3rd January 2020
What’s in a Name?
Albert Stridemore’s neighbours on the Irmingshawe estate would often observe that never had a man been more appropriately christened. ‘He really is an Albert,’ they would say to each other as he passed with a curt nod of his head and a brief greeting – never usually more than ‘G’morning’ or ‘Afternoon’ or ‘Evening’, depending on the time of the day – as he made his way to or from his allotment, where he’d spent much of his time since his retirement ten years before our story begins. Their comments were not in any way intended as a reference to the etymology of his name. Few if any of them of them were sufficiently schooled in ancient Germanic languages to know that Albert was derived from two words meaning noble and bright, though there was a certain dignity and alertness in his upright bearing that would have rendered both of those adjectives appropriate to describe his appearance and character. It was just that ‘Albert’ had such an old-fashioned ring to it. They certainly couldn’t conceive of anybody calling their son Albert today! It was a name that conjured up for them images of black and white films and music halls and British Tommys going off to war and vintage cars belching out clouds of exhaust fumes as they trundled along at twenty miles an hour.
And the man himself seemed to embody an aura of decades long past. He dressed in a manner that made no concession to the changing fashions and increasing informality of the twenty-first century. Even on the warmest of days, and whatever his intended destination, he would set off from home wearing a shirt and tie, a tweed sports jacket, grey flannels and a stout pair of good-quality leather brogue shoes. When the weather was wet, as it frequently is in that part of England, he would supplement his attire and protect himself from the elements with a light-brown belted overcoat and a flat cap pulled down over his eyes to shield them from the rain. In the view of his neighbours, everything about him announced that he was indeed an Albert.
His surname, however, amused and fascinated them even more. It certainly wasn’t common in Manchester. In fact, none of them could ever recall encountering another family with that name. But they all agreed that Stridemore was perfect for him. Normal folk like themselves might saunter aimlessly down the road when they wanted just to stretch their legs, or rush madly to the shops when they suddenly remembered something they’d forgotten. No one had ever seen Albert walk like that. When he stepped out of his house each morning, he neither hesitated nor hurried. He would lock his door, put his key carefully into his jacket pocket, turn smartly to face the street, look to the left and to the right, take a long, deep breath, pull back his shoulders and draw himself up to his full height of just over six feet, before striding out purposefully at a pace from which he seldom deviated. And that characteristic striding gait seemed to set him a little apart from his neighbours, giving him the air of a man on a mission, a man with something important to do, a man who understood the value of time and the need to use it wisely.
Those of his neighbours who’d known him for more than a decade assumed that his apparent preoccupation with the task in hand and his determination to step out boldly wherever he was heading had, in large measure, been shaped by the occupation he’d followed for most of his working life. Until his retirement in 2010, Albert had been a postman, respected among his colleagues at the sorting office and appreciated by the householders on his round for his commitment to the job. In forty years, whatever the weather, he’d never missed a day’s work through illness and never failed to deliver the right letters to the right house at the right time. His efficiency and his local knowledge were such that on more than one occasion he’d been recommended for promotion to an administrative role. It was an offer he’d always dismissed out of hand, insisting that no increase in his wages and no elevation in his professional status could ever be sufficient to compensate for sacrificing the privilege of combining work and pleasure by walking purposefully in the fresh air day after day.
But there were others who’d lived there for much longer, who remembered the day Albert Stridemore had moved into the area, and who suspected that there were deeper forces at play that had made him the man he was. At first, the arrival of the tall, shy, young man with the two-year-old toddler in the summer of 1970 had given rise to suspicious questions about his past and whispered speculation as to the whereabouts of the child’s mother. Situated on the opposite side of a busy road from the Irmingshawe Park with its expanse of woodland and open stretches of grass, the ’Shawe, as the council estate was known by its residents, was considered to be one of the jewels in the crown of the local authority’s rental properties. To be allocated a terraced house on the ’Shawe – or even one of a handful of semi-detached dwellings, if you were very lucky – was to be the envy of those who had to settle for less well-appointed dwellings in the city’s housing stock. And there were some among those favoured residents – a handful of zealous and outspoken, if self-appointed, guardians of the ’Shawe’s working-class respectability – who were fearful that its reputation might be endangered by the presence of a single man with a young child and no wife.
Albert Stridemore’s regular employment, tidy front garden, smartly painted front door and well-mannered young son, however, soon earned the trust and respect of the great majority of his neighbours and silenced the ill-informed gossips. He quickly became a valued member of the community. And the more discerning of his neighbours recognised that, though they knew nothing of his past, they were fortunate to have a man of his calibre in their midst.
Now in his mid-seventies, Albert was not a man much given to nostalgia. He never pined for a golden age when the sun always shone and people could leave their front doors unlocked and children always spoke politely to their parents. He knew too much about life’s trials and tribulations to view the past through rose-coloured spectacles. The only time he compared the present unfavourably with what had gone before was when he happened to come across one of his successors in the postal service delivering letters. He was not at all impressed by those who put forward the case that today’s postman is just as recognisable and a whole lot more comfortable in shorts and a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Royal Mail. The job, he would contend, had a lot more dignity when those who delivered the mail were dressed smartly in a uniform that marked them out as servants of the Crown.
If he was far from being the most loquacious resident of the ’Shawe, he was certainly not unfriendly or aloof. Albert was on good terms with his neighbours, and he was happy to be a member of the residents’ association, even serving two successive three-year terms as an active and effective chair of the group. He’d never remarried, much to the disappointment of more than a few single women and younger widows across the years. Noting his smart appearance and reliable employment, they’d considered him to be excellent husband material. He’d politely but firmly spurned their sometimes not-so-subtle advances, seeming to feel no need for female companionship in his life. His only son had left home in the late eighties and he’d lived alone in apparent contentment since then. And now in retirement, his tastes were simple, his needs were few, and he was grateful for his pensions that allowed him to live comfortably and indulge his passion for tending his allotment and cultivating his vegetables. He asked nothing more from life.
On this chilly but sunny afternoon, as he made his way home through Irmingshawe Park at the beginning of another year, he felt at peace with the world and with himself. Whatever he was hearing on the news these days about strange and possibly deadly viruses in faraway places was unlikely to have any significant effect on him or his neighbours on the ’Shawe. And, though no one else was aware of it and he himself felt no need to mark the occasion with any celebration, today was his seventy-fifth birthday. It was just another milestone on the journey of life to be briefly noted in passing and then left behind. He felt fit and active and, barring some unexpected accident, he saw no reason that he should not continue walking briskly and cultivating his allotment lovingly for a few more years. While still in his early thirties, the warrior king Alexander the Great was said to have wept because there were no worlds left for him to conquer. But halfway through his eighth decade, with his life attuned to the recurring rhythms of the seasons, Albert Stridemore, retired postman and active allotment-keeper, was grateful that the world was unlikely to hold any more surprises for him.
24th March 2020
Albert Stridemore washed his hands under the standing tap just in front of his shed and dried them thoroughly with a towel he kept hanging from a hook on the back of the door for precisely that purpose. He poured the tea from his flask into a bright yellow mug decorated with the words Growing stuff is good for you and took one of his cheese sandwiches out of the stainless-steel lunchbox that he’d carried with him almost every day for longer than he could remember. He set them down beside the newspaper lying on the workbench running up the side of the shed and shuffled the old folding metal chair to the door where he could sit and take a long look around his allotment while he ate and drank. He loved this place – this plot of fertile land that was as much his home as his house on the Irmingshawe estate – more than anywhere else in all the world. And he treasured the perfect combination of solitude and company it afforded him. Here he had the freedom to be alone with his thoughts while still appreciating the opportunity for conversation with likeminded allotment-holders who might offer or seek advice on their shared passion for growing things from the rich, moist soil under their feet. He measured the passing of time, not by the ticking of a clock or by marking off the dates on a calendar fixed to the wall, but by the tasks he carried out here hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month.
The festivities of Christmas and New Year were for him, at worst, an annoying interruption to his labour of love and, at best, nothing more than a necessary prelude to getting on with the real purpose of his life. By ten o’clock in the morning of 2nd January each year he was back here, happily unlocking the door of his shed. It was nothing more elaborate than a simple shack with just enough space for his tools and a place for him to sit when he felt like taking a rest. But he was proud of it, having put it together with his own hands out of wood he’d salvaged from a nearby derelict building. The old aircraft factory had stood no more than 150 yards from the allotments until it had been targeted by the Luftwaffe on consecutive nights in late December 1940 in what older Mancunians still referred to as the ‘Christmas Blitz’. Despite the complaints of people living in the area, the ruined structure had been left until the council finally razed it to the ground to make space for a proposed though never completed housing development the year after Albert had taken possession of his allotment in 1990. He was no builder, but the shed kept his tools safe and sheltered him from the rain when he stopped for a cup of tea. And, to his surprise, it was still standing nearly thirty years after its construction.
At the beginning of each year, he’d throw open the door, carefully check that everything was in good order and joyfully resume the routine he loved so much. Invariably he would begin by examining his stored vegetables for signs of rot and emptying the bags of potatoes that were leaning against the wall, making sure to remove any slugs that might have hidden themselves in the cosy darkness of the hessian sacks. When he got to the point of chitting the potatoes, he knew that the year had really begun. It was impossible to explain to anyone else the surge of anticipation that always went through him when he placed the tubers ‘eyes up’ in a dozen old egg boxes that he’d begged from the shop where he bought the food that he couldn’t grow for himself. He knew from long experience that within just a couple of weeks they would develop the little shoots that would mean they were ready for burying in the ground. The weather was normally still too cold to allow him to plant anything out of doors, but the rest of the month could profitably be filled by building his runner bean trenches, making sure there were no cracked panes of glass in the greenhouse, and repairing the wooden-sided cold frames that he painstakingly patched up each year to provide the perfect nursery for his summer cauliflowers, a vegetable he swore tasted all the better for its early start to life.
February was sometimes the most difficult month of the year for Albert. Snow and frost, or more often just cold sleet and rain, left him at the mercy of the elements and limited what could be done. But apart from a handful of days over the years, when the weather had been just too bad for him to venture out of doors, he always made his way to the allotment. If nothing else, he could check that no damage had been inflicted by the high winds or, as occasionally happened, by vandals whose destructive urges he could never comprehend. Even in Manchester, however, the weather was sometimes sufficiently dry and mild to allow him to begin planting outdoors under a cloche to ensure he’d have a healthy crop of broad beans, peas and artichokes by May or June. And as the days brightened a little and the allotment began to show the early evidence of his hard work, his spirits would lift and his heart would beat a little faster in the knowledge that spring was just around the corner.
March, despite the unpredictability of the weather, always meant a flurry of activity. Row upon row of parsnips, carrots, radishes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, spring onions and celery could be directly sown. Albert would bury the seeds in the ground and wait with an unshakeable faith for the annual miracle of growth that would explode into a generous harvest later in the year.
But it was April that he loved more than any other month. Even though a sudden and unexpected cold snap could take the most experienced gardener by surprise and lay siege to all his back-breaking toil, it was the time when the earth stirred into life and the soil warmed and the days began to lengthen noticeably. Spring had come at last. It was, he always said with a knowing smile, ‘the season of hoeing and sowing and growing’. Unwelcome weeds were gently and carefully removed to ensure the unhindered growth of runner beans and dwarf beans and climbing beans and borlotti beans – beans everywhere! And if the day became chilly or his joints grew stiff from kneeling and bending, there was always the relief of retreating to the relative warmth and comfort of the greenhouse where tomatoes and peppers and aubergines required the loving attention of the amateur but expert horticulturist.
