The first visible, sniffable, glorious bursts of spring make the final straight of lockdown agonising. Perhaps, like me, you carry from childhood an inner voice that says pleasant weather must not be wasted. As kids, on sunny March mornings, my brothers and I lived in semi-terror of our mother rumbling up the stairs into our rooms with seize-the-day vigour.
This rarely involved a motion to lounge about eating Sherbet Dip Dabs and watching Tiswas. No, but it could involve being stuffed into an Austin Maxi and whisked to the Solway Coast to paddle in rock pools close to the Sellafield nuclear reactor, before sharing a pork pie brought from home and featuring a terrifying, greying boiled egg suspended in jelly. Or “potted meat” spread into sliced baps, though from which specific animal this peppery mush came remained a mystery. Importantly, it was drummed into us from the outset that a warm, bright day should be used, even if that involved a four-hour round trip to a discount furniture warehouse with a kids’ zip-slide in the forecourt. At least there was the chance of a Slush Puppie.
This year, however, wasting the start of spring and squandering the sunshine is very much a legal requirement. And it will remain so for all of March, which is making me feel quite peculiar. Semi-furious and then sometimes just sad. As the temperature rose to a heady 13C in London last week and dusk stretched to almost 6pm, wasting any more time has begun to feel immoral.
We have all wasted so much time in the past year. As I stare at my empty calendar, full of restaurants that might open in June, but might not, that faux-happy song Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think), covered by Prince Buster and The Specials, often circulates in my brain. This is not merely a song about going to more parties, which was my reading of it when I was a teenager; it’s a song about mortality. And how you get only so many chances to eat cream cakes, drink cider and pour yourself into a late-night taxi while you’re still in the pink, as opposed to being, well, in the grey and carried off by a team of pallbearers. “The whole of March indoors is undoable,” I have roared more than once this week, somewhat childishly, as if there isn’t a pandemic going on and as if people haven’t lost a whole lot more than dinners.
But it is warm outdoors and there is daylight and the penny has finally dropped – for me, at least – that lockdown whisked away an entire year of my lifetime when I still had semi-reliable knees. There is a strong case, I believe, that 2020 should not count on the Gregorian calendar and we should therefore have it knocked off our ages.
At the bakery on the high street, I have taken to queuing for fresh bread at peak time just to see faces, hear actual human chatter and smell new things. It is one in, one out, just like an exclusive nightclub. The queue moves arduously slowly, because, once inside, every customer takes their good, long, sweet time to loiter over some actual pleasure.
I don’t blame them, either; we are all in our own ways under-stimulated. I watch them examine the shelves of artisan jams, daintily iced cookies and bespoke truffles. They languish inside the baker’s for all of their five allotted minutes, because seeing new things in real life, rather than while internet shopping, is so rare these days.
Outside, I stand with the sun on my face, thinking how the pavement smells different in springtime. And how this beautiful daylight lends itself to cold, gossipy glasses of wine with friends on a pub patio, and to messy, cheap and cheerful pizza lunches, from which you tumble out into the daylight at 4pm, feeling tipsy and hopeful and, most of all, replete with in-jokes and shared piss-taking, which is the cornerstone of British friendship. And how, I now have to admit, I miss paddling in radioactive algae on the Solway Coast, before the unveiling of the bottle of dandelion and burdock and the wonkily iced homemade fairy cakes each decorated with a solitary Midget Gem. Up until now, I took everything for granted. I won’t get fooled again.