The date is Sunday, March 22nd in the year 2020.
The parks of Wolverhampton paint a placid, bucolic landscape. The smoothed pavements intertwine with lush, undulating pockets of freshly-mown grass, splattered with luscious plants and gleaming wooden huts.
It’s weather like this that could illuminate even the colourless alcoves of the world, and when you pause and reflect, you feel as if you could be walking through the marshes and pastures of Africa or the scintillating green landscapes of southern France.
The tennis courts are full. Adults and their kids play merrily, the thrashing strikes of serves only pierced by sun-filled giggles. In one corner, a gang of young adults – athletic, streetwise – use the public gym equipment in between gusts of vape smoke. In another, four young adults play doubles while sharing a can of Pepsi. Across the park, a group – presumably a family – amble in the afternoon sun, amiably pushing an elderly relative in a wheelchair. The mood, like the weather, is positively radiant.
It’s hard to believe that this is supposedly a nation enduring a national lockdown.
At the beginning of March 2020, three people in Wolverhampton came down with fulminating Coronavirus. These were the first reported cases in the West Midlands city, and they’d been behind the curve. By the time Wolverhampton had announced its first COVID-19 related death, more than 278 cases had been confirmed across the UK.
At the time of writing this, almost one month later, nearly 50 people in the West Midlands have been killed by COVID-19. Around the world, the statistics make for grim reading, and there seems little point even writing them now – they will, in the short term at least, only continue to climb.
In other parts of Europe, certain nations are in absolute lockdown. In Italy, those suspected of having coronavirus face prison sentences if they break quarantine. Videos have surfaced of police officers tasering suspected felons.
India has now followed suit, followed by Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, ordering the public to self-isolate even before any cases in her country had surfaced.
In England, things have been a little different.
Following Boris Johnson’s announcement last Friday, concerning the closure of restaurants, pubs and bars, he ordered the British public to be sensible when it came to exercise, public appearances and self-isolating. It was lockdown-lite, a suggestion more than a threat. Boris hoped common sense would prevail.
Plague laws are back in effect. This weekend, in Wolverhampton at least, suggests the British public doesn’t seem to have really noticed. Nobody seems locked in. Nobody even seems down.
I passed three chipper young adults, a girl and two boys, posing incessantly for Instagram snaps in the scorching sun. They shuffle frequently across the neat pathways, angling doggedly to achieve the perfect sunlit selfie. A quick investigation discovers they are Spanish international students, lay stricken by stringent travel embargoes.
It’s hard to believe they’d be enjoying the same frivolity in their homeland.
The four-stroke groan of an ageing motorbike rumbles in the distance. It cuts across the bare earth, coasting along until it pulls to a stuttering stop near a gang of lean, clammy youths playing ball barefoot in the long grass.
The bike driver reveals a crumpled paper bag, crinkled tissue paper flopping out in a mid-afternoon breeze. It’s an Uber Eats delivery from Wolverhampton’s city centre, where local eateries continue to run albeit in a restricted format. The purchaser takes the bag and even outstretches his hand in gratitude. It is not reciprocated.
It is easy to forget, of course, that just a few days ago pubs and restaurants were heaving, football matches were welcoming thousands of fervent fans, and handshakes were an unconscious act of politeness.
Returning to the village of Bilbrook, around fifteen minutes from the city centre’s parks, increasing numbers of men on bicycles gracefully step out of the way of the car and look on frankly. Groups of people beam in the dazzling heat, dressed in gaudy, colourful shorts as they wrestle with dogs.
In the shops, people continue to dismiss COVID-19 as either an act of divine retribution or a storm in a teacup.
Conspiracy theories abound. Much has been made of it being the work of potential Chinese warfare or an accident at a Wuhan virology lab, but in the West Midlands they are approaching the far-fetched.
One football fan deduces it is actually the work of Tottenham Hotspur in an effort to delay the season so that by the time it can resume, their star striker Harry Kane would have recovered from a long-term injury.
“Think about it,” he hypothesises. “Son Heung-min went back to China and was the first footballer to get it. Tottenham sent him there on purpose. Now Kane can come back and fire us back to the Champions’ League.”
Another theory, of it being sexually transferred from bat to man, seems as disturbingly unlikely as it does physically impossible.
It’s striking that as England’s Prime Minister urges the British public to stay inside, one glimpse out of a window reveals a rich cross section of the human cornucopia. As people continue to travel, so does the virus, a communicable disease preying upon the thousands and thousands of those risking lives for a slither of sunshine.
Words by Sam Lambeth