I am not gung-ho for resuming business as usual. However, after having spent weeks in oversized maternity dresses, talking to my colleagues through a screen, the prospect of wearing real clothes and going to an office seemed like a treat.
It wasn’t, as it turned out.
I drove past people cooped up in their houses and huddled in front of the door to convince themselves that they are not serving a prison sentence. Others, with fear in their eyes, trying to sneak some food to the tantine down the road who hasn’t been well for the last few weeks – an act of compassion that may cost them a raid of their modest house or even a fine exceeding its worth. Anxiety on the faces of shoppers who have to fork out inflated prices for the groceries they can find. Tormented souls thinking about the jobs they can now lose with little compensation.
At the office, the smiling ladies at the reception were no longer smiling. They had shrunk to one restless lady, to allow for social distancing. I don’t know if there was a smile behind her unsightly mask. The eyes are the window to the heart, they say. Rubbish! The smile is. It is the most expressive piece of body language we possess, which can be dosed to convey a hundred messages. Today, every smile is a potential vector of the deadly virus, so it is hidden behind an ugly cloth.
“You could afford to be unsociable, not greet anyone, not exchange any civilities, not worry about whose wife was dealing with cancer, whose pet was dying of liver failure… It’s as if all our worries had disappeared behind our masks.”
I grumbled something that must have sounded like a greeting in response to what must have been a wary salutation and I rushed towards the face-recognition machine. It took me a while to realise that it did not recognise the cloth clumsily wrapped over my face. I was tempted to pull down my mask but decided not to take the risk. So, I ran up the stairs without clocking in.
I attacked the sanitiser at the end of the corridor and started showering it all over my hands. A colleague, whose face I could not make out, was holding the door with one stretched arm and looking the other way ready to run as soon as I touched the other side of it. I waited until he was weary of waiting. When he let go of the door, I ran immediately before it slammed shut and awkwardly squeezed through. Hurray! I didn’t touch anything! I walked past several masks I once thought of as people. The sudden anonymity was eerie. But it was, in some strange way, comforting. You could afford to be unsociable, not greet anyone, not exchange any civilities, not worry about whose wife was dealing with cancer, whose pet was dying of liver failure… It’s as if all our worries had disappeared behind our masks or simply no longer mattered.
I locked the door of my office and started a surreal ritual I may have to indulge in for weeks to come. I took out Lysol wipes and started assaulting my desk and the paraphernalia on it. Everything felt infused with danger. I scrubbed and re-scrubbed every surface I was likely to touch. I disinfected the window handles and opened the windows wide. Then I disinfected my hands. Outside, masks were rushing to get in and, having discovered a sudden intense fascination for the floor, they managed to avoid eying one another.
I reached for the fridge to take out some milk, looking forward to that rare moment when you savour a good cup of coffee in peace. The pleasure was spoilt by the unhappy thought that the cleaners may have touched it before I walked in. Forget about the coffee. I squirted some hand sanitiser onto my fingers and sat down to work.
Lunchtime was a stressful and surreal moment. Walking down the long and narrow corridor leading to the canteen was rife with danger. A colleague flattened his body against the wall and looked the other way. I did the same on the opposite wall and, like crabs, we slid sideways to our destinations. I tried opening the microwave before the unhappy thought came back. So, I disinfected the door and, looking warily around me, pushed my food inside. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands. Masked aliens have hovered over the sinks and, like doctors coming out of the operating theatre, were zealously washing their hands. The ones in the queue were keeping a distance and misting themselves with disinfectant for good measure. The silence was deafening.
I ran back to the microwave and pulled out my lunch. I looked around for a table to sit at before the unhappy thought, fuelled by my reading of the number of days the virus survives on surfaces, came back to haunt me. So, I went back to my office and gulped down my food.
I looked around at masks sharing the same unhappy thought, misted my body with more disinfectant and headed home, going past the desolate scenes of people cooped up in their own prisons.
Welcome to the new tomorrow.