Artillery Row

Quarantine in the Falkland Islands

From South Asia to the South Atlantic, in the time of Covid

We don’t have Covid, I am fairly confident. In fact, my wife and I had PCR tests just last month.

We needed them, to board a plane leaving Sri Lanka. And, indeed, to transit through the Middle East. Curiously, no paperwork was needed to arrive in plague-raddled England: in fact, even though Sri Lanka was, at that very moment, experiencing a quite marked uptick in infections (or discovery of same), the best news we had in the whole effortful business was that SL had just been added to the list of countries from which arrivals in the UK do not even have to isolate! This made the festive season – or what passed for it – a bit more manageable.

The “lockdown” regulations in the UK may not be anywhere as strict as critics would like; but given that we were coming from a tropical country where mask-wearing was basically compulsory, we were quite happy to behave ourselves with one-on-one walks, outdoor coffees, sticking to the constraints of our family “bubble”, etc. In the entire month that we were there, I shook the hand of just one man (his mother had died); and we also had to drive from Kent to Devon, to pick up half the family’s warm kit (“essential travel”).

We were, after all, only in the UK because there is no other way to get where we were going: to wit, the Falkland Islands.

In the Falklands, we’ve discovered, a cucumber costs £3.49

The Falkland Islands Government (known as FIG), because it is a small place with limited resources, and because it has (or should have) strong connections to the travel industry, takes a straightforward line on Covid: all new arrivals spend two weeks in quarantine. And fair enough. Given that most of the UK was Tier 4 by Christmas/New Year, in truth, if we were going to catch the lurgy anywhere, it would most likely be the 19-hour pseudo-military flight from Brize Norton to Mount Pleasant, via Dakar (where they changed crews just to keep things interesting). 

And so we landed here a week ago, embussed (fresh masks, disposable gloves), debussed, entered our home, and have been inside these four walls (and garden fence) since.

Day 1

I wake up feeling like I’ve played a rugby match I don’t remember. Probably something to do with the nigh-on 30-hour journey, door to door, to get us here. That, and the 13 bags, plus car-seat.

Top Wife™ has got the coffee on. She (we’ll call her Fiona) doesn’t even drink coffee.

We’re in a neat, five-room bungalow, not including quite large front and rear “vestibules”. [I type this in my daughter’s bedroom, at a little nook, surrounded by her dolls and Peppa Pigs. The glamour.] There is new-looking furniture, and a faint smell of paint. Either it’s recently been decorated, or the last occupant was some sort of religious ascetic. The Wi-Fi gadget twinkles at us, knowingly.

Outside, the ocean-blue synthetic-weatherboard exterior looks like something from a nineteenth-century whaling station (if a very tidy one). In the front garden, there is a matchy-matchy shed, which I call dibs on as my “home office”. (With any luck, the Wi-Fi might not even reach.) A steady hill leads up away to the South West, and over it the main road – some of it surfaced – to pretty much the entire rest of the islands.

Behind the house, a 10m square of scruffy turf, with lots of sunflowers. Left, and right, and across, a dozen or more near-identical houses, distinguishable only by their colour-schemes and variety of kids’ toys in their gardens. Beyond, the western end of Stanley’s natural harbour, and north of that, a long and seemingly uninhabited hillside.

We meet our semi-detached neighbours. They have a daughter (who was excited to hear we have one too), and she gives us a handmade welcome card with a very prominent Union Jack on it. They also have a lovely big outdoor trampoline on their side of the fence. Freya, our three-year-old, stands on our side, hands in her coat pockets, stoically watching someone else have fun bouncing up and down.

Neighbour Dad was a trained chef back in the world, and now works as a prison officer in Stanley. Intriguing career trajectory and bodes well (I hope) for one’s own employability! He is at pains to reassure me that the middling rain and ankle-height fog that we arrived in yesterday were unusual. Still, we’ve come well prepared (we think) for “Ulster” weather: I’m wearing a hat, just to chat to him.

Dinner of curry, generously left in our fridge last night, when we were too stuffed from the plane, and tired, and we couldn’t summon up the will to bother. I bump off Witold Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk, which I’d started on the (trans-Atlantic) flight solely because I am a bibliomaniac and had spotted it at the last moment as we were en route to the airport. Not worth it, honestly.

Vague sense of whiplash at having moved from the tropics (hot 24/7) to damn nearly the Antarctic (albeit in “summer”) – via the Home Counties (freezing) – in under a month. Not really kicked in, though. It’s just a fact, I guess: we now live in the Falkland Islands.

Day 2

Phone calls to and from the bank, school, phone company (all singular). Life with a landline! Also with the doctor about Fiona’s pills (as in “the”: one kid is quite sufficient, thank you). “Just give us a call on Wednesday and somebody will run them up. Are you happy with that?” “Oh, very.”

