The Run For Home – Covid Diaries Part Two
The day is Tuesday the 24th of March 2020, and it’s day seven of our self isolation back home in Iggy the Hymer. My fingers hesitate over the keys – not sure what to write. Not sure what my story is anymore, or of where it is going.
It has been four days since my coughing in the night, and little has changed. I am still mostly fine. My throat is a bit dry sometimes, a bit sore. My chest too. The cough comes once in a while. Sometimes I think maybe it has gone, hope it has gone, and then it niggles at me a little more. Sometimes I feel 100% okay, and others I shiver a little – just a tiny chill, running up and down my spine for an hour or maybe more.
And mostly I try not to think about it. Try not to wonder whether it’s Covid-19, or some other, more familiar, little bug. Try not to wonder if it will get better, or if it will get worse. And mostly… I manage.
But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes – for a moment or two – for a minute or two – I worry. It flares up in me out of the blue and tries to burn away my peace with its heat. My overactive writer’s imagination spins stories so fast that I’m engulfed in them. Momentarily swamped… drowning.
And then I remind myself there is nothing I can do. There is nothing I can change, and right now, here, everything is okay. I am in my beloved Iggy. Jay sits playing his game across the way. Marley snoozes soundly on the couch. We are warm and fed and the only thing to be done is to be grateful. To enjoy every second I have for the precious wonder that it is.
I glance at Jay again and smile. Head down over his laptop – killing dragons in Skyrim – he is quite content and happy. He’s good at that is our Jay. Being happy. Just getting on with what is in front of him. And with that in mind I turn my mind back to France. Back to Saint-Christoly-de-Blaye, where I left you on my last post.
Our last three days in France are a haze now, and I will report them swiftly, and with just the things that stand out in my mind. Every day that passed our situation became both more surreal and more real at the same time. The confirmed cases of the virus and the number of deaths rose as dramatically as I had feared they would when I was analysing the figures back in Portugal.
Portugal seemed so far away now. Another life, another trip. Surely not just seven days between our last day in Portugal and our first morning waking up back in France. Where once I had wondered if I was being overly cautious – now I wondered if we had left soon enough. And haste became the obvious thing to do.
We had almost run out of clean clothes by now though, and there was a launderette across from the Aire in Saint-Christoly. We spent an hour getting things washed but we hadn’t enough change for the very expensive dryer. And so it was with two bags full of wet washing that we finally set off on the road to Cholet – a hundred and seventy miles and a five hour drive away.
I remember little from the drive now other than checking news items – there were still no lockdowns in France, but it was looking more likely all the time. Was this the day that we waited for Macron’s 8pm announcement? I think it may have been. Rumours of imminent lockdown were rife. But here in France all was still calm.
Too calm almost as we passed by beautiful towns and villages that would have pulled us to stop on a normal trip. But now I just shot some quick snaps out of Iggy’s windows as we raced our way home. One day, one day we would return, walk these streets, sit under the shade of sum
mer plane trees, sip espresso and sharp, French brandy on pavement cafes. Oh my, but I gave a piece of my heart to this beautiful country thirty since years ago. How strange to take flight from it in this way today.
Was it on the way to Cholet that we saw the group of men and women playing boules in the park? Thirty at least, no distancing between them, with picnic foods and flasks. Was it Cholet? Or was it the next day? On the way to Vimoutiers? Or the final day? The last, long drive for Sangatte to await our midnight ferry from Calais.
What day did we see the young people in fancy dress, trying to stop vehicles at intersections and roundabouts? We’ve seen this before in France during March. It seems to be some kind of annual tradition, although I’ve yet to find out what it’s all about. But this year we watched in horror as they went from vehicle to vehicle. The feeling of surrealism growing steadily stronger with every passing hour.
Time folds in on itself as I allow the memories of those days to come and go as they will in my head. For once not trying to recall them in a neat, linear fashion. It befits these times I think. The sense of surrealism growing stronger everyday. Thankful for the focus of having to get home to give us something to stay anchored to. But we were as anchored as the changing scenery flanking our passage.
