- Stephen Kearney describes how he had to run from home to seek sanctuary from the dreaded plague as total fear gripped the great city of London in the year of 2020 AD
Wednesday 25th March 2020 AD
In some weird way as I sit down to write this account, I have the feeling that I’m writing it for some, as yet, unborn generation. It’s almost as though this account, perhaps found in a long abandoned ruin or burned out basement in a far distant future will form the centre piece of a novel or a straightforward history. There is a certain feeling, as I write, about the end of days.
This is like nothing that we have seen before. This is simply not in the script. It is, without a doubt, the weirdest thing I have ever experienced in my 69 years on planet Earth. About the nearest emotional approximation we have, at least in European consciousness, is the Black Death or its Bubonic Plague derivatives. Perhaps a historically – and chronologically – closer example, is the inappropriately named (for it started in France, though some say the USA), Spanish Flu, that virus the mushroomed and ran riot post WW1 to kill 50 million, more than were killed in the entire war. It’s calamitous times again. Who will live? Who will die? Who will become infected? Who will bring out our dead? What will happen to our living standards? What will things look like “after the goldrush”? One thing is for sure, the world will never be quite the same again.
Arrival in Britain
The Government – the British one that is, for I live in London, once one of the greatest, possibly the greatest, cities in the world – suggested that we stop seeing people as much as we used to stop the spread of the deadly virus, the only thing you can do when there is no cure to a highly contagious disease. Clearly closet Eagles fans, they wanted to “take it easy”, in contrast to most other European governments. Right from the start though, at least from the point they began to take it seriously, they announced, with rare purpose, that their policy would be driven by science and science only (if that was alright with everyone else). And at the core of it all, lay the NHS. Science (the experts) and the NHS would be the core of government policy, the core of the big majority Tory government. No-one seemed to notice the abrupt about turn on both fronts, on the NHS and experts. The Tories have been steadily and stealthily undermining the NHS for years, implicitly supporting and encouraging ‘private’ medicine while the warnings of various bodies as to the consequences of Brexit were once sneeringly dismissed by Michael Gove, a current high-profile minister, with the line “we’ve had enough of experts”.
The government adhered to a soft, and I have to say, a reasonable sounding line at first, possibly to avoid “panic in the ranks”. The government’s logic was, as I understand it, that sooner or later, nearly everyone, some said 80%, was going to get the virus anyway so the best thing to do was to get it over with in stages, taking it like men, and through that, building herd immunity. They weren’t going to be pushed around by an foreign diseases but they decided they’d have to start preparing defences, just like they did at Singapore. They issued stirring ‘Battle of Britain’ type announcements that public transport would keep running, schools would stay open and that people should continue going to work while at the same time they should just be a bit more careful. They gradually began talking of “social separation”, suggesting that people stay away (from foreigners?), but consistent with their general form, they didn’t bother with the details because, details, as we know, mess up PR opportunities. How can you socially separate on a packed tube, how can you socially separate in a classroom and how can you socially separate at work? And of course there was no question that London, the greatest city on earth, would ever, ever be put into lockdown. I mean, dammit man, this was the capital of the Empire, and imperial capitals just don’t shut down. I mean, what would the natives say?
Some seemed to think, however, that the British, as in their government, were standing aloof, above the petty squabbling of foreigners panicking over a minor ailment, the way foreigners do, as we learnt through our Biggles books. But there were more questions as to why Britain was doing it differently to everyone else. In a weird twist of irony, the British (government) seemed to be taking on the very attitude for which my brother used to accuse the Irish, namely the conviction that the driving forces that govern the rest of the human race didn’t apply to them. The (Irish) writer, Dervla Murphy, echoed the same sentiment in her belief that Ireland was “a dotty fourth world country of which it was the only member.” It looked to some that Britain was taking over the role.
