By Harry Stocker
A muted, bluish haze had begun to spill into my bedroom, so I knew it was about time I was up. Outside, iridescent clouds painted the sky an unbroken colour of silver, faintly lit by a sun which had not yet found the time to dawn. I rubbed my eyes, stood, and dressed, pulling on the clothes I had worn the day before.
It was about 4:30 in the morning, late April 2020, and lockdown had choked the life out the country. It had certainly choked the life from Bristol.
One by one, I had watched my friends spring from the city. Everyone was gone. Bar one. Matt, a shaggy haired Harrogate lad who stayed with me the whole time, and we kept each other reasonably sane. Our kitchen, still stocked with our friend’s pots and pans, sugar and pasta, felt like a grim reminder of our previously lively and cheerful home. It took a few weeks before we felt comfortable enough to steal their spices.
I bagged a bottle of water, a paperback and shouldered my rucksack. Then out of my front door, into the lift, and down the six stories.
For the last three weeks, I hadn’t been able to sleep more than about four hours. And even then, it was never at night. It had become habit to wander around the city, drawn by the ghostly spectacle.
I stepped out into the crisp, morning air, blinking in the light. I stood still. Immediately, I was confronted by the silence. There was no delicately or fragility; it was thick and suffocating. An utter lack of anything at all, save the occasional shrill cries of the seagulls that nested above our bedrooms. In a city of well over half a million, it seemed I was the only one awake.
I descended stone stairs two at time. Looking northwards, I saw Colston Hall. In happier times, it had played host to Hendrix and The Beatles. Months from now, after the June protests, Colston’s name would be removed from the tower. I remember watching the metal lettering being taken down, as pearls of rain slipped from the sky and flowed into swollen, gurgling drains. Legacy vanishing, as if it were never there at all.
In front of me, was The Hatchet Inn. “Bristol’s Oldest Pub, Established circa 1500”, it proclaimed. The walls were a yellowy cream, crosshatched with black timber. Legend said the front door was clad in the skin of a criminal hanged nearby. Approaching from east, you could see the pub listed slighted to left. It was as if after centuries of patrons spilling from its doors, the pub too, was caught in its own drunken sway.
I turned right, passing two clubs and an Italian restaurant. I realised then, that every business on the street was closed, indefinitely. I climbed another set of broad stone stairs. Usually strewn with broken beer bottles and smelling, quite strongly, of urine, this morning though they were pristine. I passed a mural by Banksy, the Well-Hung Lover. On my way to lectures, I would often have to skirt around groups of French or Chinese tourists as they listened eagerly to earnest tour guides.
I stood at the bottom of Park Street. The wide road sloped upwards with a characteristically Bristolian angle – punishingly steep. By now, the clouds had frayed and begun to burn off, giving way to a vast, cascade of trembling orange light. Cafes, bookshops, pubs and clubs, takeaways, charity shops and vintages stores lined the street in low rows, each crowned with flats.
At the top of the road, stood the Wills Memorial Building. The 216ft Neo-Gothic tower was built from reinforced concrete and then faced with Bath Stone, so it glowed the colour of honey, in the sun. Above the wide, arched double door stood stone sculptures in high relief, with grimacing gargoyles. On the sides of the tower hung nine heraldic shields and was topped by an octagonal lantern, home to Great George, the nine and a half tonne bell. I can hear him from my bedroom, and it was by his chimes that I once realised I was late handing in an assessment. My highspeed record, rushing from my flat, to the third floor of the building for a lecture, was about six minutes. But these days, I had no reason to rush. In fact, I had no reason to do anything at all.
I wandered further, ambling down the centre of the road, tattooed with their useless white lines. I passed the Triangle, I passed the opulent dressed stone of the Victoria Rooms, its Corinthian columns supporting a vast Grecian pediment relief. I arced northwards until I found myself in Clifton, a wealthy suburb. The small balconies that clung to the Georgian townhouses looked like cages, dangled from a height. I kept going, following my feet, climbing the steep path all the way up to white turret of the Clifton Observatory. There were perhaps fifteen simple wooden benches dotted around. It was there that I stopped.
