As coronavirus swept through the world like a noxious sandstorm, we found ourselves in something of a dilemma.
We were mentally committed to escape from our suburban lives. We had invested a lot of time and emotional effort into our getaway plan, both internally (casting away lifelines, forgoing stability, setting sail against the tide of conventional wisdom) and externally (hundreds of explanatory conversations with family and friends, quitting my job, seeing out a four month notice period, Menna applying for sabbatical, extracting ourselves from the system, cancelling our subscriptions, applying to homeschool for a year, putting our house up for rent, buying insurance, getting many varied vaccinations, booking tickets, accommodation, buying expensive stuff). We had been aware of Coronavirus as a news story that was rumbling on in the background, but it hadn’t really factored into our plans until suddenly BANG! It was everywhere.
As the virus relentlessly surged forwards, breaching borders, spreading inexorably from continent to continent, there came a tipping point. It suddenly became all that anyone could talk about, even though in the early days, no-one really knew anything. Before the virus itself really hit us, it was preceded by a huge deluge of speculative, incomplete and downright wrong information. We were awash with over-reporting, where the few real facts (infection rates, death tolls) was padded out with frothy rumour and a new jargon that seemed to be made up on the hoof (superspreaders, R-rates, social distancing, self-isolation). Then came a wave of policy response across different countries which seemed improbable in itself, far too knee-jerk and hysterical (Seriously, the Italians aren’t even allowed to leave their homes? What, Trump has shut down all borders?). It was disorienting. The framework by which you conduct activities, the mechanisms that you use to plan and move safely around the world had shifted and become unstable. The rule of order and safe international conduct seemed to be undermined.
Throughout most of early March, when it had seemed that Coronavirus was just an Asia thing, we blithely talked about re-routing our trip to South America and then on to Australia – we would just skirt around it! Then Italy got it bad. It spread across Europe. It hit our shores. UK government policy was pretty lax and incoherent long after most EU nations had locked themselves down pretty hard, and this gave us the illusion of freedom. We would still fly to South Africa and just wing it from there, this is what we thought then. We would slip through the net of closing borders and then go off-grid. We would buy a Landrover and head up through Namibia to Botswana. Surely lockdown wouldn’t stretch to the safari outposts out there. We would spend a few wild months in the bush and once we emerged everything would have blown over.
In late March we found tenants for our house, and still operating under a head-in-the-sand optimism (denial), we signed a three year lease agreement with them, congratulating ourselves that we had managed to lock in some renters despite these difficult conditions. Literally two days later, BA cancelled our flights to Cape Town, AirBNB voided our accommodation booking and Boris announced lock-down.
This was a predicament. We had now made ourselves homeless and we had no onward travel options. Should we try and wriggle out of our landlord obligations and just stay on in our house? I had left my job and was unemployed, but Menna could cancel her sabbatical and carry on working, keep some money coming in. I would be homeschool teacher / cook / cleaner / hairdresser / house husband. This seemed to me to be a poor substitute for a year of global travel. If we don’t go now, I reasoned, we lose our chance to escape. We have everything lined up and ready. If this chance slips through our fingers then I will need to get a new job and that would lock me in for at least a couple of years. Arthur goes to secondary school next autumn. The kids will hit adolescence before we know it. We would be stuck in South London at least for the rest of the year. Maybe forever! If we do go now, Menna counters, we will have nowhere to live, no countries we can visit. What kind of round the world trip will this be?
The debate lines up like this. In the blue corner, Menna. Her natural instincts orient towards care, caution and realism. She has deep and admirable qualities of loyalty, responsibility, duty and care. She is a doctor by heart as well as by training, it means putting others first, being careful, methodical and not taking crazy risks. Motto: better safe than sorry.
In the red corner: myself. Big ideas, head in the clouds, low on detail. Eternal unwarranted optimist in the most dire of situations. Very loosely grounded in reality, enemy of the practical, taker of unnecessary risks; believer in constant change and the winds of good chance. Breaker of bones, loser of phones, intolerant of moans. Motto: Fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?
Together we are a formidable team. I break and Menna cures. I paint the colours and she does the shading. She is the rock and I am the wind. It does mean though that we find ourselves coming at a difficult decision like this from different sides. We talked it over for days, round and round, back and forth, up and down. We switched positions, laid red herrings, talked ourselves in circles then in squares. We would wake up in the morning to find the anguished tableaux of our late night indecisions written in wine bottles, chocolate wrappers and unwashed dishes. We couldn’t remember where we had ended, what positions we had manoeuvred ourselves into during the late hours, and so we would start the discussions afresh.
To take the leap in this environment was huge. It meant the kids leaving school and Morwenna leaving her job and all of us leaving our house. And we had nowhere to go! No borders were open. There were lockdown restrictions and logistical impossibilities. We certainly didn’t want to become vectors of the disease. Menna was fearsome in her application of the lockdown protocols and the responsibility of her position as a front line caregiver. She also felt a huge duty to continue her work at the hospital.
(Bizarrely the fear of actually catching coronavirus ourselves never really entered our consideration. I mean, we worried that we might inadvertantly transmit it to other more vulnerable people, but the idea that we would actually fall ill ourselves and maybe die – never! Menna was in the hospital on the front line every day, dealing with cases on the paediatric wards, fully exposed, colleagues dropping like flies all around her, bringing a viral load home to us every night. We didn’t really worry about it.)
In the end we found an uneasy compromise. We would postpone the rental date by six weeks. Menna would carry on working on the front line through the main surge of infections. Her team had a replacement doctor scheduled to start in June, which would make her surplus to requirements and a burden on the stretched departmental payroll. We also felt we owed it to our new tenants (stuck in compromised accommodation positions themselves) to honour the rental agreement that we had signed with them. We would head South, find a cottage near the sea somewhere, and hide away for a month or two and see what happened. Maybe we could find a border that we could slip our way through. Maybe we would be able to do a coastal tour of the UK, cleaning beaches, charting pollution, surfing. Maybe we would even settle somewhere. Camper vans were discussed. Caravans were emphatically rejected.
We rented a house through AirBnB in Cornwall and then they cancelled on us at the last moment, saying that vacation travel was now forbidden and they worried about what the locals would say. ‘But this isn’t a holiday, this is essential travel’ we cried, ‘we have nowhere else to live’. They just laughed evilly. We booked another one and that cancelled too.
It appeared that no-one wanted us. There were only a couple of weeks now until we needed to leave, so we did an emergency call around family and friends looking for unused properties we might squat in / spare rooms / gardens where we could squeeze a tent. Menna wan’t sleeping well at this point, envisioning terrible months living off the land, illegally pitching our tent after dark in industrial wastelands, on verges, down in quarries. She could see us cooking roadkill beneath an underpass on the A303, while torrential rain sent oily rivulets into our sleeping bags. We would be carting our possessions around in overflowing bin bags, always on the move, just one step ahead of the lockdown enforcement officers and their snarling Dobermans.
It one of Menna’s doctor colleagues that saved us in the end. I write this now from her amazing surfer bolthole in North Devon (a million thanks Sophie and Drummond!). The news that we had SOMEWHERE that we could stay, even just for a few weeks, changed everything for us.
In the good old days Menna and I rolled as Dinkies – double income, no kids – flitting around the world, propelled by a instinct for the path less travelled, a preference for spontaneity and an infallible belief that whatever the challenges, we would always land on our feet. We are now Nitkinhs – No income, two kids, no house – but I find the underlying principles to be fairly similar.
One of my rules in life is that if you get the opportunity to define a new socio-demographic status then you should always jump at it. The Nicholl Nitkinhs, it has a certain ring about it. Anyway, fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?