The Corona Chronicles: Week 68: Are the odds in our favour?

This year we’ve won the jackpot of an actual summer getaway! We’re not a gambling family, so anything that involves a passport has already been vetoed. The traffic light lottery system is not for us. Wales is as foreign as we dare to get. And we know all about UK weather, so expectations are suitably low. Still there is a sense of freedom in the air, especially for Grunting Teen, who is ‘well pleased’ that the school term has not yet ended and he’s escaping before the holidays officially begin.

The upside to missing out on last year’s trip to the now red-flagged France is that we didn’t have to deal with the Nearly Beloved’s pre-departure checklist. Unlike the government, he doesn’t trust the citizens of his household to behave in a responsible manner. Guidelines and suggested advice are not for him. Instead, boot space is allocated well in advance. Requests to include frisbees or beach balls need to be submitted for approval. Both denied. And bags have to be packed the night before.

After so many years of marriage I’ve almost reached the required standard, although the hairdryer only just passes inspection. Grunting Teen, however, fails miserably on his first solo attempt at shoving things randomly in a case. ‘Why have you got three packets of Oreos and two phone chargers but only one pair of jeans and no underpants?’ asks the Nearly-Beloved despairingly. The teenager opts for a non-confrontational approach. He simply shrugs and returns to his more important texting duties, occasionally glancing up from his screen with a half-concealed smile as his father finishes the job for him.

But the next morning he’s in for a shock. There’s no lying in until legs-eleven. We’re on the road by 9am. Estimated arrival time at our rustic log cabin – early afternoon. A clickety click at the garden gate and we unload the car to create our own full house. Freedom Day may not yet have arrived in Pembrokeshire but the view of lush fields and rugged coastline gives me a sense of deliverance from the last sixteen months of virtual imprisonment. Unfortunately, there’s a reason the grass is so green…the heavens open and our holiday soundtrack becomes the drumming of rain on the roof rather than cicadas on the terrace.

Grunting Teen is all for staying indoors. He’s happy with the hand he’s been dealt. He’s recreated his comfort cave and been conducting his blossoming romance online… until the wi-fi fails. So, to avoid an adolescent meltdown, it’s time to cash in the metaphorical chips and go looking for the deep-fried variety. Plus, I’m not expecting to do any cooking this holiday – I’ve been promised a seat at the high-stakes table. So, we don cagoules and walking shoes to hike down to the nearby village. However, today our luck is out. No steak for us. There is only one restaurant. Despite being half empty, it’s fully booked. The manager is most apologetic. ‘Can’t get the staff, see?’ he explains, ‘No more summer jobs for EU students. And a pingdemic amongst the locals. I know what I’d like to do with that bloomin’ Track and Trace app, isn’t it?

Before the air turns blue, we make reservations for the remaining nights and head to the sea-front sell-all store. Deeming it safer to leave the Nearly-Beloved to the mercy of the crashing waves, Grunting Teen and I venture inside. As my hand hovers over a tin of corned beef, my son swipes it out of reach, placing an army of pizzas, a frisbee and two beachballs in my basket instead.

‘Won’t be needing a mask from the 19th,’ I say, making conversation with the cashier.

‘English, is it?’ she replies, with a hint of disapproval. ‘Yes, well your Bojo’s a bit of a Russian roulette player. Good luck with that! Our Mr Drakeford is less of a betting man.’

But the following day, the odds are for once in our favour. The sun comes out and the air warms up to Mediterranean temperatures. So, what if there’s no air-con and that a swim in the sea is less of a dip in a warm bath and more of a brain freeze in a plunge pool? So, what if our long-awaited Freedom Day fails to live up to expectations? For now, freedom is a blue sky, the sound of seagulls and the joy of a long-awaited break.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 67: Something’s coming home…

