One Sunday last month, a group of us met for lunch in a friend’s garden. She had ordered in the most perfectly flaky sausage rolls (from Sally Clarke), and another friend had put together a fancy salad with asparagus, croutons and garlic flowers; someone else had made old-fashioned ice-cream sandwiches using ginger biscuits instead of wafers, each one of which he’d wrapped in greaseproof paper like a total pro. It was all delicious, but as we talked and drank (and drank) I kept thinking of Freda, the Blue Peter tortoise, waking up after her long winter hibernation in front of the cameras. Our gathering was a bit like that: an emergence that was slightly stumbling at first and then, as the hours ticked by, ever more assured. It was good to be together again. I sometimes think happiness may only be fully registered retrospectively. Not on this day, though. It rose inside me, warm and fierce, to the point where I almost forgot to have thirds.
But my God, it was cold. Ducking inside to use the loo, I looked at C’s collection of green-spined Virago paperbacks, wondering if Frost in May, Antonia White’s 1933 classic of convent school life, was among those on the shelf. Frost in bloody May. I’ve taken the recent cold snap – it might be over by the time you read this, but then again, it might not – as a personal insult, a meteorological crime against all that is civilised and hopeful.
Like so many things to do with pandemic times, the past few weeks, during which we’ve been allowed only to meet outside, have been weirdly, if not quite pleasingly, retro. The comical, gritted-teeth stoicism involved in eating in howling gales and hail showers has taken me back again and again to childhood, when days out seemed inevitably to involve sandwiches eaten under sopping trees, a KitKat that would snap like an icicle as you broke it in two, and a bracing dose of frostbite to finish.
Still, such Arctic privations have done little to put us all off: those misery guts and misanthropes who said no one would want to go out any more could not have been more wrong. Even better, the chill has ensured that Monday, when all restaurants are at last allowed to invite us inside, is going to be all the sweeter. To the joy I’ve felt all my life at the thought of a waiter pouring wine as I read a menu, I’ve recently added a whole new list of uplifting thoughts. No need to wear a vest, and no need to wonder, either, whether it is acceptable to carry a hot-water bottle around as if it was a clutch bag (next winter, I’m going to invest in a black hot-water bottle, because pink rubber is good for no one’s image).
For the time being at least, I can also stop asking myself just how green those newly ubiquitous outdoor heaters are (answer: not very), and I can go back, too, to worrying about who will bag the last portion of asparagus rather than the last blanket. The list goes on… Will I be able, in just a few hours’ time, to emerge from my house sock-less? To reveal a blanched ankle to my fellow diners without any risk at all of chilblains? On such a risque notion, a good night out would now appear to be built.
Of course I booked a table weeks ago. Only a fool would have done otherwise (I wrote here last month of the seeming impossibility of getting in to some places after the big reopening, and it’s only got worse since). We will go to a local place, with local friends, and we will eat local food (ie something with chips). I will talk too much, and drink too quickly, and feel newly (but not crossly) astonished at the price of everything. I will have an espresso, just because I can, and I will lie awake afterwards regretting it as I offer up my deep and abiding gratitude for people and places and credit cards and the prospect of a summer that feels better and lighter and altogether more brimful of gorgeous, everyday expectation than the sad, dark, lonely months that preceded it.