Phone numbers here have just five digits, mobile or otherwise. And they’re all in the phone book. An actual paper phone book. It has about 40 pages, broken down into residential, mobile, government, and business listings – with a certain degree of overlap.

News comes from NASA that 2020 was the shortest year on the atomic record. Sure didn’t feel like it

The house – the household – very actually has a QUARANTINE! sign on it, like from the Middle Ages, or a leper colony. We ordered some stuff from the store, and the delivery guy takes the script entirely seriously. He puts the groceries down on the step, knocks on the door (we don’t appear to have a bell), and walks about 5 metres back. I talk to him through my mask, perhaps making the situation seem worse than it is(?), and try to hand him the envelope of money. “Just put it down on the fence,” he says, and only picks it up, with gloves, once I have gone back in and shut the door. I realise afterwards that I had purple spots all up my face, from Freya’s “art” sesh.

I also realise that, since Covid struck, less than a year ago, we’ve now been locked down, in various senses, on three different continents (third -tine’s a charm!). Still – what’re you gonna do. At least we have a garden this time. Perhaps we ought to use it for a vegetable patch. In the Falklands, we’ve discovered, a cucumber costs £3.49.

I finish Bleaker Island, a neat and cheerily-meta first book about trying to write a novel in the Falkland Islands. (I had thought it would be more about the Falklands; but no problem.) Thanks to the miracle of social media, I am bombarded by mates asking what the Falklands is like. I do not know. I cannot leave the house. This is the fifth time, now, that I have emigrated (not counting six months in Afghanistan, or all of the return “migrations”), and the first time somewhere new – indeed, a whole new continent – in over 15 years. But from this limited vantage point, what with the landscape, the language, the clothing, the media, the food, the décor… I could have moved to Devon, or to Donegal.

Somewhere out there, the islands are teeming with wildlife: whales, dolphins, penguins, sealions and elephant seals, as well as routine farm stuff. Much avian activity, from wrens and other such to buzzards and hawks. And rivers full of trout and smelt and something else that I forget now. But without looking at our pamphlets from the Tourist Board, we can only see some little swooping birds, and a few domestic cats, one of which is absolutely monstrous. (No collars, though. Perhaps that’s not an issue here.) Oh, and a quite handsome chestnut horse, which wanders into someone’s garden three or four doors down, under their laundry line, and starts chomping contentedly at the long grass.

Fiona and Freya play cricket in the garden, but the plastic stumps won’t hold up in the wind. Yet when I take a photo there are suddenly kids-drawing fluffy clouds against a bright blue background. Ten minutes later, the sky’s gone full Michael-Bay-film alien invasion.

Do they do weather forecasts here? “Changeable” would be the best that you could bank on, surely? By sunset, it’s a crystal blue-pink wash. We drink [clears throat] some Argentinian malbec, which must have found its way into our luggage. And so to bed.

Day 3

We unpack the few things that we brought with us. Relieved to find all the suitcases can go in the capacious and well-insulated loft. Looks like somebody massacred the Gruffalo up there.

The girls practise their handstands against the living room wall, and I stare out of the window. Not a lot going on in this part of Stanley. I estimate we should be seeing signs of life from 30-40 people. Maybe folk are still on holiday (this is the long school break). Or work ungodly hours? From his outfit, the guy across the road looks like he must be a fisherman, or fireman, or works all day inside cold storage units.

Our street – part of a newish branch of the town – is visible but not identified on Google Maps. I try to figure out what I am looking at across the water. Already hankering to climb those hills – or indeed do anything beyond the confines of the house and garden. Somewhere below us, invisible down the slope, is Stanley Golf Club (one of at least three, amazingly, across the islands), for the enjoyment of which my father essentially insisted that I ship a set of clubs – to justify his own getting a new set as a Christmas present. Emigrating straight into quarantine is, I realise, notably different. We are simultaneously in our own home (small mercy) and yet have no idea about the country that surrounds us. We haven’t even seen the town we live in, wherein live several new acquaintances whom I have not met. Weird.

I listen to Martin Sheen’s father-son dual memoir with Emilio Estevez. Nice guys, if earnest in a rather inevitable mid-Western way. Sheen tells a great story about taking the infant Emilio to be baptised by a Greek Orthodox priest (the only one he could find, apparently), and wanting to name him “Emilio Diogenes Estevez”, until both he and the priest admitted that they couldn’t spell “Diogenes”. They went with “Dominic” instead.

