The bittersweet joy of meeting up with friends before lockdown

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

If the news of a second coronavirus lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that no man – or rather, no woman – is an island.

Not long before lockdown, I moved out of London and into the suburbs. It didn’t take long for me to discover that doing so without a driving licence (don’t judge me, I still fully intend to pass my test someday!) was… well, not a mistake exactly, but more than a little naive.

Without the city’s transport links at my disposal, I’ve been rendered horribly reliant on unreliable village buses, constantly delayed trains, lifts from my ever-patient boyfriend, and visits from kind-hearted pals.

Then, just like that, the Covid-19 pandemic happened, and my world became even smaller. 

Thanks to me taking “no non-essential journeys” incredibly seriously, I have very rarely left my village over the past eight months. Indeed, my most exciting days out have been to the click-and-collect area of Ikea’s carpark (via the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s van), a little jaunt up Box Hill, and the outdoor seating area of my local pub (about a 50-minute walk from door-to-door).

All of this means that I haven’t seen many of my friends – all scattered across the country (and the world, if you count my pals based in Australia, the USA, and the UAE) – for… ooh, for a very long time. And so, when my Bristol-based BFF told me she was able to come and visit on Halloween, it quickly became a very big deal.

We pored over the (always confusing) social distancing rules laid down by the government, and reasoned that my friend was able to stay overnight at my house, so long as we adhered to the ‘rule of six’ and social distancing measures. Then, Boris Johnson and co brought in the ‘three-tier system’, and things became a tad more complex. Would we both remain in Tier One long enough for our best-laid plans to come to fruition?

Reader, we absolutely did. And so on the morning of Halloween – after weeks and weeks of excitable “JUST XXX DAYS UNTIL I SEE YOUR FACE!” WhatsApp messages – my doorbell rang and we were reunited at last.

Things were a little strange, of course. Hugs were replaced by waves at the door, nights out in the city swapped with bracing walks in the rain and a takeaway pizza. Even sofa-based hangouts were given a Covid-makeover as we mirrored those social distancing measures observed on Gogglebox – aka a lot of sofa space between us (space which was promptly filled up by my luxury-craving rescue dog).

Still, we were together IRL, with no awkward Zoom lag to contend with. Comfortable silences were just that (ever noticed that we tend to try and fill the silence on phone calls?). And conversations were allowed to meander wherever they pleased, without a time limit or set agenda. It felt so blissfully normal.

That evening, though, we sat and listened as Johnson – following a press leak – announced that the UK would once again be going into lockdown mode from Thursday 5 November. That, while we’d be able to go to work (if unable to do so from home) and shop for essentials, we’d no longer have access to gyms, cinemas, restaurants, and pubs.

That, most pertinently, we’d no longer be able to spend time indoors with those friends and family we don’t live with (unless they’re part of our support bubble). That, while we can meet up with one person from another household, it must be done outside in November climes. Which means that, with overnight stays now off the cards, my pal and I won’t be hanging out unless we decide to make what is, roughly, a five-hour round-trip for a rainy walk together.

“I guess I’ll see you in December then,” I joked, not really believing it. Because, while Johnson may claim that this new lockdown will end on 2 December, other ministers and experts have stressed that, in areas with particularly high levels of infection, pubs and bars could remain closed in order to stop the spread of the virus – and people might not be permitted to mix with other households except their own.

We didn’t let it ruin our weekend, of course. Instead, we ate our weight in garlic bread, played games, and laughed until our faces hurt. But, when I waved her off the following day, I found myself feeling decidedly out of sorts. And, as I readied myself for bed on Sunday night, I suddenly found myself sobbing like mad.

Because it’s not just her, you see. It’s all of it: all the people I can’t spend time with, all the loved ones I’m missing, all the plans I’d tentatively made for November (a meal with family here, a coffee date with colleagues there, a string of Kung Fu lessons at the local community centre scattered throughout) that have been wiped out. I can’t even have my mum over for a cuppa.

I get it, of course: there’s so much more at stake than my rapidly dwindling social life. But, as I tried to explain to my boyfriend through the tears, I can’t help but feel as if I’m losing all my sense of self this year. I’m no longer the person who goes to the cinema every weekend, who meets up with friends for dinner in the city, who hosts and attends childish sleepovers filled with snacks and horror movies, who breaks out of countless escape rooms, and who drops everything to attend whatever wonderfully weird exhibit is on at the Wellcome Collection.

Instead, I’m the person who fills her time with dog walks, shopping excursions at the local Co-Op, endless Netflix binges, and chats to people on the phone about… yeah, about all the things I wish I were doing. My life is becoming smaller, and I worry I’m becoming a boring, more faded version of who I once was as a result.

If this has taught me anything, it’s that no man – or rather, no woman – is an island. Real-life connection is the essence of wellbeing. And the time we spend together IRL has an enormous impact on who we are and how we feel.

Once lockdown is lifted, I hope that I’ll remember this. That I’ll make time for the people I love whenever I can, and appreciate the hell out of them always. That I’ll strive to always be a better friend, sister, daughter, partner. That I won’t flake on plans and rearrange for the following week. That I won’t let myself be swept up by normality again and start taking life for granted, as we are all so prone to doing.

Until then, though, I’m searching for new ways to add meaning to my life. I’m donating to causes that I hold dear to me, I’m reaching out to those who need it most, and I’m scheduling in phone calls, Zoom dates, and virtual quizzes (oh yes). I’m embracing new hobbies, I’m signing up to book clubs, and I’m attempting to carve out more time for self-betterment in this brave new world.

And, yeah, you better bloody believe I’m booking in a driving test just as soon as I’m able to. 

Images: Getty

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