The Phoney War
I suppose we were still in that ‘phoney war’ period, when most of us knew little about the virus. Could it really be that bad? The numbers affected were small and everything seemed so far away to most people in Britain, England anyway, just like Czechoslovakia. It all seemed a little remote. On 12th February, I went for my 6 monthly dental check up on a Wednesday because that’s the only day the man does NHS, temporarily lowering the tone of the prime location surgery by the river. Everything was fine, apart from one tooth that needed a crown. A week later I was back, to have the tooth drilled out and a cast made for the new crown. We talked about the virus but he was not that concerned, thinking it was all a bit of panic that would not really amount to anything. The advice had already gone out from the government to “wash your hands” (to the tune of Happy Birthday – twice) and the tooth drillin’ man thought that alone might do the trick, wondering if there would be a big reduction in normal rates of colds and flu through that simple act. He said it would be interesting to compare the figures afterwards when it was all over. Lightened by half a tooth, I took my leave, arranging a final fitting session two weeks hence on March 4th.
But the warnings from the rest of the world – the aware world, that is – were becoming more strident. Italy’s death rate was climbing. Spain’s was getting going. Other countries were introducing lockdowns or variations on them – apart from the United States, of course. No foreign virus was going to tell Trump, posturing on a binge of ignorance, what to do. But the British government, clearly inspired by BSA’s old slogan, were intent on going their own way. In all fairness to the British, I could understand their reluctance to commit to “total war”. There was still a sense of “wait and see”, a desire to understand what we are dealing with before commitment. Perhaps they were inspired by the old military maxim “time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted”.
But, for all that, concern in Britain itself was growing. More questions were being asked. The government realised that it had to do something – something more, something different. They faced the fact that this was a highly contagious disease, that is that you caught it from other people. The cure? Stay away from other people like your mother told you to. They started talking more about ‘social distancing’, introducing somewhere along the line, the 2 metre rule. Basically the message was to stay at home, avoid everyone who isn’t a member of your own household, don’t fall into bad company and wash your hands a lot. But it took the government some time to work out the consequences – like how you’re going to live if you stay at home and you’re not being paid? And if you can’t get to shops, how are you going to eat? And in any case, how will the food get to the shops in the first place. The Government announced that they had been in talks with the supermarkets; plans had been put in place to guarantee provision of food, regardless. It sure sounded good. It sounded like a government in charge working with the responsible bodies. Yes it sounded good. And, reflecting a widespread current philosophy that the announcement is the fact, the meeting is the reality, the medium is the message, the government probably thought this was enough. It’s a fact because we’ve announced it. And then the supermarkets had to come forward to spoil the party by being “negative”, the usual accusation levelled against those who mess up PR opportunities with nasty facts. They said that no-one from the government had been in any talks with them.
A few days later one government minister announced that everyone could have their groceries delivered by van, thereby minimising social contact. Sounds good again. An angry CEO of Tesco said his company had the capacity to deliver just 7% of their supermarket sales by van. Really!! Will these people never stop “making with the negative waves”, messing up PR opportunities like that!
The signals from the government, and it has to be said, various other bodies were now confusing. “Social Separation” – “dem ol’ 2 metre blues” was now the government policy, but public transport was still running. Football matches were still being played and there was a big horse festival at Cheltenham that ran from 10 – 13 March, attracting 250,000 in the process. Even at the time, despite the lack of hard information, letting that one run looked like high foolishness. All of this was now looking distinctly dodgy. There was growing concern. It seemed the government, still claiming to be driven by science, was apparently increasingly lagging behind a lot of that concern. Some sporting organisations of their own volition called a halt to their activities for the duration. Our weekly college course in Economics with Justice ended early, the final two classes being transferred on-line via Zoom. A community based organisation where I was working, despite its rigid sanitiser and hand washing regime, decided to close. Some schools, too, took the initiative and started implementing precautions. My partner’s granddaughter’s school in Watford, began to implement a strict hand washing regime quite early on – to the tune of Happy Birthday twice – on entering the school, on entering the playground, on leaving the playground, before meals, after meals and leaving the school – at least. I suppose you could say all the kids were thoroughly washed out. By contrast her grandsons’ school in very leafy Surbiton where a better class of person resides, had nothing at all. No hand washing, no precautions, no information, no talk – absolutely nothing at all. Why should they; surely all that plague stuff is confined to the “poorer quarters”. Even after two weeks of washing in Watford, Surbiton school seemed untroubled by the outside world – or coronavirus. And my next door neighbour, Michael, working as a front man in a very busy casino in central London, received no information at all, absolutely none, from the company where he has worked for at least six years. The staff had been given no information, no advice on precautions, no concept of social distancing and no instructions on washing hands. This, remember, in a central London gambling joint open 24/7, frequented by all ethnicities from all four corners, especially the Chinese who, apparently, like a flutter or two. This emerged only when I asked Michael directly. I was flabbergasted. I told him to write to his boss about it. He then asked me to write the email which he then posted on. The next time we spoke, I told him that his firm had been downright negligent in this regard, especially operating in such a very high risk area. Other members of staff had been saying the same thing apparently.