It’s coming home! It’s coming home! Football’s almost coming home…
Well, it’s coming into my garden if nothing else. This week my lawn has been littered with balls flying from all directions. It seems as if the neighbourhood children have nothing better to do all day than kick goals over the fence. But, why aren’t they at school?
‘Testing positive, innit?’ announces Grunting Teen with the authority of one who has checked his student email for a change. ‘The whole of Year 8 is off. It’s a joke.’
But it’s certainly not a joke for Darling Daughter. She’s currently in the ‘at risk’ category and has only just had her first vaccination. So, when not-so-super-in-law comes into contact with a colleague displaying Covid symptoms and is forced to isolate, it’s understandable that she’s anxious. Yet if this were to happen a month later, she and her double-vaxed husband would have no need to quarantine.
Is it the data or the date that makes the difference? I’ve given up trying to understand. But for now, those with two jabs are the summer holiday winners. There’s nothing more I’d love to do than book a break in the sun. My body craves the guaranteed sunshine, sparkling blue sea and cloudless skies of the Med. But our under-18 is, of yet, not eligible to be Pfizered, so for now we’re sticking with a week in Pembrokeshire.
I’ve packed my swimsuit with a tub of goose fat, just in case. And I’ve been reading up on the Welsh rules and regulations. Because although for now we are still a United Kingdom, it appears the virus behaves differently depending on whose soil you’re standing on. The Scots for sure don’t like the Mancunians at the moment although whether that’s to do with the Gallagher brothers or the city’s high infection rates is unclear. What is clear is that Scotland’s spiralling outbreak has been linked to the Euros and that it’s not just football that’s coming home.
On the Wimbledon front it’s a slightly more sedate affair, with beer spilling roars replaced by polite applause. For a moment we believe the Ladies’ Singles trophy might come home too. But we have our in-house commentator on hand to explain why that’s not going to happen. And whilst Grunting Teen glazes over at his father’s detailed analysis of lobs and volleys, I marvel at how the Nearly-Beloved switches between sports with such in-depth knowledge. Who would have believed his expertise covers such a wide range? Or is it just that he has the gift of bewitching us with soundbites?
The latest favourite – ‘We must learn to live with the virus,’ – comes from our ex-Chancellor, who’s accustomed to prioritising the country’s economy. He’s been playing ministerial musical chairs and is now in charge of our health and in favour of lifting all legal curbs on July 19th. It all seems too good to be true. But if it means I’m one step closer to seeing my older son again, then I’m all for it. ‘He’s coming home. He’s coming home’ is the only chant I’m interested in. And any maestro who can magic a long-awaited family reunion from a borders-closed EU top hat wins my vote. It’s just I have this awful feeling that, when it comes to pulling the tablecloth of restrictions out from under the Corona dinner set, things might all just crash and break.
Whilst New South Wales, Australia, with its recently reported 18 Covid cases is locking down, the UK with its 27,000 new additions is opening up. The question is, which of the two countries is the one that’s got it upside down? Does our massive vaccination up-take mean we’ve weakened the chain between infection rates and hospitalisations? Are we kangaroos bounding towards freedom or should we be koalas clambering for safety?
Yes, something’s coming home. It’s coming home. The problem is we’re not yet sure what that something is…

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 66: Do as I do, not as I say

Grunting Teen is learning that people don’t always practise what they preach.

‘Mum, why do you say you’ve spent ages putting the shopping away, when that’s clearly not true?’

I raise an eyebrow as he opens the fridge and an avalanche of dairy products cascades to the floor.

‘And, how come out-of-date yoghourts are fine for me to eat, when you never touch them?’

‘Plus, you’ve put the cooked meat above the raw, which would have you shut down if the inspectors came’ he continues, adding to my growing list of Health and Safety violations.

I resist the urge to poke him in the eye. I mean, it’s great that, thanks to his summer job, he’s in possession of a Food Preparation Level 2 certificate. Unfortunately, he now considers himself the fount of knowledge on all subjects kitchen-related.

So, he’s refusing to towel-dry any pots and pans, deeming it deeply unhygienic. Of course, the science proves he’s right. But as the Nearly-Beloved won’t buy a dishwasher, and Grunting Teen gets through an entire dinner service with his incessant snacking, then airdrying isn’t an option. Still, whilst it’s a welcome change to be worrying about non-Covid bugs, I haven’t got the time or energy to pre-wash, wash, disinfect and rinse every plate. After all, surely hardened Fairy Liquid counteracts caked-on ketchup? And his siblings survived to adulthood despite the house being a hotbed of salmonella…

Unbeknownst to him, I’ve done Knife Skills Level 1 which includes a section on filleting irritating know-it-alls. But instead, taking a deep breath and resolving to be a better role model, I enquire about his plans for the day.

‘Just hanging with some mates,’ he says. ‘And don’t forget you promised me pancakes after my shift.’

Did I now? He’ll be lucky! However, he has been working hard. So, I hide my annoyance and offer him a lift. He looks unimpressed.

