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My coronavirus lockdown: A hunt for vegetables

19 March 2020 - 13:11 By Jacqui Venter

Jacqui Venter, 46, is a South African digital product manager living in London. As the infection rate spirals in the UK, she's ill and has been instructed by her doctor to self-isolate in case she has Covid-19.

The only problem is that she lives in a tiny studio flat in Soho, a vibrant part of town. Now she has #FOMO in Soho.

Jacqui Venter is holed up in her flat in Soho, London.
Jacqui Venter is holed up in her flat in Soho, London.
Image: supplied

Day 5

I escaped — for a short 10 minutes. I hadn’t planned on doing so, but I received an e-mail that made all of the coiled springs in my backside release at once and I popped up out of my chair and had to move. I took my binoculars to the window and spied my regular fruit and veg seller at the end of the road. 

He has a stall in the Berwick Street Market, which was established in 1778 and is one of the oldest in the city. As a hardy Londoner, he was selling his produce on the stall as he has done for many, many years. He only takes cash and his wooden cash tray is worn smooth in grooves where hands over the years have fished out change.

I knew he wouldn’t be taking coronavirus lying down. He is as craggy as the Soho cobbles and as scruffy as the layers of torn posters on its buildings. But he is ever present in our food market street. As dependable as the rain.

The other food stalls had all but folded, save for the hardy stall holders selling burgers, dairy, eggs, shawarmas and Middle Eastern wraps. The rest of the street was empty, but the war of the wraps was still on: Greeks vs Arabs. 

The Berwick Street Market, usually a hive of food stalls and stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
That was then: The Berwick Street Market, usually a hive of food stalls and stands selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
Image: Jacqui Venter

I stood pensively at my window, wearing a striped pyjama top and torn jeans; the type of jeans that are ripped at the ankle to make them shorter; the type that look as if a shark has bitten off your feet and wrecked your good pants. I had paired that with old sheepskin slippers; the type that look as if a dog had mauled them. And black socks to keep my ankles warm in what is essentially a pretty cold flat.

That said though, I was steaming up the binoculars with my indecision, so I decided that I should break for the border, scoot out and be back.

I stuffed a packet of anti-bac wipes into the pocket of my long, padded coat — a sleeping bag with arms and a hood. My intention was to wipe every surface I touched to save the world from me, a fetid and feral femme who had been living in her own cooking smells for four days.

I had meant to open my front door gingerly, but since it is sprung with the tension of a thousand elastic bands, I had to wrestle it open, prop it up with my slipper and let it slam behind me. Discreet. Very discreet. 

I trotted lightly down the three flights of stairs to the bottom level, where the narrow entrance to the house is. Like many carved-up houses in Soho, it has no lift. And I’m on the third floor. All my purchases need to be humped up those stairs, which should stop me from being a magpie and stashing away shiny things in my nest, but it doesn’t.

At the front entrance, I slid over two letters on the floor: one addressed to the guy on the first floor and the other to the Greek woman upstairs (who has now finished her marathon but makes mysteriously short, darting movements towards her kitchen). 

The view of the Berwick Street Market outside my window today.
This is now: The view of the Berwick Street Market outside my window today.
Image: Jacqui Venter

I pulled at the front door handle — another heavily sprung door with the tension of David’s kattie, the one with which he slew Goliath. I propped the door open with my pantoffel. Nobody knows what pantoffels are here in Soho, so they can’t see them. 

I pulled up my hood and dashed down the left hand side of the street towards the veggie stall. 

I went past the shop that sells bongs and always smells of incense, and past the hairdresser that specialises in rainbow hair, which always smells of shampoo. The bong shop was open — it’s always open. The hairdresser was closed. So was the coffee shop below me, and that is always open. The energy of my street is changing and it made me very sad.

I bought four overripe tomatoes, an aubergine, a red pepper and a green pepper. It cost £3.75 (about R75). I handed him a fiver and had to take change — from another person’s hand!

Feeling very downhearted at the state of affairs in my street, I went past the Middle Eastern wrap stall, where the chef — and my good friend — told me: “Get back into the house! Naughty!” You see, we’ve been messaging each other while I’ve been in isolation. Him, looking up at my window, and me looking down at him, cooking chicken on an open gas burner in the cold.

Then I looked over at one of the great eccentrics of our street lying back on a sun lounger next to his fruit stall. He was singing Bohemian Rhapsody — very, very badly — with his feet up, laughing into the sky as he puts aside his air guitar.

As the French say, “Plus ça change”, or: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.  

Here’s hoping.