Colonists cottages in the old town of Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands. (Photo by: Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Quarantine in the Falkland Islands – continued

In the final instalment of his Falklands quarantine diary, ASH Smyth gears up for the outside world after two weeks at home

This piece is a continuation of A S H Smyth’s quarantine diary. The first instalment can be read here.

Day 8

A 45-minute crying jag at dawn over Freya’s choice of slippers (unicorns). She eventually agrees to wear the Peter Rabbit slippers tomorrow and is now eating a fig roll and drinking water from a wine glass (the only kind we have), dressed in an oversized Disney Rapunzel outfit someone sent her for Christmas. Fiona, meanwhile, is talking about making our own bread. We’ve become peasants by mistake!

Emilio Estevez says he once found himself pulling out his beard hairs with stress on some particular film set. I, too, have a habit of pulling out my hair, from time to time, behind my left ear. After two weeks of this nonsense, I’m going to need a haircut just to blend it back in. My last haircut was in Sri Lanka (late November?) and cost three quid. I wonder what a haircut sets you back in Stanley?

Someone’s turned up to spray the next building along with bug spray. I read up on the mountains (small ones) of the Falklands. Mount Adam, particularly (gutted to find that it’s the second highest). Most of the afternoon is spent [fourth-wall klaxon] writing up last week’s diary.

A pair of my trousers turns out to have a leftover festive napkin in the pocket (when you have a three-year-old…). So, with assistance from Spotify, Freya and I are learning The 12 Days of Christmas, halfway to February. One recording has the last few days in the wrong order.

On the plus side, I’ve been invited to a birthday drinks do when all this is over. Granted, it’s not til February (mine host is a Dry-Januaryist), but nice to have something – a solid date for the diary – to look forward to. Light at the end of the tunnel and all that.

The doctors here expressed concern about my iron levels – so Guinness, now, is basically medicine

Not that we’re even short of alcohol, thank God. And in our pre-immigration medical checks the doctors here expressed concern about my iron levels – so Guinness, now, is basically medicine. In the absence of a pint glass, though, I have to allez-oop my can into a couple of coffee mugs before the next-gen widget loses about a fifth to spillage. Still, as someone with a couple of mid- to high-level Guinness connections in the family (one brewer and one engineer, that I know of; both long deceased), I remain impressed they can get any semblance of draught out of these cans at all.

In other technology news, we have no Tupperware or anything (our shipping, in two batches, from both Sri Lanka and the UK, won’t get here until sometime in March), so thus far all leftover/unfinished/batch-cooked food has gone back into an assortment of used takeaway curry tins, small trifle pots, and, at one point, a Pyrex dish tied up inside a plastic bag.

After I post a photo from our plane-ride over, critic, flâneur, and notional cricket team-mate Nicholas Lezard tells me I should be listening to Cabin Pressure. That ought to keep me busy for a day or two. Meanwhile, we hear the UK’s air-corridor has now been closed. Looks like we’re here to stay, I guess.

Day 9

Two nights running, Freya has had minor nightmares: shouting about how she “want[s] to do [something].” Leave the goddamn house, probably.

Fiona proclaims the brand-new microwave is useless. In truth, between adjustments to my coffee regime (sealed mug) and Freya’s porridge (pan on hob), I had forgotten it was even there. That said, the pans we have are so thin that, when cooking pasta, the water’s practically caught fire before you’ve turned the gas on.

I play some Iolanthe from my phone (we’re using Alexa/the WiFi too much), and after the slow and boring process of breakfast is complete, I find myself thinking “God, this prelude really is long!” Somehow, the phone has switched itself onto repeat. One seven-minute track has played a dozen times without my registering.

Since from my window I can see little beside an empty stretch of hill (the standard type, in these parts), the cost of internet notwithstanding, I have been finding out about life in the Falklands largely through Facebook groups. Shops, sport teams, remote B&Bs, photographic societies, jobs forums, local media, nurseries, and a range of broadly governmental institutions including the library, the Defence Force, and the Public Accounts Committee all have a page of some kind.

