My initial response upon waking was to weed the plastic tubes out of my nose. The initial resistance they offered masked shallow roots that gave ground with a firm pull. It certainly smarted, though, and my bodily reboot started as lines of garbled text scrolled upwards behind closed eyes.
Opening them came naturally, if less easily, the light that streamed through dusty, institutional windows blinding me at first. Eyesight adjusting to the new normal, the realisation that I could recognise a hospital ward was reassuring, if not entirely comforting. WTF, I thought, uncertain where the phrase came from, and what it meant.
Most of my senses seemed intact, bar the one that would have helped identify the bland orange fluid in the plastic beaker on a bedside table that I leapt upon, fueled by some deep need. I gulped down its lukewarm remains.
Later on, I was surprised by my ability to walk, the muscle memory providing a long-forgotten rush of involuntary pleasure. At this point, my motor responses seemed to be more reliable than my mental faculties, which was a surprise. Walking out onto an empty London street in hospital scrubs, holding what looked like party clothes, an iPhone with a newly broken screen and some housekeys in a plastic bag, I looked with movie deja-vu out onto an apparently empty city bathed in the clear morning light. I removed the facemask that had been handed to me by the biohazard-suited hospital staff as I left. Reboot complete, I remembered what WTF meant.
At first sight, the city was empty, as if zombies had taken every one of the seven million people who had called it home only a few months back. Maybe they were hiding in the woods, I reasoned, conscripts in Christian Bale’s defiant, ragtag army. Wait. Wrong movie. Whatever, upon closer examination, it appeared that life was here, after all! Spotting the odd bus carrying two or three face-masked passengers across Vauxhall Bridge, it appeared that the zombies were still here.
A car stopped alongside me and I turned, certain from my experience of horror films that zombies cannot drive. It was a reassuringly red-faced taxi driver, who asked if I needed to be somewhere, and who was thrilled when I said I did. During the journey home, he explained everything from behind a plastic screen. Hold on, those were there before, I realised. Which again was a comfort.
The timing of my drunken e-scooter accident 28 weeks earlier had been fortuitous. Of course, I had read about the Chinese virus: someone in the office claimed they had caught it and we had laughed when they were sent home in February 2020, their illness becoming an increasing source of annoyance when our small team had to pick up all their work. Counting off the weeks that I had spent in a coma on my fingers, I realised I had missed out on the lockdown that had been imposed the very day of my admission to hospital.
The taxi driver filled me in on the following weeks. The lack of loo roll, the growing number of deaths, the jaunty promises of a Health Minister for a track and trace app that had yet to emerge – even the moment when, after a key Government Advisor broke his own lockdown rules, much of the country decided to head off for eye tests around the country, also.
He spoke of the hastily implemented quarantines that faced those lucky enough to have left the UK for a holiday in the summer. “Needn’t have bothered!”, said the driver, “it was a scorcher!” Typical, I thought, comparing his deeply tanned bull neck with my ghostly pallor in the taxi’s rearview mirror.
In what was a drive of no more than twenty minutes I was brought fully up to date with the ‘new normal.’ It was initially unclear whether this was a political party, the aftermath of a popular revolution, or a marketing campaign. But it seemed to involve a lot of ‘WFH’. Struggling with my second acronym of what, at 9.30am, was turning into a long day, I wondered what the ‘W’ and ‘H’ could possibly stand for.
Enlightenment proved less interesting than I had expected. It seemed many had fully embraced the ability to work from home during lockdown, and when the second national lockdown hit in the middle of September 2020, it was pretty much business as usual for those lucky enough to be able to work from a home office or a second bedroom.
But on learning that a furlough scheme had come to a close, an ‘eat-out’ scheme had ended — damn — and that London was still under lockdown, I wondered about those who worked on the so-called ‘frontline’; the nurses and Doctors who had brought me back to life. I also thought about those who depended on a job in a pub, club, theatre, cinema or restaurant.
“Or the poor bastards like me who used to rely on punters going out for work”, said the taxi driver. Although it struck me that he was, of course, working from home in his own way, and had probably been doing so for years. As we both faced the cul de sac of despair that his Knowledge had led us down, he looked at the upside to life in London in September 2020: “Cheer up! At least Brexit will still happen!”
I considered my own WFH options, which were limited, to say the least. Home Sweet Home was anything but sweet for me, although you did have to say its name twice to remind yourself that it wasn’t, in fact, a shipping container or a park bench. For that, I was at least thankful, but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to be able to work from there, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the one-bed flat above a fried chicken shop in Neasden provided very little in the way of space, comfort or quiet. That was not previously much of an issue, for me, although I had to go easy on the chicken: over my first year there I had put on two stones.
No, I didn’t mind calling the grim flat home because, as Chief Dream Maker at TourAss, the travel dating app, I formerly spent much of my time on the road, and was hardly ever there.
My job involved travelling the world researching the things to see, eat and do in a growing network of places added to the App. My recommendations would be added so that TourAss users could combine travel plans with hook-up possibilities. Or as the ads in our latest poster campaign put it: “It’s a lonely planet. Don’t be a lonely heart.” Transport for London wouldn’t allow the others, including my favorite, “Around the World in 80 Lays”.
Our latest round of funding had come from Chinese investors, and my boss had tactfully suggested a trip to Hunan for those of our users who wanted to travel down the Yangtze from Shanghai. I would pick out the things to do, places to see and spots to have mutually-agreed sex on the way. I had genuinely planned to stop in Wuhan as I suspected our TourAssrs might find the covered walkway of its famous double-deck rail and road bridge a good place to cop off.
Some 28 weeks later, I opened the door to my flat and considered what had happened in that time, and how much had changed. I was caught up in the tailwind of a global pandemic that originated in a city I had meant to visit. I would now be prevented from travelling to do my job. Indeed it was hard to see that the business model for TourAss remained intact. Worse, I was confined to a gloomy flat that not a single one of London’s pigeons appeared to go near. A zombie apocalypse would have been preferable.
When I called down for a 12-piece extra hot and spicy bargain bucket that evening, Fahad didn’t recognise me, although my weak request for the usual was interrupted by my coughing, so maybe he misheard me. And when I finally ate the chicken in front of the TV, I was surprised to not be met with its usual kick. You could even say it tasted bland.
Reality hit me. It’s not like it is in the movies.