Portugal, Spain, France. We passed through and on towards our ferry. Leaving the faces outside our bubble to their fates as we scampered for home. I felt a rising sense of grief for the losses to come. And a rising sense of unease at the thought of returning to Britain.
Here on the continent steps were starting to be taken, but in the UK it seemed the message was that we were all to try and get infected as soon as possible. While Italy collapsed Boris Johnson told the British public that we were going to aim to create a “herd immunity” in the UK. Testing was stopped on all but severe cases in hospital. Supermarket shelves were stripped clean. Everyone told us to “bring back toilet roll”.
Officials from the World Health Organisation made desperate, impassioned pleas to test, test, test. To do everything possible to stop the advance of the disease. Behind us in Spain case numbers started to explode upwards. Faster than I had even thought they would. The virus reared up behind us like a wave sweeping us ever forwards.
People who had stayed behind in Spain, thinking all was okay, started to surge out of the campsites and on to the road for Calais, Bilbao, Santander, Dieppe. Home.
In the UK many people wouldn’t listen. People like us, returning from the continent, were laughed at and shouted down on motorhome groups. Our posts trying to warn people of what was coming were removed. Some motorhomers started to complain about posts all being about Covid while UK citizens all across Europe were trying to get information and support to help them know what to do. To help them get home.
Many people supported us – but the voices against were loud and vocal. We knew people were going to die unnecessarily and there was nothing more we could do. I barely saw the world passing outside our window as I typed message after message into forums. Social distancing. Don’t go away if you don’t have to. Trying to get the message through while not sounding like I was “scaremongering”. Nobody would listen if they thought we were “scaremongering”.
Meanwhile Cholet came and went as we stayed in Iggy and watched Netflix movies, and sent out messages on Facebook. We only went out to walk Marley, and then in the morning to the vet’s practice across the park from us. Marley had to have her worm treatment today so that we could catch a ferry on Friday. But the vet was too busy. Not today – too many surgeries – could we come tomorrow?
We didn’t think it was wise to wait another day, and I found another vet in a village twenty minutes away that I thought might be able to help. The receptionist spoke no English, but my French is good enough that I managed to explain what we needed, and that we needed it today.
They were busy, she said, but she would speak to the vet, a lovely young French woman who smiled and said she would fit us in. Could we wait an hour or so? It was nearly the end of appointments and she would see us before she went to lunch.
People came and went, paying no attention to silly things like social distancing. Two old ladies with a fat dog let it poop all across the floor. I watched trying not to laugh as they somehow managed to completely avoid cleaning up after the waddly pooch. One of them finally taking it outside when it started to poop once again and the vet scolded her to leave.
Finally the young vet came back and brought us in for Marley’s worm treatment and passport update. We chatted about how Marley had developed a phobia for vets, and the young woman calmly produced tasty snacks and fed them to a waggy tailed Marley one after another.
“It is a shame you cannot stay”, she said. “I could fix this.”
We paid our bill and left with our thanks trailing profusely behind us. We had no doubt that this young lady could indeed have “fixed” Marley’s phobia. She had given us more than the worming treatment, she had given us huge hope that Marley could get over her phobia, with time and the right vet.
I think of her now as I type. Of her busy surgery. Of all the people she would see every single day. And I wonder if she’s okay. If her family are okay. If the friendly young receptionist and her family are okay. And the old ladies. The comical old ladies and their dog.
With the vet visit finished we pushed on to Vimoutiers, our last overnight stop before the ferry. We stopped at a Lidl on the way, and everything was calm and normal. Full shelves, no panic. Macron was to make another announcement later in the day. The full lockdown hadn’t arrived the day before, but this was almost certainly going to be it. People were not listening to the advice. But still nobody was panicking. There was toilet roll, tinned foods, cleaners – everything. We could have filled Iggy to the brim. But we didn’t. We just took a few things that we needed, a small number of tins, a pack of toilet paper, and got back on our way.
