So how many box-sets have you been able to catch up with? I have hardly been able to watch any TV, largely because I have been speaking to people. On alternate days, that is. I go through a speeded-up cycle of depression and – well, not mania; it’s more like elation, or just feeling chipper. There are a load of Shasta daisies outside my window, and for some reason they are all facing me.
On good days I look at them nodding and waving in the breeze and I come over all Wordsworthian (yes, I know Wordsworth’s daffodils don’t nod and wave, they flutter and dance; but these definitely nod and wave – the effect is similar). On bad days they look nosey, and judgemental. “Why haven’t you written that book you had such a good idea for back in April?” they ask. “When are you going to do some tidying up?” “Why are you drinking so much?” “Well,” I feel like replying to them, “for the following reasons…” but I give up and go back to bed.
As it happens, I have lately reined in the drinking a bit, largely as a result of excess. My children clubbed together to buy me a bottle of Lagavulin for my birthday; earlier, my old friend Razors had bought me a bottle of The Balvenie. He had addressed the label to “Lord Nicholas Lezard” and the delivery guy got down on one knee as he handed me the package. I suppose, with my wild hair, trouser fly agape and Marks and Sparks vest, I might have looked like one of the more eccentric peers of the realm, but I think he was taking the piss (albeit in an extremely charming way).
The evening of my birthday was one of my bad days, until at around 8pm my children called me up. No Zoom for us: they just put the phone on the kitchen table and start talking. That evening the talk went on for three hours, and I haven’t spent such a delightful three hours this year. And this is with a surprising amount of competition.
But the other night was also good. I have three sets of neighbours whom I bump into regularly. There’s the young heterosexual couple with a two-year-old, who recognised me one evening (the couple recognised me, not the two-year-old); the other heterosexual couple, he English, she Polish, who sometimes bring round delicious home-made pizza; and a Slovakian lesbian couple from one of the flats above.
Now, as it happens, I do not have very effective gaydar. But it has perhaps got better. Living in Brighton may have something to do with it; but then sometimes one has to be spectacularly obtuse not to figure it out. One half of this couple does not advertise, in any immediately visible way, her sexuality. The other, though, with her buzz cut and non-feminine demeanour – even I can work out she’s gay.
I most often see her sitting on the front steps with a roll-up, and I always say hello, but each time I do so I am given the curtest of nods and little more than a grunt in response. This unnerves me, especially as it has been going on for a year. I cringe before some lesbians in the same way I cringe before pretty much all Scots. They just seem better than me.
But the other night I went outside for a smoke at about midnight and they were outside, doing the same thing, but also with drinks. They asked me if they were talking too loud, and I assured them they weren’t. As it happened, I had heard their voices, but this time went out deliberately to chat with them. I was craving human contact.
And this time… oh, how lovely. The woman I was scared of hadn’t been looking at me with justifiable contempt, she’d just been shy. To see her face break into a smile was (a bit of Wordsworth again) very heaven. At one point she said: “I wish I could offer you a shot, but we have run out,” and I said “I have some whisky…” At which point she said, dreamily, “My favourite whisky is Lagavulin. How much I would love some Lagavulin.” “Funnily enough…” I said. “Wait right here.”
And it got better: her partner turned out to be a fan of Samuel Beckett, so I rushed back inside and lent her my copy of Watt. And then I asked them if the name of the street we live on (Dyke Road) had been a material factor in their decision to live there. I wondered, as the words slipped from my mouth, whether I had gone too far – but they collapsed in laughter, said “of course”, and then they broke all social distancing rules and high-fived me and hugged me. Which now means that the last woman to have touched me is no longer Victoria Coren. But I think I am still honoured, maybe even more so.
We ended up talking until way past dawn. I wonder if I, or they, will catch Covid-19 as a result, but, as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said: “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak