Antonio looked awful as always, his face an angry radish of broken veins and three of his shirt buttons threatening to pop like a row of champagne corks every time he took a breath. He told me he hadn’t had a drink in seven months and felt like a changed man.
“I used to wake up in pain every morning,” he said, patting his liver as he looked up sadly.
I told him he looked great and asked how business was going. Like everywhere in central London, the small restaurant where he works was booming for most of the summer, but it’s suddenly gone silent and it’s been empty all week.
It was the same story last week at a place near the Royal Albert Hall that was packed every night after the Proms but was now half deserted. And a walk down Lamb’s Conduit Street in Holborn, where every restaurant was teeming all summer, saw vacant tables everywhere.
After months of releasing its pent-up exuberance and spending like crazy in the wake of the pandemic, London appears to have come to an abrupt halt. The long waits for taxis that have been common since last summer are gone, as columns of black cabs with their orange lights roll by.
In the City of London, salad and sandwich shops that were open when workers returned to the office have closed. And nearby restaurants report that even as business has been booming in recent months, it’s only reached 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The return to office has stalled, and one commercial property manager told me it had to shut down one of two cold water storage tanks in a building last week because with so few workers using the site, it was at risk of stagnating . Some companies have taken a hard line by insisting on minimum attendance numbers, but many have found that in the tight post-Brexit and pandemic UK job market, it is the employer who needs to be flexible.
Across the capital, the joie de vivre returning to normal has given way to fears of what comes next as energy prices are expected to rise 80 percent and deepen the cost-of-living crisis that threatens to push millions into poverty. Antonio said he didn’t expect things to get better for a long time.
“Look at the world,” he said.
Down the road the tailor and his son were sitting outside the café next to their shop and I watched them exchange a few suspicious words when they saw me coming. We have been in a silent standoff for over a year following a series of delays in making a suit, each accompanied by a more elaborate apology.
When they finally called to say it was ready, I no longer felt an urgency and decided that if I could wait months for the suit to be made they could wait a while for me to collect it and the balance due pay for it. Now that I was tired of being bitchy and definitely needed the suit for an upcoming wedding, it was time to make peace.
The son jumped up with a big grin like I was the brightest ray of sunshine that has ever smiled on his life and grabbed my hand tightly for a powerful shake.
“You look very well, sir,” he said.
I told him that was obviously wrong, but said that he and his father, on the other hand, had gotten younger since I saw them. His father, who looked like he had the worst hangover in England, bared his teeth in a sour smile.
At the store, the son and I handled the delicate situation by pretending I had been out of the country for the last year and acting like nothing had happened. After we fully disarmed I asked him what he thought of the Conservative leadership contest and he said they were crazy to get rid of Boris Johnson.
“He made mistakes, but he managed Brexit and won this election. And people like him,” he said.
His father had come into the store and listened as we discussed the merits of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss and agreed that hard times were just around the corner.
“If Boris had just said ok I made a few mistakes and I apologize he would still be there,” he said.
“But he couldn’t come in and tell the truth.”
Look who’s talking, I thought. But I said nothing and handed over my card, walking out with a very nice suit, having eased the tailor’s livelihood crisis a little and aggravated my own a little.