One alerts me to the online existence of the Falkland Islands National Archives, which includes historic local periodicals, shipping registers and logbooks of several Falkland Islands Company ships, and the notes and diaries of life on Bleaker Island by Arthur Frederick Cobb in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

While Bleaker Island is far from being the most remote Falkland Island, it’s also not just round the corner

There are 770-odd Falkland Islands in total, and while Bleaker Island is far from being one of the most remote it’s also not just round the corner. For context: shortly before we left the UK, a friend of a friend responded to an e-mail, saying that she’d been off orca-watching. November-December is prime viewing season, apparently. I looked up where this was happening. Sea Lion Island. Ask Google Maps for directions and it will come up blank; but the journey needs at least a plane, if not a plane and boat. At present we don’t even have a car.

I believe, though, that you can fly to these places by booking a seat on the internal govt./post planes (four single-prop red numbers: we see one landing, frequently, from West to East, from our back garden) for a flat rate of £70, one way.

Closer to home, Fiona forwards an open invitation to sing at an evensong in Stanley’s Christ Church cathedral next Sunday. Something else to look forward to.

Despite our having jury-rigged some blackout blinds, Freya has chosen now to start taking much shorter naps. This afternoon, Fiona’s completing (for the nth time) a teachers’ online child-protection module, I’m reading about Egyptologists (Amis/Conquest), and Freya’s watching a film about a ballerina. All in one room. I haven’t even been outside today.

Some genius decided it would be a good idea to put collectible trumps-style cards in little packs of Tesco compressed-fruit snacks for kids. I just found one stuck to my copy of Tim Severin’s The Sindbad Voyage. “Dad, I love you even more when you’re grumpy.” Uhuh.

Day 10

My schedule has slipped into a 48-hour cycle. Lie in, then stay up late, then (have to) get up early, then feel tired and go to bed early. I already can’t remember which one I’m on today. (I could be Captain Willard in his Saigon hotel room, if I didn’t have a kid in tow. I wish I was Captain Willard in his hotel room…)

More generally, though, the timing of our arrival on these shores has been fairly auspicious. The last landmine from the 1982 war was cleared about a month ago (big ceremonial explosion, down the beach, in front of crowds), and the Antarctic ozone hole closed just before we landed. OK, it seems the latter comes and goes each year; but whatever.

Neighbour Mum buys me a new notepad from the store, and Neighbour Dad (a rugged Northerner) tells me about the couple of times he’s had to kill a bird here, to put it out of its misery, and how that’s played out: 1 x stamp, 1 x head came off, 2 x shocked bystanders who seemed to think eviscerated pigeons would get taken to the vet. Also, about the lady who found a rarely sighted type of penguin in the middle of the road and drove it back down to the sea, enraging several bird nuts who were right then speeding across the islands for a glimpse of it.

Trampolines seem to be a major thing here (odd, given the high winds?), and we get to know a few more neighbours (neighbours’ kids) over the fences. But still a fair few we have never seen, except for laundry. Is this just reflective of the mean (sic) temperature, even at the height of summer?

In addition to the hair-pulling, I appear also to be getting a dry scalp. Is this long Covid?

Freya explains to two of them why we don’t have our dog with us anymore (he couldn’t go from England to Sri Lanka in the first place – too hot – so we heartbrokenly re-homed him with some friends of Fiona’s cousin, who had a lurcher sister for him). These well-recounted memories from two continents away are simultaneously real and artificially preserved, and Freya (aged three and a third) would not still have them 18 months down the line were it not for photo albums on our phones and daily “memories” on social media. An unusually ambiguous positive, I think.

On that theme, we’ve already told Freya she won’t be getting any sisters of her own. She doesn’t seem all that put out about it, thus far. Although it does keep coming up in conversation.

I request books and pitch articles. I correspond with chums in England, Scotland, Australia, Sri Lanka – and the country Neighbour Dad suggests I might want to consider referring to Argentina as “East Chile”. I get embroiled in an argument with friends about whether Blackadder is racist (obviously not). Fiona interrupts me to say her Sri Lankan grandfather would have been 117 today… “which is why he’s dead.” I ask (with love) what she is talking about, and it turns out she’s just done her entire family tree, on Excel spreadsheets.

We play football, catch, piggy in the middle (approx. two minutes of attention, each). While Freya dashes about, I pick fist-sized rocks out of the grass, in case she falls over and/or on them. Soon enough, the ball inevitably goes over the fence into an empty garden. Last time we fetched it back by reaching for it with our broom. This time I have to jump over. I am immediately spotted by the other neighbour’s daughter. “You’re not supposed to do that!” she hollers. The noise travels a long way on less-windy evenings. Meddling kids!

