A village, volunteers and a virus…

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In just a few weeks, our small village in Hampshire has gone from a friendly but fairly detached group of houses to a tight-knit community of people scuttling about like meerkats (albeit without the close-quarters sniffing), peering over each other’s fences, checking each other out and shuttling food and essential items back and forth between ‘burrows’.

We live in a quintessentially English village in the heart of Hampshire not far from Stonehenge in a leafy countryside “chocolate box” setting.  Grateley has a red phone box – converted into a book exchange with the most eclectic mix of reading material – the source of some weird gnome books and Jilly Cooper novels we have at home that my 3-year-old daughter insisted on picking up during a recent walk around the village.  We have a local pub, a small train station, a beautiful 13th Century church and a couple of schools.  There are about 250 houses spread across the “village end”, the “station end” and the newer development called Palestine.  The community is an odd mix – farming families who’ve been in the village for generations, military families many of whom are posted in and out every 2-3 years, commuters who make best use of the train station and the fast line into London, and retired residents.  There are small groups and committees such as church-goers and a coffee morning group but the demise of the village shop and the closure of the pub a few years ago left little in the way of a community hub.  Thankfully Bernie and Jim came along and have resurrected the Plough Inn, bringing back some of that community life.  But we were going to need a central focus and a shared purpose across the entire village to equip us for the mammoth fight we were going to face against the coronavirus.

 

Just weeks ago, that fight seemed quite far away from our little village.  France and Belgium – and my parents and siblings based over there – were already in the thick of it.    I sifted through pictures on Whatsapp depicting utter chaos in my brother and sister’s homes as dining rooms were fashioned into offices and school classrooms.  My sister described over Facetime – interrupted by the excited interjections of her 9 year old son who thought the Easter holidays had come early – how they were housebound.  Their only permitted outings were to be done one at a time to go shopping or to walk the dog.  Their golden retriever Daisy had suddenly become mighty popular and already had multiple offers for ‘walkies’ from neighbours eager to get out.  The ‘laissez passer’ my sister held up to the camera that had to be presented to the police when they were out reminded me of war time stories I’d heard.  My parents in Brussels were still able to go for walks in the local woodland and park, “with picnics and a flask” my ever-prepared and pragmatic mum said, since the cafes were all closed.

What a contrast in the UK where we were all still roaming free, with pubs and shops still open and children in schools.  The non-stop news on coronavirus told us the UK was a week or two behind the rest of Europe so surely we had to be next.  And it would be soon and probably sudden.  Once people had battened down the hatches it would be too late to reach out to our neighbours and community.  We had a few days to physically get around the 250 or so houses in the village to spread our plan for a community network.  And we had to actually speak to people: those most likely to be on their own and vulnerable would probably not be on social media and were unlikely to trust an anonymous leaflet thrust through their letterbox.

So, like many communities around the country, we set to work: my husband rifled through the large box of disused tech stored in the attic and unearthed a working and reasonably recent mobile phone (although it still felt like an antique ‘brick’ when I started using it!).  We re-roled it as our official ‘Grateley Helpline’ batphone.  After much wine-fuelled editorial discussion about what we should call our network, we created the imaginatively named ‘Grateley help’ email address.

Richard from across the road disappeared with our sample flyer and reappeared with a huge stack of copies and a large guillotine.  A gang of villagers keen to get involved mustered outside the Plough Inn on a soggy cold morning and trekked up every road, boggy path and hidden driveway until we were sure every single house had been suitably ‘door-stepped’, as my old hack colleagues would say.

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Emails came flooding in.  People were offering help, advice, information.  We got an email from Nick, one of the villagers who’d decided we needed a website and, being an IT guru himself, had whipped one up for us overnight.  Three days later, we had more than 80 people on the network.  People were lining up to offer help with shopping, picking up prescriptions, listening on the phone and anything else that came up.  Others wrote in saying how relieved they were they had someone to call on should they need to.

We canvassed the village for skills that might come in useful to others during the time ahead and realised we had retired medical staff, teachers, councillors, delivery drivers, builders, IT experts, and financial and legal experts.  We even had a young lad, whose Duke of Edinburgh Award had been all but scuppered by the coronavirus, offering out his services for odd jobs and gardening.

