Yesterday I tried on a dress. I bought it online in the first lockdown, planning to wear it for my birthday party six months later. It’s long, black, crepe silk with rainbow panels down the side and ridiculous sleeves – it’s the kind of dress Ossie Clark would have designed if he’d moonlighted as a stylist on Strictly. I love it. I’ve never worn it. So yesterday I tried it on and looked in the mirror and imagined a future where it would see light again. I imagined the party, and then it came, a falling feeling, as I realised I will have to learn again how to socialise, from scratch.
Twelve months into the pandemic and the falls keep falling. An evening will come, won’t it, when I ring on somebody’s bell and another voice shouts, “It’s open!” through the intercom and I swish my fabulous dress up the stairs and into a party and then, I’ll stop. There will be a room of people, people inside, only one window open, oh God, and some are leaning into each other, the 2m rule now evaporated like steam, and I will step back on to the landing to take a breath. I fear it won’t come naturally, the return to hugging. To simply… approaching someone with warmth and putting my arms around their body and squeezing. I can already see the fixed-teeth smiles as we walk towards each other for the first time, our chests quietly screaming. The dead shiver as our hand brushes against the warm down of their neck, and with muscles clenched, pat, pat and retreat, to a new, personally imposed lockdown.
Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll practise first at home on a dressing-gowned lamp, or in the garden on a tree. We’ll look for a YouTube tutorial. We’ll wear the dress.
OK. Step forward with confidence, greet with a smile, no, not that smile, not the smile that says I AM WALKING INTO THE MOUTH OF A WHALE, BUT HOPEFULLY THERE WILL BE ROOM TO LIVE COMFORTABLY HERE FOR A WHILE. No, the old kind of smile, the one you filed away with your passport in 2019, the one that signals “pleasure”. Raise your eyebrows a little. Not too much. Now stretch out your arms. Not too much, this isn’t bloody Joe Wicks. Extend with your elbows only slightly raised, your hands open as if holding a large book or small body.
You are welcoming them towards you, showing you have no weapons, that your intentions are pure. “Hello!” you’ll call, but do clear your throat first. There will be a crackle there, a dryness that comes with only having spoken to a cat or shouted at the TV for 12 year-long months. Instead of the jolly tone of surprise intended – “It’s you, how nice, come here!” – don’t be alarmed if you hear a strangled groan. Don’t be alarmed if you hear the voice of a child stuck in a storm drain. Don’t be alarmed if you hear the sound of a 90s modem making its long way home. This is what practice is for. HELLO! Again. Hello!
Step forward once more. You will be inside a room, a room that is not this one. Acclimatise yourself. Note the exit points. The light will be unfamiliar here, the temperature new, the smell. Try not to gag. This is the smell of other people, their hair and worries, and over there is a figgy candle burning and there a bowl of crisps, chicken. You can do this. It is almost here, the hug, and you must remain calm. Breathe. Hello! Lean in. You are mere inches from their face now, so here is where you angle your head a little to the right to let them know it is a hug you are offering, not a kiss, we’re not there yet, Christ. And… contact.
Your right hand must land on their left bicep, your left on their right elbow, and your chest will touch theirs with the gentle thud of wool on silk. Your chin will rest for a moment on their shoulder and here you may allow a brief break to catch your breath. Congratulate yourself, you’re almost there. Note your heart rate, distinct from theirs, and your feet, planted on their horrible rug. Count all the red things you can see from here – apple, pan, book, blood – and ground yourself, ready to smile again.
If you feel able, inhale the scent of them – this was once your friend of course: a person whose spoon you’d taste pudding from, a person who cried on you during Moonlight, a person whose bed you shared twice, but don’t think about that now, sorry, too much, rewind – inhale the scent of them, familiar and exotic at the same time. Now, squeeze. Not too tight – you may have an impulse to suffocate them, your brain alerting you to the enemy virus, but fight that thought. Squeeze gently, as if pressing your hand sanitiser, or palpating the bodies of the pigeons that keep flying against your window at dawn. And then, release. That was a hug.
Stand back. You are safe now, in your own personal space. Discreetly shake it out; shake out the tension from your arms and legs, the sleepless nights, the dust off your libido, the sweat from your back. That was a hug.
Well done. In the next lesson we will conquer “small talk”.