Braving post-Covid London calls for grit and lipstick | Life and style

The last time I filled in for Eva Wiseman for a stretch everything was closing down, hazard tape on swings, bars shuttering, Welsh goats plotting their takeover. The picture accompanying this column was taken on 16 March 2020 in an echoing, empty office, the photographer trying to catch me not looking terrified. Afterwards, I trekked across febrile, empty-shelved London, trying to buy bread and tissues. The city felt as strange as it did on 7/7, with that same sense of not knowing what or where was safe.

I went back to London yesterday. “Covid is over on this train,” I messaged a friend crossly on the way, glasses fogged, face humid from my FFP2. “It’s the roaring 20s, we’re all Charlestoning in the sodding aisles.”

“Do they have a champagne tower in the buffet car?” she replied. “Yes, and cocaine instead of fruit cake.”

In Crouch End, “people are crammed into cafes living their best brunching lives,” the same, cautious, friend reported, wonderingly. “There’s a pug called Hummus in the queue.” Later, provincial mind already blown by the sensory overload of the Francis Bacon exhibition and a Korean supermarket, I found myself stopping to stare at the familiar-unfamiliar sight of a crush of loud, laughing bodies squished into a Soho pub.

It’s fair enough. The WHO says we’re heading for a Covid “ceasefire”, possibly even “enduring peace” – (what weird sporting metaphor would Jonathan Van-Tam be using if he still appeared on TV?) The government… no, who cares what they say, but actual competent adults have suggested we can have a little bit of hope, as a treat.

From my fortunate, healthy perspective, this is both welcome – it’s lovely to feel the world unfurl in parallel with the daffodils – and appalling. Because on some level I must have believed we would not get through this, or at least, when we did, we would not go back to the kind of business as usual that requires me to have clean clothes, a presentable face and social skills . But if brunch is back, and business as usual looks more likely than living in sewers, foraging for squirrel meat, I will need to engage with the concept of “waistbands” and “conversation” again. I quite enjoyed becoming my truest, worst self: it was a catastrophist’s consolation to scroll myself into a carpal tunnel, abandon cleanser, mummify myself in old jumpers and declare showering optional. But enough is probably enough.

With this in mind, I am embarking on baby steps towards self-remediation. I started with what I hoped would be the easy stuff – basic physical maintenance – but results have been mixed. Getting my ears syringed was disgusting (albeit thrillingly so) and now the world is even louder than I feared. My dental hygienist found a chunk of bagel between my molars then guilted me into purchasing a rainbow of those interdental brushes, several large enough to make me feel like Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from The Simpsons. Invisible, but surely an indicator of improved self-care, I have also tried to tackle my errant coil. So far, I have only managed the kind of exchange with the doctor’s receptionist Alan Bennett might put in his diary if he had a cervix (“Are you sure you can not find it?” “Well, I’ve had a good rummage ? ”), But it’s a start.

Fashion has gone through several “vibe shifts” without me. I have harvested the terms “indie sleaze”, “haute mess” and “clowncore” in baffled horror from recent fashion pages, and seen Sarah Jessica Parker wearing a dress that looks like a croissant (pastrycore?) A brief online window-shop ended with me being pursued around the internet by a giant, completely see-through pair of granny pants and a bra that is just a ribbon harness with no cup fabric (“Perfect for the boudoir and beyond.”) I know pleading ignorance makes me sound like one of those men who simply can not understand the pornography charges on their TV package, but I swear I only looked at chunky knits.

Makeup and skincare are also challenging. “Foundation,” I imagine myself drawing, cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth, like that crab meme. “I ain’t heard that name round these parts in years, boy.” Allowed to revert to its natural potato-like state for two years, my face now angrily rejects everything, even SPF, and a spritz of scent is only mood-enhancing until a blotchy rash spreads across my face and neck.

More and harder re-acclimation challenges lie ahead. I need to master greetings (Can we touch now? Must we?) And crush my risky urge to police public transport phone crimes. Eventually, I hope even to relearn the “Yes, and” of normal conversation as opposed to coming out with baffling non-sequiturs about old episodes of MasterChief. The only way I will manage any of this is to keep putting on what I understand is known as “lipstick” and heading out into the risky, thrilling, beautiful world. Could it all still go wrong? Absolutely. But hopefully now I will not have bagel in my teeth to face it.

Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling

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