Foreign Familiarity

Leah McGhee

During lockdown, I had been missing a lot of things, but I didn’t expect one of them to be strangers. Typically, I’d be desperate to get away from them, or I’d be too busy to really notice them. Now that we’ve had to be distant, I’ve grown to miss just being around people, regardless of if I know them or not. I’ve missed drawing people at cafés, I’ve missed walking into Norwich and not knowing who I would bump into, I’ve missed spending time with people I now haven’t seen in months. To mend a bit of this solitude, I took to sketching strangers on location as a different way of connecting to people whilst being apart. I began drawing people I saw on walks in my hometown, and later in different locations.  

I noticed swarms of people still hanging around parks and corners of the streets with their friends, and I know a lot of people who have had parties with plenty of people over. But even with those breaking lockdown rules, I couldn’t shake the sheer emptiness of the streets in May/June. 

The people I did see around often looked exhausted, or desperate to be anywhere but at home, no matter the weather. We shared that in common, and it made a difference just to see another face for once. 

It’s sad that it’s now rare to see NHS workers and carers in their uniforms around my town. My mum and so many others have faced a lot of prejudice or abuse simply because of their uniforms. They shouldn’t have to, but many of them have been changing clothes before they leave work, just so they can go home in peace. 

When lockdown was due to be eased on July 4th, my family’s holiday was re-opened. Thankfully the location has always been a remote beach and not a busy tourist attraction, and the bungalow we stayed in had been disinfected and hadn’t had any visitors for months. I’m grateful we could drive there and only make one service station stop, but I was right to be cautious of even just that. 

Only a few of us there were wearing masks, and most people ignored the one-way systems in place, with some people barging into each other or coming up right next to me to get the hand sanitiser. I could see the mutual caution and annoyance in the people who were trying to be conscientious.   

There was a child persistently coughing and running all over the place, with their parent who didn’t tell them to cover his mouth once, nor to keep two metres away from people. For whatever reason, the parent was wearing a mask and the child wasn’t. 

I was always aware that some people wouldn’t care as much about the virus, but it’s entirely different to experience a mass of people not having the slightest consideration for other people. As uncomfortable and angry as I was, I took comfort in knowing there were at least some people who were sticking to the precautions.  

After the stress of the service station, we finally arrived at our destination. We stuck to the beach and the bungalow, and kept our distance from people. Even on the hottest days, there were barely any people around. For a few moments, I would allow myself to forget about the virus. Sketching people in these moments of respite, it was just nice to see other people happy too.    

I hadn’t physically seen this many people have fun in such a long time. Knowing how temporary these tranquil days were for us, it made sketching them seem even more important as a way of solidifying them. It was odd to be in a place where we could easily distance ourselves from each other, and that others had the same consideration for us. It was a short-lived experience of how things could be, if only we all had a great level of care for one another.  

Prior to the legal easing, I was so convinced that I missed the busyness of mundane life, and being a trivial part of the hustle and bustle. What I didn’t realise until now is that I don’t miss the strangers, it’s the old normality I miss. The old lives we had prior to all of this. Things can’t be the same for a long time – we just have to get used to the way things are. And even if some people won’t be looking out for us, the important thing is that we still do. Because right now, that’s all we can do.  

Words: Leah McGhee, Storehouse Content Team, @leahpatrish

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