We’ve been able to direct people to advice over the phone about their money worries caused by Coronavirus.  We’ve passed on home-schooling tips to parents left climbing the walls with energetic children wielding crayons dangerously close to treasured curtains.  We’ve brought in local businesses and touted their growing delivery and take-away trade to help keep them going too.  Young Tom is slowly clocking up DofE tasks after clearing the pub car park of fallen branches and leaves.  Our telephone network offers an ear to those struggling with the isolation and our resident IT geeks have introduced neighbours to the joys of Zoom and Facetime, linking them up with their loved ones abroad.

In some ways it feels like coronavirus has brought village life to a standstill.  It’s all gone very quiet here in Grateley.  Apart from the deafening sound of Spring birdsong and the disruption caused by our resident robin redbreast as he hops across our window sills, it is utterly peaceful.  Barely a car goes by, trains are rare and the helicopters usually buzzing around the local Army aviation base have gone quiet.  Behind closed doors though, there is frantic activity.  Like meerkats in their virtual burrows, Grateley residents are scuttling around in an online and phone world of help, advice and mutual support.  Every now and again one squeaks, a couple of others poke their heads up, and scoot off to collect and deliver food.

This has been a time-consuming project as we channel everything through one email address and phone number and are intent on protecting everyone’s confidentiality.  It got particularly challenging a few days in when I got called up to work on the government’s COVID19 response.  The juggling act is made all the more interesting with an energetic 3-year-old who likes to add her own input to the messages we send out.

 

But the incredible outpouring of support that has circulated across the community, the goodwill and generosity we’ve witnessed across Grateley are a much-needed boost at a time when things can seem pretty grim.  And if it means our community of meerkats continue to poke their heads up to check on their neighbours after this horrific virus has gone, something good will have come of this horribly uncertain and frightening time.

 

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Flying for the first time ever

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The world’s most incredible views: from the sky

As I marched through Southampton airport, I was focused on getting a large cup of tea before boarding a Sunday morning dawn flight to Spain.  I approached the queue at security feeling smug because all my toiletries were already in a regulation plastic bag, my laptop was out of my holdall and I had unzipped my boots ready to put them into the grey plastic tray and saunter through the electric gate like the veteran of flying that I was.  I initially didn’t notice the 50-something lady with the straw hat and immaculate make-up looking somewhat bewildered next to the smiley and sad face buttons of a ‘how have we done here today’ machine in departures that you’re supposed to press on your way through as an ‘on the go’ customer survey.  I stopped because she was the only person not rushing around furiously or carrying a sombrero.

While fingering an IKEA ziplocked bag with miniature shampoo and conditioner in it, she asked if her choice of container would pass muster with the bulldogs at security; “I’ve never flown before so this is all a bit new to me”, she said.  We compared plastic bags and I told her she would no doubt be fine, while gasping inwardly.  How, in 2018 had she never flown before.  Judging by her appearance (and it is dangerous to judge any book by its cover) and the makes of the toiletries in her bag, she was smart, probably educated and had spare cash.  So how was she one of the apparently only 22% of Britons who have never travelled in a plane (according to a survey by Kayak, a travel website)?  I asked if she was nervous or excited and she answered “a bit nervous but mostly excited; I’m going to visit a friend who’s moved to Spain”.

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Later at the departures gate there was a bit of a commotion in the queue ahead of me when a passenger told the Flybe operator that they were not comfortable in an exit seat. Seats had been allocated randomly and the Flybe employee had asked the question on the assumption it was a no-brainer. Exit seats have much more leg room so tend to be at a premium.  But it was my friend on her maiden flight and she wasn’t “at all sure I could open the door if I needed to”.  I told her if it came to that we were all in trouble and that flying was the safest form of travel, but she was clearly not going to enjoy the flight with the burden of even the slightest of probabilities.  So I offered to swap seats.  I was her rather embarrassed hero as I settled into her original seat, the spacious and neighbour-free 1A on the propeller-driven Q400 Dash 8 aircraft, and she made her way back to the considerably more cramped seat 11A.