We put the laundry out, and it is bone dry in about an hour. Five pegs on every bit of clothing, mind. Apart from the occasional rattle of the weatherboards, though, inside, the well-glazed house is almost eerily quiet. (When the sun comes out, you hear it creak and pop as it relaxes.) In the garden, I see Fiona being miffed because the massive cat – Rambo – won’t play with her. Then Freya crying because she poked it, uninvited, and it swiped her back.

I think she (Freya, not the cat?) is mildly discombobulated by the change in timings. In Colombo, the sun never set much after 6pm. Here, it sets at 10. In Kent, meanwhile, she’d wake up from her post-lunch nap and wonder why the sun was going down an hour later. She also seems, sporadically, to think we’ll be returning to Sri Lanka. I guess she’ll figure things out. Much like the rest of us: we missed her dinner time by over an hour last night, because the sun was shining.

A nurse drops by, and administers another pair of Covid tests. Less abrupt than the SL treatment, thankfully; but just in case, Fiona plants her back against the door before the nasal swab.

I send a few pictures to people (the shed, the horse), and tell them about the cucumber.

We’ve now been locked down, in various senses, on three different continents

For the first time in a decade, I watch football on TV (the last pro match I saw in person was also 10 years ago: Sri Lanka vs North Korea!). The charming sharks-v-minnows FA Cup fixture between Spurs and Marine, eight leagues below them, plays out, alas, exactly as you would expect. But the Marine captain is a school PE teacher (like Fiona), one of his strikers is a bin man, and they have a left back called James Joyce (who – as the poet George Szirtes astutely noted – was the only one to get “booked”). One side of the ground backs on to terraced houses, and the 20ft fence (erected for the game?) has placards on at intervals, so Gareth Bale knows which doorbell to push to get his ball back.

Falklands TV is on a three-hour delay, so things are at the same “time” as they would be in the UK. A sensible arrangement, unless, in the age of constant phone updates, you want to watch live sport without learning the full-time score by accident.

That said, internet here is limited and quite expensive. All the same, we invest in a video call to the (grand)parents. My father asks if two live Covid cases and the 11 people in the county jail don’t constitute record proportions of the population. He may be onto something. What have we done…!?

Day 4

In many respects, of course, quarantining here is no different from quarantining anywhere else that’s not a hospital.

Today, I hear the child announce, piously, that “It’s good to learn to play all. by. your. self.” I come out of the bedroom to congratulate her (alright, and refill my tea) and find her riding Mummy around the living room. After lunch, they make a Lumière from Beauty and the Beast (Disney) out of loo rolls and other odds and ends, and Freya asked me to “check out it”. For a moment, I am actually not sure how/whether to correct her. Fiona puts sun cream on her for the first time since we left Sri Lanka. Result: immediately grey, cold day. I later find them playing football in my office-shed. The cheek of it.

I decide I ought to sit down to some writing – and then realise my notebooks are on one or more ships, somewhere (at best) between Bristol and the South Atlantic. In an e-mail to my brother (re missing Christmas gifts), I have to check what day it is. Can it really be true we’ve only been here four days…?

In other news, the neighbourhood horse is back (#neigh #bour).

We have already accepted that nightly Netflix binges aren’t a goer – which is a shame since all our films are also on a ship. But you can download (I hope I’ve read this right) stuff after midnight without chewing through your allocated data. So I stay up and call a friend… in Buenos Aires.

Going outside to keep the volume down, I find, to my surprise, our street has streetlights. But if I sit on the back step, they disappear from direct sight below even the low roofs of surrounding houses. I’m no star gazer, but I’m pretty sure I’m staring at the Milky Way. The views from out of town must be spectacular.

The horse grunts in the dark and scares the shit out of me.

Day 5

Now reacquainted with terrestrial TV, we’re thrilled to see we even qualify for Catch Up. What’s more, Frasier is on! My better half chooses this moment to holler at me that the sink is leaking. Put one way, we deal with “high-stress” situations like this slightly differently. Put another, I refuse to move unless there’s water running everywhere. There’s not – but, inexplicably, ill-humour ensues anyway.

Even I am struggling with the incessant tea and coffee. But the weather kind of insists upon it (in Sri Lanka, any cup of anything would go cold instantly under the fans; here, the same deal if you go outdoors, which we still must), as well as there being nothing else to do.

I idly remove some white hairs from my beard. We argue with the kid about her choice of outfit. “Fuck it,” Fiona says, and orders us a half-case of red wine, and a slab of Guinness.

Our second delivery guy is much less nervous. “Is the money right?” I ask. “Well, we’ll know where to find you if it isn’t.”

It’s raining heavily (for these five minutes, anyway), and Freya is singing “There’s a hole in the middle of the sea…” Is it too early to start drinking?