We watch the little red planes buzz about the area. “The sky is very big,” says Freya. She’s not wrong. I read her a new book: The Dinky Donkey. It has a comma splice on every single page.

Day 11

It’s Monday – I think – and Freya has learned how to ask Alexa for “the overtured [sic] to The Marriage of Figaro.” She has no idea what any of those words mean, and yet she gets the piece of music that she wants (and it sure beats Trolls: World Tour for the 10,000th time). Too bad Alexa’s probably for the chop. Not that Freya will notice. She now sings pretty much the whole time, when she isn’t dancing.

Later, we paint placemats for ourselves, from cardboard boxes. I say ‘later’, but it isn’t even 9am yet. Joy. “Try not to be a dick”, someone doesn’t quite subtweet me, on a picture of the Buddha. Yeah, fine. But I am not good at art, and if I have any concerns about the offspring’s upbringing/education it is this. (Sports teacher wife has got the dancing covered.)

In addition to the hair-pulling, I appear also to be getting a dry scalp. Is this long Covid? One jests – just – but there is much talk of mental effects of lockdown. The physical effects of quarantine can’t be that brilliant, either. And I’m not about to watch Joe bloody Wicks.

There’s a fun spat developing on Facebook, over local journalism. Out in the wider world – and not to come over all ultra-Falklandist or anything – but my father sends a Times nib in which some East Chilean police were mistaken for strippers when they attempted to break up a 20-couple orgy (in breach of Covid regs). Oh, and Donald Trump intends to build a presidential library. So that’s amusing.

In the kitchen either the boiler or the fridge gives off a squeaky fart noise once an hour or so

Apropos of nothing, the toilet starts just running water. We phone the public works dept. They instantly know what the problem is, which rather suggests they’ve had this call before. They take our word for it (or can see?) that we’ve had two (presumably negative) Covid tests. We can just go into a separate room when they come round, they say. The plumber turns up, a burly 6ft+ guy in full white suit, mask, goggles and industrial gloves – and that’s all just to come inside the house. He’s done in under five minutes. I cannot even see what he’d have fixed.

A very blustery day. Fiona’s watching a mountaineering documentary for school. She keeps letting out sharp gasps and winces. While we play with plasticine, Freya tells me she wishes we could go back to Sri Lanka. I’m about to reassure her that 14 days locked inside is not “the Falklands”… but she seems to get that.

Nervous delivery guy is back. This time I cannot put the envelope of money down, because it’s trying to blow away. After a 15-minute chat with Neighbour Dad I had to wear a beanie for the rest of the evening, indoors. He was out there in his socks – but then he’s from Leeds, so…

Staring at my Guinness can, Freya announces that she wants to play the harp one day. If she means literally one day, then we can probably arrange matters. Otherwise, it’s harp or uni fees. We didn’t name her after a no-nonsense lady explorer only to have her play the bloody harp!

Drive-by from the/a local policeman, who talks to us through the window. He only got out of quarantine himself five weeks ago.

Kissing me goodnight, Freya says, “Can I look at that un-lovely face?” It’s Michael Gove, on the Christmas issue of The Spectator.

We watch The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington has memorised the entire Bible (with fun cannibal cameos from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour). If this goes on much longer, I might give that a try myself (the memory trick. Not anthropophagy).

In the kitchen/anteroom either the boiler or the fridge gives off a squeaky fart noise once an hour or so.

Day 12

A stonking blue morning. Chucking the coffee grounds out on the front lawn, I estimate you could get sunburned at half seven in the morning.

Fiona’s had the lie-in today, so I’m not exactly sure what I’ve done to come out of the bathroom and find Usher playing before it’s even breakfast time. Then something about “girls and boys” and “making some noise”. In retaliation, I treat myself to a download of the twentieth anniversary OK Computer reissue, and listen to all the B sides.

Now they’re outside, blowing bubbles and looking very glamorous in sunglasses and ski jackets. An insect donks along the outside of the double glazing. I have a horrible spot deep in the side of my nose.

Later, Freya asks why somebody’s just broken into song in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A very good question. She also asks why Russell from Up is not a girl. Fiona and I both sigh, quietly. “That isn’t a ‘why?’ question, darling…”

We play hide and seek in the sun in the front garden, pick flowers, and watch a butterfly. Even touching the front gate seems bordering on the transgressive. Someone drives past, and waves. They don’t know who we are, obviously.