This was just a 2 and a half hour flight to Spain on a budget airline and even though I absolutely love flying, I was focused on just getting to destination and getting the job done.  On this occasion I had been completely taking the journey for granted.  So as we pulled out of our stand, I tried to put myself in this lady’s shoes, seeing all this for the first time:

I actually watched the safety demonstration closely.  If you really think about it, it is somewhat alarming – albeit necessary – that someone stands there calmly telling you how to inflate a lifevest, “topping it up here” and “with a light and whistle to attract attention here”.  I mean, where else do you go where the first thing you’re told is what to do in the worst-case scenario?  Hardly something to fill you with confidence on your first ever trip; no wonder she didn’t want to have to contend with opening the emergency door too.

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Ready for take-off

I got a pang of disappointment on her behalf that she was experiencing flying in the modern age of budget travel and had missed out on the glamorous old days of flying where you were offered a drink on take-off (usually served on a small square napkin with some peanuts and always with lemon and ice even if you’d only asked for water).  You were then served a meal (included in the price of your ticket) and it was served with metal cutlery and a warm smile (with the notable exception of one 26-hour Alitalia flight when I was about 10 years old where the air hostesses made absolutely sure we felt their pain too) by an immaculate air hostess.  To be fair, Sarah and her colleague – now called cabin attendants – were lovely and very professional.  Both even had the colourful scarves tied around their necks at a jaunty angle, harking back to British Airways adverts in the 1980s when the airline’s logo was “We’ll take more care of you” and they really did. Now you get the hospitality and warmth of that VIP treatment, but only if you’re paying the VIP prices.

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Dawn above the clouds

The lady did get one priceless treat though; we took off as the pink dawn broke over clear skies and we flew low over the unmistakable wide Thames snaking through Greater London. Small marinas dotted around the tributaries and on the coast, the toy yachts carefully lined up in their berths. She couldn’t have picked a better day to see the world from the air.  We reached the top of the climb and you could almost touch the white fluffy cotton wool clouds as we passed them and settled at cruising altitude just above the duvet with a golden glow from the early sun.

Arrival in Alicante was equally spectacular.  With only the odd wisp of cloud, the temperature was “nudging 30 degrees” according to the Captain.  The rising tower blocks of the Costa Brava and the scattered bright blue squares of swimming pools nestled incongruously against the moonscape of the limestone peaks of the Alicante mountains.  The sea, dotted with pleasure boats and larger ships further out, stretched as far as the eye could see.

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The Alicante mountains

We touched down with barely a bump and trundled round to our stand.  It was textbook and probably the ideal flight on which to travel for the first time.  As I disembarked, my mind went back to business and I strode off to find the sign with my name on it in arrivals.  I hope the lady in 11A enjoyed her first flight and – holiday notwithstanding – cannot wait for the return journey.  She certainly helped to remind me of the magic of flying.  Even on the shortest flights and even in an age when commercial imperatives have binned much of the glamour and the fast pace of life has taken some of the sheen off, it remains one of the wonders of our age.  No amount of budget packaging or familiarity should take away from the fact you can eat breakfast on one continent, lunch in the air, and be ready for dinner on the other side of the world.  We can admire the most spectacular views in the world, all while somehow travelling at hundreds of miles per hour up at 30 thousand feet in a tin can.  I don’t know about the lady now relaxing in Alicante with her friend, but I’m already looking forward to my next take-off.

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Landed safely

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 3/3)

PART 3/3 – A MUSICAL PRIVILEGE

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Knuckleheads – settling in for a musical treat

Equipped with glasses of Bourbon and chilled cans of Kansas-brewed beer, we perched on stools in the shady area, alongside a pair of toe-tapping cowboy boots and bright pink cropped top.  And onto the stage came Scotty Dennis and his incredible voice.

Wearing jeans and a short-sleaved panelled shirt with a baseball cap and dark glasses, Scotty was about 6 feet tall and a big strong man with lungs to match.  He oozed soul as he sang Eric Clapton’s “Five Long Years” and gave the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Wait on Time” an epic Blues makeover, making the hairs on my arms stand on end.  Through the loud beat thumping out of the speakers, John shouted in my ear that it would put hairs on my chest, but I think he was referring to the rather strong Bourbon he was sampling in small shot glasses, rather than our friend Dennis. As the big man wandered past our table after his set, we couldn’t help gushing at him how brilliant he was. Ever the professional, he handed me a card for his band Scotty and the Soultones, told me about his recording contract and when his next album was coming out, before ‘disappearing’ me into a huge bear hug.  I got a faceful of pecs and biceps and a drawled deep gravelly “Thank you Lorna” in my one uncompromised ear.  He could sing to me anytime.