But on this afternoon, just a week from the start of the month to which he’d always looked forward with such growing anticipation, Albert’s emotions were mixed and his thoughts were in turmoil. Ten minutes after he’d set them out, his mug of tea was still half full and his cheese sandwich remained uneaten as he tried to take stock of things. The allotment was as wonderful a place to him as ever it had been. But everything else was different. Life had suddenly changed. Even before the turn of the year he’d been vaguely aware of brief reports on the news about the emergence of a strange new virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan – a place that neither he nor anyone else he knew had ever heard of. In four decades of life as a postman, he’d never once delivered a letter that had come from Wuhan!
Nobody had seemed to be particularly worried about the virus. It had all seemed such a long way away, and chances were, everyone had agreed, that it would be similar to the SARS outbreak a few years earlier – confined to a distant region of the world and unlikely to have any real impact on the everyday lives of folk in this country. Gradually, however, the items on the news had become more frequent, the newspaper articles lengthened, and the tone had become more serious and urgent. By the end of January, he was reading and hearing about people who’d returned from China being tracked down by the authorities and put in strict quarantine for fourteen days. Even more concerning, he’d seen something about two members of the same family having tested positive for the disease and ending up in hospital in Newcastle. That was a lot nearer Manchester than Wuhan! The whole thing was becoming much more concerning.
Throughout February, as the flow of information gathered momentum and reports of new infections became more common, things began to move at a pace that alarmed even the hitherto easy-going residents of the Irmingshawe estate. There was a discernible change in the atmosphere of the place. The Patel family’s much-valued corner shop had sold out of toilet rolls and hand-wash dispensers several times already. And Albert had overheard his neighbours talking about ‘the virus’ to each other in the street on his daily trips to and from his allotment. People who previously had shown only a passing interest in national and international affairs were discussing the need for a new vaccine to counter the disease or offering their opinions on how best to protect themselves from infection. He even overheard Mrs Armitage, whose interaction with her neighbours was normally confined to voicing her complaints about teenage boys playing football in the street and who was not normally given to using words of ancient Greek derivation, articulating her fears regarding the ‘draconian measures’ the government might impose on its citizens if things got any worse. Clearly, ordinary people were taking the situation seriously.
By the beginning of March, it seemed that everybody had assimilated two new medical terms into their vocabulary – coronavirus and Covid-19. Few people could have explained precisely what the words meant, but they were usually uttered with a worried expression and followed by a shaking of the head and a sharp intake of breath. It quickly became apparent that their fears were not unfounded. Within a few days, the handful of cases became hundreds and word of the first deaths began to be solemnly announced on the evening news. Experts speculated that while the official number of those suffering from the disease was still relatively small in proportion to the population, in all probability thousands more had been infected. And though most of those who had succumbed might have suffered only mild symptoms, or even none at all, early studies suggested worryingly that it was highly likely that they could still be capable of transmitting the illness to others. Towards the middle of the month daily press briefings began on television, people were advised against travelling to other countries, and there were dire warnings that, unless stricter measures were put in place, the death toll could reach as high as 250,000.
Albert Stridemore had been born in the last months of the Second World War. He’d been rocked to sleep to the accompaniment of his mother’s soothing voice repeating the words, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. He’d been schooled from childhood in the British virtue of always keeping a stiff upper lip in every circumstance. But even Albert was growing nervous.
And just last night his nervousness had changed to a degree of annoyance that took him by surprise and threatened to become an irrational anger. The streets of the Irmingshawe estate had been unusually quite in the evening as most of its residents settled themselves in front of their televisions to hear the Prime Minister’s statement on the measures the government had decided to take. Albert didn’t have a fixed allegiance to any particular political party and usually cast his vote on the basis of which of the local candidates he considered the better man or woman and the most likely to represent the needs of their constituents faithfully and effectively. And he did acknowledge a definite bias in himself against the man looking out at him from his television screen. He admitted to being ‘old school’ in such matters, but he couldn’t understand why someone who held the highest office in the land didn’t ‘show a bit of respect’ for voters by finding a decent barber and learning to comb his hair properly. But this evening he was willing to put such prejudices aside and listen to what he expected would be an important speech with far-reaching consequences.