But things were gathering pace. Utter confusion reigned. Was there going to be panic in the year zero? It was obvious that this was increasingly going to impact on us all. The shit, as the saying goes, was about to hit the fan. Even the government was beginning to wake up and face the fact that the Titanic was sinking. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time in your own life when these concerns stated reaching a critical mass, the point at which they move from unfocused foreign reports, to your own vague awareness, to your precise awareness, to you changing your behaviour and suddenly Hannibal being at the gates! That period covering mid-February to early March, seemed to be the turning point. Hannibal was on the march! I even bought 20 facemasks on-line for £13.00 “as a precaution”. Sporadic shortages were beginning to appear in shops, especially in toilet rolls and hand sanitiser and later in long-life milk. I had, however, my reserves so I was not too worried, especially as I had at least three years’ supply of the wonder drug, also known as coffee. The government went on sort of pretending that everything was nearly normal, asserting that schools were going to stay open as was public transport but the national mood was changing. There was a bad moon on the rise. Lockdown was looming.
Then there was the problem of my tooth. A few weeks earlier my very relaxed and funny dentist, a jolly Portuguese gentleman, had drilled away half a molar in preparation for the fitting of a new crown. As fitting time grew near I was getting increasingly worried. The national mood was changing – you could just feel it in the air – and on the radio. Shortages in the shops were becoming more commonplace. Lockdown was increasingly being talked about. Behaviour was changing. My local chemist had erected a barrier of chairs in front of the serving counter to preserve a 2 metre gap between public and providers. My local surgery was closing as were more and more places. I was worried that the dental establishment might be closed too, forcing me to undergo lockdown dentally challenged. Hoping for the best, I turned up at the appointed time – actually a bit earlier. A bottle of hand sanitiser now stood on the reception desk. The dentist, you might remember, had been very blasé about the whole thing – and now he wasn’t. He was a worried man. Even behind a visor and mask, he was still a worried man. He was very critical of the government for failing to implement a definite plan, like closing down dentists. He was taking as few appointments as possible – which is probably why he could see me as soon as I arrived. He did the job anyway, spending as little time as possible in my mouth where he usually likes a good linger. I made a check-up appointment for October – there’s optimism. Actually, we both felt pretty sure it would be all over by then.
Making One’s Arrangements
Lockdown was in the air, whatever the government said. Alyson, my partner, asked if I would lockdown with her. Is the bear a Catholic? Does a Pope shit in the woods? To begin with she has a much nicer place than mine, a house no less and with a garden, that has benefited from a recent full loft conversion, giving her an extra bedroom and an extra bathroom. That gives her three bedrooms on three floors. I said yeah!
