New life in NW3 as seen from a first-floor balcony
Just as Rebecca Buyers arrived in London from the USA to live in Belsize Park the UK went into lockdown . . .
15 May, 2020
Rebecca Buyers tends the plants on her balcony overlooking England’s Lane
DAYS before the quarantine became mandatory, Nils, my British fiancé, spotted the homemade sign taped to a second floor window in the block of brick flats across the lane.
“Go Home, Stay Home” it read, in coloured pencil. We could see it from our kitchen. I’d caught glimpses of a woman at that window, raising the sash on sunny March mornings. A millennial, we decided. Maybe she worked for the NHS, and understood the contagion risks of Covid-19 sooner than the rest of London. Sooner than the prime minister.
That was weeks ago, shortly after I arrived in London from the States to join my fiancé in our new flat on England’s Lane and prepare for our wedding. You got here just in time, our friends said, and it was true. I arrived on March 6, before the lockdown and international travel restrictions were imposed.
When I’d rolled my suitcases down the bumpy sidewalk from the Swiss Cottage tube station along Eton Avenue, traffic was heavy, and I’d had to dodge dozens of chattering children in pleated skirts and blazers on their way to school.
On England’s Lane, diners in the Chamomile Cafe ate at small tables, heads inclined in intimate conversation, and artsy college students sat outside smoking and chatting over coffees at Black Truffle.
Chamomile Cafe is closed now, and Black Truffle has taken its tables in. The windows are dark at the Indian restaurant across the street we never got a chance to try. There are fewer people on the street.
The pharmacy on the corner is still open but allows customers in just a few at a time, and shoppers line up at two-metre marks newly painted on the sidewalk in front of Tesco Express.
Children’s crayon drawings of rainbows and hearts for the NHS dot ground floor windows; chalk versions have appeared on the sidewalk next to the Royal Free Hospital.
Coming from the rural state of Maine, I am more comfortable with the sight of wild foxes roaming back gardens or trotting down the street than seeing neighbours outside our windows. My first week in London, I was careful to pull down the blinds each night, and avert my eyes from the lit windows of the flats across the lane.
I didn’t want to look into the kitchens and bedrooms of strangers. A New Englander with a vein of Puritan heritage, I value my privacy. Or so I thought. On that first Thursday evening after the UK lockdown, Nils and I were startled by the sound of people clapping. We looked outside and saw our neighbours leaning out of their open windows, applauding the doctors and nurses risking their lives to care for Covid-19 patients. People on the sidewalk join them, hooting and hollering. Motorcycles, cars, and a city bus tooted their horns in support as they passed down the lane.
Nils and I stepped out onto our first-floor balcony to join them, something we’ve done now for six weeks, until we flattened the curve, until we passed the peak.
The flats across from us rise three stories above the street level shops, most of which are shuttered. I marvel that the bike shop is still open, deemed an essential business, like the butcher, the bakeries, greengrocers, and cafés that now offer takeout. Shoppers still come and go, singly, and in couples, walking dogs, with children in strollers or on scooters. More and more people wear masks, even gas masks, but most don’t. They are healthy and young.
At breakfast, when I glance up from my bowl of oatmeal and see the sun shining into the tic tac toe grid of windows, and see the silhouettes of young people on their laptops, it no longer feels like snooping. I’m proud of their diligence. I am cheered when geraniums appear on a shallow terrace on warm days, then disappear, like the potted basil and parsley plants I bring in from our balcony on cool nights. At dinner, Nils points out the athletic girl who skips rope in a backlit entryway.
Except for the scream of ambulance sirens that don’t let us forget why we are doing this, the neighbourhood is quieter.
Nils and I wake to birdsong. We know it’s a weekday, by the sound of jovial conversations in Polish. A crew of construction workers gutting the garden apartment next door, show up faithfully. We envy their purposefulness and learn to appreciate the distraction of their noisy work. From my office window I watch them take breaks in the garden. They wear no masks, working together as closely as a family. When they don’t show up one Friday, we fear one of them got sick and they are must self-quarantine. We are relieved when they return on Monday.
On an unseasonably hot day, I go out to water my plants on the balcony and notice a man in shorts and no shirt up on the roof. He gesticulates wildly, cell phone to one ear. Is he on a conference call or talking to his mother? I wonder. Two young women in bikinis sunbathing two roofs over stand up to stretch and take in the unusually clear view of the city. One stands on the stone wall that borders the roof and shades her eyes, as if peering out to sea. Nils and I worry she will fall, as if we were her parents.
When we venture out on our daily walks, I recognise a few neighbours from the windows – the jump roper in her running tights, the bearded man who plays the guitar, a slim man with ear buds who chatters in French, the couple we saw dancing in their kitchen. I’m falling in love with them all. We are truly apart together. We don’t know each other but we are living our lives in parallel along England’s Lane, constrained by the same threat, but living still, in community.
I’ve yet to see the face of the woman who lives in the flat directly across from us. Only her slim pale forearm slides out beneath her window sash, to tap cigarette ash into the gutter. Doesn’t she know how much worse it will be for her if she gets the coronavirus? Nils is concerned. I wonder, does her landlord know she smokes? Does her boyfriend mind? Does she even have a boyfriend?
Our wedding plans have been delayed, then demolished by this virus but at least we Nils and I are able to be together during this crazy time. I hope the girl across the lane doesn’t have to bear this lockdown alone..
• Rebecca Buyers is a writer from Maine who is studying for a masters degree in creative writing at Birkbeck