Competition winner: 'After you-know-when'

Glimpses of a kinder, more connected future world emerge from the winning essay in the Visions of a World After COVID-19 competition.

Elizabeth Hooton
5 August 2020
Artwork courtesy of David S. Goodsell and the RCSB PDB, CC-BY-4.0

Before, I took the bus to school during winter; now I cycle instead. It’s cold. Wet. Before, I would’ve complained; now I relish the bite of the wind on my knuckles and the bracing touch of it on my bare face. I enjoy every drop of rain. I suck in the fresh air, and smile.

In class we get our marked homework back. Before, I would’ve skimmed it; now I read the teacher’s comments thoroughly. The lesson continues, and I take notes. Before, the girls at the back would have been chatting; now they stay quiet. At break, we head to our form room to escape the rain. Before, we would have stayed glued to our phones; now my classmates sit around on the tables, sharing stories, laughing and playing games together.

My friends are grumbling about how bored they were you-know-when. They turn to me, laughing, saying at least they didn’t have an annoying little brother. Before, I would’ve agreed wholeheartedly or lied; now I think about all the times he kept me company and I say, he’s not so bad. On the way to lunch, I pass a club sign-up sheet. Before, it would have been barren; now names are crammed onto the page. We walk towards the canteen. Before, we would have just claimed a table and started eating; now we take it in turns to wash our hands in the bathroom or pass round hand sanitizer. We sit together as we wait for the others. Before, students would have been queueing through the doors for food; now almost everyone swings a packed lunch from their hand. A couple of others from our year ask if there’s any room left at the table. Before, we would have apologised; now we squeeze together to make room. Near the walls, a couple of students still wearing masks eat alone, or at the far end of each table. Nobody bothers them.

It’s the weekend and Dad announces he’s going to see his mum. He asks if any of us want to join him. Before, I would have thought up an excuse to get out of it; now I look up from my phone and hurry to get ready. In the car it’s quiet. Before, I would’ve done something on my phone; now I watch the world go by through the window and listen to the relaxing hum of the road as it disappears beneath us. It takes a long time to get to my grandma’s house. Before, the lengthy drive wouldn’t have bothered me; now I begin to feel a little sick before we arrive.

Sitting in my room, I hear the front door open. Before, I would have dismissed it; now I ask where Mum is going. She calls up the stairs that she’s heading to the shop. Before, I would have been grateful I wasn’t dragged along; now, I leap at the opportunity to get out of the house. I shout for her to wait for me! and race outside to join her. The shop’s five minutes away, and it’s a windy day. Before, we would have taken the car; now we walk instead.

Outside the shop, a dog is tied up and a boy is standing by it. Before, he would’ve looked bored; now his phone is in his pocket and he’s watching the people pass by. I step forward to pet the dog. Before, I would’ve stayed there for longer; now I quickly step back again to a healthy distance before entering the shop.

My parents look at booking holidays for next year. Before, we would have gone somewhere hot, probably Europe; now they’re focusing on more local areas, like Lyme Regis or the Lake District. They don’t have time to decide, because my godparents are coming for dinner later and we need to clean the house. Before, I would have waited reluctantly to be given a job; now I offer to dust while Dad hoovers. Mum asks if I can put the washing machine on. Before, I wouldn’t have known which buttons to press; now I know exactly what to do.

Our guests arrive and we greet them. Before, Mum would have kissed her friend on each cheek, now they just smile and nod. They haven’t come here for a long time, since way before you-know-when, but recently we’ve had a lot more guests, and more family outings too. I’ve been more in control of my social life as well. I know which friends I value the most by seeing whom I kept in touch with, but I don’t appreciate my other friends any less. I’m more grounded. More appreciative and aware. More confident – and more cautious.

Trade deals, Brexit and disaster capitalism

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