Welcome to the new normal!

When we chatted last week, I told you how I was on borrowed time. My company were re-opening their stores on Monday, but I had been told by my boss that they would assess the situation on a fortnightly basis. The way he spoke implying as a part-timer I would be amongst the last to go back, so would probably be off until mid-July, maybe even until August. Either way, I would be given at least five days-notice to return to work.

Well, that didn’t happen. I was telephoned late Tuesday afternoon. The company had assessed the situation after just one day of trading and I was being given barely one days-notice to return to work on Thursday morning. This was also a surprise. My usual shift pattern is three days on – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – then four days off, so I never work Thursdays. But no, everything had changed, and I had to work Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday.

To be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with this scenario. To only get one day’s notice after three months off was bad enough, but to then be working five days straight with only Sunday off in the middle was going to come hard. Like most people on furlough, I had settled into a more relaxed pace of life. To suddenly go from ambling through my days to being thrown full-on back into the rat race was going to be a culture shock, to say the least.

But there was nothing I could do about it. Wednesday, as you can imagine, was completely taken up with preparations to return to work and be absent from the house during the day again. I had tucked away an emergency box of hair dye so that was dug out first thing Wednesday morning and the silver streaked hair was made uniformly auburn again. There was nothing I could do about the growing-out fringe, but I found if I blow dried it in a sort of Farah Fawcett-Majors flick, it didn’t look too bad.

As you know, I’ve been doing my shopping on foot at local shops close enough to walk to and have been avoiding the large, out-of-town, supermarkets, but as I sat there writing my shopping list Wednesday morning, I quickly realised that a car was going to be needed to cart this lot home. I decided to bite the bullet and return to Tesco, in fact, don’t overthink and procrastinate about it, let’s do it, now!

I grabbed my bags and my list and went before I could change my mind. The carpark was reasonably empty, and I hoped this was a good sign. That by hitting the store at 10am on a mid-week morning I would miss most of the crowds. I grabbed a trolley and joined the very short queue to get in, sanitising the handle at the useful cleaning station by the door.

Inside, I realised all my fears were groundless. The store looked clean and wasn’t crowded. There were 2m markers on the floor and a complicated arrow route you were supposed to follow. This sometimes meant I was left aimlessly going up and down aisles trying to get back to where I needed to be because I’d forgotten something.

One huge shop later and I was home by 11am, dumping it all in the house for Miss F to unpack and put away, whilst I shot to the post office and sent off all the birthday cards and presents that needed to be posted. The market was back in the middle of the town and people were milling about all over the place. Was social distancing being observed? No. Quite the opposite in fact, people were acting like “pandemic? What pandemic is that?”

The rest of my day was spent cleaning the house and making meal planners with Miss F because she was going to be in charge of dinner the days I had to work. This time off has given me plenty of time to assess what stresses me the most and try to take measures to prevent it. On the days I work, I’m up early to make sure that everything gets done, so when I leave for work my house is immaculate. It then stresses me out to get home and find it now looking like a bomb has hit it. It’s unfair. I didn’t make the mess, yet as soon as I get home from a long and usually fraught day at work, I’m the one who has to start cleaning up, or start shouting at Miss F to pick her crap up.

It gets the evening off to a bad start – I mean, who wants a yelling mum the second she walks in the door? I’ve had long conversations with Miss F about this and I think it’s finally sunk in how such a small thing as tidying up after herself will cut the stress levels in the house and generally make life more pleasant for both of us.

Another thing that stresses me when I get home is that I’m usually starving hungry. I only get a 20-minute lunchbreak at work and that’s barely enough time to stuff a sandwich and an apple in my face, consequently, by the time I get home I’m ravenous and desperate to eat. I’m one of those people whose blood sugar levels can crash drastically if I’m hungry and then I get angry.

Now, Miss F is one of those people who can’t be bothered to eat in the morning, and on days she’s not at college has an annoying habit of eating nothing until about 2pm then suddenly being desperately hungry and cooking herself a huge bowl of pasta. So, when I get home at 5:15pm wanting to eat – NOW! – she’s not hungry and makes us wait until 6:30pm or even later to eat dinner.

That leaves me prowling about the house, unable to think about anything other than how hungry I am. And as my headache grows ever worse and the dizziness increases until I feel I’m about to pass out, I get snappier and more irritated. When we finally eat, I am so famished I inhale my food far too quickly and end up with indigestion, which then leads to an even more unpleasant mum and more chance of silly arguments erupting over petty matters.

