Quarantine Zen Queen 4: Uncharted Territory

If you were among the nine passengers aboard VS89 from LGW to UVF on Monday, March 23, I have a message: Swear to Jah I don’t always get on like Father Jack in an off licence. In fact it’s years since I consumed more than two adult beverages on a long haul flight, partly because of the amplified effect that leaves the body dessicated by dehydration, and partly because at some point they started charging and who could afford those prices?

But when the Virgin Atlantic crew welcomed us to our Premium Economy upgrade with a glass of Prosecco at 9.30am, I was secretly delighted at the chance to get pissed after two days of solid angsting. Don’t judge me, most of you would have done the same. Settling into my roomy leather window seat with its oversized entertainment monitor and two warm blankets, I felt an avalanche of emotions and gratefully accepted a rum and Coke to celebrate the fact that Saint Lucia was only nine hours and forty minutes away.

It was surreal to know there was one cabin crew for every passenger including the baby, but of course it meant service was amazing. Even better than that one time I got a surprise Upper Class upgrade from Delhi to London, when I sat there hungry until the thoughtful Flight Service Manager briefed me it was like a restaurant and one had to order from the menu. But here we were, living large on an empty airplane as we traversed the Atlantic towards the most beautiful island in the world and whatever the Universe had in store for us.

Despite VERA offering a mind-boggling list of movies and TV shows, I went for the music channel, stuck on my big, comfy headphones and started browsing the genres. “Another drink, madam?” offered the blonde one. “Does a fish have a waterproof head?” I replied, having discovered the classic album section populated by Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Kate Bush, and perfect-for-the-occasion Fleetwood Mac.

Chair-dancing is my favourite so there was quite a lot of energetic bopping in 20K, to say nothing of the personal karaoke session – like my Mum when she got her first Walkman and didn’t realise we could all hear her singing along at the top of her voice. I didn’t – as my people would say – give a shite who heard me this time. After what we had witnessed with our Grenadian friends, I needed to blow off steam and the music was soothing my melted brain. After an hour, I cruised over to the TV shows and found something even more welcome. The second season of Derry Girls was there in full, and I was just gagging to see it all.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the brunette one. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” I replied, “but hold the pathetic pretzels please!” [Btw, whoever is responsible for creating these tasteless cardboard abominations must be having a laugh!] Wrapping up in the better-than-Economy blankets, I grabbed my big bag of emergency M&S Prawn Cocktail Shells and started the first episode with great anticipation.

What a genius body of work Lisa McGee has gifted the world, and in particular, the Northern Irish people who remember The Troubles. I howled with teary laughter at the superb accuracy of the dialogue, then howled with snotty tears of nostalgia that splashed onto the purple blanky as I remembered my own senior school days just a few years before the Derry Girls. Humour in the face of adversity. Who can beat us at that, I thought, doing the big snort-laughs that make my kids laugh even harder.

By the time it got to the visit of the President in the final episode, my intercostal muscles were aching, eyelids swollen like chipolatas and I’d lost all inhibition that my fellow travellers would hear or see the madness going on in the seat over the right wing. It felt like I’d been thinking exclusively about Covid-19 for two whole weeks, so the fact that I lost myself in two hours of comedy diversion was a welcome breakthrough.

“Another drink, madam?” offered the ginger one. “Does a bear poop in the woods?” I replied. Actually that’s a lie. This time I said “Just one more for de road,” and meant it. According to the tracker, we were still five hours away from Saint Lucia and it was Bacardi-induced nap time. There, I admit it – they only had my least favourite brand but at least it was the dark and not the white. I chased it with a bottle of water and fell sound asleep in the big seat.

Three hours later, I was up like a lilty and trying not to focus on what was to come. No expectations and be ready for anything, I reminded myself, which included fourteen days of quarantine at a hotel since my landlord had respectfully requested that I not seek self isolation at home in the building that also housed six other tenants. It was a moot point because Saint Lucia had implemented mandatory quarantine over the weekend, and I was grateful enough to be getting in, far less getting home.

The Cornish cream tea was served an hour before landing and I swiped the sandwich into my Quarantine Prepper kit with the rest of the spoils I’d been gathering like an OCD magpie all through the journey. The Singapore noodles were still there, along with the lone, untouched bar of chocolate which would alleviate some major cravings if rationed to a square a day. I practically offloaded every tissue from the well-stocked toilet at the rear of the plane that had offered a leg stretching opportunity with every ‘comfort break’ as the PC crowd would say.

Documents were double-checked, landing card filled-in, cabin baggage stuffed to twice its size with every layer of clothing I wouldn’t need in ten minutes when we landed in 30 degree heat. I was on the wrong side to see the island as we approached, but considered that disappointment as a blessing in case emotional histrionics would invade my now calmer, more businesslike brain. Gazing at the mad blue expanse of Caribbean Sea was enough to make me grin from ear to ear, so I settled for a quick glimpse of Moule A Chique as we bounced onto the runway. This time I didn’t clap, still embarrassed that I was the only one to celebrate the take-off with a round of applause.

There was another emotional moment though, as we headed for the door and I remembered again that this was actually the last ever Virgin flight to Saint Lucia. The company had had decided to pull out in June, and coronavirus had simply accelerated the permanent departure of my favourite UVF – LGW carrier. I thanked them for dozens of great flights over the years and hoped they’d be back in the post-virus future. For now, they weren’t even allowed off the plane and were heading back to unpaid leave for the foreseeable future – although not before dropping off cargo in Grenada. Yeah, people were left behind but cargo got through. It was a devastating snippet of insider information that made again me ponder this cruel time in our collective lives.

So many personal stories, worries and unknown quantities. I mentally applauded the crew for being so darn cheerful and professional throughout the whole journey and hurtled down the steps to do a Pope John Paul and kiss the tarmac. Not really, but I almost couldn’t resist the urge for a flamboyant gesture. Realising I was back in Saint Lucia where the local sense of humour is such that they’d probably cart me off to the National Mental Health Centre for being a crazy white lady, I gave it a miss.

As our tiny group walked to the terminal, I buddied up with the masked, gloved and laser-focused Port Health nurse from the requisite six feet away, and asked what we could expect now. She was terse but polite: “We’ll process you and then you’ll be put on a bus to quarantine in a hotel. Just line up here for a short while.”

An hour later we were still outside Departures, sitting on the ground, leaning on the glass, sweating like pigs and getting gradually more vexed as hordes of officials wandered around kixxing off with their mates and generally not communicating with the passengers. I knew I was home and would now need all the zen I could muster.

More to come…