‘Global warming. I’m not the G7. I don’t need a private jet to get around. You’ve got to walk the walk, innit?’

I nod, albeit thinking that his speedy refusal probably has less to do with climate change and more to do with not wanting his mother to find out what he’s up to. And sure enough, he’s been hiding something from us. But no need for security cameras when you have a ‘mum radar’. It turns out the ‘mates’ he’s been ‘hanging with’ are singular and female.

‘You’re going to have to have the talk.’ I tell the Nearly-Beloved when I break the news. ‘Bit too late for that,’ replies my husband.

I nearly drop the bowl I’m drying. Is this a page one scoop? Is my boy going to have to resign from Sixth Form? And how did the chief-in-command find out before me? He’s usually the last to know. Unless he’s part of the cover-up…

But the Nearly-Beloved carries on unperturbed, ‘Yes, breaching social distancing rules. Not staying in his school bubble. Disgraceful. But to be honest, even I have given up now! If it’s okay for the health minister, then we can’t really object, can we?’

Later that day Grunting Teen returns from his job with a spring in his step and the news that his ‘friend’ is going to start at the restaurant too. ‘Oh, has she had an interview then?’ I ask. ‘Nah,’ he replies, tapping his nose, ‘Chumocracy, innit? Good wages too. Hopefully I’ll make enough money for that trip to Amsterdam in the autumn.’

He’s looking forward to visiting his brother, who’s offered him a post GCSEs, parent-free break there. ‘Don’t get too excited,’ I tell him, ‘The Netherlands are still on the amber list, so you’d have to quarantine.’

‘Really?’ he says, ‘But those football VIPs haven’t quarantined, have they?’

I shrug my shoulders as no sensible answer comes to mind. So, to distract him from the topic and any further Health and Safety infractions, I serve him up his favourite pancakes.

‘I thought you might not make these, mum’ he grins, ice cream and chocolate sauce dripping down his chin.

And yes, it did cross my mind. But, like a good citizen, I always deliver on my promises.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 66: Let’s believe in miracles!

‘It’s a healing miracle’ gasps the consultant at the fracture clinic as he signs me off his list. And it’s great that my bones have knitted together so fast and I can nearly straighten my arm above my head again. But how come it feels like hundreds of teaspoons are tapping on my tendons and a random movement still has me screaming in pain?

‘You can’t expect things to revert to normal straightaway. Your body has to recover first. Try and focus on the positive,’ the Nearly-Beloved tells me, making me wonder if he’s accidentally been reading my self-help books? More likely he’s just bored of my moaning.

In turn I’m bored of Covid 19 and its endless variants. After fifteen months of leading a limited life, even though we appear to be in recovery, there are after-pains and trauma, because not everyone’s healing miracle happens at the same speed.

Some have discharged themselves straight away and are out on the town every night, raring to make up for lost time. Others refuse to leave their beds. Even though double-vaxed, they still disinfect their shopping and guard their distance. They’ve been fed a diet of pandemic pessimism for so long now that they can’t imagine any other reality.

Indeed, Freedom Day has come and gone. And, whilst our cousins on the continent are jetting off for holidays in the sun, we’re mainly marooned on our isolated island of infection. And just in case we don’t buy into this fatalistic future, let’s predict a fourth wave and ten years of booster jabs and travel restrictions. I turn off the news quickly, aware that energy goes where attention flows.

Instead, I decide to be more mindful of my surroundings and invite my boys to an ‘Open Gardens Day’. Grunting Teen snorts his refusal. He has better things to do now. A hike with his mates in the Peaks. ‘Mind you don’t go near open water,’ I tell him. He rolls his eyes and leaves me to take the Nearly-Beloved on a stroll round the neighbourhood.

This turns out to be a mistake. Manicured lawns. Thriving flower beds. Colourful shrubbery. A far cry from the wild jungle at the back of our house. The Nearly-Beloved is about to sink into despair. But a beer and the footie help to revive him as well as my promise to do some much overdue weeding.

A few hours in and I’m about to pull up a giant-beanstalk cow-parsley lookalike when Grunting Teen returns, surveys the scene and screams at me to stop. ‘Giant Hogweed, mum,’ he explains, ‘don’t touch it. Really dangerous. Causes burns and blisters. Can even make you blind if its sap goes in your eyes. Don’t you remember? Alnwick Castle. 2015. The Poison Garden.’