As with all good phoney wars, this one too introduced an element of the surreal, a mixture of fear and excitement. Fear for what was happening and fear that we might get the disease, not to mention anyone who means something to me. Of course we all knew the symptoms by then. Every cough, every sneeze prompted the fear that I might have caught the dreaded 19. Then one day, I started feeling hot – another symptom. I went straight to the nearest chemist to buy a thermometer. They were sold out. I walked on to the next one – sold out again. There was one chemist left in my high street so I presumed it would be the same story there too. I gave it a try anyway and they actually had them in stock. £5.99 gave me a digital thermometer. They soon became available for sale on-line for £200!! After all that worry, I didn’t have a temperature.
And don’t forget the excitement – the excitement at the sheer weirdness and scale of change that was about to envelop us. Friends and acquaintances began making their arrangements about where they would spend the soon to be inevitable lockdown, whatever the government said. It almost had an end of term feel to it, like the chaps in Billy Bunter and other boarding school books, ”making their arrangements for the hols.” I used to be fascinated by that ritual; apart from Billy Bunter, the school fall guy, no-one ever stayed with their parents. In fact no-one seemed to have any parents at all, the lucky blighters. Everyone had aunts and uncles all over the place and knew Lord and Lady Somebody-or-other, giving them a plethora of holiday location options where there would invariably be a household of servants to feed them and do all the tedious stuff. Everyone except Billy Bunter, that is: he had parents and they were poor. Parents, it seems are for fall guys.
So we all made our arrangements. Some, in the best traditions of plague avoidance, decided to leave London altogether. Some of the chaps were going to stay with their girlfriends, others were staying at home and some, no doubt, would be staying with an aunt or an uncle or Lord Somebody-or-other – and no-one would be staying with their parents – better death than that! Loose arrangements were made to meet up when it was all over to talk about what we did in the war – all to the tune of “We’ll meet again”. (cue lone Spitfire flying over “the white cliffs of Dover”)
But there was also something else about lockdown, some weird extra appeal, at least to me, and that is the whole notion of living under enforced physical limitations – other than in prison, that is. It’s more the idea that circumstances over which you have no control, define the physical area of your existence. You know your world and it is very limited – but it is your world. You know it, you know its boundaries and it’s yours!
I put it down to Robinson Crusoe. Once upon a time I used to hate reading words. I used to hate it so much that even when reading comics, I would look at the pictures only and not even bother to read the speech bubbles, thereby, no doubt, reinforcing the parents’ deep suspicion of the medium that gave “too much pleasure for too little work”. Then I got a virus – nope, not that one. I got mumps. At the age of nine, I was stuck in bed with the affliction and quite simply had nothing to do. My mother gave me an old school book of the Old Man’s and that book was Robinson Crusoe. I sure as hell wasn’t going to read all that but it did have a few pictures without speech bubbles, just captions. I skipped what I thought would be the boring stuff and went straight to the action – where the man is shipwrecked. I read on to the end. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much I went back to the beginning and read it all again in its entirety. I thought it was fantastic. Thus was fostered a life-long fascination with reading and small islands – not the Bill Bryson type- and especially the mythical desert or treasure island. I even took to ‘designing’ treasure islands, once asking my mother to add the ‘X’ to mark the exact treasure spot. The idea of the fixed world, a world of finite boundaries thrust upon you, had some appeal.
The ultimate story though, of a fixed world of finite boundaries has got to be the Ukranian guy who hid in his mother’s attic to escape the advancing German army in 1941. When the Soviet army returned in 1944, the man decided it was probably wiser to stay where he was – a very adroit manoeuvre. I suppose you could say he was army phobic. The trouble was that the Soviet army never left so he had to stay in the attic, fed by his mother who brought him up his daily meals. When his mother died, his sister continued the practice. When I read that, I thought “wow!” What a fantastic way to live! This guy was my new role model. Desert Islands were out and attics were in.
