The rules are easing, the sun is out – and I have forgotten how to socialise | Zoe Williams

Just about all I can remember is that recounting the plot of whatever box set you’re watching isn’t even low-quality chat. So why do I keep doing it?

It was the first day that six people could legitimately gather in a garden, and by unholy coincidence, as if the universe loved us again, also not hailing. Some friends, let’s call them A and Mr A, came round for a drink. Nothing’s happened to any of us, and we consequently have way too much to say. Words splurged out of me like I was a slot machine paying out a big win, but not in very high denominations. All 2ps and buttons. I veered wildly from the huge to the tiny, from the past to the present. Did I say my friend was in hospital? Had I mentioned the neighbour’s dog had the exact same bark as our dog? Did I ever tell them about that amazing party in Dover Street? Yes, they were there, it was their wedding.

Something had flooded my circuitry: seeing them again after so long had activated the them-part of my brain, and I was telling them their own anecdotes. Mr A asked for an opinion about the big boat in the Suez canal instead, and I told him that opinions were my bread and butter and he’d have to festoon me with cash for those. He asked if it had to be money or would crisps do, and I said they’d do fine, then he threw crisps at me, only they missed by a mile. “It’s because they’re ridged,” he said. “Gah, I’m such an amateur! How can anybody predict the aerodynamics of a ridged crisp?”

That wasn’t really the mishap, though, was it? We’d all forgotten how to socialise. Here we were, back at square one, like six-year-olds in a church hall, underneath their first glitterball, trying to work out what on earth to do next. Are we meant to be talking, or listening? Would music help? Should we reminisce, or anecdotalise? Should that thought stay in my head or come out of my mouth? That detail is definitely too light to share, but is that one too heavy? The human instinct for togetherness is very strong. Throwing crisps is actually the perfect ice-breaker.

The next night, we were back in training, in someone else’s garden, flooded with yet more completely unfamiliar experiences: baking sunshine, food cooked by other people, Campari. Why is everything so delicious? I’ve forgotten some really basic stuff, like you have to pass food to others, not finish it. Just about all I can remember is that retelling the plot of whatever box set you’re watching doesn’t count as even low-quality chat. So why do I keep doing it?

“It’s so long since I ate lamb in your garden,” I rhapsodised, then thought, wait, does that sound rude? Does it sound like I’m saying they always cook the same thing? Should I clarify that the last time, 18 months ago, it was butterflied, barbecued lamb, a totally different experience to this slow-cooked shoulder? Or should I just list everything great they’ve ever made that was not lamb? Would it be weird just how many things I could recall, over two decades, like I had an unnatural commitment to my own sensory pleasure? Maybe if I change the subject really fast, they won’t notice. “Did I tell you about my neighbour’s dog … ?”

The collective excitement surged effortlessly over my nonsense. You could hear it echoed back at you from everyone else’s garden; raucous intensity, then awkward silence, then everyone talking like a podcast on double speed, then a blanket of exhaustion. Surely it’s time to go home? It must be midnight. Actually, it was quarter to nine. 2021, the year when clocks went forward, then back, then forward again, multiple times a day.

On Wednesday, we made lunch for another two dear and cherished friends who were barely recognisable under all that hair. Really if anyone had thought this road map through, the powers that be would have opened hairdressers first, and then people’s gardens; right now we’re just taking it on trust that we know these people because they’ve arrived at the right time.

We found our sea legs pretty well, bitching about shared acquaintances. Slagging people off is the riding-a-bike of the conversation world; those muscles never atrophy. But of course we don’t have any new material, so we were mainly reprising the greatest hits from any given person’s back catalogue of flaws, and there is no natural end to that kind of delight. After we’d done a straight 90 minutes on a particular absent third-party, Mr Z – who had taken the week off work, and was in zooming-out mode, scanning the horizon, asking the important questions – said: “But what do you actually like about her?” “Well,” the friend replied, “she likes me. That’s the only reason I ever like anybody.”

This is what’s going to get us through these early days, the painstaking re-establishment of what conversations count as normal, the ongoing enigmas (“how did I get so drunk?”) – that if there’s one thing more heartwarming than seeing someone else enjoy a thing, it’s when that thing they’re enjoying is your company.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Need a bit of a lift? Get down to your local and watch old friends being reunited | Adrian Chiles
Coming out of lockdown is befuddling, but it’s moving to witness people excitedly greet each other after so long, writes Guardian columnist Adrian Chiles

Adrian Chiles

27, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Socialising again is hard. Just ask the friend whose visit I ruined | Emma Beddington
I had spent 10 months looking forward to our get-together. And I blew it, writes Guardian columnist Emma Beddington

Emma Beddington

08, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘Sorry, I sucked’: Covid has ruined great friendships - and it’s time to make up | Emma Beddington
The pandemic made us isolated, and often a little bit weird. It’s time to get in touch with old friends and forgive everyone’s lapses, writes Guardian columnist Emma Beddington

Emma Beddington

21, Jun, 2021 @1:21 PM

Article image
'A letter tells someone they still matter': the sudden, surprising return of the pen pal
In the pandemic, many have rediscovered the sheer pleasure of writing to strangers, with new schemes spreading hope and connection around the world

Morwenna Ferrier

23, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
‘Massage breaks the pain cycle’: the return of touch – after almost two years without it
For many people, social distancing and lockdowns left them bereft of physical contact. Here, touch experts explain why it is so essential and what we lost in its absence

Emine Saner

08, Nov, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
My friend won’t physically distance – so I will have to distance from her | Arwa Mahdawi
We’ve probably all broken a few lockdown restrictions. But there are some who have treated this deadly pandemic as a joke, writes Arwa Mahdawi

Arwa Mahdawi

01, Jul, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
How far will I go for a table at my favourite pub on 12 April? It’s been like planning a heist | Zoe Williams
I’ve missed out on mini breaks and Easter eggs, but am extremely well prepared for the day bars re-open in England, writes Guardian columnist Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

09, Apr, 2021 @12:05 PM

Article image
I’m not yet 50 – so why does everyone keep calling me middle-aged?| Zoe Williams
First it was my mother, then one friend after another. As far as I’m concerned, I have at least two years to go, writes Guardian columnist Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

07, Dec, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Loneliness is awful – so every day I try to start a conversation with a stranger | Adrian Chiles
For years I have been recognised off the telly, and it has been easy to meet new people. But a memorable party reminded me of why it pays to work at the art of conversation, writes Adrian Chiles

Adrian Chiles

23, Feb, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Five intimate friendships is the optimal amount – I scrape two | Emma Beddington
Research tells us living near our loved ones makes us happier and strengthens our relationships. But is that possible, and how can we be better friends if not, asks Emma Beddington

Emma Beddington

09, Apr, 2023 @1:00 PM