My favourite gold, Nails Inc polish is called ‘Out of Office’. It reminds me of those blissful days between Christmas and New Year when coronavirus was like that estranged cousin you’ve never actually met and not like the next door neighbour who miraculously appears every time you or anyone in your house opens the front door. Ironically, it was the nail polish I was wearing when I woke up one lunch time to a missed call from my boss and a voicemail asking how I would feel about returning to work the very next day.
My stomach, right on cue, dropped. Was this some kind of horribly twisted joke by my 14-year-old brother? Had somebody outside of the four family members I live with really dared to enter my happy little furlough bubble, a bubble largely built on writing poetry, Sex and The City boxsets and an excessive consumption of cheese? Yes, yes they had. Because all around me I had started to hear the words which used to only ever follow ‘I can’t wait for things to’. Three words – ‘return to normal’
The concept seemed instantly flawed. How could things possibly return to normal after such a shock to the system, to the economy and to the world such as this one? Yes, one day we may look back at how strange it was to not hug our friends and family for so long. But right now, most of us remain very, very anxious. We are anxious when we look at our bank accounts, our kitchen cupboards, perhaps even the faces we see on our Zoom calls. We are anxious in the constant battle between wanting things to return to normal and the innate drive to stay safe. It’s June and the sun is shining as I write. The warm air is pleasant, and I appreciate it beyond belief. Simultaneously, my head is aching knowing that a taste of the summer means less adherence to the social distancing rules put in place to keep people such as my grandparents safe.
This anxiety is constant white noise, background music to the routines we desperately try to salvage as certain children return to school and some restaurants manage to offer a takeaway service. No wonder so many of us are exhausted – there is no opportunity to switch off when you have to stay alert. In perfect contrast to this exhaustion, many of us are struggling to sleep at night. I’ve been told many times in my life by a novel, a teacher or an inspirational quote on Instagram that ‘life is a balancing act’. Our health and the health of our loved ones is now (perhaps for the first time collectively) the biggest factor to balance against a need to work, to earn an income and to do everything else in between that forms the lives we led before the world was paused for a rather long second.
As much as I am anxious at the thought of ‘normal’ making an appearance much too quickly (and with it the return of crowds), simply, the show must go on. The UK economy fell by 20% in April, a figure that I hope never to see again in my lifetime or my children in theirs. The novelty of being furloughed left the building when I remembered that all over the country and across the world people were being made redundant. After a brief (okay, not so brief) meltdown, I phoned my boss and explained that yes, I was anxious, but I wanted to return to work. I was back in my 9-5 world less than 48 hours later.
At 8.57am on my first day back, I was shaking in the lift to the third floor of the building. It was a little victory to me that I had managed to get this far. As strange as it was, it was a beautiful experience to have a conversation with the people whose faces I used to see five days a week. It felt surreal, but surprisingly safe.
For forty hours a week I am now sitting at a new desk by the window, seemingly miles away from my nearest colleague in an office adorned with sanitisation stations and two-metre distancing stickers. I clean my desk twice a day and use anti-bac hand gel after every touch of the kettle or the printer. On furlough, I wondered how I would ever possibly be able to do my job again; surely, I had forgotten how to use Excel or send an email. I hadn’t forgotten and working again now feels like being able to comfortably wear that old pair of denim jeans that you kept even though they were always slightly too small.
I don’t know what the future of my workplace or any other will be; not many people do right now. Each day brings new updates and adjustments to the new anxieties, routines and lifestyles this situation has given birth to. It’s comforting to know that there are lots of people in the same boat as me and a welcome reality check to remember that I am one of the lucky ones with my good health intact. I hope that when people are feeling anxious, they know that there is someone out there who would love to hold their hand right now. When things do return to normal, I hope we don’t forget the feeling of togetherness that emerged, even though we were standing apart for a while.