To my surprise, what I miss most about life before the lockdown are parties. As others pine for restaurants and theatres, I am longing for sticky floors and 4 a.m. Ubers. Give me plastic cups and music so loud you feel it in your kidneys. Sylvia Plath wrote disparagingly of the ‘shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose’. It’s precisely that shrillness and pointlessness that I’m yearning for: drunk young bodies cramming together for no reason other than to be close to one another. At the weekend, my longing finally spilled over and I decided to make do online. I put on a nice top and loaded my lashes with mascara. I’m spending the pandemic at my parents’ house in the suburbs, and while they watched Foyle’s War in the sitting room, I stood next door with my laptop and third glass of champagne, cruising the internet for raves. I dropped by a party on Zoom that had been put on to raise money for the NHS. There was a DJ playing 1990s hits and about 30 strangers in little squares on my screen, dancing away in their living rooms. I turned out the lights and began to cut some shapes too, imagining I was in a club and that someone had spilled vodka orange down my top.
After a while I felt a euphoric sense of goodwill to all these strangers dancing together alone. One of the aspects of city life that I’ve been missing since the virus spread is the routine presence of strangers. Now I rarely see anyone I don’t know well. But these virtual dance events thrust you into countless bedrooms and kitchens, filled with people you will never see again. On Zoom you can get a good look at your fellow attendees, and I paused my dancing to snoop. One couple were watching the party unfold impassively, as if it were the evening news. A woman in a sports bra was tossing her hair around. Another window showed a labrador being stroked by someone off camera. It was as good a Saturday night as I’ve had since the pandemic hit.
Put it down to Covid-induced anxiety or simple clumsiness, but I seem to be breaking things at the moment. The latest casualty was a mixing bowl, which I smashed on the kitchen floor. Glass scattered everywhere and I spent a hunched ten minutes with a dustpan and brush, trying to sort it all out. My mother advised that I vacuum but I couldn’t be bothered. She pursed her lips. Wind forwards a few hours, and I entered the kitchen to chaos. My sister was groaning, her foot gushing blood. My mother was leaning over her, expertly tweezering out a nugget of glass from her skin. I felt horribly contrite and ran to get the vacuum cleaner. But when I came back, both sister and mother were crying with laughter, having staged the whole thing. Apparently Tabasco mixed with ketchup makes for realistic fake blood. I vacuumed.
It’s strange publishing a book during a plague. In my novel, out this week in no physical bookshops near you, my widowed character Ada gives a reading from her new poetry collection. She’s nervous but it goes well. Thanks to the virus, I am at least to be spared the indignity of fewer people turning up to a reading of mine than my fictional character’s. The book is about loneliness and the longing for community, two subjects that seem suddenly fairly central. While publishers are wringing their hands about the state of the industry, books feel more important than ever. I’m currently inching through Hilary Mantel — not the new one but her novel about the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. In 1770, she writes, life expectancy in France was 29 years. Hangings were routine. So were bread riots. However bad we think we have it, life is a good deal better now than it was.
Much as I am glad to have more time to read, I resent the pandemic for having constricted conversation. The only telly people seem to be watching is Normal People. The only topic they are willing to discuss in depth is the pandemic and its impact on them. Monoculture is back. I miss having conversations in which plot and surprise featured. Even before the crisis, my friends and I communicated largely by sending one another meandering voice messages, recorded on WhatsApp. I’m still receiving and sending them throughout the day. But no one has much to report other than the vagaries of their emotional life, and how much they are lusting after the jumpers in Normal People.
Norbert. Ernie. Boo. These are just some of the names of our new chicks, christened by my little sister. People keep asking me where they came from, as though hopeful I know of some underground hen railroad where they can get their hands on illicit chicks too. We got them from their mothers, boringly. When the birds first hatched they didn’t look like much — no fluff to speak of and creepily large feet. But they’re becoming formidably cute. It’s no use telling chicks to social distance, either: the five of them of crowd together gaily, pecking each other and chattering about the day’s events. Life goes on. But it might not for much longer: a red kite has noticed them and is planing high above the yard where the chickens live. I’m inspired by that scene in Fantastic Mr Fox, and may sit by the coop in a raincoat with a rifle on my lap till the danger passes.
Leaf Arbuthnot’s Looking For Eliza (Trapeze) is out now.