The Devonian Era

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…”

The Great Escape

We have attempted an escape, despite it all.

We have emptied our house of clutter, history and mess. We have repainted the walls to erase our scuffs and marks; mowed the lawn to soften the yellow rings left by Arthur’s tent; regrouted the bathroom where the kids swamped the bath nightly. We have unstuck the windows that we had accidentally painted shut, so now the air circulates differently through the hallways. We have dismantled the pile of equipment, tools, kites and kit so that our adventure junkyard is just a garage again, swept, sad and empty except for a few mysterious contraptions hiding among the cobwebs in the eaves.

Art, books and beds have all been sent into storage. Crates of food got boxed and banked. Jars of out-of-date pickles, mustards and chilli sauces had to be emptied in the sink and their lumpy contents finger-forced down the plug hole.

We have given away and thrown away literally thousands of toys, gadgets, tools, utensils, cords, containers, magazines, cushions, chairs, games and a whole lifetime supply of pens. Most stuff ended up on the pavement outside for passers-by to pick up. An amazing amount of random items went that way, most of it under cover of darkness. You get a kind of embarrassed feeling as all the clutter of your life lines up on the pavement outside like a public confession of your Amazon addictions. You realise just how much unnecessary crap you accumulate without thinking and you make serious promises to quit buying so much rubbish and get more eco. The future lives we will lead will be barefoot in the sunshine with no need for material goods. Even as our possessions disappeared silently away into the community we were jabbing at our phones, ordering more things online for next-day delivery. We needed a roof rack, a spare set of bungee cords, more bin bags, a battery pack, cables. We ignored the irony, deferred our good intentions and clicked through to checkout.

We have made some effort to throw out too all the opinions and advice that have been gifted to us over the last few months. The protests, amusement and disbelief. The raised eyebrows, looks of horror, guffaws (You’re going travelling? In the middle of an pandemic?) We’ve dealt with our own fears and misgivings. At least I think we have, though to be honest we’ve talked things around in so many circles now, I have no idea what is going on in everyone’s head. How much are the kids aware of what is coming up? They understand we’re no longer headed for Africa, or Australia, but driving instead to South West Britain for an indeterminate period until better options present themselves. Do they lie awake worrying about what this means? Is Menna really as on board with this crazy plan as she says she is? Am I? There comes a point though when you are simply committed, and speculation and worry is no longer helpful. We stopped talking about the future some days ago, and now conversation is tight and practical.

We burnt all of our confidential papers in a steel dustbin behind the garage one evening last week. Bank statements, bills, payslips, reviews, reports and appraisals went up in smoke as we sat around on camping chairs, listening to old rock n roll. I was chugging beer and poking the flames, all bare-chested, soot-smudged and channeling some fairly primitive vibes. We went a bit nuts that night. It felt heavy and symbolic, like we were burning our longboats on the beach in a flamboyant gesture of no return. Even the kids ran off to get their old school work to throw on the flames. There was some nostalgia in the air too; as though a part of our history and identity were somehow encoded into that P45 from when I got fired in 2002, the insurance policy from that trip to Bali. I manage to save my birth certificate at the last moment. I didn’t get to my GSCE certificates in time.

And then it was all over, all traces of ourselves removed from the property. We had vacuumed up all the scatter of our lives and condensed everything we needed down to one heavily laden car. Two surfboards on the roof, two bikes, two skateboards, one tent. A bag each of clothes. A bag of wetsuits and towels. Another bag of wires and chargers. A box of games. A box of school books. Two yoga mats. One laptop, three iPads, two Kindles, three phones. A first aid kit. Assorted soft toys. Some Lego.

I was grinning with what I could tell was a slightly manic air as we pulled off. The moment seemed hugely significant. I could feel a release of tension surging through my shoulders and arms, the physical aftermath of many days of non-stop packing, sorting, shifting, burning, dumping, heavy-lifting, and very little sleep. Menna was sobbing quietly beside me, mainly I think about the cat, who we had had to leave behind with our neighbour. Two pairs of wide eyes stared back at me in the rearview mirror, ecstatic at first glance, then worried and shell-shocked.

We drove off from our home of the last seven years and away from our jobs, our schools, our friends, our nicely ordered well-structured lives. It was 2:30pm and the sun was technically past it’s zenith, so I think you could legitimately say we drove off into the sunset. We headed off into the Covid-ravaged wastelands of lockdown Britain, homeless, jobless, and with no particular plan to speak of.
“It’s going to be fun” I kept saying to no one in particular. “It’s going to be such fun.

An hour or so later the mood had shifted considerably. The car was full of chatter and sunbeams as we trundled our way southwards down empty roads. Anything could happen! Drawn by ley lines and wild pagan impulses we swung off the A303 for an impromptu stop at Stonehenge. It was cordoned off with red and white tape.

Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.

Kris Kristofferson