From there, I had the unbroken view of Clifton Suspension Bridge. Two opposing towers of grey and white stone stood proudly on either side of the Avon Gorge. The sun struck their white tops, so they glowed gold. Iron chains were fastened to each tower, descending gracefully, and then rising again to meet their neighbour, taking a form of beautiful symmetry. The bridge connected St Vincent’s Rock in Bristol to the ancient Leigh Woods in North Somerset. It saw on average, nearly nine-thousands vehicles crossing it a day, four million a year. I could see none.
Initial designs were completed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The construction had been a difficult and costly process. Only four months in, they were forced to stop by the Queen Square Riots of 1831. Six hundred men had openly rioted, set raging fires, were violently suppressed, and commercial confidence in Bristol had plummeted. Construction started again five years later, but the main contractors soon went bust. By 1843, all work had ceased. Little happened, until the death of Brunel in 1859. He never saw the bridge finished, and it was thought it would serve a fitting memorial to his life. It seemed dying was the only way for Brunel to finish his work.
Today, academics are hesitant to say the finished bridge should even be accredited to him. Brunel’s original plans were heavily altered by his contemporaries, Sir John Hawkshaw and William Henry Barlow following his death. I couldn’t help but think, that this icon of the Bristol skyline, a stunning feat of engineering, was really just a symbolic mausoleum of undulating iron and rising stone.
It was difficult not to think about death. I felt as if I was surrounded by it. I had watched a city wilt and die, and now I wandered it like a ghost. The lingering fear of the virus cultivated a feeling of being perpetually chased by pestilence and plague, and now even the bridge before me: Death. I felt tired and hopeless, trapped in a vortex of confusion. A sense of loneliness had settled on me like falling ash, gradual at first, but all at once, realising I could barely breath.
And yet, a part of me still couldn’t believe that I was living through this. A cultural reset of global scale – this is something to be read of in dusty history books or imagined in far-fetched cinema. Things would be different now.
I snapped out of my gloom and sucked in the morning air, fresh and sweet. I noticed the inscription on the bench I had been sat on:
Bob and Jo:
Whose love for each other and their family was the bedrock of our lives.
I stood up, to read the adjacent bench.
Her presence and spirit will always be known to these parts. At home and forever at peace.
I made a loop of the Observatory, reading them all.
In memory of Jonny who spent such a happy childhood here.
She loved this spot! Forever remembered,
Steve and Kate x
Who passed this way every morning with Chess, the Springer Spaniel. She is missed so very much and forever in our hearts.
Elaine and John
Who were fabulous.
I was struck by the beauty of these sparse words. A simple inscription on a little brown bench is a diametrically different way is of remembering someone. It is a fundamentally optimistic approach. They are gifted a second life of sorts, set somewhere often beautiful and personal. While a traditional cemetery, quiet and well kept, possesses its own tranquillity, there is an undeniable atmosphere of solemnity because this place marks the end. A gravestone is a marker that someone has died. An inscribed little bench is a marker that someone lived.
Once dedicated, no longer is a bench just a bench; it has been transformed before our eyes. Now it is a refuge for loved ones, a small oasis of the sacred nestled amongst a deluge of noise. And how could this be anything but magic? We then start to engage in a transactional process. We sit and enjoy a place that was special to them, and in return we must learn their name, and perhaps something about them. Elaine and John, for example, were fabulous. And so, they live on, meeting new people every day, having a more varied social life than most could ever dream.
To find meaning is a conscious decision. It does not float in on the breeze, it must be painstakingly forged. It is a frame of mind that can be applied and imbued as liberally as one is able. Physically, nothing distinguishes those benches from any other, but once they are dedicated to a person, they are gifted a soul. When your perception is your reality, look up.
I hoped that one day, someone would love me enough to grant me a bench of my own. I was vain enough to wonder what they would say.
After a little while, I stood, yawned, and began to walk home.
It was time I got some rest.
Harry’s first instalment from his ‘Stories from the Lockdown’ can be found here.