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The big man with the big voice – Scotty Dennis

As the resident band carried on and Dennis worked his audience shaking hands and hugging people all around, country music followed soul and the scorching sun over Kansas City continued to burn the necks and shoulders in the seats in front of us.

As the afternoon jamming session was drawing to a close, a striking looking woman, with dramatically black cropped and shaved hair with a shock of orange on top, heavy eye make-up and covered in tattoos made her way towards the stage.  She was one of the few non-bikers at the venue and had been noticeable throughout the afternoon for sitting quietly at one of the picnic tables near the stage.  She had spent that time watching and filming her friend on her phone.  The friend was tall and lithe with long bleach blond hair extensions, ‘boyfriend’ torn jeans, and a cropped knotted T-shirt showing off a very tanned and taut midriff and was making the most of her fabulous figure.  About 30 years younger and at least fifty pounds lighter than most of the biker ladies boogeying on the dance gravel, and with legs up to her armpits, the friend threw her legs up into splits high kicks repeatedly, posed suggestively, laughed theatrically and threw her head forward and back swishing her extensions like a mane in the manner of a shampoo advert.  But when Megan Ruger took to the stage and picked up the microphone, her platinum friend became photographer, general groupie and proudest fan.  Megan kicked off her shoes and – in her ripped jeans, socks, Rock n Roll black T-Shirt and Ray Ban Aviator glasses – was, as Simon Cowell might say, “stripped back”. And she had a voice worth waiting for. She flipped from country to rock with ease.  She projected gutsy chesty notes across the train tracks, talked through some toe-tapping old country favourite lyrics and held the most delicate breathy high notes while holding the band and the audience under her spell throughout.  I might even have got up for a bit of a dance so she must have been doing something right.

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Megan Ruger

It turned out Megan and her friend were visiting for a couple of days from Vegas, where she is currently appearing in a tribute show (John and I found this out by shamelessly fawning over her like two groupies when she grabbed a beer at the bar).  Her friend was probably, judging by her dancing moves, in another show in Vegas.  Megan had spent some time in Nashville and, keen to pursue her love for rock rather than country, had gone to Vegas.  The old favourite country songs and her rock renditions of “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” “Sweet Home Chicago” had everyone on their feet.

Who knew that such a gem as Knuckleheads could be found on the wrong side of the tracks in Kansas City hidden in amongst the industrial hangars and deafening horns of passing freight trains.  What a revelation of a Sunday afternoon… my friends and I were welcomed into the bikers’ haven like old friends, served inexpensive cold beer and lip-smacking barbecue meat.  But most of all for a small optional donation into a bucket, we were entertained by a talented band of musicians who played for the best part of five hours and by two standout performers.  They sang live – no frills and nothing but musicians to support them – and had talent and voices that would put many of the popstrels, boybands and divas in the charts today to shame.

The X Factor and American Idol don’t know what they’re missing, and I hope Dennis and Megan get to perform in their own right to sell-out arenas.  But just for that Sunday in Kansas City, I felt selfishly thrilled to have our own intimate live gig, and the music world’s loss – at least temporarily – was our gain.

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A musical treat

 

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 2/3)

PART 2/3 – BLENDING IN….IN HARLEY HEAVEN

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We’ve arrived?

With a name like Knuckleheads, its location should not have come as a surprise and – in hindsight – its clientele probably should not have either.  Glowing profusely in the scorching midday sun and humid 35C degree heat – having been shivering in the taxi’s air conditioning just seconds before –  and dragging our weekend bags behind us, we made our way toward the heavy beat.  A simple gate entrance led us into a dusty bit of road, temporarily turned into the Knuckleheads parking area.

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Knuckleheads, Kansas City

Over a hundred Harley Davidson motorbikes stood glinting in the blinding sunshine, guarded by a heavily tattooed man wearing black wraparound shades below a bandana-covered head and sporting an impressive handlebar moustache.  As he was busily tucking into what looked like half a fried chicken and had both his large muscular arms and his mouth full, I thought John and I might just be able to take him on.  Thankfully we never had to find out as he gave us an apologetic greasy smile as he wiped his mouth, said “Howdy” and waved us in.

