The nurse, Doreen, pushed the needle into my arm. I felt the mildest of pin pricks. A colleague of Doreen’s had been attempting to keep me chatting. I guessed this was a good cop / bad cop thing: Doreen was the bad cop administering the vaccine while her colleague kept me talking to distract me, just in case I freaked out at the sight of the needle.
It was quite the reverse. As Doreen was about half-way through administering the injection, I looked over to stare at the syringe as its contents were emptied into my upper arm.
“You’re sot squeamish are you!” she remarked.
“Nah,” came my reply, before I made some comment about the ridiculous Bill Gates conspiracy theories.
Not, you understand, that I am particularly fond of medical procedures. I simply accept that they’re a part of life. Let’s face it, over the past year life for all of us has come to a juddering halt because of COVID-19. I’ve seen my mother twice in that time, my kids’ education and social development has been massively disrupted and I know I’ve developed ‘lockdown brain.’ If I was going to be vaccinated against this highly efficient virus, I was going to watch it happen.
That, my friends, was how I received my first COVID-19 vaccination shot on the top floor of a shopping centre in Croydon, directly opposite a long-closed Spud-U-Like outlet and a soon-to-be closed branch of Debenhams. For me this was an amusing choice of venue as this branch of Spud-U-Like was where I would occasionally get lunch many years ago when I worked in this much-derided corner of South London.
As an aside, I’m not sure what’s more derided: Spud-U-Like or Croydon. As someone with Northern Irish heritage, I absolutely will not tolerate a bad word being said about the glorious oven-baked jacket potato, something my marvellous Ulsterwoman grandmother would regularly feed me as a boy.
Getting back to the vaccine, travelling to the vaccine centre was a bizarre experience. You see Croydon is somewhere I have many historical links with. I lived there for a while in my twenties. It’s not particularly close to where I live now, but it happened to be the closest vaccination centre where time slots were available.
One year ago
My last visit to Croydon was in April of last year, during the height of Lockdown No.1. I was collecting an emergency prescription for someone who was shielding. It was a truly bizarre experience, like something out of an apocalyptic film.
Outside of banks and the Post Office, obscenely long lines of face-mask wearing people queued to get hold of cash or take care of other essential business. The only shops that were open were food shops and, of course, the dentist where I had to collect this emergency prescription.
The local outdoor market on Surrey Street was also open. I couldn’t quite believe this at first, but it steadily dawned on me that the hippy stalls and stalls selling hardware were closed. Only stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables were open, but, in its infinite wisdom, Croydon Council hadn’t forced the stall holders to spread their stalls out. Instead, they were bunched-up at one end of the street making it impossible to socially distance. I had to walk straight through this melee to get back to the car park and it made me feel very uncomfortable.
One year later, returning for a vaccine shot
Here I was, a year later, returning to Croydon for my first vaccination shot. It was an equally weird experience, although for different reasons.
I haven’t really travelled anywhere since last summer when the Rule of Six applied. Even then, I had only visited rural locations or small towns. Visiting Croydon was my first trip to a proper, urban environment and it was extremely odd. It made me realise just how closeted an existence I’d been living for the previous 12 months.
Around East Croydon train station, the streets smelled like the streets of Paris. If you’ve ever spent any time in Paris (…another location I spent a lot of time in when younger) you’ll know that’s not a compliment. Various buildings had been demolished in preparation for large retail complexes that have been years in the planning, but in the post-COVID world will probably not be built.
What really struck me was the number of homeless people on the streets. Croydon has always had a sizeable homeless population, but this was the first time in a year I’d seen poverty on this scale. I don’t think the homelessness situation was any worse than before, it was simply distressing to see after a year of not being exposed to such harsh realities.
Added to that, and in a scene that must be repeated across the land, various retail units were boarded up and closed. Just to add insult to injury, I noticed a branch of Natwest had a sign in the window saying it would soon be closing down.
It was depressing. The ray of light in among all of this was the COVID vaccination hub, which was staffed by amazingly cheerful, efficient volunteers from the Royal Voluntary Services.
As it happens, I knew one of them. It was one of those awkward moments where, both wearing face masks, we looked at each other and tried to figure out if we were who we thought we were.
Anyway, we had a lovely chat just after my vaccination. It was good to catch up with someone else. It was also an oddly reassuring sign that life is adjusting to a new normal where you can get out and about and randomly bump into people who you know. I mean come on, when was the last time that happened to you? I’ll bet it was a while ago.
The funniest thing of all? There was a selfie booth just underneath the vaccination hub. Don’t get the wrong idea. The selfie booth just happened to be on site because the vaccination hub was in a shopping centre, it wasn’t placed there for the freshly vaccinated to show off their status on Instagram.
Even so, that’s exactly what I did. Not just on Instagram, but also twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn! I mean come on, how could I resist?
The joy of vaccination
Receiving the first vaccination dose felt like a vey big deal. I spent the next two days walking round with my “I’ve had my COIVD vaccination” sticker on display for all to see.
As for side effects: Minimal. I felt a tiny bit rough the next day but was quite capable of taking my daughter to her gymnastics class. I had no headache or anything more serious than a bit of feeling a bit spaced out and I woke up the following day and practically jumped out of bed I felt so good.
As the months have passed, I’ve become less and less fearful of COVID-19. What’s actually worried me has been contracting long-COVID. We have no idea how long it lasts or how debilitating it could be in the long term. The Office for National Statistics has published figures suggesting one in ten people who recover from COVID-19 go on to develop long-Covid symptoms. Imagine the long-term impact on those individuals and the impact on the National Health Service if people with long-COVID need support for the rest of their lives? It’s a massive health crisis in the making.
While I appreciate I still have one more injection to have, I am happy to be on the way to fully vaccinated status. I also appreciate I am fortunate to receive a vaccine at all, especially when I see what’s happening in India right now.
Odd to be out in the world
The other thing I have taken away from this experience? It’s going to take a little while to adjust as I ease myself back in to the world. It was odd to catch a train, bump int an old friend and walk through urban streets after an absence of 12 months, streets I had walked along a thousand times in the past.
For the most part, my life has revolved around the four-square miles where I live for the past year: Shopping, school run, walks and little face-to-face social contact outside the immediate family unit. While school attendance has been hit and miss, my kids have had the benefit of attending school so mingled with large groups of peers. This is something I’d normally do, but these experiences have been missing from my life and my brief trip to Croydon made me realise just how much my life has changed.
Coming out of lockdown is going to be magnificent. I look forward to the return of some kind of normality, but I can see it’s going to take time to re-adjust. The sad thing is, I won’t be able to shop at Debenhams or grab a bite to eat at Spud-U-Like when I am unleashed on the world again!