Séan Moncrieff: I made small talk with a stranger for the first time in over a year

Next year people may well say to each other: I knew it was back to normal when. . .

The transition back to normal life will be gradual, perhaps even a bit anxious as we start to relearn some of the habits we haven’t practised for the past year such as shaking hands. Photograph: iStock

The transition back to normal life will be gradual, perhaps even a bit anxious as we start to relearn some of the habits we haven’t practised for the past year such as shaking hands. Photograph: iStock

 

Afterwards, perhaps next year, people may well say to each other: I knew it was back to normal when. . . there wasn’t a queue to get into Penneys, or we could drink pints indoors, or be in a crowd and not feel weird about it. Or have just one conversation that doesn’t include the word Covid.

There won’t be a klaxon sound, after which we rush into the streets and start dancing. The transition back to normal life will be gradual, perhaps even a bit anxious as we start to relearn some of the habits we haven’t practised for the past year. Shaking hands. Making small talk. Some people may find this incredibly difficult. Some of the newer habits may remain. Some mask-wearing in public will probably stay.

Yet what’s happened so far feels like preparation: like we’re getting ready for a wedding and choosing what clothes to wear and looking for a nice hotel to stay in.

We chatted a bit about the vaccine rollout, about our kids, about the strangeness of watching TV shows where people hug and don’t wear masks. We wondered if things might be back to normal by the late summer

At least that’s what I told myself when I went to get my cataracts done. When society is finally open again, I’ll need to do some serious looking. Herself is the queen of health insurance and already had me on the Death’s Door Plan, which greatly expedited the process. The public waiting list would have been in the neighbourhood of two years.

So, brave soldier that I am, I sucked up my middle-class guilt while Herself drove me to a private facility that, as she remarked, looked more like the K Club than a hospital: a vast, futuristic atrium that you might see in a science fiction movie about the lives and loves of genetically modified apes who run a shuttle service to the moon. Everyone introduced themselves by their first name. A disproportionate number of people were named Ciara.

As I’ve written here before, I am possessed of a squealing terror when it comes to anyone doing anything to my eyes, so I opted for a general anaesthetic: a decision that wasn’t exactly judged by the multiple Ciaras, but was helpfully placed in context for me. I was told that I was the only cataract patient getting knocked out that day; including a 94-year-old woman.

Sod that. I made the right decision. They gave me some happy drug, which was hugely enjoyable, I sucked up gas and woke up in the recovery ward with a plastic patch taped over my left eye. I looked like an undernourished Terminator. Not that I could see much: because of the patch, I couldn’t wear glasses, so my surroundings had a surreal blurriness. I could make out other patients, like me sitting up but unable to do much else while we waited for the tea and toast to arrive.  

I also realised something small but profound about the woman in the hospital: she was the first stranger I’d made small talk with in over a year

A woman opposite me made a comment about how helpless it feels when you can’t see, but we agreed that it would be worth it in the end. We chatted a bit about the vaccine rollout, about our kids, about the strangeness of watching TV shows where people hug and don’t wear masks. We wondered if things might be back to normal by the late summer. Then a nurse collected her. It was probably time for her to get on the next moon shuttle.

It was worth it. When the eyepatch came off, the world was suddenly in 4K. The colours around me were extravagantly vivid. From the little office in my house, I can read the number plate of the car parked in the driveway across the street; something I couldn’t do before with glasses. I’ve also realised that the office really needs a good dusting.

They did the other eye a week later, and two days after that, I registered for the vaccine.

And I also realised something small but profound about the woman in the hospital: she was the first stranger I’d made small talk with in over a year. The Back to Normal is coming.     

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