I discover that here expats are known as ‘contractors’, which makes us sound like hitmen

Freya gets a grump on about not being allowed to play games on her Kindle for more than an hour(!) while mummy is in a school phone-meeting. She tries to slam her door, but can’t, because the house is carpeted, the doors weigh nothing, and there’s essentially an airlock, anyway. She cries for ages in her walk-in wardrobe. Out of the window, I watch a lady go up the road with a 5-year-old on a scooter, followed by two cats. In fairness, she’s done well making it this far. Freya, that is; not the cat lady.

On my arm, the four pale scars I picked up on my last weekend in Colombo (cigarette burns…? I was very drunk) also seem to be blending in. Just in the wrong direction.

I go and sit outside. It’s a lovely sunny evening, though hardly warm (do they do barbecues here? I’m thinking not). Pairs of chubby starlings land on the laundry lines. It’ll be light for at least two hours yet, but the second the sun goes behind a cloud, there is a minor symphony of clicks and pocks as the roofs around us start to contract, the dark ones noisiest.

Freya is in bed, singing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at the top of her lungs. Last night she was still blaring away after about an hour. I went in and told her she needed to go to sleep. I sang her a nice quiet song, and then she said, “You can go and watch your film now, Dad.” Hm. Busted.

Apparently, we’re getting the loan of a car this coming Friday (it seems to be assumed we’ll want to do A Big Shop). Neighbour Dad tells me about the road laws in the Falkland Islands. To wit: on most of the road network, there aren’t any. I also discover that here expats (incl. the British variety) are known as “contractors”. This makes us sound like hitmen, so I think I can probly live with that.

After dusk, seen through our frosted bathroom window, the hot air from the boiler vent looks like a ghost dancing about. I warn Fiona, so there’ll be no “WTF!” moments in the middle of the night. She retorts that her bathroom use happens at different angles from mine. The thanks I get.

Day 13

The shipping guys, between Colombo and Felixstowe, are being a nuisance. Unexpected fees, import duties (for a boxful of used domestic items which came from England in the first place), freight companies who’ve changed their names three times, etc. So cargo which left Sri Lanka in the first week of December won’t even make it to Bristol (yep, overland) in time to get to Stanley in March! Books, clothes, kitchenware, DVD player, kid’s games, whatever you can think of.

Our entire house is not much bigger than my late-teen/early-adult bedroom in Kent

I persuade Freya to watch the first film in the Tintin box set which my mother gave me for Christmas just a couple of years ago (somewhat ironically, having never let me watch such things as a kid). Now cheerfully answering all Freya’s questions about the plot points and the background scenery (skyscrapers in Chicago, etc.). George Remi’s political difficulties are well recorded; but as a kid’s introduction to the people and places of the world, the collected Tintins remain hard to beat. (I could probably even make an argument for them being responsible for my ending up here.) Nonetheless, I notice that the set does not include (and perhaps never did?) Tintin in the Congo, and the episode Tintin In America (the first in the TV cartoon series) only has the gangster section, and not the bits involving “Red Indians”.

A nice sunny day, but seriously blustery. The house is rumbling and whistling. When Freya goes to say hi to her “chicken friends”, her bunches stand out horizontally behind her head.

Having weaned her onto eating fig rolls over Christmas (mostly for the sake of trolling author Anthony McGowan, who hates them), I discover she has eaten most of my stocks. With a six-week turnaround for luxuries from the UK, this was probably a bad idea.

I realise our entire house is not much bigger than my late-teen/early-adult bedroom in Kent. And Freya is now jumping on the sofa more than Tom Cruise. Fiona, laughingly hysterically: “I’ve just had the urge to kick you in the face. That’s not a good urge to have, now, is it?”

One last Covid test from Janice the nurse. “Two days!” Freya practically yells at her. She says we’ll get some kind of all-clear note tomorrow, letting us know that we’re officially good to go on Day 14+1 (though isn’t there a Poe story where a man is escaping from a cell, where he’s been held by the Inquisition, only to have the last door slammed in his face by the Grand Inquisitor? Still, unless the test results are turned round pretty quickly, I suppose we might be out of here before the bad news turned up). She also says the horse a few doors down tried to eat her bright yellow medical-waste bag, and a sheep has had a crack at her apron. Idea for a Covid animal-zombie screenplay…

Janice is now the person we know best in the entire country, saving our nextdoor neighbours. Nonetheless, I tell her I hope that we won’t see her again too soon. She says people already cross the road when they see her coming.

