Saturday, 30 January 2021

Lizards in Lockdown

Someone I know - let's say her name is Elsa, (it isn't) - lives in the south west of England, (actually, she lives in a different region) but comes originally from Australia (this bit and all the rest, except the place names and her friend's name, are true). Usually, Elsa goes home for a month or two in the European winter, to get a bit of sun into her bones.

But this year that's out of the question.

As a result, when Elsa's rather wild friend Xan, (a glamorous old thing who plans to go for a facelift in Turkey when this is all over), rings one gloomy morning and suggests they go for a sunbed, Elsa doesn't do what she and all Australians would normally do and shriek in horror at the idea of any unnecessary extra exposure to damaging UV rays, (even though that is how we have all been brought up to react to such suggestions since infancy). Because it is the middle of a British winter and Elsa feels a glimpse of sun, even sunbed sun, would actually be quite helpful, Elsa says she'd love to. Actually, she says she'd love to, but how exactly is it going to happen? It's lockdown, no sunbed places are open. To which Xan replies, Ah, but there is a sunbed place she's found out about, an illicit sunbed place, operating in Ottery St Mary. 

This is what happens when you bring in a strict lockdown, Elsa thinks, a whole industry of illicit sunbed places springs up. Or at least one does. Even one is absurd.

How the hell did we arrive at a situation where people are running illicit sunbeds, Elsa asks Xan - in which crystal ball could this have been foreseen? Xan says she doesn't know but does Elsa want to come with her? Elsa cuts the philosophising and says she definitely does want to, and the two of them agree to go that afternoon.

By the time Xan picks up Elsa from her house, the rain is already beginning. As they head out of town, the sky ahead of them is zigzagged by tremendous bolts of lightning. Thunder follows and finally the heaviest downpour either of them have ever seen. Visibility is reduced to almost nothing. Xan, always a slightly alarming driver, becomes, at least in Elsa's eyes, downright terrifying, alternating spurts of anxious acceleration with sudden braking. She also appears to have forgotten that in the narrow old lanes that they are soon navigating you sometimes encounter another car coming the other way.

But in this weather maybe Xan has simply realised that there will not be anything else coming in any direction. Certainly, they don't see anyone at all during the rest of the journey, so it would be an accurate calculation to assume no one other than them would be mad enough to be out in a car.

And eventually, after a great deal of lurching and several extremely dramatic episodes of skidding, what Elsa claims must have been at least a hundred potholes (plus, according to her, numerous near collisions with hedgerows), they are at last getting close to their destination. Then, at the moment that the sign indicating the turn off to Ottery St Mary emerges from the murk beyond the windscreen, Xan's telephone springs into life. Elsa snatches it from Xan, who is about to answer it while negotiating the turn. 

The caller has a broad West Country accent but the content of his conversation is pure Chicago mobster. The cops are hanging round out the front, they've been after him all week - Xan and Elsa will have to cruise around the back streets of Ottery St Mary for about half an hour. That should mean it will be properly dark when they arrive, (from Elsa's point of view it already is, although strictly speaking night hasn't fallen, but she doesn't quibble), and, if they come in the back way, with any luck the cops won't see them or will already have packed up and gone home.

Elsa notes down all the West Country mobster's instructions. The two women spend half an hour discovering the glories of Ottery St Mary, (what a splendid garden centre; good heavens, they have their own hospital - and an enormous Sainsbury's!). Then Elsa reads out the instructions to Xan, and after another three-quarters of an hour of getting lost and retracing their progress, they find the address of the prohibited sunbed place. 

They scuttle out of the car and down a side alley. They ease themselves through a gap created by pushing two slats of someone's back fence aside. They make their way towards the back of a small house and go through a glass sliding door into somebody's kitchen. The room is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little malodorous, possibly thanks to the wellfed dog lying on a large pillow and snoring by the door. 

In the middle of the room, there is a man sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and watching a boxing match on a small laptop. He looks up as they come in. Sure enough, he is the man Elsa spoke to on the telephone - owner and operator of a range of illicit sunbeds, if two can be said to constitute 'a range'.  

He takes the women through to what was probably originally designed to be a sitting room. He switches on the sunbeds and leaves them to it. 

Elsa and Xan undress and lie down. Elsa is enough of an Australian to stay in the sunbed for only a very short period. After a six-minute blast, she climbs out, dresses and goes back to the kitchen. Xan tells her that she will stay under the lights for a few minutes more. 

