We arrived once night had fallen.
We had made a strategic stop for fish and chips on the beach at the next town down the coast, ostensibly to stretch our legs and give the kids a run on the dunes, but really to wait for sunset so we could sneak into our new accommodation undetected. We had felt self-conscious enough driving across country during lockdown. Non-essential travel was strictly vetoed, and nothing about our car, loaded as it was with surfboards, luggage and bikes, indicated that this journey was in any way essential.
(“It is essential though isn’t it, right?” we reassured each other periodically).
The roads had been impressively empty throughout the five hour journey. I had known that a police cavalcade could materialise at any moment and I was mentally committed to the high speed chase, screeching off the motorway to fish-tail our way down miles of dirt roads (those poorly-fastened bikes would come cartwheeling off around a bend and take out at least two of the pursuing patrol cars), along to the inevitable finale where cornered and desperate, I would be forced to drive the car off the Dorset cliffs into a technicolour sunset, with Camilla Caballo playing full volume on the radio.
I hadn’t fully gone through this plan with the family, but I felt they would be supportive. It didn’t come to pass though, and as we pulled up to pick up our pre-ordered takeaway, I felt kind of disappointed. Where was the challenge? The confrontation? The clever wordplay with the forces of the law? (“Well, why don’t you define ‘essential’ to me officer? I believe it derives from the Latin essentia meaning the essence of the thing. Well, stick your nose in here officer and smell my essence of musk car freshener! Yes, thank you. We will be on our way”) It almost felt like the journey had been too easy, like we had been lured into a trap.
This is just the start though, I told myself grimly. We would certainly face a difficult reception in the little Devon town that was to be our first stop. Up until this point, our destination had been completely untainted by the mark of corona, and so they would inevitably be resistant to strangers from the big city, potentially bearing plague and notions of an integrated European market.
I knew pretty broadly how this script would play. We’ve all seen the movies. It would start fairly subtly, perhaps a slight turn away whenever we met anyone on the street, maybe a refusal to meet my eye as I piped out a cheery good morning to a cloaked fellow walker in the mist. Conversation at the Post Office would suddenly halt as we walked up, and the participants would disperse silently in different directions. The door would bang shut and the sign flip over to ‘Back Soon!’ In handwritten gothic script, the cheery exclamation mark giving just enough encouragement to sustain a two hour wait in the drizzle before we would finally give up and go home. The Post Office would be the only source of food in the village of course, so we would be forced to live off chewing gum, wasabi peas and that melted box of Celebrations for the first few days before we could get an Ocado slot.
We would decide to ignore the provocations though and keep on making friendly overtures, still believing that we could overcome the hostility with dignity and good nature. That’s the Nicholls for you.
By the second week it would become apparent that this strategy wasn’t going to work. The locals would start crossing themselves as we came into view. I would be barged off my surfboard in the line-up by a man whose features would be hidden by a black neoprene hood. One morning we would awake to find dead seagulls had been hung from our car wing mirrors. We would find strange wicker tokens placed in the recycling bins outside. The wind would reveal crude desecrated likenesses of ourselves, made of driftwood and whalebone, half-buried in the sand dunes behind the beach. Arthur would go down to the local skatepark and return covered in tar, with a mess of feathers and crisp wrappers stuck to his head. He wouldn’t ever speak about what had happened.
It would be when they broke into our house in the early hours, masked and carrying flaming torches, to put a noose around my neck that I would finally have had enough.
“My wife is a fucking key worker!” I would shout, “She’s NHS for Christ’s sake, a doctor. Front line!”
The chanting would stop.
“Hospital or GP?” Would come a cautious voice.
“Hospital! She saves lives man. Now we’re homeless. We’re supposed to be travelling around the world but it’s all fallen through because of the virus. We’ve got nowhere else to go. We should be in Cape Town doing a wine tour in the Garden valley or a shark dive or something. But this… this… this is all we have now.” I would be sobbing pretty hard at this point.
“Hear that lads? We’ve got a bloody doctor in town! God save the NHS! Sorry mate, thought you were second homers, just down for half term like. We’ll tidy up after ourselves shall we?”
That was what we expected.
So once we had got to our new home, unloaded the car in the darkness, quickly swallowed a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, then found the oblivion of sleep for a few hours, I wasn’t surprise to hear a heavy knock on the door at 8am. I arose to meet the lynch mob in my boxer shorts, my hair defiantly un-styled.
It turned out to be the police. Or rather, a policeman. A fresh-faced honest-looking lad of a copper with straw coloured hair. The sun shone brightly behind him.
“I have been led to understand that this isn’t your primary residence,” he offered by way of an opening gambit.
I took a measured breath.
“My wife, officer, is a key worker…”