This week I have been wishing people a happy new year so regularly and so earnestly that the phrase has chipped off in my mouth and come loose like a bad tooth. I need to put it together again, piece by piece. It requires elaboration, this year more than most, because a happy new year for me may be an entirely awful one for you, and if the pandemic has taught us anything beyond the benefits of opening a window, it is clear and present empathy. So, to clarify:
Happy new year to you if you’re a parent of a primary school-age kid. Yours has been a year lived as if sleeping with one hand in warm water, leaping up desperately at regular intervals convinced you’ve pissed yourself. Being the parent of a young child is stressful at the best of times. At the worst of times it is a struggle akin to trying to cross a motorway in bare feet after too much coffee. The year 2020 saw you teaching them trigraphs while nodding along to a Zoom meeting on mute. Then 2021 saw you watching their classmates’ positive test results flash up on your WhatsApp while nodding along to a Zoom meeting on mute. As you gratefully offered your arm for a vaccine, then another, then another little one for luck, each sharp scratch a little crumb of Valium, your young children were still waiting for their first. Were trotting alongside you, reeling off facts about photosynthesis or how to make purple, every now and then stopping to quietly note the unmasked status of a stranger. Were waking in the middle of the night from surreal nightmares where death arrived on a crowded bus or where they were the monster. It was not a case of whether Covid would visit your house, it was a case of when. Where’s Covid? Is it behind the tree? No! Is it under the rug? No! Is it sweeping through the school canteen like the smell of chips? You’ll find out on Friday. I wish you a new year of vaccinations and small relaxations, and a gradual slowing of your very tapping leg.
Happy new year if you’re a Tory MP. Can’t be worse than last year can it?
Happy new year if you’re the owner of a lockdown pet. It was a good idea. No! No, it was, it was a good idea. You made the right choice. You did! You did. It’s going to be fine. This year your cat will stop staring at you with those “how dare you?” eyes. Your new sofa will not be gutted like the last, which you rose one morning to find disembowelled, its foamy guts now strewn across the carpet, the cat surveying the devastation from her post on the counter. This year your puppy will listen when you say, “Down!”, will not take it as a challenge to see how many steaks he can grab from the table, will not reply at a volume that causes neighbours to stick livid little notes through your letterbox, will not whine like Veruca Salt. This year your allergy will disappear, your eyes will dry, your itches cease. Your dog will finally become comfortable around men with beards, simply sitting quietly and allowing them to talk to you in the street, the urge to protect you from their aggressive facial hair by leaping up and barking like a fire alarm having passed by mid-Jan. The pressure of having to train and manage them will this year be eclipsed by the comfort of their warm body and hot meat breath. Their grand love will bury the burden like a bone.
Happy new year if you’re self-isolating. The stages of self-isolation – anger, fear, boredom, cheese – became blurry the second or third time round and now, as a new year breaks like an egg on your forehead, the feeling is one of cold, white numbness. Long ago you stopped arguing with the internet, shouting at the prime minister that before telling us to get tested and self-isolate it was his responsibility to make sure we had the ability and support to do either. That our “resilience” is running low. It is tempting to slip into familiar psychological patterns of doom, where feelings of pointlessness and anxiety dance badly together across the filthy kitchen table, but I wish you a happy new year, where isolation breeds, not quiet, but creativity. Whether you’re alone or among an overheated family, I wish you… OK not a whole year, too intimidating, but instead a series of hours that spread into days then months, where you’re able to replace the discontent of lockdown with moments of meditative peace, cosiness, time spent counting your various and disparate blessings, before returning to something quite good on TV.
Happy new year if you’re a new variant. Ah, come in, we’ve been expecting you. Good journey? Sorry – no spikes on in the house. If you wouldn’t mind just snapping off that one, and that one, yes, all of them off, sorry. Sorry! And then if you just want to pop through to the boiling vat of drugs we’ll meet you in there in a sec. Yep, just behind you. See you in there.