And yes, I do. Cannabis plants, hemlock and deadly nightshade. Fancy that! Not good news we’ve got a biohazard growing in the garden but on the positive side my attempts at culture have finally paid off. In fact, I’m so impressed that I even omit to comment on his suspiciously wet hair. Instead, I don a full hazmat suit and safely dispose of the offender.

‘Well exciting, innit?’ says the adolescent who obviously enjoys an element of danger. But I focus on the positive. He’s no longer a social recluse. He’s been out in the fresh air. And he’s come home in one piece.

We opt not to tell the Nearly-Beloved about our hogweed exploits. As it is he’s already watching the news and depressed that more summer music events are likely to be cancelled. ‘That’s the second year running they’ll have called off Tramlines,’ he moans. But then it’s announced the festival might go ahead as part of a pilot event. ‘Hmmph, unless we see another surge in cases…’ is his upbeat reply.

And yes, maybe the new variant is spreading but that doesn’t mean to say the panic has to spread as well. So, when a few days later I spot two more of the suspicious weeds, I don’t wait around, but deal with them quickly and effectively. And even if my shoulder twinges, I remain focused on the positive. After all, a month ago, I was still wearing a sling. Sometimes you’ve just got to believe in miracles.

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The Corona Chronicles; Week 64: Gold medallist?

It’s been a week of winning and losing. After nearly two months of ‘being looked after’ and no exercise due to injury, I attempt my first run. Truth be told it’s more of a jog-walk and every time I see a tree root, my heart is in my mouth and my feet are by my ears to avoid stumbling. Still for me it’s a success – a boost in confidence and a return to normal activity.

The Nearly-Beloved has also benefited from the re-emergence of the ‘home help’. Unfortunately, he now feels qualified to comment on her skill sets which, it has to be said, are sadly lacking. ‘When I was doing the housework,’ he tells me, pointing to a cobweb in the corner, ‘at least I did a thorough job.’ I bite my tongue, resisting the urge to ‘do a thorough job’ on him! Instead, I invite him sweetly to take over the cleaning on a permanent basis. He quickly backtracks, complimenting me on my cooking – a change from the interminable weeks of his ‘signature dish’. Even he got ‘pied’ out in the end…

‘Come and wash up then,’ he tells the adolescent who’s just finishing off his third dessert. ‘You’ve got to be joking!’ replies Grunting Teen who’s now found summer employment as a kitchen porter in a local restaurant. Their gain is our loss. After his first eight-hour shift he collapses on the floor, groaning, ‘It’s so awful. I’m exhausted,’ and now refuses to go anywhere near the sink. But on receiving his first pay check, his spirits miraculously lift and his social life takes off.

So, what if his last two school years have been a Covid wash-out? If nothing else he’s learnt to grab opportunity and freedom when it comes his way. Who could believe that not long ago his leisure pursuits were limited to online gaming and hanging out with his geriatric parents? Now he’s not only allowed in parks and gardens but in people’s houses too.

However, this has the downside of it being a reciprocal arrangement. Now my home has been taken over by lumbering Neanderthals with giant footwear and matching appetites. And whilst it’s great to be driving again, I didn’t expect to become a full-time taxi service.

The Nearly-Beloved of course, if not down the pub, cannot be moved from the sofa since competitive sport has returned with a vengeance. As long as Wales trump England in the Euros then it’s a victory for him. As for me, I’m holding out for the Olympics, even though more than 80% of Japanese currently oppose hosting it.

Unlike the UK, their vaccine roll out has been slow. Not for them a ten-minute ‘Bob’s your uncle’ job, courtesy of Tracey at Sheffield Arena. It’s a smooth, well-oiled operation that has me feeling proud of my NHS. And when I’m presented with the sticker for my second jab, I honestly feel like I’ve won a gold medal. Yet many other countries are still lagging behind with immunising their populations and until they are helped to catch up, we can’t claim victory over the virus. And whilst we’ll never beat it into total submission, if each country joins together in a relay race of cooperation, then at least we can keep passing on the baton of collaboration and partnership – one of the real triumphs of the whole pandemic.

For now, we’ll have to be content with our hard-won concessions and a semblance of near normality. We can be in and out of each other’s houses again as long as our feet remain firmly in Blighty. Even the weather has cooperated this month to give us that continental feeling. But it’s poor consolation for those in the outdoor events and hospitality industry.

