Thursday 21 May 2020
Well I have done it. I managed to escape from London. Just for a day, as I needed to get back, but I had to make it to Cumbria to see a house, which gave me a chance to view life outside the metropolis.
Amazingly, I have discovered that there is an existence beyond the capital’s boundaries and that people other than Londoners exist. They are actually quite pleasant and are not a different species at all. My brain has definitely drifted since lockdown started all those weeks ago. I have lived a solitary existence. I have talked but not met. I have greeted but not hugged. I have shouted rather than spoken. I have gone to meetings by looking at tiny faces looking sallow and exhausted on my computer screen. I have discussed, argued, cajoled and begged on my mobile, seemingly for hours each day. Body language has gone. Voice language is the way of things, both for now and likely for the future. Life in lockdown is unreal.
London has also been somewhere that no one would go. It was the epicentre of the epicentre of European disease for so long, while the rest of the country looked on. Even if we had wanted, those outside London did not wish to see us. Now it is different. The capital, for the moment, has barely any new daily cases while the rest of the land has plenty. The worst is the North-East, followed closely by the North-West, while Scotland cannot decide, other than its First Minister wants independence. And Cumbria? It is in the North-West, which is where I am headed. I appear to be specialising in tracing the peak waves of pandemics.
Faced with my car for the first time in so long, I realised I had forgotten how to drive. It was very early morning and had barely become light, when I walked quietly from my apartment to its nearby garage. Opening the car door was fine but finding the button to press “Start”? No chance. I had forgotten where it was. After much fumbling, I found it, pressed its concave surface, and the engine sprang to life.
I lurched forward like a beginner, despite being a driver since time began, and made it from my underground garage to the street outside my apartment. No other cars around me were moving and the streets were silent. I was alone in my capital. I needed to park so that I could load the car before setting off on my journey. I saw a parking space where normally there is none and swung into position with confidence. How embarrassing. It took seven attempts, forward, backward, this way and that, to end up with a poor result. I had to accept that one rear wheel on the pavement, and an obliquely angled, filthy car in need of a scrub, was a reasonable first shot at parking. Fortunately, there was no one nearby to laugh.
By 0630 hours I was off and headed north up a series of motorways. I was surprised to find that I was no longer alone. Despite my quiet start, there were plenty of other vehicles, each carrying one person, the driver. The traffic ran smoothly and was generally less dense than I remembered from before. Mostly, it was vans and lorries, with a few cars thrown in, but I could see that the nation’s deliveries were in overdrive and headed in every direction. Faced with so much open road, it was difficult not to speed. Yet the faceless cameras were still hovering, I assume manned by the only folk in the country who had decided it was fair to add stress to the nation’s lives by mailing speeding fines, while the population had its attention on other things. The act of mailing must also be a hazard. The possible lick of the envelope, its touching by a myriad of hands, as it plonks through a letterbox somewhere in the country. It is like posting a sponge soaked in virus. Now there is a research project I must reserve for the future. I wonder if there is a link between receiving a mailed speeding fine and catching Covid-19?
At one motorway junction, somewhere near Birmingham, I came across a genuine traffic jam. It was only 15 cars, and was cleared in a jiffy, but somehow I felt at home. Brits like waiting in line, both on the road and off it. Anyway, my country has become renowned for its gridlock and it would be a shame to go anywhere without some form of delay, even when the nation is in lockdown.
The service stations were trying hard. Normally I avoid them, or stay as short a time as possible, as there are few worse places on earth than a British motorway service station. However, my car is greedy and makes it near impossible for me to make any decent journey without stopping for fuel at least twice. Two hours out of London, I pulled off the motorway into a forecourt that had clearly been transformed. I was surrounded by vans and lorries and there was no other car in sight. There were plastic gloves to hold the dispensers as they are said to harbour disease, although I have no evidence that coronaviruses thrive on diesel. The plastic gloves were the fiddly sort, which require plenty of faff to open, as it is impossible to find a slot for a human hand. I spent an easy ten minutes trying to open my bag, failed, and ended up wrapping two around the dispenser. I then entered the nearby minimarket to pay.
The cashier was clearly alien and from a different planet. She was short, squat with a broad forehead and slightly pointed ears. Her appearance was likely a result of the distortion by the high, see-through plastic screen that stood commandingly before her. There was a tiny slit in the bottom of the screen where I could see the credit card machine waiting for my custom. The area around me was otherwise empty – just me, the alien, and the machine.
“Pump?” she asked.
“Two,” I replied. It was my first word to a living creature all day. I say living when I have no evidence she was an actual life form.
“Card,” she pointed at the machine.
I did as she asked, punched in the numbers, listened to the grunt of her alien acknowledgement, and was soon away, declining the offer of a receipt. Out of sight of the alien, my first stop was the hand gel, deep in my right trouser pocket, as the machine had looked grubby and possibly infected. With the nation’s news bulletins at full throttle these days, most of us are looking over our shoulders full-time. I can see Covid-19 around most corners.
It was time to have a pee, it seemed daft to pass up the opportunity, so I followed the little-man signs and sought out the nearest urinal. The service station was trying to acknowledge times were changing, as there were floor arrows everywhere, indicating up, down, right, left and other places, too. When I went into the main building, I was asked to keep left, when I went out, I did the same. In the passageway outside the loos, a group of young drivers was gathered around a cash machine. They were laughing and joking in the belief they were alone.
One man must have sensed me, looked up, and saw me coming towards them. “Pssst,” he said to his friends. They, too, looked in my direction and instantly the group broke apart as if electrocuted.
“Pssst,” they each said in unison, teasing their friend, and perhaps teasing me. Yet they moved away, giving me the regulation space. Two metres, no less, between humans.
The loos, once I reached them, were perfection in spacing, although I can only speak for the gents. No longer would men jostle shoulder to shoulder as they let their bladders empty. Alternate urinals had been blocked off, although the same had not been done for the basins. There were green arrows here, others there, and striped yellow-and-black sticky tape everywhere else. The tape clearly had a meaning, although it escaped me.
Having done what men do in service stations, I left in a hurry. The group at the cash machine had vanished, and there was a solitary shop selling takeaway everything that I did not visit. Anywhere I might think of sitting was taped off, and most doors were locked and bolted.
I made it to Cumbria by lunchtime, and drove past the endless greenery, feeling envious that the locals had the most magical place to be in lockdown. Yet even with such surroundings, Cumbria is struggling with the virus. Somehow Covid-19 has made the area its temporary home.
There is a suggestion that antibody certificates will be rolled out in the near future. The Health Secretary has declared that roughly one in six people in London have had the virus, whereas the figure outside the capital is one in 20. There is a worry that these certificates will end up with a two-tier society. The problem is which tier. Are you better to have had Covid-19 or are you not?
The New York Times has published a splendid article about a mother and her son who were infected. Now recovered from the disease, the pair are finding that former friends are giving them a wide berth. Mind you, the mother has not helped her case by wearing a black tee-shirt declaring, “Covid-19 Survivor.” There has also been the vet who refused to treat a recovered woman’s dog and the gardener who would not trim the hedges outside a recovered man’s home. There are plenty of other stories.
Not only is it a problem catching Covid-19, it is a disease that can carry a stigma.