When lockdown arrived at the end of March, I braced for profound changes to my existence that never arrived. It certainly isn’t the first time I’ve gone 15 weeks without entering a pub. Now I’m preparing for the lifting of restrictions. Big things are going to happen, I tell myself. But not to you. The highlight of your week is still going to be an argument with a squirrel.
I come downstairs in the morning to find the house is empty. I unlock the back door and step into the garden to check on a bare patch of lawn I reseeded last week. Tiny bent shoots are poking out of the raked earth. I stare at them for a while. I think about pulling up a chair. My phone rings. It’s my wife.
“Are you busy?” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Why?”
“I need you to come and pick me up,” she says.
“From where?” I say.
“I’m at the optician’s,” she says. “And they want to do this test in case I have a detached retina, which I might not have, but if I do I have to go to A&E.”
“Oh,” I say.
“Anyway, I stupidly took the car and I won’t be able to drive after they put the drops in,” she says.
“Yeah, I’ve had that test before,” I say.
“That would be interesting if this were about you,” she says. “I just need you to come and get me and drive me to the supermarket.”
“Or hospital,” I say.
“Or hospital, depending,” she says. “I’ll drop you a pin. How do I drop a pin?”
A minute later my wife texts me a map with a pin stuck in a Boots about three miles away. I think: this means the bus. I haven’t been on a bus in months. I rehearse the procedure in my head.
First, you need a mask, I think. They let only masked people on the bus now. There’s a flowered one hanging from the mantelpiece, which I do not think I can carry off. I find a pack of 10 disposable masks in a drawer, unopened. I hold one up to my face before stuffing it into my pocket and heading for the front door.
All along the route to the bus stop the pavements are crowded with men occupied in the hasty construction of outdoor seating areas: platforms and wooden fencing modules weighed down with poured concrete. Every restaurant and cafe is extending itself curbward to accommodate the coming diners. The world is aching for proximity, it seems. I think: I’m not ready.
The bus is already sitting at the stop when I get there, but the engine is off, the door is shut and the driver is staring intently in the opposite direction. I pull on my mask and knock lightly on the glass. He doesn’t move. I knock again. I sense people beginning to queue behind me. I exhale into the mask, and my glasses steam up.
Eventually the driver turns and, finding me at his door, looks me up and down with distaste. He glances behind him at the rows of empty seats, and then back at me. Almost imperceptibly, he shakes his head. I feel as if I’m trying to board a bus with a tethered goat. Finally, with boundless reluctance, he opens the door.
“Thank you!” I say, stepping aboard and heading for the stairs. I’m halfway up when the driver shouts for me to come back down. At first I think I must have dropped something, or violated some new safety protocol. Then I realise I have forgotten to pay.
“Sorry!” I shout. “It’s been a while!” Everyone in the queue I’m holding up stares at me. I try to imagine them smiling behind their masks, but it’s impossible.
I am waiting for my wife when she emerges from a door at the back of the shop. We’ve both got masks on. Her pupils are huge and unreadable.
“So,” I say. “Waitrose or A&E?” Her eyebrows come together.
“Waitrose,” she says.