In my head I designed a large, rambling, detached Victorian era house with, of course, a very large attic in the mansard roof. Featuring at least four bedrooms with balconies, a kitchenette and a bathroom, plus all the usual cupboards, storage spaces and shelving arrangements, this place, this safe haven, would be completely self contained. Access to the outside world would be via a high-speed broadband link, relaying the world to me on the various screens of my state of the art IT system. The only physical access to my den would be via a narrow staircase from the floor below. Up that staircase at regular times of day or when I would ring down, would come my mother – preferably not, actually, she was a rotten cook – I mean someone with trays of large and tasty meals. This would be my world; no-one to bug me, no stress, no bills to pay no hassle and all the time in the world. From time to time, especially on winter days, I would go out onto one of the balconies and experience the cold, just so I could rush back in again after about five seconds and feel the swaddling embrace of total seclusion in the warmth.
In case you’re wondering what happened to my role model, Ivan the Attic, his idyllic life came to an end in 1991 when his sister died and his meal supply suddenly dried up. The poor guy. He re-emerged into an utterly changed world; Uncle Joe was gone, as were Khrushchev, Breshnev and all the rest like Andropov who just popped off. There were now free and fair elections and you could vote for anyone you liked, at least that’s what he was told. But this man had learned a thing or two about “what they tell you”. Clearly inspired by his mentor, Uncle Joe, when asked by bemused reporters whom he’d be voting for in the upcoming elections, he gave his careful answer “the authorities”.
Apart from “the hols”, desert island living and attic dwelling, another factor was the world of the sleepover – the impromptu sleeping in someone else’s place – that also had an appeal. Of course, this was another childish pleasure denied by the parents. OK it was not strictly verboten by Ironpants, the local Gauleiter, or his wife but it might as well have been. For a sleepover to be permitted either way, it had to be arranged so far in advance – like 6 months – that all spontaneity and fun were removed from the occasion – and you probably would have hated the kid by then anyway. Robinson Crusoe never had to ask his parents. So, the combination of desert islands, secluded attics and sleepovers equals childish fun – and as a castaway your parents can never get at you. Years, like decades, later, the Old Man (Ironpants) admitted that he and his wife had been wrong in this regard.
Ever since then I have always taken a delight in impromptu sleepovers – either way. I have woken up many a time over the years wondering where I was. And I’m not too fussed about where I sleep or under what conditions. It’s the excitement that counts. I also like the idea of being able to put people up in my place overnight at the drop of a hat. A German friend, told of visiting the East German relatives of a West German girlfriend. He described the place as immaculate, saying that if the children so much as dropped a crumb, the mother would immediately swoop down and sweep up, adding that the family would be appalled if they saw his flat in Berlin. I asked what the same family would make of my flat in London. “Oh, it wouldn’t bother them at all” came the instant reply, “they couldn’t imagine that anyone would live in such a place. They would think it was a warehouse or a workshop or something like that.” Clearly these people did not do spontaneity. They should have teamed up with Ironpants and his wife.
Arranging the Actual Arrangement
The rumours were growing thick and fast. Alyson’s son was told by his office that, despite government denials, lockdown would be coming in on Monday, 23 March. Indeed, his office had instructed him to work from home. Alyson’s daughter and her husband were told to work from home too. Only her daughter in law, had to keep attending the office, the only one working for a public body, strangely. Yep she had to go in every day to feel the disease at Surrey County Council – right up until the government announced lockdown which included telling people to work from home where possible.
We had to make our arrangements. If I were staying with Alyson, I would have to plan ahead. Luckily nearly all my bills are paid by direct debit or by standing order – and I’d managed to set up a new standing order to pay my council tax – trust bloody Lambeth to get their bills out just in time; if only they could operate their other services with such efficiency. I also managed to pay my water bill too. The only thing left was paying my monthly credit card bill. In my last act (so far) in my bank, which I was surprised to find still open, I set up a direct debit to pay off my card in full each month. And before you ask, I transferred sufficient funds into my current account to cover one year of lockdown. And after that? Well, after that I’d probably be dead. I’d hate to die owing the bank money – the shame of it. Imagine what my obituary would say – “he died in debt”. The shame. Oh, and before you ask, I don’t do on-line banking. It was that sort of witchcraft that brought this cursed plague upon us – not the 5G system that some lunatics blame.