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The entire hangar wall at the entrance to Knuckleheads was a shrine to musical greats – with huge black and white graffiti type paintings of artists ranging from Prince to John Lennon, and Johnny Cash to James Brown.

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A shrine to musical greats

John and I eventually tracked Witek down – our concern that he might have been taken round the back and filled in was unfounded – and were able to dispose of our travel bags in his hire car.  Relieved that we would now be able to truly blend in, we made our way through the throng of black Harley Davidson T-Shirts, bushy sideburns and ponytails (the men), rhinestoned bandanas and unfeasibly tight and trendily torn jeans (the ladies) and lengths of skin adorned with garish tattoos depicting skulls, American flags and what looked like scenes from horror movies (both).

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Beards, beer and bandanas

Inside, Knuckleheads had a basic outdoor stage constructed from what looked like scaffolding poles and wooden slats, facing a small gravel dance area and a collection of wooden picnic tables and benches.  Further back and under the shade of a protruding roof, were long bar tables with stools down either side.  Further back still, was an indoor warren of smaller rooms with stages and seating areas. Dotted inside and out, were bars cluttered with neon lights and rows of different types of beers and Bourbon, and a brightly lit hatch where you could order the ubiquitous Kansas BBQ food. Every wall was covered from top to bottom with music memorabilia, cowboy hats and plaques shouting philosophical statements.

As I stood trying to read a sign that was perched upside down over a doorway, I came face to face with a T-Shirt that read ‘Harley Fucking Davidson” stretched over a very large pair of breasts.  I stumbled out of the way feeling thoroughly inadequate, un-motto’d as I was in my patterned linen shirt.  I needn’t have worried.  John, anticipating my unease, reappeared having bought me a memento of our visit – a bright pink T-Shirt with ‘Knuckleheads’ emblazoned across it.  I resolved to wear it on Monday back at Fort Leavenworth for our first session back in class, as an adviser to the US and UK military on their joint military planning exercise.

Next Part 3/3: A Musical Privilege…

 

KNUCKLEHEADS – A hidden Gem on the other side of the tracks in Kansas City (Part 1/3)

PART 1/3 – FROM KANSAS CITY BRUNCH TO KANSAS KNUCKLEHEAD KNOCK-OUT

I had finished my spot of retail therapy in the neatly aligned four blocks of the disconcertingly modern and clean shopping district, Central Plaza, in Kansas City.  Showing great restraint, I had managed to limit myself to just two books from Barnes & Noble and an overpriced but irresistibly cute pair of leggings covered in whales for my baby daughter (she’s a huge fan and shouts ‘Bubba! Bubba!’ at every picture of a whale).  My colleague and friend John and I had indulged in a leisurely brunch under a parasol on the terrace of the Classic Cup Cafe – it was Sunday morning, gloriously sunny, there was some quality people-watching to be done and we had a rare day off.   I was tucking into another carb-heavy meal – a treat of American pancakes covered in melting butter and maple syrup with a side of bacon.  John – a well travelled and hugely experienced humanitarian worker with a penchant for good food and lethal cocktails – was feeling smug after opting for the moderately healthier option of ‘crab benedict’; basically eggs benedict with crab cakes instead of an English muffin.  His dish had spinach on it.  It meant at least one of us had succeeded, for the first time in our two week work trip, to consume one of our ‘five-a-day’.

Our colleague and venerable team leader on this trip, Witek, had raved about a bar and music venue on the outskirts of town, that played live music on Sunday afternoons.  We were not sure what to expect but thought why not?

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Kansas City’s Union Station

As our Uber made its way past the impressive Union Station, along the cosmopolitan and eclectic River Market in the North end of Kansas City and left the business centre and dormant night spots of the Power and Light district behind, we wondered where our driver was taking us.  Heading East along the river, we gradually found ourselves with train tracks running either side of the dusty single lane road, wasteland on one side and an industrial area made up of large warehouses and the odd metal water tower on the other.  I began to wonder if I was suffering a repeat of my cab drive from hell on my visit to Kansas almost exactly a year ago or if we had distracted our Palestinian driver so much with our questions about immigrants in Trump’s America, that he had driven off the page on Google Maps.