As always there are winners and losers in every situation. Our welcome heat wave is the next generation’s less welcome forewarning of the climate disasters to come. If nothing else, these Corona times have shown us how interconnected we all are, how individual actions can have far-reaching consequences, and how important it is to realise we are a global family. So, let’s hope that in our post-pandemic awakening, true winning will mean no one has to lose out.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 63: Under-promise and over-deliver

‘What we ‘aving for tea?’ asks Grunting Teen, his head in the fridge hoping to find the answer there.

‘My corned beef hash,’ I reply and watch his face fall before he quickly recovers his composure and mutters. ‘Well at least it’s a change from pie…’

I smile to myself. My gratitude practice must be rubbing off on him. He’s grateful his dad’s no longer in charge of the cooking and I’m grateful that my broken shoulder has healed enough to regain some independence.

But when, with a ‘ta-da’, I stick a stuffed-crust pizza in front of him, he breaks into an enormous smile. It’s so easy to make him happy – just lower his expectations, then over-deliver.

To be honest, I think he’s turned this well-honed parenting trick back onto us now.  So, by already predicting less than promising GCSEs, anything higher than a grade 4 will be seen as a triumph.

And his school has got in on the act too. Usually, Year 11s are taking exams until mid-June but with the whole off-on-off assessment debacle, all official teaching finished before the May half-term. He’s now been offered a three-week online ‘enrichment calendar’. I optimistically highlighted ‘The love of reading’, ‘Menus on a budget’ and ‘Study skills’ but he just rolled his eyes and refused to be enriched. Instead, he’s created his own timetable with ‘The love of gaming,’ ‘Menus in a microwave’ and ‘Sleeping skills’.

At least that means he’s not anticipating fireworks from the ‘Sixth-Form Preparation’ days, scheduled for the start of July. They were supposed to be in person but are now being delivered virtually so as ‘not to increase the Covid-19 risk’. This is post ‘the end of the roadmap out of lockdown’, making me wonder if the school perhaps knows something the Prime Minister doesn’t…

In the meantime, I, for one, have become pandemically prepared for the worst and therefore delighted when disaster fails to strike. My travel corridor was inevitably going to close. Christmas was only ever going to be a one-meal event. And my traffic lights were always going to be stuck on red. So, this summer, the card game I’ll be playing is Happy Families on the East Coast, rather than Risk in the Algarve. And I’ll forego the pubbing and the clubbing if it means I can continue to see my nearest and dearest in the safety of my own home.

But there again, it’s all very well if you’re a pale-skinned introvert past your dancing sell-by-date. What if you’re someone afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder and need the guaranteed sun of the Med to keep you from despair? What if you’re simply young and your default setting is to party? What if your livelihood depends on things opening up?

And on a personal note, we need things to return to pre-Corona days so that Grunting Teen can get a real education. He’s spent most of the last fifteen months with only four walls and a PlayStation for company. He hasn’t a clue what the world of work is like. But the Nearly-Beloved is on the case. A summer job of pot washing, baby sitting and lawn mowing is part of the ‘enrichment calendar’ he’s cooked up for his son.

‘Dad, this is well mean, innit?’ complains the boy whose next few months are now jam-packed with hard-labour. ‘I’ve got no free time now! What kind of summer is this going to be?’

‘Welcome to the real world, son,’ his father says. ‘Just remember we’re doing you a favour. When it comes to September, A-levels will feel like a picnic in the park.’

In the meantime, the much trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ is coming. For some, if not for all. June 21st was circled in the diary. The day we ditch the masks and the social distancing. Swap PPE for high heels and a Tee. And many had already planned the party. But, what a surprise – now it’s been postponed!  July 19th is our new goalpost.

Let’s just hope, when the day eventually comes, that this time it heralds real freedom. The last thing we need is more overpromising and underdelivering.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 62: All under control?

Emboldened by our trip to Wales, we opt for a long weekend in the Lake District to celebrate yet another family birthday. The problem is this time the planning has landed in my hands and the Nearly-Beloved doesn’t believe them to be ‘safe’. The night before he raises an eyebrow when I assure him everything is under control.

Without allowing me to phone a friend or ask the audience he grills me on all the details.  But as my answers impress him, he starts to relax. For the last fifteen months we’ve been plunged into a world of the unknown and, for the Nearly-Beloved, who likes order, it’s important to follow schedules and procedures as a way of dealing with the chaos of Covid times.

