‘Independence Day’, when we could finally go to a café or a hairdresser, was on 4 July, so, strictly speaking, I should have posted this extract last week. But it was such a big thing at the time that I felt it needed its own space.

Saturday 4 July 2020

This is “Independence Day” – the reopening of cafes, pubs and hairdressers. And I’m wandering around on a café crawl, to soak up the atmosphere. First, the good news. The hairdressers are heaving. The shops and cafes not so much.

“I don’t get it,” said Tom, planning a long bath as his morning’s entertainment. “Why would anyone want to go out? We’ve all learnt to eat cheaply and well at home.”

Well, I’m doing my best to save independent cafés, even if it’s just me. As I left the house, I found my feet taking me straight to Zoran’s, where the outside tables definitely needed an occupant. Zoran welcomed me as a long-lost friend and I had my first proper café cappuccino for 4 months.

Then walked into Richmond, where if there are going to be crowds, excitement, riots and superspreading, it will be later in the day. The owner of this café looked so desperate I stopped for a single espresso. It’s too windy to sit outside, so I’m just inside an open door (which at least is well ventilated). There are two other customers.

Yesterday, the shadowing didn’t happen. Slack let us down. All I got was a few blurry frozen image and occasional noises. Will try again on Monday.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

I’ve done it. I took my mask and oyster card, got the 10.30 train to Vauxhall, and walked over the bridge to my hairdresser. Back in BC land, a normal activity. But it doesn’t feel normal. London is much too empty.  I’m sitting at a pavement table, looking at three other empty tables. There are people – I can see four – but the buzz has gone. It feels like a sleepy town in Mid-Wales when it isn’t market day; not one of the world’s great cities.

This isn’t bounce back. It’s barely crawl back.

The good news is that yesterday the technology worked. I shadowed another adviser on slack and have a better idea of the systems. I also learnt that there is a lot of human misery out there. One woman spent 50 minutes on the phone, crying about the noise from her neighbour, caused by loose floorboards, zero sound insulation and a large dog. But as the call unfolded it was about so much more: racism, lack of respect and flashbacks to earlier trauma.

On Sunday, Mike came over for Tom’s postponed Father’s Day treat – a skate around Bushy Park. So plenty of exercise – and after three hours, I was completely knackered. Luckily Mike stopped and bought us mango sorbet cones, which we enjoyed in the sunshine.

Afterwards, Mike entered our house for the first time, for a pizza.  He waxed lyrical about the new place they are buying: a Grade II listed Wiltshire toll house, which will give them a home office each, and is a short cycle ride from their new workplace. Mike even ran through his plans to entertain us in his new house on Christmas Day. “We’ll see how it goes,” I said morosely, mentioning the possibility of a new lockdown.

Mike and G have taken their van around the South Coast – staying in Salisbury, visiting G’s family, working the South Down Way. They are positively bubbling with enthusiasm.

Friday 10 July 2020

“Have you come in specially for a haircut” the stylist asked the guy next to me. “Oh no,” came the reply, “I’m going to the bank as well.” 

We’ve all slowed down. Once going into town, visiting the hairdresser and seeing D were all fitted around the edges of work. Now it’s a full and exciting day. And with the work picnic on Wednesday, it’s almost too much. On Wednesday evening, I fell asleep in front of Netflix, knackered.

My hairdresser, M., was trying hard to maintain her chat rate behind her mask. “How did you spend your lockdown?” now replaces “How was your holiday?” M. went for walks and did zoom sessions on meditating and de-toxing. Otherwise? M. shrugged. She missed her family. Her aim is to get the first plane to Slovakia and possible stay there. “I came to London for 3 months and stayed 14 years. Can I just leave?” Another shrug.

The good news is that my hair now looks great. It’s back to brown.

I wandered past the old office and paused to take photos of the empty street. Considerable effort had been put into flower-pots, even though there is no-one to appreciate them.

I met D at our erstwhile favourite café. The owner has been an NHS volunteer, helping out in a hospital, which he clearly enjoyed. Standing in his empty café, less so. “The barracks are closed. The Ministry of Justice is closed. All the offices are closed. This building is owned by the Qatari Royal Family, and I just hope they don’t really want rent”.

D and I sat at a pavement table and ate as much as we could, as we talked about our kids’ youthful optimism. The dry cleaner’s opposite had a hopeful “open” sign. No-one went near it.

Wednesday started wet – surely too wet for our work picnic in Gray’s Inn. Then at 11 am the skies cleared and I risked it. I strode and ran for the train, in 7 minutes, as I’ve done so often before. I felt very odd. No-one does that anymore. People walk slower – much slower.  But I caught the (almost empty) train and had plenty of time to stroll past Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Holborn.

B. had organised the picnic. She has a scholarship from Gray’s Inn, which allows her to live there until August, in what was once a tiny room. Now that all her fellow scholars have fled the city, she has a large flat all to herself – plus the garden.  

Once everyone had arrived there were 7 of us – exceeding the current guideline of 6. We promised to stay in two separate groups, which happened quite naturally: 3 researchers at one end, and 4 lawyers at the other. We had lots to say to each other, and conversation was much easier in person.

After the work stuff, we talked about universities. L’s daughter has come home from Cambridge, which has kept going pretty well. She still produces essays and has supervision on Skype. Her friend at Birmingham, though, has had no real teaching at all. 

Also this week I’ve had video chats with two previous Team Manager colleagues. Both independently said how difficult it was to manage a team in lockdown. The problem is new people, when you can’t build trust through face-to-face transactions, or observe people interact with other people. “I’ve got a new lawyer”, one said, “And I just don’t know what they’re doing”. Good thing I’ve retired.

Today I’ve done more shadowing on the advice line. I only have to answer a couple of test questions. Then someone delivers an internet phone to my door and I’m told to get on with it.

So that’s all for now. I’ll be signing off with a final (for the moment) blog post next Friday (22nd) looking back over the entries so far and considering ways I might move forward. I’ll be asking you for your thoughts too.

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