Try not to touch your own face while you read this

Isn’t it always the way that as soon as we’re told we shouldn’t do something, we want to do it all the more? How inevitable of us. How pathetic, and predictable. But we are who we are. As we watch the beginnings of a Covid-19 pandemic play out – like the first five minutes in a disaster movie, pretty sure Cillian Murphy will be wandering the streets in a surgical gown soon enough – we have been told, among other things, that we shouldn’t be touching our own faces. When you think about it, it’s obvious. Our curious, mischievous hands find themselves in all sorts of places, both thrilling and mundane. They touch lovers, and animals, and door handles, and fruit and vegetables in the supermarket – ‘pick your own’ should be known as ‘pick your nose’ – and if you really stop to think about whose hands might have rested in the exact same spot seconds, minutes, or hours before your own, you might never go out at all. So in the face of a deadly coronavirus, it’s the right thing to do, to avoid touching your face.

But this presents a problem. For me, anyway.

It’s my favourite thing to do. I love touching my face. Do I even do anything else? Is it my job? It is my number one pastime, way ahead of deathless scrolling on my phone – OMG imagine how dirty the screen is at all times, let’s bleach everything – or eating, or watching something mildly uncomfortable and inconvenient happen to someone who was rude to me seconds earlier. I didn’t realise just how much I loved touching my own face until I tried not to for a few seconds. Yes, seconds. I am blessed with a nose that can weed out allergens within a 200-mile radius, permanently itching in despair. Touching my face has replaced the distraction that was once smoking cigarettes, or pouring (cheap) alcohol into a (cracked) tumbler, or eating fries.

I run my hands through my hair with the frequency of someone living in fear it might take flight in the night, I scratch my ears, fiddle with my eyebrows, tap my fingers against nose and am pleased by the melody of flesh hitting bone. I rub my eyes, groom my eyelashes like they’re prize winning Italian greyhounds, I check my chin for any further signs of multiplication and throat for droop. I trace my hands along my jawline, battling nostalgia and praying for a time machine so I could feel that jutting smoothness again. I let my fingers dance across the contours – well, crags, now – of my face, taking comfort that it’s all still there, and known to me. I frown as I locate the blemishes that added rainclouds to my day when I caught sight of them in the mirror earlier, and try to knead out of existence the deep ‘thinking’ lines between my brows and the three trenches across my forehead, put there in teenage years and born of concentration, frustration, and too many sleepless nights. I find there the scar from when I fell in playgroup aged three, on the day the photographer was coming – the small gash in my forehead forever immortalised in a school photo which was, inexplicably, still distributed widely among the family, my eyes still wet from the tears shed in pain and, more likely, feeling silly for falling headfirst into the wheels of a toy pram. I smooth my little fingers under each eye, wondering if serum really does work, and how much I’ve spent on under-eye caffeine rollers over the last five centuries that it feels like I’ve been alive. I brush my hands along my hairline, mentally cross-checking it’s still where it was five years ago, frowning yet again as I hit the bumps of yet more blemishes, wondering why I couldn’t be blessed with android-smooth, fresh skin rather than the north face of the Eiger that HD cameras are only too thrilled to map with crystalline quality. (It has not escaped me that the reason may be that I touch my face so bloody much.) I tap my index finger against my philtrum when I am thinking, or want to look like I am, and I brush two fingers over my lips again and again when, on rare occasions, I don’t know what to say, or am plotting my revenge because of something you said.

I touch my face in times of joy, or trouble, or worry. The hand goes to the mouth so naturally, without pausing for permission, when I’m told a shocking story, or a joke. A gasp is all the lonelier without a hand to meet it. In times of darkness, and horror, sometimes the only thing that helps is covering your face with your hands and blinking into the pinkish light that manages to seep through my skin. Bad news, good news, indifference – my hand goes straight to my face. Maybe I’m checking it’s still there, that I am still me. Sometimes, when things get confusing, a constant can be a comfort. The rest of my body may warp and change over the years, some parts of it seeming as strange and unsettling to me as being interested in football or battling someone with two degrees on the ‘less vs fewer’ debate. But my face, give or take gravity’s best swipes, sun rays, and the sterling efforts of a few disappointments and heartbreaks, is still the same – everything in the right place. Touching your own face is like reading a favourite storybook again and again, or reaching for a lucky totem. There you are, you think. There.

A touch to the face, by your own hand or another, can be tender and reassuring. Isn’t that what you do, when you want to show someone you care, and have a relationship that’s intimate enough for them to allow it? You touch their face. And you touch yours too, don’t you? Did you count how many times you touched it in the last few minutes, as you read this? Are you touching it now, right now, even as I type that you shouldn’t, that you mustn’t? Think of me leaping through your screen, grabbing your hands and holding them so you can’t touch your face – you still touched it, didn’t you? I know I did.

But, you know, we all have to give up our deadly pleasures at some point. There are easier ways to get a taste of danger than rubbing Covid-19 all over my mush. I don’t want to be that guy who thought he was invincible, the refusenik that mistakes stupidity for bravery and assumes they’re immune. I will keep my hands to myself, for as long as I can. And do what instead? Well, write, probably. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Preorder my second novel now! Out May 28, THE MAGNIFICENT SONS tells the story of two very different brothers. Advance orders make a huge difference to authors as they help booksellers and publishers gauge its potential success, leading to all sorts of algorithm stuff, better placement in shops, bigger orders, book charts, Netflix serialisation. Seriously, it’s huge. I hate to shill, but we are where we are. Full synopsis and preorder links to all major booksellers. Cover is great, isn’t it? Illustration by award-winning book designer Jack Smyth and overall design is by Hannah Wood in-house at Little, Brown.

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