As I was lying beside my eight-year-old daughter on Sunday night, waiting for her to fall asleep, I felt her shoulders hunch and her breath quicken into silent sobs. Surprised, I switched the light back on: why was she crying? “I just want life to go back to normal,” she managed, through great shuddering breaths. Oh.
How do children do that? How do they sniff out and tap into the deeper angst adults have tried so hard to bury? In 69 days she hadn’t had a single lockdown meltdown, and in a matter of hours her life and ours was due to become more ‘normal’ than it had been in months. With the “Amber Phase” now starting in earnest, her school opening up to two classes (if not hers), the long-imagined possibility of a socially distant playdate now a reality (for both of us) and Ocado sending me the closest thing to a ‘sext’ I’ve had in years – “we will be opening up more delivery slots from June 1st” – yesterday was supposed to be a ‘victory day’ of sorts. Only somehow she knew it to be a false victory. Somehow she understood that getting closer to normality would only emphasise everything lost along the way.
How many of us felt that ‘amber anxiety’ yesterday? As we finally made plans to see friends and family again and began to outline our return to work, as we dusted the cobwebs off our Havisham-like razors or make-up bags and tossed the elasticised waistbands that got us through months of emotional eating into a bag marked “TO INCINERATE”, how many of us were stopped in our triumphant tracks by the infinite number of “risk assessments” every once casual meeting would necessitate? Last time I went to the park it looked like Glastonbury, so that was problematic. Then again on Sunday the river was as crowded as Henley on Royal Regatta day. How to get there – or anywhere? When buses and trains are no longer simple forms of public transport, but obstacle courses complete with garish micro-scientific close-ups of Corona-garnished handrails and petri-dish-like ‘Stop’ buttons.
Those are just the start of the corona-neuroses making lockdown limbo a greater cause of anxiety than our reassuringly rigid and rule-ridden “Red Phase”. Because human interactions in this new normal will be anything but. It’s one thing to reduce every passing stranger to a billion pathogen-carrying droplets, but swerving to avoid your own mother, father, brother, sister and colleagues? Behaving as though your own best friend or lover were a threat?
Laying out the reasoning behind their decision to sue the Government for “breaching their children’s human rights” with social distancing in schools, the three Cambridgeshire mothers heading the Us and Them campaign yesterday insisted no child should “be treated like they’re germs, disinfected on entry and separated on to individual tables.” Yet surely that, right there, is all of our new normal. Campaigning against a virus feels like the adult equivalent of a toddler stamping his foot because you won’t let him run across the road. After all Covid-19 breached our human rights well before the government’s scientists drew up the neat “traffic light” masterplan enforcing those breaches.
What we’re left with now is the non-graphic-friendly mess of real – surreal – life. The comfort of us all being ‘in this together’ is no longer there. Some are back at school, back at work and barbecuing burgers in Corona six packs; others are still unable to see their boyfriends and girlfriends, much less spend the night with them. Some of us are angry; others relieved. Some are still underplaying the pandemic as one gargantuan global overreaction, others hyperventilating at the thought of the school gate scrum. Besides which it’s easy to forget that socialising is a muscle – one which has grown more and more flaccid with every locked-down day. So that brief moment of trepidation every one of us has felt when arriving stone-cold-sober at a crowded party – that curious, passing, ‘I’m not sure I can do this’ confidence chasm – may be felt by many of us for a while, and occur when least expected.
As a teenager learning to drive, I was cautioned time and time again against the “rolling stops” I was prone to. At every red traffic light, my instructor insisted, the speedometer had to go back down 0 – with no forward momentum. 70 days at 0 has done away with many peoples’ forward momentum, and as the lights change some of us will zoom off into the new normal while others will need a moment to get back in gear - or even stall. So if you’re stuck behind that person, resist the urge to honk your horn. As I soothed my daughter and myself on Sunday night: we’ll all get there eventually.
Read Celia Walden at telegraph.co.uk every Monday, from 7pm