The plan was to get out while the going was good. Alyson was to drive over to my place late afternoon on Friday 20th March and collect me and my stuff – my stuff consisting of a computer and a few bits and pieces, including the most expensive commodity in the world, at that point, toilet paper, of which I had an abundance and the other product climbing fast in value, hand wash, which I was able to buy before total panic set in. When the chips are down and the virus is up, it’s funny to see what people really value, as King Midas will tell you. So Alyson would be collecting me and my treasure – and no wisecracks at the back. At least that was the plan.
The Bistromatic Drive (versions BD7 & BD10) – and panic in the year 20
We all know about the original Bistromatic Drive – extensively described in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Put briefly, this states that the laws of mathematics change inside a restaurant; what works outside doesn’t work inside and vice versa. Sadly, due to the rigidly linear nature of this account along with tight editorial guidelines, I cannot explore this fascinating phenomenon more fully. All I can say is read the book. But we are now on version 10. This states that equipment will fail in direct proportion to the urgency of the need. Version 7 states that things cannot be found in direct proportion to the urgency of their requirement. People fleeing falling cities, for instance, would only be too well aware of these versions of the accursed drive. How many cars failed to start in Paris in May 1940? How many aircraft or ships failed to start in Singapore in 1942? Or in Saigon in 1975? And don’t talk to me about Stalingrad 1943 or Berlin 1945 – they got version 10 big time. And what failed in Khartoum in 1885? To quote a line from Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, “anyone with any sense had already left town” – if they could get their damn cars (trains, boats or planes) to start.
It was in sometime during the day that I got a panic stricken call from Alyson. Her car, a Ford Fiesta Ecoboost bought brand new in 2014, suddenly started emitting a dreadful screeching noise, accompanied by some juddering that made it simply impossible to drive. Christ! An invading army was about to take over south London – Hannibal was coming up the bloody road – and I was trapped. My escape had been cut off. What do you do in a case like this. One of the problems talking to non-technical people about technical things is the sheer gap in terminology and awareness. More than once I’ve had people complain that their car “is losing power”. You make a few suggestions: ignition timing out, valve clearances too tight, clogged air filter, missing on one or more cylinders, blown head gasket, insufficient oil, overheating and a host of others, even flat tyres. Later the person comes back disappointed. It was none of these things. They had hoped for more from you. Then you get to try the car for yourself. Your diagnosis is instant. “Oh” you cry in exasperation at all the lost time and effort, “the clutch is slipping. Why didn’t you tell me the clutch is slipping?” You get stared at in numb incomprehension. Alyson had called the RAC but guess what, they were so busy that there was a five hour wait – maybe they were anticipating lockdown too.
There was only one thing to do. I’d have to come over and see for myself. Alyson asked me not to come by my usual method – London’s excellent public transport system, and for me, free – such was the perceived risk of catching the dreaded virus. She suggested I took the bike. Yes, but which one? One of the problems encountered when crossing London is the amount of streets closed to private motor vehicles, including motor cycles, which pretty well blocks all the most direct routes. On top of that, right in my line of fire, is ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) which excludes my W650. Yep, I know, one of the most economical, possibly the most economical bike for its size, is excluded on account of its age while newer gas-guzzlers are permitted. And then politicians wonder why people don’t trust them. Yes there are ways – literally – around the streets and zones but that would require planning and I just wasn’t in the mood. I mean of all the rotten luck! BD10 kicks in at exactly the wrong moment. A car that has delivered faultless performance since new, gone several times across France and done many thousands of miles on British roads and never once missed a beat, fails at the critical moment. I would just have to flee the advancing hordes on a pushbike.
Just Peddling Around
My method of transport would be a pedal contraption called a Dahon Vybe, a folding bicycle with 20” wheels. I had a long journey ahead, ten miles as the crow flies but as I’m not a crow, I was going to have to do at least twelve Off I set through “the mean streets of south London”.