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Road to nowhere?

The Uber came to an unexpected halt near an open parking lot full of outsized pick-ups and John and I looked at each other with a hint of alarm.  With a “We’re here”, our driver was drowned out by the sudden sound of a mile-long freight train honking its way through a level crossing a few feet away from our parking spot.  I felt like the main character Ariel in the movie Footloose, when she and her small-town friends spend their evenings playing chicken with freight trains by standing on the tracks screaming at the oncoming beast, as its driver frantically pulls the horn to get them to move.  At the last minute, Kevin Bacon’s heartthrob out-of-towner character leaps to get Ariel out of the path of the speeding train as the classic 80s Bonnie Tyler soundtrack crescendos in the background.  Clearly in my case, I wasn’t standing in front of the train, I wasn’t screaming or wearing red cowboy boots (“I wear ‘em cawz my Daddy hates ‘em”). And my friend John standing looking perplexed in his shorts, t-shirt and flip flops – absolutely lovely though he is – was no leaping life-saving Kevin Bacon.  Suffice to say it brought back memories of 80s classic movies, so many of which depicted ‘authentic’ middle America, and which for so many of us Europeans, were our earliest and sometimes only exposure to places like Kansas.

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Footloose’s honking freight train without Kevin Bacon

As noise of the freight train subsided, John and I noticed a loud throbbing beat and the sound of some serious soul being belted out nearby.  Then I noticed the squiggly neon sign – scrawled in handwritten font – across the nearest hangar: ‘Knuckleheads’.  We had arrived.

Part 2/3 next: Blending in….in Harley heaven…

Surviving a taxi ride in Kansas

I expect a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expect cab drivers to have a vague knowledge of their local area. Maybe I’m just too demanding. Either way, yesterday I had to adjust those expectations radically. I was in Fort Leavenworth and had aspirations to get to Kansas City before nightfall. Leaving at around 3pm with about a 45 minute car journey ahead, I thought this was more than manageable. I should have known things were not going to go my way when the cab eventually turned up over an hour later, after three calls to remind the local firm that I was still waiting.

The battered saloon car coughed up to the porch and a large very sweaty looking middle-aged woman chewing gum noisily – in that way that suggests it’s a necessity rather than enjoyable – turned around from the driver’s seat as I slid across the back bench with my bag, looking at me as if I’d got into the wrong car. There was a meter and a taxi light attached to the roof of the car so I was pretty sure I hadn’t just hijacked an unfortunate local out for a drive to the local Walmart. I checked and she was indeed my designated cab driver. What an odd manner given her career choice in the service industry. As it would turn out she was just terrified of driving and in entirely the wrong profession.

We set off through Leavenworth town and all seemed well. I should have picked up when she asked for the third time where I was going that she was perhaps not as experienced as her age and the battered old 2-way radio suggested. She talked about the difficulty of following “the blue blob that is my car you know” as she unconvincingly juggled the Google Map screen on her phone with the steering wheel. She then started talking. To begin with I thought she was being friendly – like so many of the locals who invariably gave us a warm welcome when we came to Fort Leavenworth. Then I realised she was just talking, talking to herself continuously; a sort of mantra to calm herself down. Occasionally the odd comment was directed at me and it was clear a soothing response was expected. When at first I didn’t pick up on this, my driver’s control of the car faltered and she showed a propensity to swerve across lanes into truck-like vehicles – much larger and sturdier than our saloon car – to avoid imaginary threats. So I dutifully chipped in with “it’s ok, keep going straight on” and “don’t worry about the other drivers”, as the gum chewing behind the wheel grew louder and the smell of nervous sweat reached my nostrils.

As we approached the city, brake lights lined up ahead, unsurprisingly given that it was now rush hour on a Friday evening. The chewer in the front muttered quietly in a voice of shocked desperation: “oh my lord, there’s traffic”. There was a 2 second high point when the traffic cleared, but it was short-lived. As the skyscrapers of the city loomed over the freeway ahead of us, she said “oh my lord, Kansas City is so big”. Seconds later I saw my life flash before me as my sweaty friend dropped her phone into the foot well of the passenger seat, panicked that she was meant to be coming off the freeway, reached down into the foot well bringing the steering wheel violently round with her and ploughed us through the hashed area towards a large metal bollarded area in between the freeway and the ‘off ramp’. We cleared the bollards. Just. At this point, I took over. I held her shoulders from the back seat, brought up the route on my own phone, and ordered her to look straight ahead with a “do as I say” and “just drive”. I was hijacking a Leavenworth local after all.  She said “thank you, thank you” and “I don’t like to let my customers down”. I wasn’t sure how she felt about turning her customers into messy roadkill.

