One of the odd things about people acting as though the COVID pandemic is over is that it increases the number of people who keep catching it. My Mum and Dad, both 92 and who very rarely go out, recently picked it up on a visit to Hospital, after sitting in a waiting room for quite some time surrounded by people without masks on. Both have got through it, Mum without symptoms, Dad being quite bad with it for three days, underlining again the relative vulnerability of men (weaker sex and all that). Both of them are as vaccinated as you can get and we’re all very thankful for that, as the death rate for people over 80 who are fully vaccinated is 1 in 68. If you have had fewer than 2 vaccinations your chances drop to 1 in 7. Residual vaccine sceptics please note. I’m not saying this to score a point.
So, I went down to Grays and did a very brief socially distanced drop off of some chicken soup my daughter made for them – “give ’em some chicken soup”. “But madam, that won’t help” “It wouldn’t hoit!”
Wandering back through town I stop off for a Capuchino and strudel at Lola’s Bakery on the High Street opposite where the Queen’s Hotel used to be. A little gem of a cafe full of pastries and caffeinated smells, staffed by Eastern European women busily doing accounts, with a couple of other grey haired geezers sitting at the tables outside, quietly taking in the breeze and the pale October sunlight. They have a sign on the counter which gains a bit from translation, proclaiming that all of their pastries are freshly made in “our laboratory”. “IGOR! The Strudels!” But the lab does good work. Recommended if you are ever in Grays High Street.
The precinct is busy but determinedly down at heel. An attempt to revive the High Street in the 1970s, complete with multi story car park and killed stone dead by Lakeside opening up in the 80s. The old status stores, M&S, even Woolworths, either migrating there or shutting down. A Poundland. A Burger King. A “Gorgeous in Grays” store. There seem to be a lot of Sacred Heart Jesus posters on sale, a counterpoint to the evangelical revival on display at the mega church at the Eastern end of what used to be Congress House, the old Coop Department Store that we thought was terribly modern in the sixties. The design of these varies, but the Jesus is always very white. In one he points to the blazing heart in his chest with the same sort of understated gesture that a gangbanger might point to a gun – “you don’t want to mess with this”. In another he holds up two fingers in benediction but has a reproachful expression – “I know what you’re thinking, and I’m deeply disappointed”. The fingers are crossed. A woman walks past talking to her mate “He was so fucking rude to me…” The classiest and coziest place in the precinct is the Costa cafe by the High Street entrance, where I pick up a sandwich for the train journey back. Most tables full. A buzz of conversation. A barista straight outa’ Shoreditch, all massive mane of curly hair and beard, brews coffees in a chilled sort of way.
On the way up to the station a tiny black girl gives me a conspiratorial grin as she zooms past on one of those three wheeled scooters.
The journey back goes up the Rainham line. That means we pass Wennington, the small settlement hit hardest by last year’s wildfires during the 40C heatwave. Wennington is one of those unobtrusive landmarks that you tend to take notice of without making a note of. Out beyond Rainham proper and built, presumably, on a bit of land higher and dryer than the big sweep of marshland that surrounds it and sweeps all the way down to Purfleet, so it stands on the horizon. Even expecting to see damage, the state of it is quite a shock. The stubby stone church tower stands at one end like a squat exclamation mark, next to it several houses that have been gutted, just their dividing walls and chimneys pointing blasphemously upwards, then a few houses that look untouched, then several more completely burnt out, blue sky showing where their living rooms and bedrooms should have been, then some more, seemingly normal. Not built back better. Or even built back at all. It stands as a memorial and a warning. We got off lightly in that heatwave, even though the Fire Brigade had more calls than on any day since the end of the Second World War. The winds were light. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky.
A sign of hope as I sit at Tower Hill and eat my sandwich somewhere scenic. The moat around the Tower, filled eight years ago with scarlet ceramic poppies in a striking memorial to World War One, is now running riot with wild flowers. The same sort of recreated meadow we have in our local parks but on a grander scale. The sea of colour waving in the wind somehow gentles down the still, grim old fortress, with its thousand year terrible history and hinting that maybe we can do better than we’ve done and, if we don’t, the flowers will still be here when we are long gone.