For all the increasing panic about lockdown, the motor traffic was quite busy, certainly busier than I was expecting. Maybe everyone was rushing around to make their final arrangements for the hols. However, once I reached central London, the traffic thinned right out and I felt like I was riding through the City on a weekend. Normally, the City, the financial centre of London, is deserted at weekends, giving the place a very weird feeling. So, weird feelings were back but this was a Friday. I pushed on. Once I emerged out the other side of the city, the traffic thickened up again and after a few more miles, it was just like old times but, surprisingly, maybe a bit busier. And then I was at Alyson’s – just like that! No, it wasn’t “just like that”. It was bloody uncomfortable. Cycling in cold weather is not recommended, especially over bumpy and poorly maintained roads. It took me long enough too! Still, it got me there and was tucked into the hall in a semi folded position.
Examining the Patient
Alyson’s Ford Fiesta fired up readily enough. It sounded OK too. A quick glance at the tyres had revealed nothing particularly amiss there. I drove off gingerly and was rewarded with a screeching metal on metal type noise which came and went. I drove around the block at a very gentle pace, shifting up one or two gears and the noise, along with a deeper graunching sound came and went. In any case, it was clearly directly related to roadspeed. Although it was impossible to locate exactly the source of the noise, I suspected there was something trapped in the brakes that was making intermittent contact.
The RAC guy, a jolly, open sort guy, arrived about two hours earlier than expected. I took him for a drive and he concurred with my diagnosis, even though the noise was now occurring less frequently. Of course I was worried that he might have been a carrier as he probably was of me but needs must. I observed a few rituals but, let’s be honest, how can you socially distance in a Ford Fiesta? It makes you wonder what ultimate values are. I mean, what is more important? For instance, one woman said in response to a new scare story about alcohol shortening life expectancy, that she’d rather die at 90 instead of 95 if that was the price of a drink. Anyway, after cruising around with the RAC guy while thinking about social distancing, I pulled over to let him examine the brakes to check for overheating, but he found no evidence of it.
Back at the ranch, he suggested to Alyson that she take it to a garage.
It was now about six in the evening so the prospects of finding an open garage were pretty well nil. There was a kind of hopelessness to the situation. London was about to fall and we were trapped. And we knew it. I had come over in such a rush that I hadn’t brought anything with me. All we could do was wait and hope. There was a garage very close by which we thought we might try on Saturday but, alas, in some version of the BD, we got to the garage about 10 minutes too late for its early Saturday closing. Would it now be closed for the duration? We spent an anxious Sunday with a type of vacant hope that something might turn up, like despairing residents of Saigon in 1975 hoping the Americans might come back.
Monday dawned. Today was our last chance. It was now or never. Lockdown was supposed to be coming in at the end of the day. The government that had insisted there would be no lockdown and no school closures only a few days before, was now announcing both. They must love a surprise. We drove the car still making the odd noise to the local garage, a Greek or Turkish run place, only a few hundred metres away. Once we outlined the problem, a casual looking mechanic with complete disinterest in social distancing, came out for a squint. Over the next two minutes or so, he walked from wheel to wheel carrying some contraption about the size of a digital multimeter and then announced that there wasn’t a problem. Well, it was a speedy diagnosis that didn’t cost anything. But the noise persisted. We drove away gingerly realising that we had to do something. After all, there was a siege ahead, a siege that might last months or even years. These were desperate times.
A Nervous Journey South
We drove on a little, the noise now settling down to a more even pattern. Alyson was worried that if we drove to my place, as originally planned, the car might break down – like in the middle of Tower Bridge – and then we’d have to spend lockdown in broken down Ford Fiesta. The shame. What would Jeremy Clarkson say? Remember Benjamin Braddock’s amused scorn when he discovered that “ol’ Elaine Robinson got started in a Ford”, referring to her point of conception. So with this threat of total shame and loss of (street) credibility hanging over us, we nervously headed south, an alien rhythmic ticking that rose and faded in proportion to road speed, forming a background soundtrack of ominous foreboding, that horrible sound effect used in films to let you know something – invariably something bad – is about to happen.
