“I’m normal. It’s everyone else who’s weird.”
Alas, I have learned this lifelong motto is no longer true. Having been cooped up semi-voluntarily for over six months now, Clare and I have made a brief getaway bid to the West Country. It was a foolish move. We had forgotten there is no such thing as ‘low season’ in this part of the world any more - a phenomenon all the more apparent since foreign holidays, weekend breaks, stag parties and bar-mitzvahs are off the menu, except for people with copious fortnights to spare for quarantine, both on arrival and return.
As a result, the place is heaving with grockles, emmets, or whatever the local slang name for tourists is down here. These days they’re probably known as super-spreaders. You can almost hear the dialect’s rolling rrr’s making the most of the phrase — superr-sprreaderrrs.
The trouble is Britain doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with a pandemic. I’m not talking hospitals and contact-tracing systems here. I mean pavements. Even in the city it’s hard to pass anyone with two metres to spare without stepping into traffic. Picturesque seaside fishing villages have no capacity at all.
This leaves me jumping like a startled rabbit at every turn. Crowds that I would normally cruise through, cause me to hyperventilate, which is not a good thing when you’re trying not to breathe in somebody else’s coronaviruses. A stroll to the beach, or a country ramble, turns into a sequence of body-swerves worthy of an international rugby winger.
You see, I have conscientiously taken on board all those messages about social distancing. So primal instincts are aroused. Fight or flight? Shall I scurry into the nearest hermetically isolated bunker, or will I stand on a street corner and scream like some demented prophet of old, ‘We’re all doomed!’ (While keeping my face mask on, of course).
What really scares me is the unchristian compulsion to punch those people careless enough to come within an arm’s length. Or push them off the pavement. Or the cliff-top path. Fear does strange things to you, or so I’ve been told. I’ve discovered that it’s true.
These unwary risk-takers come in all guises. Young, old, beach-fit surfers, and those who totter up or down the slightest gradient. Some march close by, grimly defiant of any virus you may inadvertently carry. Others glance at you as they brush past as if to say, ‘Go on, challenge me’. I’ve been let out of lockdown and I’m spoiling for a fight.’ One or two shuffle hastily along, scared you might exhale in their vicinity.
Even on a moorland walk, I’m constantly on the lookout for the next widening in the path, a potential passing place should hikers approach from the other direction. I might as well drive the narrow, awkward country lanes with their irregularly placed gateways and pull-ins for all I get to see of the scenery.
Every now and then, someone pauses at a ‘safe’ distance and engages in a chat. Noticing our binoculars, they ask ‘Have you seen the choughs at Cape Cornwall?’. Such encounters restore our humanity. Even the little old lady who, out with friends, stops to compare notes on the steepness of the slope - ‘Tough going up; even trickier coming down!’ - and leans in as if to reinforce the joke with a pat on the arm, suddenly remembers the new protocol and pulls back. Of course I feel sorry for her.
I am the new normal. And everyone else is the new weird.
Stay safe, John.