Back in the kitchen, the man is still watching boxing. Elsa asks if she can pour herself some water. The man nods and Elsa picks up a glass from the draining board. She turns on the tap. There is a crack of lightning, followed almost immediately by a crash of thunder. All the lights go out. 

The man swears. He gets up and goes out to where the sunbeds are. Elsa follows him. Xan is lying on a sunbed with no sun in it, struggling to open the top of the thing and get herself out. 

"It's no good", the man tells her. "It's a design fault - they lock themselves if the electricity ever goes off." Xan becomes angry, but the man insists there's nothing he can do about it. The lightning must have hit the local transmitter, he says - it happens sometimes, but she doesn't need to worry as they don't usually take too long to get the thing up and running again.

Xan has no choice. She has to accept the situation. Elsa and the man make their way back to the kitchen. Although the only source of light is the small amount the lap top sheds onto the table, the man snaps the thing shut, plunging the room into darkness. The dog groans in its sleep. 

Presumably the man doesn't want to waste the laptop battery. All the same, Elsa regrets the disappearance of its glow. Outside it is pitch black - and now it is equally dark indoors.

The man, it turns out, is a bit of a talker. Sitting in the blackness, he starts to tell Elsa about his political theories. The virus is a conspiracy, he says, the lockdown is a conspiracy, the US election was rigged, nothing is what it seems.

The man talks and talks. Elsa makes little sounds of if not exactly agreement at least non-aggression. She begins to wonder whether she is sitting in the dark with someone who is not entirely sane. Perhaps it is the fact that they can't see each other's faces that makes the conversation especially unsettling - the intensity of it, the rush of words from someone she has never met before, from a person who, though voluble, she can no longer see. 

The man begins to unfold his conviction that the world is ruled by a species of lizard with the ability to change its shape into that of humans. The Queen is a lizard, apparently. All the country's current politicians are too. Elsa decides after all that she is glad that neither of them can see the other. She imagines her face betrays the mixture of fear and bewildered amusement that, listening to him, she increasingly feels. 

That Professor Whitty, she hears the man say next, he's one, but he's really bad at transforming. And to her own dismay as she sits there in the darkness, in the middle of a lockdown that no one ever saw coming, in the kitchen of a man who is running an illicit sunbed parlour in the middle of a town in the West of England - that is to say, as she sits there in a real and yet entirely unbelievable situation - a horrible thought creeps into Elsa's mind.

What if he's right? 

But then the lights come on again, and Xan is released from her sunbed and they leave Ottery St Mary, without being waylaid by the cops. 

They continue breaking the law though - back in town, Xan doesn’t drop Elsa off and head straight on to her own home. Instead, she accepts Elsa’s invitation to come into her house and have a drink. They spend the rest of the evening in each other’s company, which, as anyone from the government will tell you, is a serious offence. They drink wine and eat crisps and watch television together, deep into the night. 

Hardened criminality is easier to slip into than you'd think in these strange times.


  1. In my opinion, as an Aussie in Melbourne where there have been zero community transmissions for 23 days, Elsa and Xan are both insane and morally corrupt. If people continue to flaunt the rules comme ca, Uk will never get control of this virus and nurses in the NHS will be continually faced with trauma and death that could have been avoided. I feel so sorry for those nurses and doctors. How they continue to front up each day to confront the suffering that they see, while also putting themselves at grave risk of contracting COVID themselves, is amazing. Sorry Elsa and Xan, but staying at home a few more months til vaccination finally makes some headway is a sacrifice well worth making.