‘And the matches?  he asks for his million-dollar question. Once again, I reassure him that everything is under control.

Then forgetting that a softly-softly approach is advisable, he barges into the Teen Cave, disturbing the PlayStation fiend within.

‘Have you been smoking? he asks, sniffing the air suspiciously.

 ‘Joss sticks, innit?’ snorts Grunting Teen not moving his eyes from the screen.

Nonplussed by the smell of cedarwood rather than Woodbines, the Nearly-Beloved hesitates before asking whether his son has packed his bag yet. In response he gets a death stare. Tomorrow is Grunting Teen’s last official day at school and he wanted to hang out with his mates not his family.

‘I’ll do it later,’ snarls the teenager as his father beats a hasty retreat.

By 3.30pm the next day the car’s been checked and the boot’s been packed. Well, almost. Still missing is Grunting Teen and his bag.

The Nearly-Beloved whose estimated departure time was 3.31 pm is not impressed. ‘Go and pack your bag now!’ he hisses as the late arrival stumbles through the door. But Grunting Teen is complaining of a sore throat, headache and cough. My heart sinks. Surely, he hasn’t survived a school year to be felled by the virus in the final hour?

One negative PCR test, a bit of TLC from mum and several packets of biscuits later, Grunting Teen is off the critical list and ready to go.

‘So much for avoiding the holiday traffic,’ mutters the Nearly Beloved as we come to yet another standstill on the M1. But it’s the pandemic, not the teenager, who’s to blame for our delay. All the country is on the move in their desperation for a change of scenery and a chance to meet up with loved ones. And with destinations abroad severely limited, a British vacation is the only solution.

What should be a two-hour journey has doubled in time, punctuated only by the Nearly-Beloved’s constant grumbling and Grunting Teen’s huffing and sighing. I text Delightful Daughter and Super Son-in-law to warn them of the traffic situation so they swap the queues on the road for the queues in the service station. We, however, crawl on past the roadworks opened to coincide with the Friday rush hour. Just as well I’ve got it all under control with a bag of goodies so no one dies of thirst or starvation.

And when we do arrive at our Airbnb, it’s all worth it. The accommodation is first class, the views are superb and the fridge has a welcome bottle of wine. The only issue is the owner. We can’t get rid of him!  Restrictions have meant we are the first guests he’s greeted in person since the start of the Corona craziness and he’s desperate to talk. It’s only when Delightful Daughter and her husband turn up that he takes the hint and leaves.

The next day dawns with blue skies and the longed-for visit of aunts, uncles and cousins, who join us for a birthday picnic. Sadly, the latest traffic-light travel means one much-loved face is absent. But for now, I’ll take this gathering as a win against the virus that’s separated us for so long.

With no internet connection and no news of rising cases and closing borders, the world for once seems safe and at peace. There’s no need for shopping so no need for masks. And with hugging allowed it’s a day of love and laughter. The pandemic recedes into the background.

Then it’s time to light the candles. I search through all the drawers in the kitchen, upend my bag and empty all my pockets. No matches! For a moment panic rises. It’s all been going so well. Then I remember Grunting Teen and his joss sticks… And magically a box of matches appears.

I sigh with relief. For now, at least, we’ve got something under control.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 61: Abroad at home

This weekend sees us embark on our first road trip since summer 2020 as we venture into a ‘foreign’ country. And, whilst we don’t need our passports, we do need to abide by different rules and regulations as well as brushing up on the lingo.

The Nearly Beloved even makes us take a PCR test, just to ensure we don’t contaminate the green valleys of his birthplace with our potentially lethal English breath. ‘Do you really have to shove that stick through my nostrils and into my cranial cavity?’ I gasp, clutching my head as tears stream down my cheeks.

‘Now you know why I do the school ones myself,’ gasps Grunting Teen, recovering from a retching fit brought on by his over-zealous father.

But I understand my other half’s concern because we are finally going to visit his mother who’s been under virtual house arrest due to Corona and Mark Drakeford. Unlike his English counterpart, the Welsh First Minister has been far more cautious about relaxing restrictions and even now we have to pray for good weather as indoor liaising is still taboo. But today is my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday and there is no way the wider family is going to let her celebrate alone.

