Quarantine Zen Queen 2: Getting Back Home

St. Paddy’s Day was to be my first in Ireland since leaving for Saint Lucia in 1993. The parade and fetes were cancelled, to nobody’s surprise. After the boiled ham, cabbage and mashed spuds were devoured, we had the traditional family evening at home with a few adult beverages, great craic and a lot of corona-chat. It felt like the last day anything would be normal.

Next morning, I found Dad in the kitchen and said it was crunch time for decision-making. It was obvious to me that a full shutdown of the UK was on the cards even if Buffoon Boris was dragging his heels and confusing the people with his messages. For the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, the local 6 o’clock news was de rigeur simply because it came an hour after the PM’s daily brief with the latest numbers and advisories.

I started to think the Universe had lined up this trip for a purpose – being in Belfast to help my parents, just steps away from my sisters’ homes and a bus ride from my girl. After all, I’m the empty-nester lone-ranger digital nomad of the family, so in theory it was an obvious choice. In fact, Dad discombobulated me totally by recommending I go home as planned.

It was an emotional conversation, but he explained pragmatically why he and Mum were worried, and I sobbed as I realised he was right. My dilemma was fuelled by a big dose of Irish-former-Catholic guilt, combined with my oldest sibling sense of responsibility and a little mom-worry about my chick, who was starting to realise that Belfast life was about to become very narrow.

I also felt guilty because his loving words released my real feelings – every fibre of my being was hankering after Saint Lucia, despite the accompanying terror of how our little rock and its 185,000 inhabitants would weather the impending global lockdown. Familiarity was a draw – it’s my home and I know how to operate within the already crazy reality of island life. Selfishly, it’s also warm, sunny and beautiful, which I truly believe makes everything easier to handle.

So on Wednesday, March 18, I shifted my strategising to the return journey – if that was at all possible. Virgin had removed change fees so I would have pushed back my departure, but somehow it felt like that Elvis song: “It’s now or never…” Getting to Gatwick was to first leg, and when Easyjet flights went from seven to two on my preferred travel day, I started to panic a little.

It was time to consult my travel guru son who was already on lockdown in the Dominican Republic. We video-chatted and threw around the worst case scenarios – my natural proclivity for multiple back-up plans was definitely useful, apart from the moments when my over-stimulated head started to melt, as Rosie would say.

We decided I’d fly to Gatwick on the Saturday and stay two nights in a small hotel close to the airport – all of which cost less than the Sunday flight which had doubled in price. The flight was booked on the Thursday, family briefed on my imminent departure and the countdown was on.

I must have checked Easyjet’s website every hour for two days, half expecting the Universe to take it out of my hands by cancelling the flight. Bombastic Boris was creeping closer to a complete shutdown, and there was a serious chance that Belfast International would close before I boarded the plane. I started to pack, inwardly rolling my eyes at the irony of only having a cabin bag for the first time ever. And it was full of my warmest clothes.

There’s no point in trying to describe the level of anxiety that peaked every few hours during Friday, requiring every ounce of zen I could muster to keep it under control. But Belfast was some playing sort of sick Irish weather joke by being gloriously sunny and crisp, so I delivered the wee man to his last day of school for a while, then walked around the neighbourhood, simply appreciating for the first time in years the place where I spent my teens.

By Saturday, my baby sister had been in isolation for four days so I didn’t see her or my lovely brother-in-law to say goodbye. Meabh and the kids had stopped visiting Granny and Granda from the Thursday, although I couldn’t keep away for a last hang out with them and Rosie. I stopped trying to control my tears, putting on a brave face for this one seemed impossible.

We arrived at the airport three and a half hours before the flight because I expected crowds, but couldn’t hug my dad because he wasn’t allowed to get out of the car. Leaving my girl was just awful – I’m sure I crushed her ribs with the hugs, despite all the warnings. Don’t judge me, you would have done the same.

The airport was deserted, all the food and bev operations were closed except Starbucks who had gone “contactless” and wouldn’t take my cash. At that moment, I decided to let go of all expectations and let the Universe do its thing. WH Smith had nothing edible except 2000 brands of sweets, chocolates and crisps which I could live on if push came to shove, but even that thought didn’t inspire me with joy you’d expect from a Haribo-holic.

People came on time for the flight, which made me feel like a right eejit, but how could anyone predict anything at that point. Jah bless Easyjet for not cancelling, I thought, as we departed bang on time for the 55 minute flight to “the mainland” and Bumptious Boris’s increasingly ramped up regulations. The UK’s second biggest airport was deserted bar a few straggling, mainly masked travellers like myself, standing around looking dumbfounded at the dystopian present.

Believe it or not, Dylan and I had decided not to book a hotel until I reached Gatwick, just in case of last minute curveballs and cancellations, but as soon as I logged onto the free wifi he was there on WhatsApp and sorted out the last available room at The Corner House Hotel just 5 minutes drive away. Meanwhile, I could have hugged the M&S Food staff for being open, well-stocked and with a coffee station – although they would never have allowed such irresponsible behaviour.

The last thing to organise before I could let it all go was a taxi, not too difficult you would think, but this was not a usual Saturday night and there wasn’t a single one on the rank. A nice young driver was called, arrived in 5 minutes and swept me off to see if my haven for the next two nights was as sweet as it looked on the website. He told me he’d been on duty seven hours and I was his first fare. It cost eleven quid and I gave him fifteen, wished him all the best and pushed the double doors open to check in.

So far so good. One step closer to Saint Lucia. Now if only Virgin would stick to their schedule, I’d be heading for home in thirty-six hours.

More to follow…