I watch the rain (actually vigorous enough to hear) and read a collection of travel-themed obits from South and Central Asia. Somehow, Asia seems no more remote than it might have done on any other day – though I’m technically aware that big trips will be few and far between over the coming, what… three years?

Fiona tweaks the timers on the heating system. At 5pm I take my book and sit beside the radiator. The sun immediately comes out. Later, big cloud banks drive in from the West. It looks like the entire sky is moving.

The neighbours have very kindly given Freya some cress seeds, to grow “hair” on eggshell “faces”. I am now literally watching grass grow.

Day 6

News comes from NASA (or wherever) that 2020 was the shortest year on the atomic record. Sure didn’t feel like it. There is, one fears, a fine but quite clear line between quality time and quaran-time.

I dreamt about the leaking sink and getting told off for the water “running everywhere”. In the dream, though, it turned out to be splashback from the washing up. Which I was doing – ha!

A microwave turns up, on loan from the housing dept. “The highlight of the day,” Fiona declares. Oy. Now she’s talking about signing Freya up for online ballet classes… in Sri Lanka!

Meanwhile, Freya herself jabbers away contentedly with unknown neighbours, government officials, Fiona’s colleagues-in-waiting. I’m pleased. And she’s stopped asking everyone if they want sherry as the afternoon wears on (thanks Grandma!), so that’s fortunate.

I’m basically the David Attenborough of Stanley, now

As she and next door’s daughter hare, socially distanced, around their individual gardens, Neighbour Dad and I stand chatting over the fence, like something from the 1950s. We discuss medical paperwork, family life, and intellectual property legislation in countries we have known. Later on, he drops a hard-drive round with loads of movies on. (I copy it, then wipe it clean – not technologically, you understand; with an antibacterial wipe – and put it in a Tupperware by the front door, to decontaminate.)

The horse has moved. How does the booking system work, I wonder. I hear a cockerel somewhere, and, far off, methinks, a sheep. I’m basically the David Attenborough of Stanley, now. And not just me. Later, I open the window to hear Freya cheerfully interrogating another neighbour’s kid about their chickens.

Fiona’s pills are dropped off (by the neighbour!), at which point we twig that we do not have a letterbox.

The long summer evenings are certainly welcome (living on the equator, we hadn’t seen one in a couple of years); but with nothing much to do – and definitely not warm enough to sit outside – they seem to go on even longer than in England. This is presumably just an illusion, as Stanley and London/Kent are on the same (well, mirror) 51° latitudes.

We watch The Name of the Rose (Connery version. Amazon wants almost fifty quid for that, on DVD). “Not really my kind of film,” Fiona says – as if I didn’t know. I glance guiltily at an unfinished poetry project on the far side of the room.

Day 7

Sri Lanka are playing England at home, in Galle (cricket, obviously). Or rather were, because a) the day’s play is finished by the time I get up, and b) the Sri Lankan batting innings was over several hours before that. This is a rescheduled series, and several Rain Men confrères are quite sore about the visit we all had organised for this time last year, before the England team upped sticks and went home as coronavirus spread more internationally. I endeavour to boost everyone’s spirits by sending them news of the one-man Barmy Army wannabe who stayed in SL for the last ten months, specifically for this, and was turfed out of the ground before the first ball was bowled. Highlights, annoyingly, are unavailable on Falklands TV, and I can’t even watch the wicket clips on Sky tweets because “Unfortunately, licence restrictions prevent video viewing in your location.” Grrrr.

Fiona has started archiving our wedding photos (2014), and we’re getting hungry through sheer boredom. I look for something to eat in the fridge, but the contents are sparse, unless I want leftover trifle. Bit of a stark contrast with the (grand)parents’ house and its variously overstocked fridges, freezers, larders, pantries, cupboards, “cheese-safes” (I kid you not), and all the rest of it. Still, after the routine excess of Christmas, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a dietarily “dry” January.

The nurse comes back for Round Two. We’ve now had three PCR tests (all negative) in little over a month, and still have one to come. This must be something of a record, outside the medical fraternity? We are informed we don’t get lollies just for being brave.

Freya has drawn a hopscotch (not entirely unaided) in chalk on the path behind the house. Fiona asks me to watch her for a few minutes, while she sorts some dinner out. “It’s not cold,” she tells me, as I pull my toggled cardi on. Up the road, the horse is plainly sheltering behind the house he’s mowing.

The sky has gone completely uniform grey – out of this window, anyhow. We watch Schitt’s Creek, and then Fiona goes to bed. At half past nine, one neighbour’s still out, working on his chicken-coop.

Seven days down, seven more to go. My mate in Argentina messages to say the Falklands just cropped up in some Cate Blanchett film. The Falklands, huh? The idea that we live (t)here now may take a bit more getting used to.

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