The tone of the message was quickly set by phrases like ‘the biggest threat this country has faced for decades’ and ‘the devastating impact of this invisible killer’. Some general comments followed about the impact of the virus across the world and the danger of the National Health Service being overwhelmed if nothing was done. And then came the sentence that raised Albert’s blood pressure and got him out of his chair to shout his defiance at the television:
From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.
He barely listened to the rest of the broadcast. For a man who’d spent so much of his life out of doors, walking the streets as a postman and turning over the soil at his allotment, it felt like a life sentence delivered by an unjust judge to an undeniably innocent man. ‘Nobody,’ he insisted, addressing his words to the television, ‘has the right to stop me leaving my house.’ He just wouldn’t do it. He was in good health for a man in his seventies. Fitter than many of the people he saw in the street who struggled to walk at half his normal pace. They could fine him if they wanted to, but he wouldn’t give in.
After a ten-minute walk round the estate – he assumed that the instruction wouldn’t come into force until the morning or, if it did, he’d explain to anyone who asked that this was his exercise for the day – and a cup of tea, he began to calm down a little, only for his pulse to be set racing all over again when he heard something on his bedside radio about over-seventies being asked to observe an even more strict set of rules. He turned it off and tried, without much success, to get some sleep.
But now, as he looked at his lovingly cultivated allotment and drew slow, deep breaths, the sights and sounds and smells around him began to have the soothing and healing effect that he’d felt so often in this spot when something had been troubling him. He sat quietly, enjoying the tender therapy of this little patch of earth. Slowly he relaxed and the tension in his body began to ease. He gave himself a gentle but firm telling-off for allowing himself to get into such a state. A man of his age should know better than to get so worked up.
After a few minutes, he nibbled on his sandwich and sipped his by now lukewarm tea before reaching for the newspaper lying on the work bench and scanning the front-page report of the previous evening’s broadcast. As he reflected on the words he was reading, he acknowledged the logic behind the lockdown. And, of course, on closer examination it was clear that there wasn’t a blanket prohibition on outdoor activity. He could leave home to pick up essential shopping or to collect a prescription from the chemist. Most important of all to him was the permission to take some form of exercise every day, even if it was limited to an hour. If he didn’t dally or waste time – things he never did in any case – he could walk to the allotment in just over a quarter of an hour, and that would allow him half an hour to keep a check on things and get some jobs done before he had to head home again. And if it took him just a little longer than that, he hoped the police would be too busy doing more important things than checking up on a seventy-five-year-old man who was five minutes late returning to his house.
He rinsed his mug and washed his hands again at the standing tap. When he’d dried his hands and put the mug back in its place on the shelf, he removed his gardening shoes and eased off the dungarees that he always wore over what he called his civvies when he was working at the allotment. He was about to hang them back on the hook behind the door when he changed his mind. No, he’d take them home today and put them in the washing machine. There might be a crisis threatening the entire world, but he’d make sure he kept everything neat and clean and tidy. ‘If things around me are in good order,’ he told himself, ‘I can cope with most things that life throws at me.’
He put his well-polished brogues back on his feet and laced them up carefully with a double knot as he always did. He straightened up and stood still for a moment, taking one last look around him before he locked his shed and set off for home. The anxiety he’d been feeling since the previous evening had eased sufficiently for him to order his thoughts. He was surprised at the initial anger the announcement of the lockdown had provoked in him. Something he didn’t know was there had been uncovered and he wondered what else might come to the surface before this was all over. There was no denying that it was a strange time, the like of which he’d never known before. No one could say what the future would hold. But he was pretty sure that whatever else did or didn’t happen, come the morning, the sun would still rise, the rain would still fall and the soil would continue to yield its crop. And he’d be back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, for the sheer joy of taking part in the mystery and miracle of growth that made life possible and worthwhile.