OPINION

OPINION | How isolation has made the familiar strange

A couple of times over the last week or so I have worked from my deserted newspaper office, for reasons too boring to elaborate.

It's been weird.

Being alone there felt like one of those quintessential iso things - a normal place but a totally not-normal experience of it; the familiar made strange by the lack of noise and conversation.

No one bustling past with coffees, or bantering with a colleague over the partitions; just me, the gently thrumming air conditioning, and the unnerving scratch of autumn leaves on the side window.

It's a little like those nightmares where you know in your head exactly where you are, but everything looks completely different.

If you watched Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, you may remember the main character hiding out for a while in a similarly deserted newspaper office.

DYSTOPIAN: June in the newspaper office in the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale.

DYSTOPIAN: June in the newspaper office in the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale.

For exercise, she runs through the building, past the ghostly computer stations and noticeboards, working up a sweat in the corridors where people would once have brushed past each other with smiles and handshakes.

I literally did the same thing - though it was more like a brisk walk - to loosen up my stiff muscles while the kettle boiled, then had to stop when I remembered June and her jogging. The dystopian overtones were just too disturbing.

I'm not really complaining - I got lots of work done without the distraction of other human beings with their talking and typing and breathing.

And compared to working from home - with a cat or dog constantly needing to be let in or out, the washing machine and dishwasher churning away, my children bugging me every five minutes for things trivial and profound - it's rather calming.

But it feels so weird to be alone here that I can't even bring myself to leave the bathroom door unlocked when I use it.

It takes me back several weeks to an evening at the start of the lockdown period, when I first saw my local pub without its lights on.

It's not like I'm even a big pub-goer, despite it being just up the road, but that first evening when all the pubs and shops and restaurants were closed I felt a stab of what closely resembled grief.

Or maybe it was fear. It's hard to say.

To see a place that is always open (at least in the hours that I'm up and about) so dark and quiet was a shock. It's a version of that jarring effect when you see something that is almost-normal, but not quite. It can give you the heebee jeebees.

Sigmund Freud called this idea 'the uncanny'. And there's been a little bit of that in these strange times: all the photos of tourist attractions devoid of people, the lining up at 1.5 metre intervals to enter supermarkets, the silent highways.

I'm no extrovert (cough, cough, quite the opposite), so there's been quite a lot I've frankly enjoyed about this lockdown bizzo.

And to be honest the resumption of normal socialising fills me with dread - it's just been so peaceful to slow down the manic hamster wheel for a while.

But at the same time I'm glad to step back from a glimpse of a world that I'd only seen before in fiction and on the screen, a world that bore vestiges of our own but with unsettling alterations.

A village with no people. Health workers in full PPE poking sticks up noses in drive-through checkpoints. Deserted city beaches.

Like the ruins of a past civilisation, or the buildings of Chernobyl overrun by nature, these sorts of visions almost always bear witness to some sort of disaster.

This season may have stirred some longing in many of us for a more permanent experience of the clean air and quiet skies, the days and nights at home with loved ones. I believe it's incumbent upon us to build some of that into our future lives where we can.

But I'm also glad to finally see the lights go back on in the pub.