There has been a lot of talk of when and if things will go back to normal.
I find myself questioning normal. It seems a narrow way to live at the best of times. The pursuit of normal may be unhelpful.
Before the pandemic, I got on the underground train most days for work. I’ve been doing that one way or another for 17 years, since I started working in London.
I remember underground incidents. The feeling of sweat trickling down my back on another overheated journey, telling myself it would be over soon. Counting the stops. Taking off my coat and trying to balance it with my handbag, laptop and umbrella. The odd bit of harassment. Being trapped on the District line when the train broke down in a tunnel, people gradually sinking to the dirty floor when they couldn’t stay standing. Crying on the Piccadilly line one grim night. How the trains simply stopped the day of the 7/7 bombings. Many less eventful journeys.
These moments live in my memory and my body knows it and won’t forget. Sometimes it resists. It will be ok, I tell myself before leaving each morning. You just have to do this, to get to the job you like and to earn the money you need. You have to get through this to get out again on the other side. This is normal.
One night I went to meet a friend for a drink. A bar that started off quiet and got louder. Balancing on an uncomfortable stool and keeping an eye on my bag on the floor, I leaned forward to hear her shouting over the music. The cocktails cost £14, mostly sugar and ice. I decided just to drink water. I had arrived straight from work and hadn’t eaten. I was tired but wanted to connect with someone, to have a conversation. The music increased, a man jostling behind me and bumping into my back. The tattoo on the arm of the barman was written in German. Why aren’t you enjoying this? A little voice inside. Something must be wrong with you. Focus. This is normal.
A large gym in the city. The first time I enter, I am awed by the spiral staircase and I know it will be intimidating. I fiddle with the locker, a tight sports bra, the band on my wrist. Rows of people running on machines, like machines. Everyone plugged into phones. Personal trainers in black t-shirts with clients. A muscular man performing a headstand in the centre of the floor and it really is a performance. I see couples who appear to be on a date at a gym. Maybe this is the only time they can see each other. That’s how it is what with the cycle of work, socialising and exercise. This is normal.
So as much as I want to go back to feeling safe walking down the street, to not fear going into a shop, to not worry about my health and that of my loved ones quite so much, do I really want normal?
What is normal?