Venturing into London now seems luxurious. After more than a year of desk-clasping, I have bits of work that take me into town and the degree to which I enjoy this surprises me. I used to hate intra-city travelling. The grimace of sitting on dusty seats, packed tight with coughing, edgy commuters. Of glowering at whatever zesty little fight was going on between that guy and that other guy who decided to get on at rush hour wearing a backpack the size of a family car.
Now I glory in it, not least because so many parts of the process bear an unreal tinge. There’s something melancholy about the ads that have long since passed in and out of season. I stopped to admire a poster for the Gruffalo at Kew Gardens, since my son is obsessed with both the Gruffalo and pointing at plants, but closer inspection revealed its planned end was nine months ago. Did it ever start, I wonder? Does it exist now only in the chipper marketing of the before times, in the long long ago, frozen in amber like the tattered remnants of a dead society?
Everywhere, there is the lore for a nearly but not quite realised world. A past that was once the future, but never got the chance to become the present. Taxis displaying 18-month old ads, heralding the return of James Bond in No Time To Die, a film rescheduled more times than the French Kissing & Handshake Championships. Having not been in town much for the past 14 months, I thought I’d find a strange, empty wasteland. The stranger sight was to see it alive, humming with people being normal and busy and, dare I say it, cheerful.
Even my fellow commuters seemed more chipper. Granted, since everyone was wearing masks they could have been scowling, and cursing me under their breath – I had a large backpack – but I chose to imagine perfect, painted smiles beneath each fabric face-covering, as we all decided not to take the delightful smells and stress of the underground for granted.
I often talk about my son’s adaptability, his sanguinity around all the challenges that lockdown has thrown at him, which is odd since he’s never really known anything else. It’s a bit like praising an English person for being good at drinking tea, queueing or thinking that those two things – and not centuries of imperial conquest – are what the rest of the world knows them for.
It makes me think children’s adaptability is overrated. We should really be praising adults, who’ve shown themselves to be the more adaptable by far. Sure, toddlers’ ability to control their bowels is impressive, but this requires a tolerance from us toward them occasionally pooing on the floor.
At the end of my drab and dreary day in the city, I marvelled at how we managed to get an entire nation to stay indoors and wear face masks with very little retaliatory defecation. Even better, we decided that those who did soil themselves in public should, at the very least, not get their deposit back when they run for Mayor of London.
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