As we pass the ‘Croeso i Gymru’ signs that welcome us to his fair country, nation of rugby lovers, the Nearly-Beloved visibly relaxes. He’s back in his homeland. I, however, have the sense that we’ve crossed into a much-loved but definitely alien territory.

‘Oh, I’d forgotten everything’s written in Welsh,’ says Grunting Teen, as we take the turning off for ‘Casnewydd’ which, incomprehensibly, turns out to be ‘Newport’. And it’s not long then until we reach the house where a collection of Celts is waiting in the garden to herd the lost sheep back into his fold.

The noise level rises as the Welsh contingent sing-song their delight at seeing the Prodigal Son return and their shock at the size of Grunting Teen. In the scrum of exclamations of ‘There’s lovely!’ and invitations to ‘Come over yer!’ my husband catches sight of his ‘mam’. Involuntarily, my breath catches in my throat and my eyes start prickling. The love in the air is palpable, intensified by the long months of separation. Officially, hugging outside the immediate household isn’t yet allowed this side of the border. But if there comes a point at which two consenting, negative-tested double-vaccinatees have a ‘cwtch’, then I, for one, don’t witness it.

The rest of the day passes in an ever-changing outdoors game as we negotiate the rule of six. There’s a successful kick-off as the first row of relatives catches up on the news. Then there’s a mid-match substitution as old friends line up to join the ruck. Conversation is booted in and out of touch until it’s half-time and refreshments are brought onto the pitch.

We’re encouraged to sample a ‘Welsh cake’, ‘now in a minute’ and ‘I’m not gonna lie to you’ but the buffet spread is ‘proper tidy’ whilst the birthday cake is absolutely ‘lush’. Grunting Teen polishes off any leftovers before they can be offered around but avoids the sin bin as his nana, the referee of the event, decrees her not-so-little prop forward needs fattening up.

And indeed, the ref’s word is final, for our nonagenarian matriarch may have grown a little frailer physically in lockdown but mentally she’s completely on the ball. All those cryptic crosswords and 1000-piece jigsaws she’s been doing as a daily warm-up have honed her Hawk-Eye system.

And while we’ve scored a try with our gift of a garden bench, she’s deemed its position to be offside. She consults with her linesman, the Nearly Beloved, who reaches for his handy tape measure. There’s a lengthy consultation about the exact spot for optimum placement. And looking at the two of them in happy discussion I realise that being a touch judge is definitely genetic and that family bonds can never be broken by a mere pandemic.

All in all, it’s been a Grand Slam of a day. So, if holidays abroad this year turn out to be a Eurovision ‘nul points’ disappointment, let’s not forget that the UK offers us plenty of ‘foreign’ surprises as well as top marks for beauty, diversity and, more importantly, easy access to our loved ones.

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The Corona Chronicles: Week 60: Is it all going swimmingly?

We are now on step three of the roadmap out of lockdown and find ourselves on the diving board to freedom. Here, the bathers at the public pool have divided themselves into two distinct factions.

First there are the gung-ho sink-or-swimmers, happy to jump in at the deep end and just get on with life. They are the ones eager to do it all. Morning gym work-out, followed by an espresso in the café. Afterwards, lunch in a restaurant, early evening cinema, with a trip to the pub to dissect the blockbuster, then a final nightcap back at a fellow reveller’s house. It’s hard to believe this was once the norm rather than the exception. They want to do it all and they want to do it now! And yes, maybe they are the ones who’ll end up with their belly flopping antics going viral, but at least they’ve created lots of memories.

For others, this kind of timetable strikes fear in their hearts. They sit nervously at the shallow end, with one toe in the water, arm bands on and flotation boards at the ready. They are going for a softly-softly approach, a gradual submersion. And if the water temperature isn’t perfect or they feel themselves slipping under, then immediate retreat is the answer. They need to start with a cuppa in a trusted friend’s sanitised kitchen before moving on to a more crowded venue. For now, films will be watched from the safety of their own arm chair and a pint is only on the cards if it’s before 7pm and the rebel rousers have yet to come out. And yes, maybe they are the killjoys but at least their rubber rings won’t explode with the latest Covid variant.

In our household, the Nearly-Beloved is usually Mr Health and Safety. But due to my broken shoulder, he’s now taken on full household and taxi duties with the resultant stress making him throw caution to the wind. Apparently, he needs to go to the gym and play tennis to let off steam, whilst a few beers down the local do wonders for his mental health.

