Yesterday, I had to go to the bank. It was the first time I’d walked through the centre of Folkestone since the lockdown rules relaxed on Saturday, allowing pubs, restaurants and hairdressers (among others) to resume trading, and I was intrigued to see what I would find.
At first glance, you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was business as usual. The Old High Street, a narrow, cobbled thoroughfare lined with independent shops, galleries and eateries, was as about as busy as you’d expect on a dull July day. Many of the shops had their boards out as they would have done any other year.
It was only when you got closer and read the messages about social-distancing measures chalked up outside or sellotaped onto their windows that the reality of how things have changed became clear.
The same was true of the restaurants. My heart leapt to see that my favourite café, Steep Street Coffee House, a book-lined oasis halfway up the hill that does a mean blueberry cake, was open once more. A glance inside, however, revealed that all was not as I remembered: the place was a maze of Perspex screens, while the friendly staff were sporting heavy-duty PPE visors. It was a similar story at neighbouring Marleys, where diner-style booth dividers had been installed between each table.
This uncanny sense of everything at once being the same and yet different also prevailed in the modern pedestrianised zone. At first glance, the crowds of shoppers looked much as they would any other year – with few wearing face masks and some veering ill-advisedly close to one another, whether from complacency, absentmindedness or forgetfulness.
The queues outside the shops, however, punctured the illusion of pre-pandemic normalcy. With markers taped onto the pavement at 2m intervals and restrictions on the number of customers allowed to be in stores at any one time, the precinct seemed to be filled with lines of people waiting for invisible buses.
This gave rise to a fresh set of problems. While intended to maintain social distancing, many of these queues were making it difficult for pedestrians to keep 2m from one another: although some businesses had chosen to tuck their entry lines along their front windows, many had opted to have them running straight out from their entrances. This had the result that, when four or five people were waiting, those passing along the pavement sometimes had no option but to walk between customers standing 2m apart in a queue.
I was clearly not the only one alive to the ridiculous aspects of the situation. The woman who came to let me into the bank was quick to make jokes about her struggles with the automatic door, while the man helping me operate the paying-in machine (which, during the pandemic, has permanently replaced the counter staff), went out of his way to be jolly, regardless of the fact that my smile was hidden by my face mask.
We were all in this together, the underlying message seemed to be. Yes, there were some challenges and mistakes would be made, but – dear, funny, awkward beings that we were – we would make it through and get on with a way of life that ultimately wouldn’t be that different from what we’d known pre-Covid-19.
It was tempting to believe it. Yet as I headed back down the Old High Street, a sobering email arrived on my phone. A performance that I’d been due to attend at Folkestone Quarterhouse in May, which had initially been rescheduled to October, was now cancelled for good. Normal life in all its forms wouldn’t be returning any time soon.