It was the first day that six people could legitimately gather in a garden, and by unholy coincidence, as if the universe loved us again, also not hailing. Some friends, let’s call them A and Mr A, came round for a drink. Nothing’s happened to any of us, and we consequently have way too much to say. Words splurged out of me like I was a slot machine paying out a big win, but not in very high denominations. All 2ps and buttons. I veered wildly from the huge to the tiny, from the past to the present. Did I say my friend was in hospital? Had I mentioned the neighbour’s dog had the exact same bark as our dog? Did I ever tell them about that amazing party in Dover Street? Yes, they were there, it was their wedding.
Something had flooded my circuitry: seeing them again after so long had activated the them-part of my brain, and I was telling them their own anecdotes. Mr A asked for an opinion about the big boat in the Suez canal instead, and I told him that opinions were my bread and butter and he’d have to festoon me with cash for those. He asked if it had to be money or would crisps do, and I said they’d do fine, then he threw crisps at me, only they missed by a mile. “It’s because they’re ridged,” he said. “Gah, I’m such an amateur! How can anybody predict the aerodynamics of a ridged crisp?”
That wasn’t really the mishap, though, was it? We’d all forgotten how to socialise. Here we were, back at square one, like six-year-olds in a church hall, underneath their first glitterball, trying to work out what on earth to do next. Are we meant to be talking, or listening? Would music help? Should we reminisce, or anecdotalise? Should that thought stay in my head or come out of my mouth? That detail is definitely too light to share, but is that one too heavy? The human instinct for togetherness is very strong. Throwing crisps is actually the perfect ice-breaker.
The next night, we were back in training, in someone else’s garden, flooded with yet more completely unfamiliar experiences: baking sunshine, food cooked by other people, Campari. Why is everything so delicious? I’ve forgotten some really basic stuff, like you have to pass food to others, not finish it. Just about all I can remember is that retelling the plot of whatever box set you’re watching doesn’t count as even low-quality chat. So why do I keep doing it?
“It’s so long since I ate lamb in your garden,” I rhapsodised, then thought, wait, does that sound rude? Does it sound like I’m saying they always cook the same thing? Should I clarify that the last time, 18 months ago, it was butterflied, barbecued lamb, a totally different experience to this slow-cooked shoulder? Or should I just list everything great they’ve ever made that was not lamb? Would it be weird just how many things I could recall, over two decades, like I had an unnatural commitment to my own sensory pleasure? Maybe if I change the subject really fast, they won’t notice. “Did I tell you about my neighbour’s dog … ?”
The collective excitement surged effortlessly over my nonsense. You could hear it echoed back at you from everyone else’s garden; raucous intensity, then awkward silence, then everyone talking like a podcast on double speed, then a blanket of exhaustion. Surely it’s time to go home? It must be midnight. Actually, it was quarter to nine. 2021, the year when clocks went forward, then back, then forward again, multiple times a day.
On Wednesday, we made lunch for another two dear and cherished friends who were barely recognisable under all that hair. Really if anyone had thought this road map through, the powers that be would have opened hairdressers first, and then people’s gardens; right now we’re just taking it on trust that we know these people because they’ve arrived at the right time.
We found our sea legs pretty well, bitching about shared acquaintances. Slagging people off is the riding-a-bike of the conversation world; those muscles never atrophy. But of course we don’t have any new material, so we were mainly reprising the greatest hits from any given person’s back catalogue of flaws, and there is no natural end to that kind of delight. After we’d done a straight 90 minutes on a particular absent third-party, Mr Z – who had taken the week off work, and was in zooming-out mode, scanning the horizon, asking the important questions – said: “But what do you actually like about her?” “Well,” the friend replied, “she likes me. That’s the only reason I ever like anybody.”
This is what’s going to get us through these early days, the painstaking re-establishment of what conversations count as normal, the ongoing enigmas (“how did I get so drunk?”) – that if there’s one thing more heartwarming than seeing someone else enjoy a thing, it’s when that thing they’re enjoying is your company.