We drove on. Alyson was still fretting that the car would come to a juddering stop with suitable sound effects, totally collapsed in the middle of a vital junction or worse still, a bridge, never to go again. 60 years earlier, our first family car, the truly abominable and ugly, and abominably ugly Standard 10, with my not so ugly mother at the wheel, came to a juddering halt on a Dublin street. My fifteen year old brother got out for a look. “Mummy”, he cried, “there’s all this red stuff coming out from under the car”. My mother immediately assumed it was blood – someone else’s of course – which would explain everything (“there’s a pedestrian in the works”). And it never did go again either.
The car still felt OK, that rhythmic ticking aside, but I must admit, as we approached Tower Bridge, I started feeling a little apprehensive. I needn’t have worried. We crossed and continued on, penetrating the mean streets of south London, the few streets left ungentrified that is. And suddenly we were at my place – and that sure is ungentrified. Apart from popping up to my third floor flat to use the loo and under strict instructions not to look at anything – I didn’t want to scare her off – Alyson waited in the car while I organised the stuff to bring over.
I grabbed the most important stuff first, the stuff that probably has a higher value than gold and is currently scarcer – toilet paper! At least with gold, once you have it, you have it: the whole point is that it lasts. Toilet paper, alas, gets used, and we were going to be using it. I grabbed a number of large packets of the stuff from the purpose built bunker, reducing my strategic reserve by about one third. Then it was the next most valuable product, hand wash and then on down to things like face masks, disposable gloves and the plethora of equipment involved in tooth maintenance. It was all rush, rush, rush in a grab what you can mania. Time was precious. I just went on taking what I could: tower computer, screen, IBM keyboard (the best!), books, casette tapes, medication, cables, extension leads, passport, chequebook, cards and just about anything else I could think of. Luckily I had already packed a lot of the stuff in preparation for the Friday departure – but now it was Monday and there was that type of last chance panic in the air. Of course I’d forget things but at least there would be on-line ordering, I hoped, to expensively fill the panic induced oversights. And then there was the frustration at not being able to find the things I just know I had – and would need – but the enemy was approaching. Desperation won the day. Better to get out with something than nothing – and we all know stories of refugees who left it just too late, a bullet riddled car bearing sad testament to the occupants who wanted to collect “just one more thing”.
With the Fiesta’s rear seats folded, the car was now a mini station wagon which gave enough carrying space. And thus we were ready to set off. Alyson then told me of a delivery she had witnessed while waiting. A van had pulled up and out popped the driver with his goods. A woman approached him, carefully adhering to the new government guidelines, observing the two metre rule. The van man rebuked her: “you know me; you know I ain’t got it” – and thus were all precautions abandoned.
We had felt a little lucky getting all the way to my place, accompanied by the ticking rhythm of doom, reminding us that we were on borrowed time. Ok we had got there alright but would we get back? Alyson was now worried about the extra weight in addition to that dreaded noise, the noise that said “no-one gets out alive”. So what happened? Nothing! Nichts! Rien! Nada! That sound that had haunted our journey south, not to mention our whole weekend, had stopped. It just wasn’t there any more. It had simply disappeared. When we pulled away from the kerb, the noise was no longer with us. There was now a restful silence, the kind of silence used by film directors for heightened dramatic effect – before your car is hit by an RPG. Luckily this particular show was not being directed by a person of film and despite south London’s reputation, we encountered no RPGs either. However, when we finally pulled up outside Alyson’s place, the feeling of relief was palpable.
But I couldn’t relax until everything was inside and the hall door was bolted! The hatches were battened – metaphorically at least. The hurricane outside could now be ignored. We felt like two people who had been cast ashore from a shipwreck, revelling in the relief that we were at last on dry land. We had made it!!
Fleeing the Plague © Stephen Kearney March 2021
Click here to see more of Stephen Kearney’s writings, in the Readers writings page