“I’M COMING home.” It was a relief to hear Number 3 Son utter these words. Since last autumn, he’s been teaching in a large city on mainland China; the school staff are friendly, the pupils are attentive, and he was relishing exploring the very different culture. Then COVID-19 emerged, and things began to change. As the virus spread, face masks (once worn to mitigate the worst of the pollution) became mandatory in public spaces. The school closed for Chinese New Year and didn’t reopen; the authorities introduced increasingly stringent containment measures. Our son hung on until the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised all British nationals to leave China.
Several carriers had already suspended their China routes, but he managed to find a direct flight; unfortunately, it was from an airport in a different city. On the way from his flat to the Metro, each street he took had been barricaded; so he eventually found himself funnelled through a police checkpoint where his ID, address, and temperature were taken. From then on, at each point on his journey, he went through the same checks. Waiting at one station, he saw a woman stretchered away by medical staff (an anecdote that he didn’t tell until he was safely home).
FINALLY, he texted to say he was on the plane and about to take off. I managed to snatch some sleep before setting off to pick him up, arriving just in time to see his flight listing change from “Scheduled” to “Landed” on the arrivals board. He texted again to say that they were being screened before disembarkation; so I settled down to wait.
Being white-haired, plump, and rosy-cheeked, I suppose I was the obvious choice for the rather desperate mum who appeared in front of me, two small children in tow. “Could you just watch him” — she indicated a solemn toddler, secured in a buggy — “while I take her to the loo?” Her daughter danced from foot to foot, pulling on her mother’s hand. What could I say? Naturally, as soon as Mum disappeared, the poor child started to wail. Rocking the buggy, pulling faces, and playing peek-a-boo didn’t work; so I resorted to my fail-safe amusement for cranky children — this involves putting a little piece of paper on the end of your nose and declaring “My father keeps pigeons!” On the “p” of “pigeons”, you send an explosive breath upwards, dislodging the paper. By the time the mother returned, both the child and I were in fits of giggles.
AFTER nearly two hours, I saw a familiar figure striding through the arrivals gate, smile obvious even under his face mask; my boy was home! Only then did I discover that, in contrast to the Chinese hyper-vigilance, the “screening” of the incoming passengers amounted to them each filling out and signing a form to declare that they were well, and then waiting while a “quarantine officer” went through said forms. No temperature checks; no “What to do” leaflets; no medical staff to cast even a cursory eye over them. Perhaps the authorities were relying on the efficiency of the Chinese pre-flight screening; it all seemed rather casual, in the face of a potential pandemic.
GIVEN that he had travelled for hours on public transport to get to the airport, potentially exposing him to COVID-19, our son decided to self-isolate for 14 days, even though he was symptom-free. As he and I had been in close proximity for several hours in the car on the way home (and I had been unable to resist hugging him), it seemed sensible that I should follow suit. Being freelance isn’t always great, but at least the boss allows you time off.
We live in an old vicarage with plenty of space; so isolation is relatively easy, as is ensuring plenty of fresh air, since there is always a draught. If this seems a little dramatic, I would echo the words of the epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, who, when interviewed about COVID-19 by Channel 4 News, said that he’d “much prefer to be accused of overreacting than underreacting”. So it was that my husband found himself forbidden to hug our son (or me), and presented with temporary “house rules”, including being banished to another bedroom.
ST VALENTINE’S DAY didn’t pass without some excitement, though. A hedgehog decided it would be the perfect day to fall into our pond. Thankfully, our son spotted him, and we were able to bring him indoors to dry out.
As he was very small, and something was obviously wrong since he wasn’t hibernating, Kendal Animal Rescue Centre suggested that my husband should take him there. Unfortunately for my son (who held him, as I found a suitable box for the journey to Kendal), whatever else was wrong with the hedgehog, his kidneys, or bowels, were functioning perfectly.
Still, the clean-up was good practice for him, as my niece in Scotland is due to give birth to her much-longed-for baby very soon. I have baulked at the idea of being “Great-Aunt Elizabeth” who sounds a tad Wodehousian; rather, I shall be “Grauntie”. I can’t wait.
As you read this, isolation should be over, and I shall no longer be receiving “cheering up” messages from sons Numbers One and Two. These included the song “Cabin Fever” from Muppet Treasure Island (easily found on YouTube): very apt, extremely catchy, and, once in your head, difficult to shake — pass me my maracas!
Elizabeth Figg is an ex-QARANC officer, nurse, midwife, and laughter facilitator, now working as a freelance writer. Her husband is a vicar in the diocese of Blackburn.