It was nearly sunset as Iggy rolled into the tiny Aire in Vimoutiers. The church spires were calling me across the treetops and thankfully there didn’t seem to be anyone wandering about so we took Marley for a quick walk to investigate. The church was just along the river a few minutes from the Aire and Vimoutiers looked like a pretty and interesting town. But we couldn’t stay out for long. Life had changed and we owed it to these townspeople to avoid contact with them as much as possible. We might be carrying the virus for all we knew.
Across from the church there was a large pan with a plaque explaining it’s presence. Vimoutiers was almost destroyed by Allied bombing on 14th June 1944. 220 people died and many that remained were without food or housing. This large pan was brought into the town by a local farming family who used it to cook meals for the villagers every day for as long as it was needed.
The story filled my eyes with tears and my heart with hope. People – most people – rally around when times get hard. We would all need each other in the days ahead, and it was good to be reminded that no amount of darkness in the world has ever obliterated the light. If anything it just makes it shine all the brighter. Makes people shine all the brighter, as the everyday falls away and we see the true gems they really are underneath.
And so another night went by and when we woke it was Friday the 13th, and there was one last long drive remaining for Calais. We were booked on the ferry at half past midnight and had decided we would stop at Sangatte until 10pm then do the last twenty minute drive to the port.
We took the long route, bypassing Rouen and coming up the coast. Familiar names flashed past on the road signs – Honfleur – Le Treport – Le Crotoy – each one a memory of days that belonged to another world now. A world where we were free to travel. A world where a stranger’s handshake was a welcome thing. A world where we lived in our privilege, watching on the news as disease and death ravaged the poorer countries of the world. Not in our countries. Never in our countries.
And then we rose to the crest of a hill and the Channel lay out before us. I could imagine the white cliffs, just out of sight in front of me, and I felt a sudden twinge of claustrophobia at the thought of going back. Britain was an island and suddenly this did not feel like a good time to be shut up in a place we couldn’t make our own way out of again.
Marley had a last half hour walk along the empty cliffs at Sangatte, and then it was time for the ferry. The roads were empty and silent as we made our way towards Calais and then Jay said…
“The battery warning light’s on.”
There was a light drizzle falling and we couldn’t turn off Iggy’s lights and wipers. We threw each other a long, long look.
“Pull over for a minute, but don’t turn the engine off.” I gulped. “I’ll check the read out. See if there’s a charge going in. If there is, it might be the battery, and we’ll just get another one. If it’s not then it’s probably the alternator.”
A quick look at the read out and it looked like there was no charge going into the battery. Either that or there was a fault in the instruments. But it seemed unlikely it would register on the warning panel and on our battery panel as well. Maybe it was a loose connection. If we were crazily lucky. Otherwise it looked like we were going to need a new alternator.
Jay tried to keep the engine running as much as possible as we made our way through the check in process at Calais. I kept nipping to check the read out, and the charge was holding up enough that we should make it on and off again with no problem. But we still wanted to avoid starting the engine too many times. It wouldn’t do to get stuck on the ferry!
Finally all the checks were over and a smiling Frenchman wished us a good journey and waved us onto the 23:15 ferry. A lump rose in my throat and I felt like a traitor for leaving them to their fate. Everything felt wrong. But we were doing what we had to do. The best way I could help this friendly man and his family was to get out of their country. But it felt wrong just the same.
The engine had to be turned off again as we waited in the queue. The ferries were running a bit late, but it wasn’t wrong until the staff began to wave us all forward. Jay waited until the last possible moment before turning the key in the ignition.
Our anxiously held breath must have helped because Iggy sprang to life as happily as he always does and rumble, rumbled his way up the ramp and into place at the side of the forward doors. We had made it.
Europe was behind us, and as the ferry slid away over the dark waters to Dover we had no idea what lay ahead.
( to be continued… )