There are grocery shops everywhere, springing out of the empty ruins of pubs and cafes. They’re not real grocery stores. They stock four different kinds of olives, and three different types of tinned fish. They have chocolate, but only 70% dark, or entirely vegan, or powdered and served in Ecuadorian hot chocolates with oat milk. They have fresh croissants, and oranges that still have their leaves on. They have four shelves of wine, and non-alcoholic spirits.
They are our new playgrounds. They are the only place I can have fun. They’re allowed to exist because they’re deemed essential, but there’s nothing essential about anything they stock, unless you can’t live without a fresh custard doughnut, or a £20 jar of preserved lemons.
Only five people are allowed in at once, which takes all the joy out of that kind of store, the kind of joy that comes from browsing for 15 minutes, eating 3 different samples, and spending £15 on three strange items that could never be brought together into a meal. But I still line up and I still enter, and I still spend my money, and I still emerge, with a very hot coffee and a brown paper bag, feeling like I’ve achieved something, because at least it is a point of difference.
I used to get the same kind of joy out of Whole Foods in Piccadilly Circus. It was sensibly positioned, for me, because it was a good 15 minute walk from my work, and out of my way, so I couldn’t go there too often. I would always go there when I was about to get my period, or when I’d had a particularly frantic work day, or when I was going to be alone for the evening, and so there would be no one to judge the strange types of food I would buy: crispy spicy sushi, a takeout container crammed only with mashed potatoes and macaroni cheese, fresh tortilla chips, gooey blue cheese in a tub, large green nocerella olives, a sad slice of pumpkin pie, a tub of tomatoes in twelve different colours. It’s a soothing store, a grocery store that I treat like an amusement park (a rare pleasure, a reward).
This strange bougie grocery store is the only thing open on a street of shops I know well. There’s the antique store that only sells £1200 chairs, in pairs, with sloped leather backs and worn wooden arms. I have never been inside, only stood close to the window so I can listen to Adam say “That’s riDICulous, it’s just a chair!” again, and so it makes no real difference to me that it’s closed now. There’s the pub with the big outdoor garden – in Tier 2 it erected huge enclosed tents with heaters, and called it outdoor dining, and we walked past the steamy plastic plague windows and laughed at the rules, but not even fake four-walled outdoor dining is allowed in Tier 4. There’s a shop that sells only items for babies, with a large carrot on its sign, even though babies do not have teeth.
The fact that everything is closed hasn’t deterred anyone. We don’t have anywhere else to go. The streets are full of masked huddles of people buying jars of preserved lemons and standing at the crossing, wandering in circles in the freezing cold. It is hard to keep a reasonable berth when there are so many of us on the muddied paths of Highgate Woods. There is a wide cricket pitch, and no one playing cricket, and somehow still big throngs of spectators, watching the crows in the patches of mud.
When shops reopened in July after the first long lockdown, I would go to those stores and let it feel like a treat. Expensive olives, and salted caramel sauce, and bottles of rose. It did feel like a treat, because everything had been closed for so long. There was immoderate joy in a face-to-face transaction. Now, with the see-saw of tiers and the drip-feed of information, it feels more like a taunt, or a cruelly-designed temptation for which I will always fall. I ate out to help out, and then watched cases soar. I shopped local, and everything shut anyway. My tracing app tells me that Tier 4 means stay home, but then even these essential-non-essential grocery stores will shut. Someone will board up the windows, and put away the lemons. What do you use preserved lemons for anyway?