Grunting Teen is too busy at the moment with GCSE assessments, and too used to his Teen Cave to consider dive bombing into a pool of social activity. For now, he’s just glad to be back climbing three times a week and taking exams without a face mask. But once school has finished, ‘hanging at a mate’s house’ and all-night-no-sleep-overs are back on his wish list. Let’s just hope the roadmap takes us there and not to India instead.

As for me, my injury has slowed me down, making me more aware of how things don’t always go to plan. So, as the neighbour’s gardens fill with the happy sound of long missed grandchildren, I’m still in the paddling pool, testing the water. For the first time this year, I’ve finally been inside Delightful Daughter’s house and nearly tripped over the cat she adopted to replace us. Then I’ve ventured out to support my local café with a suitably antibac-ed and vaccinated companion. I’ve even started making tentative plans – a big birthday, two re-organised weddings. Who knows, we might yet make it to Amsterdam to see our Lost Boy.

But there’s just a few more lengths we have to swim. You see, all public baths have their fair share of unpredictable babies splashing around uncontrollably. Their immaturity makes them a liability. If not properly supervised by the life guards, accidents are prone to happen. And that’s the very last thing we need!

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The Corona Chronicles :Week 59: Hugs and holidays

Conversation this week revolves around hugs and holidays. Should we, or shouldn’t we? There’s many a relative or friend I’d usually love to enfold in a warm embrace but fourteen months of ‘keep your distance’ indoctrination has made some of us less inclined to leap back into each other’s arms.

For me, with my broken shoulder, holding anyone tight at the moment is a definite no-no and therefore a welcome excuse in the current minefield of post-covid etiquette. The Nearly-Beloved, on the other hand, has no such get-out card. But that doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s never been a great one for public displays of affection, so anyone, apart from immediate blood relatives, is ordered to ‘Back off!’ in no uncertain terms. As for Grunting Teen, he is a closet hugger, enjoying a sneaky snuggle on the sofa. But in public he guards his personal space. Still, it’s nice to see him resume awkward adolescent arm punching and jostle-jesting as he walks home from school with his mates.

But now we are allowed to mix and mingle again, tempers are fraying and emotions running high, as touchy-feely types get upset when, on their approach, those more reserved step back, sending a nod rather than a kiss in their direction. ‘But what’s the problem? We’ve both been vaccinated,’ exclaim the face-lickers. ‘Yes, but only the first dose. And then there’s the Indian variant. And you once went to Bolton by mistake. So, you can’t be too careful,’ explain the untouchables.

On the holiday front, there’s also a big divide between the just-go-for-its and the wait-and-seers. For those desperate to get away, Australia and New Zealand are great tourist destinations. Unfortunately, though, they are rather picky these days about who they let in to cuddle a koala or get up close with a kiwi. Tristan de Cunha, the most remote archipelago in the world, would be the Nearly-Beloved’s ideal break – if only visits didn’t have to be planned a year in advance. Iceland comes highly recommended too but not for the sun seekers, and Israel has just blown up its chances of becoming the next holiday hotspot. So, for the moment Portugal seems more promising and Gibraltar might soon be the place to rock up to.

The problem is, it’s all such a gamble. No one wants a repetition of last year’s ‘Corridor Countdown’ chaos or to take part in the government’s popular ‘Quarantine or No Quarantine’ show. Plus, now we have the added excitement of ‘The PCR Price is Right’. That’s if we can find a test provider guaranteed to deliver us a result before we fly home. And if we end up with a false positive, holiday heaven might just turn into holiday hell.

This all makes planning rather fraught. And once again, anxiety levels start rising. So, this year the Nearly-Beloved has vetoed any thoughts of abroad. We’re packing our waterproofs and hot water bottles and heading over the borders to Wales. But even that might turn into ‘It’s a Knockout’ if Welsh regulations differ from English. In which case we’ll have to settle for a day trip to Scarbs or Skeggie.

For my part, the only place I want to visit is Amsterdam.  Not for a jolly jaunt. Just a chance to see my Lost Boy once again.  You see it’s all very well that we’re now part of one Global Village but the virus doesn’t distinguish between unnecessary sun, sea and sand trips and much longed for family reunions. Around the world so many loved ones remain separated. And it’s only when all countries get access to vaccination programmes that we can truly hug and holiday together again.

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