The half term before Christmas sees me in the van surprisingly little. I spend my last night in my tiny tin shelter on top of the cliffs, looking over the sea. It’s a black night, but blacker clouds can be seen forming up and moving in. As per routine, I pin up the thermal window blackouts and settle in under two duvet covers, book in hand: The Last Dog on Earth, a post-apocalypse treat to accompany what now feels like our own very real apocalypse.
Midway through chapter, a car rolls up. Not uncommon, but the music is playing loud. I recognise the car. A year ago, on a similar evening they were listening to a club mix of Let it Go. Tonight it’s hard core gangster rap with every epithet you might imagine from the genre slung out of crackling speakers. They’ve moved on from Elsa. I get up and peek through the blackouts. Heads bang back and forth and their car sways to their physical enthusiasm.
I settle back in, trying to ignore a beat of expletives until it all fades and I hear the familiar bass line to “Every Breath You Take” take a turn. Big time gangsters turn once more, into youthful sentimentalists, their spirited angst soothed by a P. Diddy and Sting remix of this 80s classic. Nothing more blares out after this and they roll away, back down the hill.
Our time back at school has been a brief candle as the nation ticks along to the Covid beat, but there is no pomp and flair to the Drum Major driving this march. No sooner are we back after October Half Term than we’re off, almost as though the fall of our feet is now directed by the Grand Old Duke of York maniacally ordering us up and down the Covid hill, up and down, in and out. Our personal Hokey Cokey bubble pops with suspected contacts and staff are sent home.
Rumours whisper along empty corridors. Year 7 have been shut down; Year 11 have been shut down and then, a visit, “You’re to go home.” “Am I?” “Yes.” “Now?” “Yes.”
Five minutes later I’m in the van warming up the engine assessing whether I feel I have the Covid or not; I try out a cough to see how dry it feels. Senses suddenly turn quite acute. This must be how it is for Spiderman, I think. I sit there trying to sense out the Covid tingle. Trying to remember the distance between me and Patient Zero, the length of time I spent in their company and cursing that I left my lunch up in the Department fridge. That’s not a tingle, that’s a rumble.
We’ve been relatively lucky. Tucked away as we are from the infection of incomers. But it was bound to hit. After all this time, I’m not really sure what to do. Too late for placards and road blocks. You read about it on Twitter, the news and from socially distanced folk hereabout, but I still sit there, trundling along on my way home, a little withered, planning out how to spend the days between the news and a test result.
The journey home in my little tin home is normally anywhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, but if I go the usual way I’ll be home while my daughter is still rambling around the house, a proud early-walker; how do I go about explaining the idea of isolation, and no-touching to an eleven month old charger? So, I take the even longer route home. Over the moor’s wiggliest B roads, stopping for sheep, for cows and then the sunset. That’s worth a stop. A pink haze fills the heavens. Across from this particular park up the ice-cream man is doing a less than roaring trade and I realise I can’t help there. I don’t want to be Patient 99er after all.
By the time I’m home, our little bundle of energy is in bed and none the wiser and, in the end, I spend just over two days in pants and a bathrobe hidden from my daughter in the attic, finishing off two books and a sequence of lessons for Year 7. It almost feels like some sort of retreat experience without the foot rub or strawberries and Prosecco. Eventually, I emerge to cheerful shouts of ‘Daddy’, interspersed with the occasional ‘Doggy’, despite the fact we don’t own a dog, and new normal is resumed.
The return to school is short-lived when another shutdown looms, only this time it’s wide enough for the entire school to close up shop and move to the virtual world. It’s not quite Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise, but probably about as unfulfilling. If you haven’t seen it or heard it, then this ignorance is quite possibly how we might wish to feel about Covid, 2020, and Sky News’ Kay Burley at Breakfast in the years to come.
By the time Christmas comes and goes, the 2021 Lockdown descends and January is a quiet memory, I have spent more time under an actual roof, in an actual bed with my actual wife than I have in the van. There has been no need of a conjugal visit to my cliffside detention cell. This is the most I’ve been able to be a family-man during term time in two and a half years. Admittedly, there are nights I pine for the van, particularly those when my wife exudes the heat of a nuclear-fuelled thermal reactor, but on the whole the tin box is little thought of, fired up only for the occasional run while we declutter the house and begin the process of moving out to our temporary lodgings after a successful sale. Thankfully the van purrs still even if it has been frozen in time like Dorothy’s tin man by the road side.
2021’s challenge so far has not been the continued life living in a tin van on the road side during the working week, away from home, but the burning sensation of my delicate peekers after hours in front of a screen speaking into, what sometimes feels like, an abyss.
“Type ‘yes’ if you are with me in the chat.”
A flurry of yesses ensue, giving me some comfort, but just to test this barrage, I occasionally mix it up and ask for animal sounds when I hear my daughter trying to sing along to Old Macdonald from the room below, and of course this reveals so much:
“Sir, why are we writing ‘oink’ in the chat?”
“Have you been paying attention?”
“No. Sorry, but why are we saying oink?”
Later that day, a booming thud reverberates from the square below the house. It thuds and thumps incessantly until I have to set the class a quickly thought up break out task and rush out. I cannot concentrate. I cannot think. Outside, sitting at the bench is a man with a boombox, fiddling with the playlist on his phone, delighting no one with his delicate taste of drum and bass. I question his intent regarding this choice of music and its volume as politely as I can; I enquire as to the length of his visit to our square. I move swiftly on to the suggestion he leave, hastily. Upon he twitches, stands nervously and collects up his paraphernalia, shouting back, “Bro, people are losing it!”
Dressed in his Pikachu onesie, can of Redstripe in hand, he ambles off. I say nothing, only wonder who has lost it exactly, before rushing in to assess Year 8’s learning and progress galore.