Stepping into one of the smallest hotel rooms known to man, I once again thanked the Universe for the power of technology. It was spotless, comfortable and all sorts of space efficient, like ‘tiny living’ for travellers. The young receptionist was apologetic about the lack of normal service, but breakfast and dinner were available if needed, and could be eaten in the dining room as long as social distancing was observed.
Stocked up with an M&S meal deal from the airport and a ton of teabags from home, I declined in favour of locking myself away to allow the full release of my anxiety. Although the first leg was over, VS89 to Saint Lucia seemed a long time off and a lot could happen in between. I’d been messaging Virgin’s WhatsApp assistance line for days without any real result, and spent a hundred minutes the previous morning on the end of my parents’ landline before finally hearing a human voice.
During that call I’d listened to Bittersweet Symphony about ten times, thereby rendering it NOT one of my favourites any more. It rotated with three other songs until I thought I’d lose my mind, but a nice lady had finally been able to confirm that the flight to Hewanorra was still scheduled. She’d recommended staying in touch via WhatsApp as the situation could change at any moment.
Now that fruitless task resumed, but despite being well within the 72 hours-before-travel window, only the bots replied with automatic messages, instantly followed by survey questions asking me to rate their response. In full-on Belfast cursing mode, I whispered an unWordsmith-worthy tirade of abuse at my beloved phone so as not to disturb the neighbours. All I could do was message my anxious family and the few friends that knew I was on the move, then hit the sack.
Sunday morning was cloudless and dazzlingly sunny. I peered through the tiny window at the rather nice mid-century red brick houses in the street outside, thinking again that the weather god was taking the piss. Although the shutdown wasn’t yet mandatory, the area was almost deserted when I ventured out later to find supplies. My legs were suffering from that restless syndrome and a long walk was priority. Food wasn’t really, given the anxiety butterflies that characterise my normal travel vibe, now ratcheted up to maximum.
Striding along the main road, a few people doing the same, enjoying the Spring sunshine and scouting for open businesses. There weren’t many, but a children’s playground and park were pretty busy with young ones running off steam. I kept walking until I spied a Tesco Express that was still keeping its normal 7am till 11pm hours. Again, I could have hugged the lone staffer, but set about finding some sensible, portable, edible supplies instead.
Twenty quid later, I had all eventualities covered, including water, instant coffee, salad, fruit, a big pot of Singapore curry noodles and a bar of 74% dark chocolate. Yeah, I was becoming an episode of ‘Doomsday Preppers’ all by myself. Of course I forgot to bring one of the four reusable bags I had in my suitcase – somehow the guilt of buying yet another one didn’t seem so bad.
On the way back to the hotel, I swung into a little park with a war memorial and the most splendid flower beds full of daffodils, narcissi, and vivid red tulips, took a bench and soaked up the sun for a while. I even unbuttoned my coat, unwrapped my scarf and took off my woolly hat for a few moments. It was another opportunity for zen training. I was simply grateful for a picturesque break from all the madness.
Back in the room, WhatsApp bing-bonged and with zero expectations, I checked the message to find it was from a Virgin human with good news. The flight was still scheduled to depart in seventeen hours and Saint Lucia was still open to returning nationals. My citizenship paper and marriage certificate would be sufficient to allow me in with my UK passport. I exhaled, then started packing again.
Up at the crack of dawn and shuttled to the airport with one other guest, it was absolutely jaw-droppingly empty of passengers, although dozens of staff were walking around in uniforms and hi-vis gilets. The empty acreage of Virgin check-in blew me away, considering how many of our family’s return journeys to Saint Lucia had involved queuing for an hour or more with excitedly impatient kids and multiple trolleys laden with Primark purchases.
But the news from the beautiful check-in agent was good. Yes, it was still flying; yes, my docs were in order; yes, it was the most unbelievably surreal time in our lives; yes, both our livelihoods were shutting down and the future was uncertain for now. She really was lovely, it wasn’t just my mood, and once more on this journey I shared a moment of solidarity with a complete stranger.
“Every disappointment is a blessing”, my brain mantra-ed again, clearing security and immigration almost alone. The international departure area felt massive in its emptiness, with most retail stores and restaurants closed except the ever reliable WH Smith and stinking, unscrupulous Wetherspoons, which – according to some worried-looking staff calling out like market hawkers – was doing take-out fry-ups and beer.
By now I was masked and gloved – for everyone else’s benefit more than mine – but also to help calm the terror that I could be carrying the invisible assailant back to Saint Lucia. Two Asian teens in full hazmat suits and Hello Kitty backpacks wandered past, and I vascillated between thinking they were overdoing it and that they were wiser than me. The hour before the announcement time ebbed glacially away, and I sprinted to the gate as soon as the number came up on the board.
Fifteen minutes before boarding time, I heard the agent tell the arriving pilot that there were twenty-three pax checked in on this flight to Saint Lucia and Grenada. Five minutes later, twelve Grenadians were advised they wouldn’t be going anywhere. In all the drama so far, that was the point at which I couldn’t hold my emotions in check and was glad of the mask and sunnies that had been pissing me off up till then.
It was heartbreaking. There was nothing Virgin could do because the Grenadian government had made the decision in real time and they were only finding out about it at this crazy cruel moment. It was the decision I’d been dreading for days would be made in Saint Lucia – a sensible, understandable measure that would prevent me getting home to my beloved rock.
Three elderly ladies were stunned into tearful silence. A young man reasoned that he had nowhere to go back to because his family was self-isolating. An older guy argued politely that he didn’t even have money to take the tube back to his family. I stood and watched and cried like a baby as they were escorted away to find their luggage and figure out the next steps.
We were down to ten Virgin crew, nine adult passengers and a baby. As we silently marched down the jetway to the airplane door, you could feel the collective sigh of guilt-ridden relief. Honestly, it felt bad to be so happy about being upgraded to Premium Economy after what we’d just witnessed, but all praise to Virgin for finding a way to make it all feel OK.
Social distancing was easy and I nabbed a window seat far away from everyone else. Prosecco was produced and doors closed. We pushed back from the gate, taxied to the runway and I clapped as we took off into the cloudless London sky. Yeah, I admit it. I was probably the only one who did, but short of screaming my lungs out with relief, it was all I could think of doing to celebrate the fact that I’d be home in nine hours to whatever was coming next.
More to come…