There are flowers and candles, a pile of food ready to cook and a black dress for me to wear. I’ve invited five friends to join me for an elegant dinner party.
But I’m not waiting for the doorbell to ring and about to practise meticulous social distancing. All I have to do is open my laptop and greet my guests, all waving from their computers like a virtual edition of the old TV show, Celebrity Squares.
Since self-isolation was introduced, human ingenuity has swiftly found us new ways to carry on meeting. Skype, Zoom and FaceTime allow us to chat face to face without endangering anyone — and in the past week alone there has been a boom in online get-togethers, from choirs and book groups to exercise classes.
A woman sits with her dinner virtual party during the coronavirus lockdown and posted it on social media
‘Went to a brilliant birthday party last night,’ wrote Lucy, a fortysomething friend of mine, on Facebook. ‘Got a terrible hangover but it was worth it.’
I quizzed her about this. Did it really feel as though she was at a party, rather than just drinking alone while faraway friends looked on?
‘Yes!’ she insisted. ‘There were about 30 of us! Everyone was chatting and we all got drunk. You get used to it very fast.’
We know social interaction kickstarts production of ‘happy’ hormones such as endorphins in the body — so under lockdown, we’ll probably miss the boost from these chemicals.
A group dine together with the addition of a woman on a laptop screen as they come together during the lockdown
Laughter is the best way to trigger the release of endorphins and my friends always make me laugh — so without the usual concerns about booking babysitters and finding an Uber, I wonder if this will, in fact, be the ideal way to host a dinner party. This way, we may not actually need to wait six months to find a date that works, then spend a fortune on cabs.
I issue the invitations via WhatsApp and suggest we meet at 8pm on Saturday.
My friend Emily is worried about the menu. ‘I can’t cook,’ she writes. ‘Can I just have a ready meal?’
A couple join another family to have dinner together including a feast of pizza and wine
We decide that it’s only a dinner party if we all eat the same thing, though, so I promise to plan a simple menu and send recipes.
‘What if we can’t get the food, though?’ worries Sarah.
More back and forth reveals that everyone has rice and some vegetables and we agree to dress up as we would for a real dinner party, bring wine and lay our individual tables with candles and flowers. The only other rule is ‘no doom-laden coronavirus chat’.
Flic Everett reveals how since self-isolation was introduced, human ingenuity has swiftly found us new ways to carry on meeting
What recipe will work for everyone? I end up with a Madhur Jaffrey vegetable curry, rice and cucumber raita, with pancakes, bananas and toffee sauce for pudding. I try to argue for an elegant starter but Mark, who has two small children, says ‘I am not faffing about making pate’.
The biggest bonus is not having to tidy up. Usually I’d spend hours Marie Kondo-ing the bathroom and vacuuming up cat hair. This way, I just need to make a 4ft square box around me neat for the camera.
By 8pm, I’m in my black party dress (though I am wearing flowery slippers under the table).
Watching everyone ‘arrive’ on screen is most peculiar. As agreed, all have dressed smartly — except Emily, who appears in a baggy sweatshirt. ‘The kids were being hellish and I didn’t have time,’ she explains. In the distance, we can hear someone yelling ‘No, Josh, you dork!’
Luckily, everyone has met before in real life so there is no awkward small talk and we plunge straight in. Alas, inevitably, talk soon turns to the stripped supermarket shelves. At this point, everyone is so animated, it’s hard to hear when they’re all talking at once — the online acoustics make it sound like feeding time at the penguin pool.
‘One at a time!’ I shout. Jenny has a suggestion: ‘I think we should all ask each other a question and take turns to answer it.’
One issue with Zoom, it turns out, is that it automatically ends your ‘meeting’ after 40 minutes, so I have to invite everyone back again. When they reappear, Tim has a steaming bowl of curry.
‘I haven’t even put the rice on!’ says Mark, horrified. It is suddenly clear that this enterprise needs a far more efficient sheepdog than me. Tim says he’ll eat slowly, while we all try to heat up curries and fluff rice simultaneously.
Crunching sounds a lot louder via a microphone, and it feels rather exposing to be chewing away with my face on camera — normally, guests are so busy breaking off into separate conversations, we don’t notice.
BUT this way, the only possible conversation is between the whole group, so Jenny’s idea makes sense. ‘Going clockwise,’ she says, ‘Who was your first kiss with and where did it take place?’
Mark claims he can’t remember and is shouted down. ‘Everyone remembers!’ Jenny insists.
We log back in twice more, answering Sarah’s ‘What’s been the worst moment of your life, as long as it doesn’t involve death?’ question (probably food poisoning in Naples for me), and Tim’s ‘Which celeb would you have a one-night stand with?’
‘Pancakes!’ I suddenly remember. By now, it doesn’t feel as if I’m on my own at all. Everyone groans. ‘It’s a bit late,’ sighs Tim. ‘Can we just not do pudding?’
Initially, I’m disappointed (I bought bananas! I wrote out the recipe for you all!) but actually it feels like a reprieve.
Everyone but me is now quite tipsy. Emily’s husband Jon appears in her square and joins the chat, and soon he and Martin are discussing a new series on Amazon while the women talk about Love Is Blind on Netflix.
Just as the cacophony is once again spiralling, Jenny announces that she needs to go to bed — so reluctantly, we say our goodbyes and the guests’ squares vanish.
I still miss my friends, but this provided a much-needed hit of laughter in dark times. We will do it again soon. And the tidying up afterwards has never been easier.
How to be a social butterfly at home
With live music, comedy, quizzes, darts teams and pint-sharing gatherings online, The Stay Inn, on Facebook, is the brainwave of Dave Chiswick, who is welcoming a clientele of virtual regulars from across the globe.
For those missing the weekly singalong, the Sofa Singers was set up by James Sills. Meeting online, they practise and perform classic soul songs such as Bill Withers’s Lean On Me. thesofasingers.net.
Author Emma Gannon has launched Hyphen Book Club, ‘an online space to read a book a month together’. There will be giveaways and recommendations too. Find thehyphenbookclub on Instagram.
Auntie Beeb has taken the reins and will be broadcasting a ‘virtual’ church service every morning across its local radio stations. There are plans to broadcast services for different religions, too, they promise.
Though you can follow any regimen you fancy on YouTube, for something a bit tougher, try #1rebelUK on Instagram, which posts regular free home workout videos.