“I’ll make some tea now, love,” I say to Matt. “I just want to rinse the shower gel out of the mugs first.”
Stretched-out adult arms can reach opposing sides of our bathroom. In the sink, I pick up the mugs and rinse them of the shower gel we’ve been using to clean them. We have nothing else. In addition to the to-be-expected bathroom bits and pieces – our toothbrushes, some face wash – sits Matt’s coffee plunger, which he bought online after our first morning in quarantine, also waiting to be rinsed.
The ennui of quarantine
“Hi there, it’s Matt in room 109,” he said on the phone to reception on Sunday. “I see there’s only instant coffee in the rooms. I was just wondering, do you have a coffee machine in your restaurant? Could I order one up? I’m happy to pay for it.”
Yes and no was the answer. Yes, we have a coffee machine. No, we can’t use it to make one for you, not even if you pay. No further explanation.
I come through to our bedroom and put the kettle on. Matt’s working at the cramped desk we’re sharing. Our room is in proportion to our claustrophobic bathroom and is clearly equipped for single-night stays, where business dinners keep you occupied (and out of the hotel) till late and you can be on your way before breakfast. There’s nothing that makes for long-term living. No cupboard, no fridge, no microwave, nowhere to put anything. The bedside tables barely span a hand’s breadth.
We’ve been in quarantine for seven nights. Four to go. We’re counting.
A knock at the door.
We’d called down to reception a little while ago to ask if we could be let out for our daily 15 minutes outside. Someone’s here to escort us downstairs. Frogmarched. We’ve used the word a lot since we arrived. Apart from being in our room, we haven’t been alone since we walked through immigration at Heathrow. Escorted to pick up our bags, escorted through customs, escorted to a holding pen to wait for our shuttle, escorted to the bathroom (seriously), escorted to our shuttle, shuttled to our hotel, escorted to our room.
Our holding pen at Heathrow as we wait for our hotel transfer. When Matt asked to use the bathroom while we were waiting here, he was accompanied by a security guard who then waited for him outside – while I sat just a few metres away with our nine pieces of luggage. What did they think he was going to do? Make a run for it?
In every instance, almost without exception, the security staff we’ve encountered have been apathetic and officious. At worse, they’ve verged on authoritarian. We’ve been wanting to watch The Stanford Prison Experiment, but fear it might hit too close to home right now (not quite, but close). I get it, it’s an awful job. It’s probably been hell for anyone working in this situation. But the lack of humanity is awful.
Outside, we watch as a few people walk back and forth the 15 x 5m space we have allocated to walk. “Don’t go up those stairs,” a guard says. “That’s out of bounds.” Heaven forbid. A guy smoking a cigarette asks how long we’ve been inside. “I’ve just received the results of my second Covid test,” he says tetchily when we return the question. “It’s negative. I can leave at midnight tomorrow. You guys are lucky to have each other, this is no fun alone.” He goes inside with a grunt goodbye, barely making eye contact.
The outside space we have access to once a day. It can be so disheartening being out here that I sometimes wonder whether it’s worth it at all. Those steps to the right? Off limits
And we are: lucky to have each other. We’ve had laughter and touch, and someone to roll our eyes at when another scene of this absurdist theatre reveals itself. And we’re lucky in other ways too.
Four days ago, a knock at our door revealed a bunch of flowers in a vase. Before we even had time to speculate, my phone rang – a friend from Joburg. He proceeds to tell us an impossible story. His son is currently working as a night manager in a quarantine hotel in the UK and, upon hearing that we had recently arrived, recognises Matt’s surname and says, “You’re not going to believe this, they’re staying at my hotel.”
It gets better.
As part of his employment, said night manager and soon-to-become best friend in the UK, gets board and lodging. His lodging? Room 110. We’re 109. We’re literally sharing a wall.
Wait, I’m not done yet.
A moment of freedom: walking alone from the lifts to our room. The brown paper bags are food drop-offs
We have friends in common with our flower-delivering saviour. He’s knows old university friends of mine who live in the UK, including an ex-boyfriend – people Matt knows too. When he comes to greet us in person, we all stare at each other dumbfounded, baffled by the coincidences.
I haven’t gone into too much detail about the food, because it’s probably been the hardest part about being here. Most of the time, it’s simply inedible. The rest of the time, it’s tolerable – and boredom prompts a nibble. Once we meet our friendly night manager, however, things start to improve. Although he’s not responsible for what food we get or how it’s prepared, he helps to distribute the breakfasts and, after meeting him, we start to notice an extra croissant and an extra yoghurt every morning. It feels like someone’s watching over us.
Not the sort of picture I ever thought I’d put up on my blog – but it paints a particular picture of quarantine cuisine
He’s dropped off other wonderful things for us too – a yoga mat, some potted plants, two home-cooked meals from my ex and his wife, who live in the area. Best of all, at 11pm last night, he knocked on the door and presented us with a bar fridge, which he went to great trouble to organise through a friend – the hotel had nothing at all. But more than anything else, it’s just having a smiling face visit us from time to time that’s made all the difference.
The day ticks over. Matt and I hang up the laundry that we gave to the hotel five days ago and that has just been returned to us damp (too damp to put away, it’s now hanging from every possible hook and edge we can find). We try to forget that, apart from a brilliant new friend, we feel we’ve got very little out of the small fortune we paid for this. But we’re here, we’re together, it’s the start of a new adventure. And we keep thinking that we’ll have quarantine stories to tell at dinner parties for years.