It is 10.35am. I am on the Heath, our nearest open green space, and — looking around me — it all looks surprisingly normal. If you didn’t know that the world was in crisis, you wouldn’t know. Grown-ups are walking and talking. Children are toddling. Dogs are scampering.
The only odd thing is that it is so busy on a weekday. Usually, it’s just me (self-employed but always keen to escape from my desk), and a handful of pensioners and dog-walkers. Now, all human life is here, including people who apparently have never been on a walk before and are not sure of the procedure. (Top tip: rather than standing looking down at your phone for the ‘right’ way to go, just put one foot in front of the other — look at that! Walking!)
It’s only when you look more carefully that you notice people changing their course to skirt round each other more generously than is normal.
At its best, social distancing is like a rather graceful dance, with each person reading the street ahead, anticipating and adjusting: I spot you coming along the narrow pavement, I cross the street; you see me approach on the path, you arc to the side.
And yet, too often, I have to leap into the road to avoid a young jogger pounding inexorably towards me, or a phone zombie gazing at their screen, apparently unaware of the possibility that there might be another human being on the same street.
On a quiet road, three young men have stopped on the pavement to talk to a friend the other side of the front hedge, inside his own garden. But because the chaps are standing there rather than on the move, they are effectively creating an exclusion zone for that whole side of the road.
Round the corner, a young woman wearing headphones jogs towards me, clearly with no intention of diverting from her course. I step out again into the road. There’s no thank you, no gesture of acknowledgement.
Of course, I always make way for anyone elderly, or pushing a buggy, or with small children, but the rest of the time, logically it should be roughly 50-50. I haven’t kept an exact count, but I think I am moving aside at least 80 per cent of the time, and I am suffering from road rage.
I think I know why it’s bugging me so much. I confess I do have a slight chip on my shoulder about being invisible. No, I don’t have a superpower.
As a child, I was very quiet, and sometimes the grown-ups would simply fail to notice I was in the room (no wonder I’m a writer; I was getting used to observing from the sidelines at an early age). As I got older, I grew to hate being so unnoticeable and now it’s a rare occurrence. When it does happen, I become incensed: once, at the theatre, I went to the bar to buy interval drinks, and a tall man pushed ahead and started to order even though I’d been waiting for some time.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I was actually here first.”
“It’s only one drink,” he responded. “What does it matter?”
For once, I managed to say what I wanted to say rather than just giving way.
“No, it isn’t only one drink — if you’re a short woman rather than a tall man, people push in front of you all the time.”
I come to a section of path on the Heath where there isn’t enough space to keep 2m apart unless one of you crushes into the bushes by the side. There’s no-one in sight so I start on the path but then another woman appears at the other end of the pinch-point. She’s on the phone and I’m wondering where I can tuck in when she scrunches in off the path to let me through. So I proceed, gesturing my thanks, only to have a man suddenly appear and stride towards me. There’s nowhere else to go other than into the brambles on the other side. The woman sensibly turns her back to the path so she’s facing away from him but it’s as if he has zero awareness about distancing.
“Oh,” I say, “You see why that lady tucked in — to make space. She was waiting.”
“Thank you!” he says airily, smiling and leaving less than a metre between us. “Thanks,” I say automatically, even though what I mean is, “No, you twit, you should have waited.”
My health app on my phone keeps telling me that my step count this week is lower than last week (yes, I know) and that this month I have walked less than last month (yup, that’s true), and pointing out that last year my daily tally was higher than it is this year (enough already — we’re in lockdown, you stupid app). So, I have decided to draw inspiration from my husband and think positive. Larry is annoyingly positive, but what can you do? Some people are just like that and I don’t think he can help it. What’s the positive thought? I could regard other pedestrians as prompts to increase my step-count rather than as an annoyance.
Yet again, I turn to check for traffic and cross the road as a lady comes towards me, but I smile — think of the extra steps! I am rewarded with a wave and a cheery, “Thank you!” I zig-zag along the street in this fashion, doing almost twice my usual amount and feeling pleased rather than angry. Why did the woman cross the road? To increase her step count!
Claire Calman’s latest novel, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, will be published on June 4, now available to pre-order from Amazon and other outlets. Twitter: @clairecalman