Someone parks a white van in our drive, and Fiona stands there in the kitchen, watching, like a proper parochial curtain-twitcher. It’s someone working on the neighbour’s house. Said neighbour says he doesn’t lock the front door. And not only does he not lock his car, he doesn’t even take the keys out of the vehicle. I mean, I guess if you see someone driving your 4×4 round town, you just politely ask for it back…?

An Army mate in London sends me a save-the-date for his wedding in 2022. Am I going to be available for his stag do in Rome, this coming September? Pretty unlikely. And my strike-rate for such things is terrible in any case. I’ve been to hardly any mates’ weddings, and even fewer stag dos – not even my own.

The afternoon’s weather somehow very hazy, while also still windy. I have a hankering to play the cello while listening to Arvo Pärt. I don’t play the cello, you understand. I just occasionally feel that I might like to.

The day seems not to drag, though Fiona’s quick to point out that’s because I have been writing, while she’s dealt with the childcare.

By 8pm, fog back down to the ground. No rain, though.

Day 14

I have a dream about cable ties, and wake up before dawn, telling someone about them in my sleep.

Freya requests more “Tommy… tom-tom… Tintin?” Aha! Result. Though now seems to think that I am Tintin (or in this Tintin?) because I studied pharaonic stuff at university. This could get complicated.

Another Army mate (from the UK) forwards a Falkland Islands Community Board flyer on Facebook, alerting the population to the theft of a steel catering tray from the restaurant over at Mount Pleasant. Hmm. A tray full of food, stolen at 2am on a Saturday, on a forces base? We’ll get our best guys on that. Neighbour Dad reckons it’s a spoof. If it is, it works. It’s entirely plausible.

Curveball du jour: “Do you sell fishing rods, Dad?” (I do not.) Also weird, Freya’s still randomly singing the Sri Lankan national anthem. It’s not a good one – especially if you only know the first few words. She gets this from her grandfather, who only knows verse one of Louis Armstrong’s “Cheesecake”.

Fiona gets a text to say we’ve used up 80 per cent of our monthly 35GB data package. Not ideal

Fiona gets a text to say we’ve used up 80 per cent of our monthly 35GB data package. Not ideal when your employer needs you to watch a legally-binding work slideshow that takes two hours. A 1GB top-up will cost £15: at present rate we must be using more than 2GB per day. Of course, the idea is you upgrade to the next payband (you can’t downgrade, within your 12-month contract). Equally-of-course, we’re going to try to avoid doing so. (Naturally, my immediate response is to download a couple of new audiobooks – like when I’m running out of money I get antsy to buy paper books, in case I can’t once my account is empty.) A friend in Colombo asks if we’re up for a video chat tomorrow morning.

Freya demands to make a sword. Fiona complies. They make some sort of scimitar (cool, cool), but in so doing drop a pack of glitter stars all over the living room carpet.

Fiona receives a work e-mail telling her she has an induction session tomorrow. It also includes a briefing booklet which begins, “The first section will be useful prior to arrival in the Falkland Islands…” There is a list of what to bring. I’ll tell the shipping company to turn the boat around.

Neighbour Dad tells me the reason there’s no postbox here is… there’s no postman. Post goes to a PO box in town, to major places of employment, or to the islands where the planes land. I remember the first time I heard of PO boxes (outside TV competitions), when my father’s cousin in rural South Africa had to drive for about half an hour to get his mail from the nearest town. Better yet, he had a Porsche (I think) which was garaged in that town, because it couldn’t hack the farm roads. So he had to drive to town to get that too.

At 7:23pm the phone call comes: we don’t have Covid. “Would you be able to pass that on to Adam as well?” they say. By my maths we arrived at about half-nine, two weeks ago this evening. The hospital don’t see it that way.

To celebrate, Fiona gets boozy with some friends on WhatsApp (data!), while I get to count out 240 pieces of fusilli. “I wish I could have wine,” Freya sighs, wistfully.

So, there it is. The Falkland Islands, here we come! I’ll to have to start some sort of job-hunt in the morning. On Saturday night the main feature at the cinema is Terminator. And then there’s the community picnic at the Old Stone Corral (verbatim, I swear), Sunday lunchtime.

I tell you what, though: first thing tomorrow, I am going for a fucking run.

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