    1. I think they've been messing with your mind, Anne. If you don't respect people, but instead treat them like naughty children, they will behave like naughty children. But I imagine the ABC is broadcasting the BBC's footage to you, and on the BBC we see a nightly attempt to whip up panic. Apart from the fact that what their reporters are doing often amounts to the most extraordinary invasion of patients' privacy at a time when the last thing anyone needs is a camera crew on top of everything else, if the BBC were doing its job properly it would be emphasising the known fact - clearly visible in their footage too - that overweight is one of the major vulnerabilities, instead of presenting interviews with obviously fat people who had a bad bout and escaped death and describing them as having no underlying vulnerabilities. If the BBC wanted to be truly of service, they would be spending the energy they waste on reports that are not fit for tabloid newspapers in their ghoulish chasing after tears and pain, but instead making it clear that there is an obesity emergency and showing people how to escape their own fatness. As to the government, like all major governments it failed at the task of protecting the vulnerable and has now cheerfully wrecked the economy and everyone's lives for no clear gain - last time I looked the death rate per 1000 in the UK was higher than in Sweden, where no blanket lockdown has ever been introduced. The truth is that Britain went into the pandemic with fewer beds per thousand of population than other comparable countries. It has more of the most densely populated cities than other countries in Europe and, indeed, the south east of England is the most densely populated place in Europe. Viral spread in these circumstances was never avoidable - and even in Australia, particularly Victoria, after the deaths of the South Australian newborns, I am concerned that our priorities in desperately focussing on avoiding deaths from one particular pathogen at the expense of everything else have turned us into something less than human. Although the government in the UK spent ten billion pounds of taxpayers' money on a track and trace system, it did not work. It also spent a great deal building much trumpeted Nightingale Hospitals; tens of thousands retired doctors and nurses volunteered to staff them and not one was contacted and put to work. The UK government now says that, even when the population has been vaccinated, they will not be lifting restrictions until autumn - what trust could anyone have in them? Their only tool apparently is to shout at the population. Yes,the virus is highly infectious and deadly in some cases. Informing citizens of the dangers, explaining that there will be unavoidable deaths but the government with the help of the people will do everything it can to avoid those, taking all measures to protect the vulnerable, should have been the approach. As I said before but it bears repeating - treating people like naughty children turns them into naughty children. The UK government doesn't govern, it lurches, driven by whatever is the latest media howl. I should add that central to all this is a refusal to understand that death stalks us constantly, unfortunately, terrifyingly, but it is a fact of life - and our reactions to the situation are, I think, influenced by how much we understand that, unpalatable as it is.
      Leaving all that aside, nothing Elsa and Xan did had the slightest chance of triggering the spread of the virus. They went into a man's house, then they went home. The way governments have stripped away people's rights, largely to try to compensate for their own incompetence, is the thing that shocks and frightens me. But I guess you are one of those who 'stand with Dan'.

  2. We have wrecked the lives of the young because we thought the coronavirus had the death rate of the Spanish Flu. It doesn't - Belgium has the highest death rate per million of any country and even there the figure is 1,827 - Sweden where rights have not been stripped from people with national lockdowns and Brazil, where the government is mad and doesn't care what the media or anyone says and the disease has run rampant, have much lower death rates per million. Lockdowns have the great advantage for politicians that if they appear to work they can be declared a success and if they don't that proves that they need to be extended and made tougher and the people who break them are to blame.

  3. Ok. I'm really glad that I live in Melbourne where we didn't behave like naughty children. We behaved like caring citizens and we now get to reap the benefits and go about our lives with very few restrictions or worries. It's marvellous. I can't see it happening elsewhere now (other than NZ) because contact tracing is simply not possible when you have over, let's say, 50 new cases a day. So I guess I can see why people like Elsa just go ahead and do as they please...the virus has basically over there, for now anyway.
    The death rate per million in Brazil is 1,052. In Australia it is 35. In the UK it is 1,559. In NZ it is 5. Having made big sacrifices in Melbourne to reach zero new cases per day, I'm satisfied with how the winter lockdown in VIC has turned out for us (and our health care workers particular).
    As for wrecking the lives of the young, climate change is doing a damn good job of that anyway.
    But everyone is entitled to their opinions and I totally agree with some of your points re the UK government for sure. What a monumental stuff up.
    Cheers. Hoping for the very best for you in the Uk and Europe.

    1. I think only Australia & NZ could have done what they have done & I'm not convinced it will be worth it, particularly as the government has not ensured vaccine rollout is rapid. Victoria ought never to have ended up in the situation it did. That was immensely costly socially and financially and caused entirely by governmental mismanagement. But I sense, from the aggression directed toward the journalist Rachel Baxendale when she tried to do the absolutely central job of a journalist - ask questions - that Victorians are in no mood to see their leader's feet of clay. You were forced to be locked up caring citizens unnecessarily long because of government stuff up and I cannot imagine the loneliness or the strain on families in small flats.
      In Britain now 25 per cent of COVID infections (including the famous 100-year-old, Captain Tom) are picked up inside hospitals.
      I think we must all hope for the very best as we have done something terrible, acting from blind panic. The full scope of our blunder will emerge over the coming years.