This is an easily fixable problem. Miss F now understands she is not to eat any later than 1pm during the day. If ever she is eating later than that, then rather than pork up on what is basically a main meal, she is to simply have a sandwich or something light. On days I am working, she is also going to be in charge of cooking our evening meal, and I have stressed to her that that does not mean I walk in at 5:15pm to find a kitchen looking like a hand grenade was tossed in there, or worse, nothing going on in the kitchen at all and a teenage daughter having a nap planning to start doing dinner when Mum gets home. No! Meals take longer to prepare and cook than you think, and if I walk in to find no dinner, I am going to get angry and start making it myself, and then we’re right back to pissed off mummy time – and that’s no fun for anyone.

We actually have one of those wonderful 1970’s inventions called a hostess trolley. For those of you who are clueless, it’s an amazing closed-in trolley with a heating element in the bottom and plenty of space in the main cabinet for dishes of food to be placed, plus four glass dishes in the top for vegetables etc. You simply plug it in, give it twenty minutes to heat up, then it will keep food warm for ages. When I have dinner parties it’s invaluable and at Christmas it’s a godsend. You can cook the meal well in advance and then have time to clean the kitchen down and get yourself freshened up and be ready to greet your guests with a smile and a glass of wine in hand.

No more sweating away in the kitchen whilst everyone else is chatting and laughing in another room. No more demanding that people sit down at the table now, NOW, because dinner is cooked and getting cold. No more the kitchen looking like a bombsite with you desperately trying to clean up between courses. And no more trying to get everything cooked at exactly the same time. I once kept a roast dinner plus the gravy piping hot in there for five hours! And it tasted perfect.

Anyway, we have agreed between us that Miss F will make use of the hot trolley and ensure dinner is in there by 4:30pm at the latest. That will give her plenty of time to clear the kitchen down before I get home, and, best of all, when I step into the house it will be to the enticing aroma of a hot, cooked meal, and the sight of a clean kitchen. Bliss.

Well, that’s the plan, we’ll see how it goes.

So, I returned to work Thursday morning. I will be honest here I was apprehensive and concerned about how it would be. I am struggling to understand why it is okay for me to be in a shop with dozens of germy strangers, but I’m not allowed to sit in my mum’s kitchen. I’m also curious as to why it’s okay for you to have your cleaner back – if you are lucky enough to have such a creature – but likewise my mum can’t set foot in my house! Question: if I gave my mum £1 and asked her to flick a duster around, would she be allowed in then?

 I was also curious to see my colleagues’ hairstyles and wondered what they’d think of my new “no fringe” look. Two other staff members were in that day. My boss and another colleague. My boss had plainly had a go at his hair himself and looked like a shorn lamb. My other colleague hadn’t bothered and was sporting a very impressive pair of emo hair curtains.

After exchanging greetings, we were straight into the return-to-work training and spent an hour or so watching videos that taught us how to wear a mask and gloves and how to avoid getting too close to people. Hmm, okay.

I must admit, the company had done its best to ensure staff and customer safety and had provided plenty of masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, wipes, cleaning solution for all the surfaces, a sneeze guard at the desk, face visors, single use pillow slips for when customers laid on the beds, and even disposable paper sheets to go over the mattress. That last item was not so successful. Have you ever laid on a paper towel? It creases and rips immediately. Imagine a big piece of that – place it on a bed and lay on it, now move around into different sleeping positions. You can see how non-workable this was. The customers ended up carrying little scraps of paper about the shop and very carefully constructing a paper patchwork quilt every time they wanted to lay down.

I had been there about three hours, when my boss looked at me.

Boss: Have you done something different to your eyebrows?

Me: My eyebrows? I don’t think so, why?

Boss: They look different, have you plucked them, or something?

Me: Mate, I haven’t had to pluck my eyebrows since I waxed them to death in the 1990’s.

Boxx: Oh, right, they just look… different, I don’t know.

Me: I no longer have a fringe so you can now actually SEE my eyebrows. Would that be it?

Boss: Oh yeah, that’s it.

Me: I’ve been here three hours and you’ve only just noticed that? Observant, much.

But then, I guess he is a man, bless him, so what did I expect?

I didn’t know if we’d have customers or not, after all, tentatively coming out of a pandemic with a daily death rate that is still unacceptably high, the last place I will be going is into a bed shop, but, we did have customers. Quite a few of them. Some of them were fine with the safety protocols now in place, and sanitised their hands, stayed 2m away from me, and used the paper mattress sheets like good little boys and girls.

Some customers though, didn’t seem to care. They declined the offer of gloves or masks, even refused to sanitise their hands, and then proceeded to wander about touching everything. Seemingly oblivious to the fact us staff were then having to follow them about desperately trying to spray and clean stuff behind them. And then they’d leave, without buying anything – “we’re just looking” – really? Seems silly to risk spreading infection for the sake of just looking at something, but then my belief in the intelligence of some British people has been severely shaken these past few months.

The day passed quickly, but it was surreal and strange, and I could feel my stress levels rising with every customer I dealt with. It’s going to take a long time to get used to this “new” normal. One good thing though, my boss decided to put us all back to our old shift pattern, so that meant I didn’t have to go to work Friday and Saturday, but instead will be in Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and that is why I have been able to write this blog after all.

Driving home from work that first day, I was hungry, thirsty, and had a pounding tightness in my sinuses and behind my eyes. Stress? Yeah, I thought so too. Luckily, when I got home, dinner was in the hot trolley, the house was as I’d left it, and Miss F was hungry enough to eat reasonably quickly. Perfect. Wonder how long it will last for though.

I’ve had a few messages enquiring about how Skittles the cat is doing. Is she still in her recovery vest and does she still hate it? The answer is yes, and oh so much! The wound is much better though, maybe next Monday we can leave the vest off and unlock the cat flap again and let her be free to come and go as she pleases. I won’t be sorry to get rid of the litter tray either. Horrible thing, and it seems every time I’m preparing food or we’re about to eat, that’s the time she picks to climb into the tray and drop the biggest, most stinky poo she can manage. I think it’s a protest poo at her incarceration. How people who keep their cats indoors all the time manage is beyond me. During the hot days we’ve had recently, it’s been a nightmare having to keep doors and windows shut, and every time we go out having to be mindful of where she is in case she tries to escape. We’ll all be relieved when this is over.

It’s Father’s Day on Sunday in the UK, but of course I’m at work, so we’ll be doing the present and card run Saturday afternoon. Miss F hasn’t seen or heard from her father in eight years, so obviously he doesn’t figure into the equation, and when she was at school, Father’s Day – with all its resulting “let’s make a card for our father” shenanigans – was fraught with tension. But she does have two wonderful grandfathers who have always been there for her, so we make a fuss over them instead.

One set of grandparents – my ex-husband’s parents, whom I call the outlaws – are extremely vulnerable and are in deep lockdown. We haven’t seen them since late February which has been hard for Miss F. We’re now allowed to talk to them at a distance though, so will drop a gift bag on their doorstep then stand well away to exchange greetings. Not perfect, but better than nothing. Then we’ll drive over and sit in my parents’ garden to give my father his present. Thank heavens it’s been such lovely weather during isolation, the amount of sitting in gardens we’ve all had to do.

So that’s it, my wonderful long time at home is officially over, and looking back at the past thirteen weeks I wonder where all that time went to. Did I get done everything I planned? No. But the house is the cleanest and most sorted it’s ever been. I painted the kitchen, and even did such time-consuming tasks as washing windows and shampooing carpets. My garden has been tidied up and I’ve painted all the fences – a Herculean task that I’ve been putting off for years! I even found a fabulous husband and wife team of decorators who live locally and have been doing outside jobs all during lockdown. They came Wednesday and started work sanding down and painting my fascia boards and are now working on all the windows. Again, a job I knew was getting more urgent by the minute and it’s such a relief that it’s being done!

Going forward into the future I am feeling more positive. My decks are cleared, metaphorically speaking, and I’m hopeful that with Miss F now taking a more “hands-on” role in the house with regards to cleaning and cooking, that my days off will be free to concentrate on writing and working on my books. I have an idea for a dark and twisty retelling of a classic fairy tale that is scratching at the inside of my brain and demanding to be set free. A perfect book to publish at Halloween, if I can get it written and prepared in time.

Wherever you are in the world, and whatever stage of isolation or re-integration you are at, please stay safe, stay well, and stay happy, and hopefully, I will be back next week.

Julia Blake

One thought on “Welcome to the new normal!

  1. Great blog Julia, hope you’re still getting fed after work every day. I really can’t believe that some people refuse to use hand sanitiser and I wouldn’t allow them in the shop if they didn’t use it. 😱 see you next week ( in your blog) xx

    Liked by 1 person

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