Dressing Up For V-Day
Illustrations by Mr Luis Mendo
For the first time in as long as I can remember, I found myself getting dressed up this morning – actually thinking about what I was going to wear, what I wanted to say about myself and how I wanted the world to see me. Recently, the world has been reduced to the square mile around our house in Shepherds Bush, west London, a short walk from MR PORTER’s offices, in fact. I’ve paced and dissected and lapped this world. I’ve crossed roads to respect its other inhabitants. I’ve covered my face, walked at night and alone. I’ve not even unzipped my coat.
Nobody in this small world was likely to note the lightweight jacket I’d bought almost a year ago, specifically for sparkling spring days such as this. Or the fact I’d paired cropped trousers (not jeans) with the adidas SL 72s that are only ever brought out in the optimum climatic conditions. Or that I’d thought about my layering because, in around 20 minutes, I’d be required to remove my coat, roll up my sweater and decide whether right or left arm for the needle delivering the vaccine into my bloodstream.
Vaccination Day – V-Day, as I’m now calling it – felt perfect, crisp to the taste, clear and bright. I put my ears in – an ancient pair of white iPhone earphones – and went for potluck on Spotify. “I Think I’ll Do Some Stepping” by the R&B and soul singer Ms Sandy Barber was not a track I was familiar with, but I loved it instantly, even if its opening lyric – “You think you’re so smart / you’re mistaken” – made me question whether the blue SL 72s really were the right choice with a thick, yellow sock.
Past Jack’s Stores, our local corner shop, through the terraced streets of my corner of west London to the intersection of Bloemfontein and South Africa Road. Up ahead, Loftus Road, Queens Park Rangers’ football stadium that flanks the White City Estate. Five-storey blocks of flats now occupy the land, which, in 1908, had hosted both the Franco-British Exhibition and the Olympic Games.
More than a century ago, a few hundred metres away from this spot, the Italian marathon runner Mr Dorando Pietri had entered the White City Stadium on the brink of collapse. He fell over five times before crossing the line in a state of physical exhaustion and mental torment, only to be disqualified because the race umpires had helped him when he started running the wrong way round the track. The confectioner from Capri was rushed to hospital afterwards, where, The New York Times reported, “he hovered near death for two and a half hours”. Pietri deserves a statue, if only as a metaphor for this last year.
Turning right into Australia Street (all the streets in or bordering the estate are named after countries that took part in the series of international exhibitions that followed 1908), I arrived at the community centre ahead of my allotted time. The track had come to an end so I took out my headphones and joined the queue. Name, date of birth, a few questions about my recent health and I was ushered inside. “Thank you for everything you’re doing,” I said to the volunteer checking names at the gate. My legs were starting to feel as wobbly as Pietri’s had on the final lap.
“‘How are you, Daniel? How have you been?’ I couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked me that”
Inside, a softly spoken man in a mask told me that I would be having the AstraZeneca vaccine and handed me a leaflet. I felt flooded with gratitude: to this person in front of me, to the people at the door, to those in the queue, to the fact that everyone seemed happy and people were talking to each other. To the reality we were standing here at all.
And then I recognised the voice. The man in the mask was my doctor, someone who talks in such sincere and soothing tones that were his voice an option on a sat-nav menu it would be listed as “Ultimate Bedside Manner”. I had not seen Dr Seth for well over a year, not since he’d helped me through a particularly rough time, one which I wrote about for MR PORTER. “How are you, Daniel? How have you been?” I couldn’t remember the last time someone had asked me that and I’m not ashamed to say that tears suddenly came to my eyes.
In that moment, the previous 12 months seemed to rewind at top speed, sending a surge of conflicting emotions coursing through me in a way that felt like the whole awful year had been administered in one heavy dose, one that had taken effect immediately. A charming older man, another volunteer (“It gives me something to do; I’d have gone mad otherwise,” he explained), then ushered me to the door and finally into a small room with a few small tables, each manned by a nurse.
“Hello Daniel, it’s nice to see you,” said another familiar face from my doctor’s surgery. God, this was nice. Smiles, being able to bask briefly in the warmth of the spring sunshine flooding in through the windows; acknowledging the warmth generated in shared experience and now, shared hope. Hope that is being injected into veins in this modest community centre around 600 times a day.
I took off my coat, and the sweater I’d not worn in I don’t know how long. Then I rolled up my shirt sleeve and offered the nurse my left arm. I asked her how she had been. Her smile said enough. Was it OK to take a photo? “Of course,” she said. “So many people have been taking photos. It feels like an occasion, something they want to share.”
I was totally unprepared for how emotional the experience would be – the volunteers, who embody the truth that community spirit is alive and well; my GP, a man who had seen me at my lowest and still cared enough, despite everything he and his colleagues have been through, to ask a simple but meaningful question; the fact that everyone seemed so happy to be here in these modest rooms on this housing estate in our little world.
And then I put on my clothes, pulled myself together and thanked everyone again – for the work and the time and the dedication they have given us these last few weeks, months; this past year – before walking out of the White City Community Centre under bright blue skies.