It’s 5.00pm, time for Nadege’s birthday celebratory drinks but this year we are not meeting in the pub or in a restaurant or at her flat. We are all in our homes, staring at our phones, waiting for a prompt to join Houseparty. C and I are in our living room, we don’t really know how this works, we’ve opened the app and connected C’s phone to the TV so we can see everyone on a big screen. It takes a few minutes to find the perfect frame and it now almost looks like the set of a morning TV show, with the sofa in the middle and plants on each side. Still no sign of anyone though so we’re watching ourselves sitting on the sofa on the big TV.
A few minutes later, a message appears at the top of the screen: Nadege invites you to join the party. We accept and she appears on the left hand side of the screen. She is in her kitchen; she can’t use her living room just now as her flatmate is working from home. Nadege wears a bright pink top and red lipstick, ‘I thought I had to do something special today,’ she says with her usual French accent, ‘I haven’t put makeup on for almost two weeks now so it’s a bit weird, I almost couldn’t remember how to apply eyeliner’.
The screen suddenly splits into three, Karim and Liz have just joined the party. They are heavily pixelated and move like bad connection astronauts, ‘we can see you can you see us?’
‘Yes, we can see you’, we all reply.
They disappear from the screen, and…they are back again.
‘We’re missing Vanessa,’ they say.
‘I’m going to disconnect and try to find out where she-’ says Liz.
Karim interrupts, ‘-why don’t we move to WhatsApp, it worked well yesterday?’
Disconnect. WhatsApp invite arrives. Reconnect.
Vanessa appears in the top right corner. She is wearing big pink heart-shaped sunglasses, a headpiece and a necklace made of multi coloured pompoms and fairy lights. She’s dressed for the occasion. It looks like we’re all here now, we raise our glasses and start singing, ‘Happy Birthday to-’
‘-no, wait, Mel and Cecile want to join, they are waiting for us on Houseparty!’ urged Nadege.
Disconnect. Reconnect. Back on Houseparty.
Melanie appears in the bottom right corner, sitting on a bean bag in her bedroom. Cecile is also there, waving from her studio. Now we’ve lost the sound with Karim and Liz. We all try to mime ‘we can’t hear you’, pointing at our ears, making crosses on our mouths with our fingers. They seem confused but finally get the message. They disconnect and reconnect. The sound is back. Let’s get this party started.
Vanessa sings, ‘happy birthday to you’, all join, ‘happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Na-deeege, happy birthday to you!’. We raise our glasses again.
We try to talk about what we’ve done in the past few days, keeping safe, working from home or not working at all, trying to buy food, wine, toilet paper, managing to stay sane…for now. The conversation quickly becomes tedious, there’s a slight delay with the sound and the image, soon everyone is talking at the same time, louder and louder, and discussions turn into a joyous but incomprehensible cacophony. ‘So who’s going to play music?’ says Nadege. Karim disappears from the screen; Fantastic Man starts playing in the background. Karim and Liz dance in their living room, some try to follow them, timidly, others just watch, or use this interlude to go to the loo or top up their glasses.
I find it hard not to get distracted by my own face being on the screen all the time, it’s like trying to have a conversation with someone while looking in a mirror. I would like to investigate how to remove this from the app, there must be a way but I don’t want to interrupt the party again.
Nadege is now in her living room, smoking a cigarette at the window.
‘Where is your flatmate now?’ asks Karim.
‘In his bedroom, where he belongs to.’ replies Nadege, with an irritated tone…it looks like confinement has started to take its toll on her.
More small talk and silly jokes, a hat competition and many awkward silences later, we decide to call it a night. It doesn’t feel right to say goodbye to Nadege, knowing that she will spend the rest of her birthday evening on her own…but maybe she’ll start another online party with other people in a minute. It’s day five of lockdown and it seems that video calling apps keep the world going around.
Just a few weeks back, it felt completely surreal, like the script of a Hollywood disaster movie: a strange virus was spreading across China, hundreds of people were stuck on a luxury cruise ship stranded off the coast of Japan. Wuhan was in quarantine. It’s happening very far away, we’ll watch the movie when it comes out, no need to panic.
It starts to feel more real when Italy gets into lockdown, then Spain and France. Covid-19 is now the topic of every news article, radio programme, social media post, conversation with friends and family. It almost feels inappropriate to talk about something else, it would mean that we don’t care, it would mean that we’re selfish.
It’s a week before lockdown, the gallery is temporarily closed and I’m now working from home. I need to get used to new ways of interacting with colleagues virtually. Zoom has become the new skype. Everyone is obsessed about keeping in touch visually. Faces appear and disappear on the screen, they all seem well but it’s only day one for us. It’s lunchtime, I venture out, it feels naughty but this might be the last opportunity to buy a few essentials…and paint to refresh the kitchen at Easter, no doubt we’ll be in lockdown by then. The pharmacy has new signs on the door: No hand sanitiser/ No masks/ No thermometer. The experience of walking in the street is one of awareness: keep your distance, don’t touch things, don’t touch your face. Covid-19 is at the back of everyone’s mind or is it? A few people wear masks but the market on Deptford High Street is as busy as ever, people are having lunch in cafés, queueing at the butcher and fishmonger stalls and even at the burger van. The DIY shop doesn’t have the paint I need but I may as well stop at the supermarket as I’m out, I need to make it count. I’m curious to see what they have in stock today, unfortunately, it looks like it’s been looted again: no pasta, no toilet rolls, no milk, no eggs…but I find a loaf of seeded bread and some cheese. I feel like I won the lottery. We won’t starve, no need to panic.
It’s day one of lockdown and C has been furloughed since yesterday. I knew it was coming but I had not really given too much thought about the two of us being at home together for weeks. The idea of spending all my time with C – something that I would normally very much look forward to – appears all of a sudden like a strange proposition. ‘We have enough space,’ he said, ‘and a brand new big TV, we won’t kill each other, trust me!’ No need to panic.
It’s day five of lockdown but it feels it’s been weeks. Time is stretching, lazily. Life seems to be happening in slow motion. It takes hours to buy food as long queues snake around supermarkets so people can keep two metres between them. Nothing seems urgent anymore. Today is the same as yesterday and tomorrow won’t be different. It reminds me of being a child and the endless summer holidays spent at my grandparents in a small village in the north of France. Summers felt like a lifetime, days felt like a week: breakfast, getting bored, watching a bit of TV, lunch, getting bored, reading a book, getting bored, dinner, TV, bedtime. Next day, same again. Today, I’m not sure that I miss the craziness of endless to-do lists and deadlines, the permanent state of urgency, the always-keep-busy mode. It’s exciting to think of all the free time this situation will unlock and the best way to make good use of it. We won’t get bored, no need to panic.
It’s day five of lockdown and it’s hard to remember what it was like to go for a walk for no reason, eat out, meet friends, go to the pub but we know that when things finally get back to normal – whenever that is and whatever that means – we’ll be desperate for a dance (quoting Frank Turner in last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend supplement) and have the biggest, craziest party ever so no need to panic.