Friday, 19 February
It felt like we were preparing for a dangerous, perhaps impossible mission. All week long I was amassing staples – oil, pasta, tins of tuna and tomatoes. Closer to departure, I bought perishables and David stocked up on another essential, wine. When not shopping and packing, I was filling out forms and piling up paper proof of our need to travel to London to help our daughter Georgina and her husband Amal when their baby is born, ETA 24 February.
Meanwhile, our ability to accomplish this undertaking was looking more doubtful by the day. Cases of Covid continued to soar and new variants were spreading. The French declared the borders closed. Exemptions required un motif impérieux, with death but not birth on the government's list. The British were threatening a 10-day hotel stay for arrivals from abroad. In any case, there would be a quarantine; thus our car loaded with victuals. Stress levels were high.
Despite the dire warnings, last Saturday we set off, a small space carved out on the back seat of the packed car for Tasha, whom we dropped off at her four-star hotel, aka chez Madame P, on the way to Calais and the Eurotunnel.
The last time I crossed the English Channel by car (you drive onto a train that whisks you to the other side in 35 minutes), the terminal of le Shuttle was a heaving mass of humanity. Vehicles prowled in search of a parking space like a school of sharks. Shoppers flooded in and out of the duty-free shops.
This time there were only about 30 cars, all flocking near the announcement board and looking more like a school of minnows in the vast empty car park that threw into relief the ubiquitous migrant-deterring fences which make the area around Calais resemble a gulag.
Our train was called and we (well, I; David has a more phlegmatic approach to bureaucracy) waited nervously for the encounter with the customs agents. When our turn came, the French officials asked no questions, expressed no interest in seeing my painstakingly collected supporting evidence. They just stamped our passports and sent us to the UK customs, 20 metres on. A jovial British agent asked a few questions, congratulated us on our motive for travel. He glanced at our passports and Visa & Immigration forms, took my word for it that our Covid tests were negative, and waved us through.
All my angst and that was that: after our quarantine, we would be able to form a 'bubble' with Georgina and Amal and help with the baby once she is born.
In the end, the worst part of the trip was navigating London in the dark and unpacking that stuffed car, once we finally made it to our rented mews house in Hampstead.
Mews are cobbled alleys generally located in the nicer parts of London because their buildings were constructed as the stables and coach houses to residences affluent enough to afford horses, carriages and servants. The name was taken from the Royal Mews, the sovereigns' stables that once stood on what is now Trafalgar Square. The word derives from an even earlier incarnation, when the buildings were used to house the kings' falcons during their moulting or mewing season, and the English word in turn comes from the French muer, to shed (example: Tasha mue, sometimes beaucoup).
So here we have been for the last six days, two transplants to France, confined like shedding falcons in a former London stable.
Though the appearance of mews houses can vary widely, the architecture is similar: squat buildings, built cheek to jowl, with back gardens separating them from the big houses on which they used to depend. The classic layout is a ground floor kitchen where the horses and carriages were kept, an upstairs sitting room and a bedroom where the hay would have been stored, and, up more steep, narrow stairs, a room under the eaves for servants.
It is a perfect set-up for us, since we will be here for five weeks and both wanted work space. David has taken over the sitting room...
...and I am up top in the garret.
What better inspiration, you might think, especially in a comfortable house that is clearly someone's home. Especially here in Hampstead, an area imbued with writerly vibes. In fact, a couple years ago I visited John Keats' house with Georgina, Christopher and Kerry. That was in the good old days, when you didn't think twice about hamming it up and donning period clothes and bonnets last worn by who knows whom.
Virginia Woolf and her husband, the internet tells me, often visited one of the grand Georgian houses to which these mews were once attached and that I can see across the gardens from the window in this room of my own.
Plus I have no dog to walk, not even a piano to play. It's quiet as the countryside.
And yet I've accomplished nothing. Besides being in between projects, I feel unsettled at being locked up, at getting my only exercise from walking up and down steep stairs and jumping around in front of a YouTube video. Somehow, certain ingredients needed in the creative juice cocktail just aren't there.
But that's fine. It's not why I'm here, and we have been lucky. Our quarantine could have gone on for two weeks, if not for the Early Release Covid Test we took yesterday. Negative results came in just minutes ago, and soon we can get down to our mission, our motif impérieux: to lend helping hands when Georgina and Amal's baby, our grandchild, decides she's ready to come into this world.