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The final frontier
Ali Smith
15 May 2021
published in Issue Zero – Opuscule

Here's a joke from the 1970s, the days when people used to say I say I say I say before they said the first line of a joke.

I say I say I say. What do you do when you see a spaceman?
I don't know. What do you do when you see a spaceman?
Park in it, man.

I say I say I say. This happens two winters ago, a bit before the pandemic we're in hit home. One of our neighbours knocks on our front door. I can see her through the door, the door is made of glass. She's not one to cry easily. She's a teacher, and one of the soundest people, very steady and unflappable. But there she is at the front door and she is crying.

I open it. She says, all in a rush:

our-washing-machine-is-feeding-raw-sewage-straight-into-the-wash-so-I've-had-to-call-a-plumber-and-they're-coming-and-they're-bringing-one-of-those-large-vans-that's-got-a-pump-on-the-back-and-they-need-to-park-in-our-road-as-close-to-the-house-as-they-can-get-but-there's-been-a-car-parked-in-our-emergency-parking-space-for-weeks-and-I-don't-know-whose-it-is.

A bit of background. We live in a very narrow road, a cul de sac of eight small houses. Between us, we all communally own the scrubby space up by the bin store where, if there's ever an emergency, a fire engine or police car or plumber's van etc can pull in. The whole neighbourhood is crowded, it's a fact. There are way more cars than these old streets can cope with, and we often have parking wrangles with people who don't live here who leave their cars in our cul de sac for days, or even weeks.

So, space, you might say, is already at a premium –– even before a pandemic will mean that everybody’s home all the time and so are their cars,

and will mean that back garden fights all round the neighbourhood break out all through the year, about who's doing what too noisily or too close to someone else's garden, or about who's stolen whose cat, or about the union jack bunting that people will hang out for VE day bringing out a bitter brexit fury in the gardens of several houses in the street at the back of ours,

and will mean that not only does the space of your own front room become prison-like, but the space round just a single body going for a walk down a road with other people who're doing the same will become charged and sensitised like nothing we've ever known before. It will mean that just going for walks has new rules. And will mean that on the days when we drive out to the nearest countrified place to get out of the town, and walk across a couple of fallow fields whose dividing line is marked by dumped beercans, bottles, plastic wrapping, we'll stop on that ridge between the fields and marvel at a rusting piece of farm machinery there for quite a long time, we'll even be excited by it, like kids would be, partly because it's a relief to come on something that looks like history's meant to look, something both modern and ancient, that used to have something to do with gathering harvests, now dumped and rotting, skeleton of a minor dinosaur or outer space alien creature –– and partly because seeing it has given the walk a sense of discovery, a connection to other times, other things, meaningful things, things meaning other than the feeling that the whole time we're on this walk we're trespassers on someone else's land, which we are, and also escapees from the strange spacey consciousness of a people not yet facing the real grief of what's happening to us all.

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