It took us another 45 minutes of missing turn offs because she “wasn’t quite ready’, or was “scared because of that big red truck”, or “was concentrating because I’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel”, but we made it eventually. We pulled up outside the hotel and I breathed a sigh of relief. I felt like the driving instructor whose least favourite student had just made it to the end of the test – had failed but had at least got instructor and student to destination without killing anyone.

Suddenly, the large sweat patches on her oversized red top dried out and the frantic gum masticating subsided. My incompetent driver announced loudly: “that’ll be 58 dollars now darlin”. I almost laughed out loud: she HAD to be kidding. But I did pay up – albeit while fulfilling my British stereotype.  I handed over the notes politely but muttered under my breath at the outrage: I expected a taxi driver to be able to drive. I expected a taxi driver to a vague idea of their local area…

Maybe it was the relief to have finally made it to my destination in one piece or maybe I just couldn’t face arguing or spending another minute with her. Or maybe I could afford to be generous: I was about to sip a cocktail while taking in the view of Kansas City from the rooftop bar of my hotel. My sweaty friend was about to embark on a nightmare return trip to Leavenworth. Through rush hour traffic. Searching in vain for the blue blob “that was her car you know”, on Google Maps. Sweating profusely and masticating loudly.  And – now – on her own.

An unexpected break from the relentless 21st Century treadmill

There’s nothing quite like a vomiting bug to give you a break from the relentless pace and expectations of life. Last week I found myself quarantined indoors having caught something with symptoms similar to the Norovirus. We had been to a toddlers’ party and four of us from our group of friends came home with the crippling bug. So I was kept away from the world so noone else would breathe in the pestilence.

Of course, had it just been me, I could have made a bit of a break of it: I would have happily curled up on the sofa with a large duvet and a well-placed bucket. I would have watched Strictly Come Dancing on catch-up, attempting mouthfuls of sugar water and felt sorry for myself until the waves of retching after every sip had passed and I could resume my relationship with the world and Nandos.

With a 14-month old in the house, there is no languishing on any sofa at any time – whether you’re just feeling lazy or your stomach muscles are having the biggest workout they’ve had in years courtesy of Armitage Shanks. There is a continuous requirement to be the most entertaining person in the world, play horsey and give chase around the dining room table on all fours.

But being sequestered from the world did at least give me a break from the daily expectation that I would be all over social media, respond to emails within minutes and deliver work earlier than the deadline I had been given. My entire schedule and all my deadlines flew out of the window. And in this instance, you may as well accept it straight away, as torturing yourself over what’s not getting done doesn’t get you anywhere and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. In our case, our nanny also left the house faster than you could say Dettol once there was some suggestion that the stomach bug in question might be catching. And she would not be back until said bug had been clear (and preferably fumigated) of our house for at least 48 hours. So I was left holding the baby as well as the bucket.

All plans for the next few days were cancelled, all social visits turned off. I took half an hour to cancel forthcoming language exams, presentations to high-ranking military officers, drafting of training protocols, and advised my mother not to come and stay unless she was equipped with a biological warfare suit and breathing apparatus (she paid no notice and came to stay to help out regardless – because that’s what mums do). We hunkered down until the virus has done its damage and moved on to its next victims.

Thankfully for our battered and lighter (hurrah!) bodies, that day is now upon us. We may air the rooms and emerge from our isolation to inspect the damage. Having been out of the picture for the best part of a week though, it has made me think we should do this more often – preferably without the virus. Much as we like to think it doesn’t, the world does continue turning if we step off it for a minute and a missed deadline may be inconvenient and on occasion costly, but in most cases any resulting upset can be remedied. So I will be switching off my phone and email more often in future – with some notice to clients and friends of course – and enjoying the odd moment of sequestration from the relentless treadmill of 21st century life.