Partygoers will tell you that the new year begins in January, with champagne and resolutions and kisses at midnight, but they’re wrong. The new year begins in September, with a shiny new pencil case and the creative use of sticky-back plastic. Any schoolchild can tell you as much: the clean white page, full of possibility; the wonderland of WHSmith and its rows of scented gel pens.
It’s been 15 years since I bought a new pencil case, but the September feeling lingers. The sticky heat of summer gives way to a breezy brightness, but the evenings are still light enough to enjoy a post-work pint on the pavement (or, rather, they were). The high anticipation of summer has passed, and September opens out, wide and empty. I begin to make lists in earnest.
This year, however, its approach feels different, daunting. In the early weeks of the pandemic I became envious of friends and colleagues who had spouses, children, homes with many rooms; a neat family unit with which to hunker down. Having never given it much thought before, I was suddenly, anxiously, aware that I did not have this “household” of which the officials at the daily press conferences spoke. I have a small, shared flat, a boyfriend I do not live with, and a flatmate, who in turn has a boyfriend she does not live with, who has his own flatmates, who have their own partners, and so on… Instead of a household, I had a long line of strangers whom I could not trust to keep to their one daily outing for exercise; a chain of exponentially increasing infection.
And so, for the past five months, I have lived out of a suitcase, negotiating with my flatmate for a few weeks alone in my flat, followed by another few staying with my boyfriend and his flatmate, and repeat. (If you were wondering at what age boys stop playing Fifa and leaving their pants on the bathroom floor, apparently 30 isn’t it.) This set-up is short term and ultimately unsustainable, but these are “unprecedented times”, and so we make do. But the new year beckons, and with it comes the nagging realisation that standing under a tree and waiting for the storm to pass is no way to live for long.
One Harvard study estimates that it might take five years for coronavirus to leave widespread circulation of its own accord, and then only if immunity proves permanent. A vaccine now seems more possible than it did even months ago, but optimistic estimates give us at least until the spring before one can be proved safe and effective, and produced and distributed at the necessary scale. Meanwhile, restrictions cannot responsibly be further eased, and a second nationwide lockdown feels more likely by the day.
This is as good as it’s going to get. To use a wartime metaphor, as everyone is so fond of doing these days, the pandemic is not an assault but a siege. “It was the first winter that you realised this was going to last,” the Sarajevo survivor Velibor Bozovic told the New York Times, “this is your life.” We cannot put off living while we wait for a return to a “normal” that may no longer exist; emergency measures must give way to acceptance and settlement.
And so in September, I am moving into a one-bedroom flat. There will be no flatmates with whom to negotiate for space; there will only be me. I am pouring the money I used to spend on eating out and getting the Tube into rent. Perhaps that is short-sighted, but I fear it will prove not to be. My clothes will stay in their wardrobe, my books on their shelves. My copy of Ian Curtis’s So This Is Permanence will be displayed front and centre, its meaning entirely changed.
In place of a pencil case, I have bought a desk, because in this brave new world I want to be able to dine at my dining table. Balancing a plate on your knees on the sofa while computer equipment roams free over the table is a temporary measure; a new desk is one of perpetuity.
September stretches unknown before me, as does my new flat; the possibilities of a blank white page. With it comes a question that currently feels unanswerable: if this is life now, how do we make the best of it?