Today I was on the bus. I needed to go to my office to get some books. The faculty had kindly organised for academic staff to enter their offices for a time slot of fifteen minutes each. The campus was still closed, and I really needed some books from my office for my current research and teaching preparation. It was ten past ten in the morning, and I was the only one waiting at the bus stop. In fact, I was not sure at all why I was taking the bus because I did have a car. And according to government advice, public transport should be avoided as much as possible. But old habits die hard, and I always used to take the bus to the university in pre-COVID-19 times. Once on the bus, I sat down in one of the seats on the first floor. Usually, I go up to the top for the views. But not this time because I did not want to touch the handrails or anything. And once the bus restarts its engine after a stop, it is safer to grab the handrails. Otherwise, you risk being bumped around. The easiest way to avoid that was to sit down as fast as possible before the bus restarted again, avoiding the risk of losing my balance and having to grab a handrail, pole or straphanger. Only then I realised that I was the only one wearing a face mask on the bus. I looked at two other passengers behind me, who were not wearing face masks, just staring silently into the distance. The bus driver was not wearing a mask. And I thought, fair enough, at least the bus driver is protected through the plastic screen. After a few stops, more and more people were getting on the bus, and no one was wearing masks. Someone sat down next to me—a woman wearing some ugly and tasteless tattoos on her two arms. There was a cross, a heart pierced by an arrow and a strange-looking lizard. Her face was heavily wrinkled, big circles under her eyes. In one hand she held several plastic bags, in the other she held her mobile phone mumbling some incomprehensible sentences, distorted by the typical slang of the region, to someone on the other end of the line. I gave her an exasperated look, but she did not seem to notice or care. Bus stop after bus stop, more people kept flowing into the bus. The bus was becoming so crowded that people were standing shoulder to shoulder. Social distancing measures were becoming impossible to respect. And no one was wearing face masks. People were chatting and laughing, sweating and coughing, pushing and brushing past each other as if COVID-19 did not exist.
I was terrified, my body grew tense, and I started to sweat. More and more people were washed into the bus, the chatter was becoming unbearable, my ears were ringing - and then silence. I opened my eyes and realised, with a big relief, that the bus, the noise, the crowd, the tattooed woman next to me, had dissolved in the silence of my bedroom, only interrupted by the peaceful chirping of some robins in the garden. There was no bus. I was in my bed waking from a bad dream. I looked around once more, making sure that it had been just a dream and not some fragments of memory relating to something I had done in the last few days. But no, I had not been on any bus recently. I had not been part of any crowds or mass gatherings. I had not encountered any tattooed woman. When I finally realised that none of this had happened, my muscles finally relaxed, and I sank back into the lightness of my pillows. The shock was finally fading away.
Then, images of mass gatherings and crowds, which I had watched on TV and the Internet over the last few days, flashed through my mind: disturbing images of masses of people flocking to Britain’s beaches, huge delirious crowds in Liverpool celebrating the city’s football club’s first premier league title in thirty years, ecstatic groups of teenagers and other young people devastating parks and other places with their illegal raves.
I am not sure anymore if I had just woken from a bad dream or if I am indeed living in a bad dream. I am still terrified. The images continued flashing through my mind like bright lightning, accompanied by rolling thunder in the distance. I got up to make some coffee to calm my nerves - and fight an emerging headache. This bad dream is far from over. There is worse to come. Next week, pubs and restaurants and places of worship are going to reopen. The government relaxed the two-metre social distancing rule, transforming it into the magic formula of “one-metre-plus”. No, the bad dream is far from over.