will be fine for all,” it said.

The fishmonger at his stall in the weekly market saw no chance that everything will be fine for all, telling me he felt sure things would get much worse.

“I have a bad foreboding,” he said.

I felt it myself as I passed the Westminster morgue on Horseferry Road, which is being expanded in anticipation of what is to come. Looking out the window at home, the sky darkened and a fat magpie dropped onto the balcony railing and turned its head towards me for a few moments before moving off. One for sorrow.

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