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As I enter my empty office building, I feel a strange mix of elation, anticipation and anxiety

Last summer I didn’t take advantage of the loosening of rules and I regretted it; but this time I am allowing myself to join in.

By Tracey Thorn

I’m back in my office today. It’s a little rented room in west London, an hour’s walk from my home, which I always intended to use as a writing space and a retreat on those days when the noise from next door’s building site got too much. From the window, I look out over rooftops to Trellick Tower, and it’s just the sort of landscape I find inspiring, so I hoped it would be a good place in which to be creative. But I hadn’t had it long when Covid-19 struck.

In the past year I’ve spent only a few days there and it has always been strange and eerie. My last visit, only a week ago, was typical – an empty reception desk downstairs, a shuttered café, the silence of a deserted building. When the lift arrived on the fifth floor, the corridor was in darkness until I stepped out and activated the motion sensor lights. I felt that there was not another soul around.

In normal times I enjoy hearing footsteps as people make their way to the shared kitchen to boil a kettle; snatches of conversation as they pass my door. But as on my other recent visits, I heard virtually no one, and it felt wrong and dispiriting.

[See also: It’s easy for women to be written out of their story. So I wrote my rock ’n’ roll friend back in]

Today I have decided to return because the downstairs café has finally reopened. I arrive expecting to see a socially distanced queue at the coffee counter, but it is just me, which is disappointing. Still, I take comfort in being able to buy a cappuccino and a shortbread, and the knowledge that there are a couple of other people in the building makes it feel less creepy.

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But this is an odd moment in time, isn’t it? I feel a strange mixture of elation, anticipation and anxiety, as though I am holding my breath at the same time as desperately wanting to exhale with relief. We are poised on the brink of something and not sure what it is. For things are coming back to life, and this time I am allowing myself to join in.

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Last summer I didn’t take advantage of the loosening of rules. I skipped all the outdoor socialising, and when case numbers rose again, leading to further lockdown, I regretted having missed the moment. So I’m determined not to make the same mistake again. Even if this turns out to be a window in between lockdowns – and God, I hope it doesn’t – I am going to make the most of it.

I have had my first dose of the vaccine, Ben has had his second, and the success of the vaccination programme in general makes me feel more confident. I have booked a table on a terrace for Ben and me to have lunch later this week, and it will be the first time we have eaten out in over a year.

[See also: I have never had a nine-to-five job but I still cherish the routines of the weekend]

A few days later, I have another table booked for early-evening drinks, which looms as large and exciting in my mind as an all-night party. Both the lunch and the drinks are taking place in Soho.

This morning, however, when I look at Twitter, it is full of pictures of Soho on the first evening of permitted outdoor drinking and dining. The streets are crowded with tables, there is a holiday atmosphere, and yes, there are quite a lot of people, quite close together. My timeline fills with doomy tweets about how this is inevitably going to result in disaster, many of them ending with the hashtag #Lockdown4.

I just don’t know what to think about this. Is my excitement about going out misdirected? Should I instead remain in place, sitting at home, until some unspecified date in the future? Am I being too careless, or too careful? After all this time, it is hard to know, and so I imagine it will be with mixed feelings that I sit down at the lunch table, pick up a menu, order a drink. The simple things have all become complicated.

As I write this in my office I listen out for any evidence of other people, of life going on, and I’m happy when I hear the occasional murmur of voices, a door swinging open, the clack of heels on a hard floor. I slide the window open and from a building site across the road comes the sound of a heavy hammer swinging through the air and landing with a loud clang. And I quite like that too. 

[See also: For most of us, lockdown life will pass. But for some, there is no “getting back to normal”]

This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical