It was the most inauspicious of moments but maybe that is why it happened.
I was sitting in front of a recently demolished breakfast, across from two friends resuming the thread of a conversation I had stepped back from, while I observed two kids wrestling over a soft toy as a group of adults behind them pored over the bill. There were the sounds of the kitchen to the right of me, the crash of cutlery and plates; the authoritative voices of servers and I realised: it was just like before.
Except, it kind of wasn’t.
There were the strange loops of face masks on wrists, next to people on tables. The stands of hand sanitiser, the sometimes careful looping of people as they walked around each other (close but not too close) and I looked at my friends and apropos of nothing, I asked: Are you guys happy?
Conversations that happened organically instead of a strange stop and start relay over a computer. Physical contact (when expressely permitted first), the odd dance just before a relieved hug. It felt strange how quickly some of it came back – like a language brain comprehended faster than your mouth could express
When lockdown happened and then happened and then happened again, I dreamed of these moments. I fantasised about them, I even tried in vain to recreate them using YouTube background noises and my own wares in the cupboard, in some elaborate pretend play my then-toddler believed was entirely for his entertainment and not just for my sanity. I would run my hands across the cloths of my wardrobe sighing at the whispers of silks and calls of colour, wondering when there would be a time for them to shine outside the door and not just tremble in my hand. I talked about it, read about it, dreamed about it – this life I had taken for granted, the end of this stasis I had been forced into, this grey, endless yawn.
But when it happened, it didn’t quite come the way I imagined it. The lunches with publishers started with intrepid coffees. The celebratory meetings with authors and editors felt oddly sombre but maybe that was because this was no longer in the first flush of a new deal but several months after when they were now thick in the weeds of editing, asking after PR plans and worrying about sales strategies. Some of them didn’t want to come and meet in public still; others were only able to do so in rolling shifts in the office with teams assembled half in person and half on Zoom. It took time for the restaurants to feel full and not be conscious of how your voice carried over the marble, the servers overly attentive because there wasn’t much draw on their attention in the first place.
But I kept waiting. I thought – it’s better than what it was. There are choices opening before us more and more. Conversations that happened organically instead of a strange stop and start relay over a computer. Physical contact (when expressely permitted first), the odd dance just before a relieved hug. It felt strange how quickly some of it came back – like a language brain comprehended faster than your mouth could express.
And yet – that burst of happiness, that relief – that joy that I was expecting, demanding even, never quite happened.
Gratitude yes, sometimes a strange sense of dislocation, like I cannot believe I couldn’t not do this only three months agobut what was I expecting? A jubilant hurrah – bunting and confetti on the streets? A sailor looping a woman in a right degree angle over his elbow for a kiss?
Instead, it was slower, cautious, strange in some places and stranger still by how not strange in others. Authors I had never met in person but with whom I had worked with for over a year now sat across from me within touching distance. There were incredible moments, touching moments, softer moments - but not that explosion I had been anticipating, not that fever of event.
It wasn’t how I imagined it. After all those losses: launches cancelled, sales postponed or torpedoed by lockdowns and economic crises; the very real pressures of personal concerns wrestling themselves to the fore in every area of your life, the sheer force of keeping yourself going when it felt as if there were dead weights on your ankles, it was like finishing some kind of marathon to get to the end line and instead of there being cheers and eruptions of wonder, a smatter of short faint applause and an orange slice next to a cup of tepid water.
Are you happy?
My friends look at me like I have started speaking fluent Mandarin – a language they admire but do not understand.
I try to elaborate. I don’t mean grateful, I don’t mean unconcerned – I mean joy. Happiness. Satisfaction. Content.
They shrug – it depends on what you mean by happiness, they say.
Is it not, I argue, odd how we just resume these old threads of life like it was 2019, except it is clearly not? How can we be happy when cases are still rising, the world feels like it’s lurching from crisis to crisis, and clearly we are not over the worst – sometimes it just feels like we still wading our way through it but with just more choices on how to contract or be exposed to it. This should be amazing but it all feels a bit – tempered.
They laugh at me – what were you expecting? they ask. Happiness they say is not the great loud bang of a moment. That is just noise. For one of them happiness is getting into the freshly made bed of a really nice hotel. For the other, happiness is sitting down with their daughter and comforting them in the crook of their arm because they’ve been at work all week and missed bedtime. Or walking up the hill by Alexandra Palace and seeing the sun rise just as they get to the top while it quietly and without fuss, bursts and spills over the tops of North London.
Happiness they say isn’t that picture worthy moment; it isn’t iconic, or a big permission giving celebration of an end. Happiness is connection – connection with yourself, connection with others. It is relief – it is peace. It is the opposite of noise.
And maybe that is why I have been struggling with the world opening up, because I have been waiting for that noise to come back again, for someone to say it’s all okay the last eighteen months are behind you and we are safe in the realm of the familiar once again. Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand singing happy times are here again. Except it isn’t quite because we are still in a transition – waiting, hoping, slightly fearful, achingly hopeful, tempered that this may not be the end but just another leg to go in the making.
So what makes you happy they ask? Where do you find your connection?
I don’t know how to answer that one.
But while I think about how to do so, I decide to go and browse in a bookshop.
Nelle Andrew is an agent at RML. She was named Agent of the Year at the 2021 British Book Awards, having been nominated in 2018 and was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016.