I haven’t been in Brighton in almost four months.
More specifically, while I’ve been within the city limits this whole time, I haven’t been in the city part of the City of Brighton and Hove, the part with the busy streets and shops and cafés and supermarkets, since early March. On the few occasions we’ve left the house, we’ve either gone only halfway down the hill to the bakery to pick up bread and coffee, or we’ve gone up the hill to the racecourse and the sheep. But the route into town itself, the one that Jeremy took every single weekday before the Situation—all the way down the hill, across a busy road, along a popular park and into the lovely North Laine—has remained resolutely untrodden.
That changed on Friday, when we donned “outside clothes” and proper shoes and our summer-weight face masks and went into town for lunch. I even put on makeup for the first time in ages, just for the heck of it, not taking into account that my face would be completely concealed behind the mask and a big pair of sunglasses—and also not considering that most of the makeup would wind up smeared on the inside of the mask as I sweated my way back up the hill to go home. Gross.
This Friday saw the resurrection of Street Diner, an outdoor market that launched several years ago and has kept central Brighton wonderfully fed through many a summer, rain or shine. We’ve been regulars since the start, and some of the most delicious food I’ve eaten in this town (including the best burger I’ve ever had anywhere) has been at Street Diner. Friday lunchtimes, sitting on the grass in the sun, dripping barbecue sauce or tartar sauce or tzaziki all over myself, surrounded by other happy diners, everyone in a good mood and looking forward to the weekend—it’s a picture-perfect Brighton scenario, and it’s first thing to have enticed us out of our safe haven and into the heart of town since All of This started.
I was a nervous wreck as we got ready to go out on Friday. I wasn’t afraid of anything specific—our COVID numbers are way down (for the time being), and we were going to be outdoors and masked-up the whole time—but, as always these days, I was uncomfortable leaving the controlled environment of our flat for the unknown variables of the outside world. That said, even our flat has not been entirely controlled over the past two weeks. We’ve had a few variables in the form of a repairman who fixed our dishwasher and two deliverymen who took our broken washing machine away and installed a shiny new one. It’s been over four months since a third of our household appliances decided to give up the ghost at the same time, and finally we don’t have to wash our own dishes anymore and we do get to wash our own clothes. I’m so weirdly happy about the washing machine that I’ve been doing loads of laundry just for the heck of it. We had been using a laundry delivery service since the lockdown, and while it was a novelty to have someone take our dirty laundry away and bring it back washed, dried and folded two days later, it wound up being an expensive luxury. Also, I kind of…enjoy doing laundry? Or if not enjoy, then at least I don’t mind. When we moved into this flat, I was so thrilled to have a backyard with a clothes line that I took pictures of towels hanging out to dry. So when I hung out the first load of laundry from our new machine this week, it was genuinely exciting. Excitement is, admittedly, in short supply these days.
Anyway, I was worried about leaving our homey bubble because I wasn’t sure what to expect in town—but as it turned out, town was just as it’s always been. Not as packed as it would be on a sunny Friday in more normal times, but still busy enough. I was kind of surprised by all the shops open in the North Laine, most of them with limits on customer numbers and one-way systems and signs encouraging social distancing. Most people weren’t wearing masks, but a fair number were, which was heartening. And while Street Diner was on a smaller scale than it has been in the past, with just a few stands along one side of the park and no throngs of people waiting to buy food or looking for a place to sit, it was otherwise just like I remembered it. We sat on the grass in the sun, and garlic sauce dripped from my delicious pork souvlaki, and everyone seemed happy, and we bought a giant brownie to take home and enjoy over the weekend. It felt normal, or at least as close to normal as anything has felt since the start of March.
I don’t know where we go from here. The pubs opened again yesterday in what seems to be a premature and very poorly thought-out “plan” to jump-start the hospitality industry by getting loads of people drunk enough to forget any notion of social distancing. Maybe everything will have to close down again a month from now. Or maybe not? It’ll be weeks before the consequences of our current actions become clear. It’s impossible to plan anything and impossible to trust in anything. So we’ll just keep going day by day, taking baby steps out into world and back again, grasping at tiny bits of normality wherever we can.