Throughout lockdown I’ve played a game with myself where I imagine how I might spend the first days of freedom. And yet now they’ve arrived, I probably won’t be doing any of the things that I’ve fantasised about. I can’t imagine enjoying myself while having to engage in the weird mutual delusion that everything is fine – it seems obviously foolhardy to pick an arbitrary date and declare all bets are off, while hundreds a day continue to die from the virus. I’ve seen photos of people in the US sitting on patios under plastic sheets to eat brunch, and I’m afraid I think those people are not sane.
But life has felt like a slightly stagnant, repetitive version of itself during lockdown, and I sympathise with wanting to leave the house just for the sake of it. I miss eating out, and I can’t wait to do it again. I want to go to a familiar place and sit for a long time at the bar, ordering a succession of plates – bitter greens in vinegar, meats made tender in their own fat – eating a little bit of something and saying, “Oh my God,” when it tastes good. To caffs, with a mug of strong tea, granulated sugar crusting the rim, a plate of egg and chips and a red squeezy bottle of thin ketchup, laughing until I’m sick. To pubs, staring at my own reflection in the pool of gravy collected at the bottom of a Yorkshire pudding, like a hungover Narcissus.
I miss cultural stimulation, very much. I am afraid of how little support theatres are receiving and what that might mean for their futures. Theatre is an antidote to the stifled and fearful ways in which I have witnessed people behave. I love to see people on stage truly inhabiting their body and the space they are in, and to be surrounded by other people knowing that the entire room’s focus is on the same sweeping movement of a hand – and that tomorrow the same hand will move ever so slightly differently. I also love, so much, to smoke outside on a balmy evening during the interval, rolling my eyes at a performance, bemoaning someone’s horrendous laugh, or – perhaps less frequently – being so moved that I can’t speak at all.
What I wouldn’t give for an enormous plastic cup of very warm red wine clutched in my hand for an hour and a half, while I cry for various reasons: namely, because I am proud of everyone on stage, and moved, but also because I am allowing myself in this small amount of time, in the dark, knowing nobody is looking, to react to every single emotion that I feel in my customary fashion, which is to burst into tears.
In the town I live in I have peered through the window of the amusement arcade on the seafront every day to see the claw machines full of nothing but packing peanuts. An empty arcade is a bleak thing. Now, once again, the plush toys are back in their hideous domain, the 2p pieces are piled impossibly high, poised to spill from their metal lip, and I can’t wait to tread the carpets again towards the mocking laughter of my favourite game of all, Down the Clown. I want to stand – clammy, sandy shoulder to clammy, sandy shoulder – with whoever has decided to visit me that day, urging them to throw balls towards the rows of my enemies, those grinning little clowns, toppling them from their perch.
It is the opposite of the calm that I seek out during most of my life, a crashing cymbal of meaningless overstimulation, but when you’ve spent the past two months predominantly being good and productive and rational and optimistic, your desires become less cerebral. Give me buttons to bash, balls to throw, flashing lights and obsolete technology. Give me the hungry machine that gobbles up my hard-won yellow tickets and spits out a receipt telling me I’ve spent enough to secure a packet of itching powder from 1972 and a keyring in the shape of a cupcake. I want it.
I used to love supermarkets, but I think that affair has come to its natural conclusion. I never want to walk those aisles again, contemplating what thing might, if successfully seared, stewed or wrapped in pastry, make my evening feel somehow celebratory. This time in my life will be recalled most vividly by wrapping my hand around the handle of a shopping basket. The ghostly fumes of antibacterial gel will rise in my nostrils, and I will remember that I spent months of my time going between my house and the supermarket, ticking things off a list, sometimes deliberately not buying something so that I would have a reason to go back.
The shops I want now are full of unnecessaries. Cheap little pastel-coloured ceramics, candles that smell like woodsmoke, things I would never buy online because I don’t need them until the moment they’re in my hand. They’re more of a souvenir of going in the shop than anything else: a momentary urge, fulfilled.
So many of us will be suffering from skin starvation, the depressing ache that comes from lack of human touch. Sex, yes, but also the casual touches of love. I am excited most of all, of course, to see the people I’ve been kept apart from. In two weeks I am going to see my family. The urge to hold my newborn nephew is so powerful that I’m worried I might unhinge my jaw and swallow him whole.
• Eli Goldstone is the author of Strange Heart Beating