So I watched the ripples change their size but never leave the stream of warm impermanence. And so the days floated through my eyes but still the days seemed the same. Thus began the days of lockdown. In Spain, this meant super-lockdown+++, to borrow from the lexicon of the madness of Brexit options, the very thing – apart from the toxicity of online trolling and hatred, chiefly from an online community of freelance journalists – that had shocked me, back in the UK and had led to me leaving the London in which I was born and had spent more than half a century.
And I still don't know what I was waiting for, and my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets and every time I thought I’d got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet. So here I was in a new city, a new country, a new culture – and yet I was excluded from participating and living and loving and sharing.
It was a Monday morning after my mad dash back from the Caribbean, and I woke up to the new reality. My beloved cleaner Janneh rang me on that Monday morning, and I said, “Let’s go for a coffee.” She said, “Are you crazy? Don’t answer, I know you are. You cannot leave your house, you cannot go out, you will be arrested.” Slowly, it began to sink in. I was under house arrest. The streets were deserted. Police were roaming the streets to check no one was going out. I was suddenly in some kind of weird futuristic dystopian fantasy.
The loophole was that I could leave the house to go to the nearest farmácia and nearest shop – a mini-Mercadona in my case – but subject to being stopped by the police who could inspect my shopping and assess whether my shopping was essential. I shall share my thoughts on the police in a separate piece but for now, I shall simply say that the horror of my situation was slowly beginning to dawn upon me. Alone, grieving for my own technical death and coma the previous year, the fact that my younger brother had suffered a similar catastrophic cardiac failure two days after my own, that he had had his life support switched off to bring about his death, a rancorous relationship with my daughter’s mother that had culminated in me beating the living shit out of my former “best mate” who was now her partner, leading to me being arrested and held in a cell for 24 hours, the effects all this had upon my daughter, disastrous family therapy, hatred from strangers (allegedly colleagues), and a tsunami of similar personal disasters, all had conspired to me leaving my home and striking out in new pastures. Only to find the sunlit uplands of pasture turned out to be barren, scorched and neglected fields.
Could this really be happening?
Reader, it was. My “new normal” became one of relying on the kindness of strangers. I exploited the sanctioned loopholes by going to the supermarket every single day. And I went to the farmacia almost as often. I made friends in both places. Yes, I was “el loco ingles” at Mercadona, but they were so welcoming. I bought more or less the same thing every day. A bottle of premium vodka (€8.75), mixers and a few food items, mainly in case the police stopped me and searched my bag to give me an excuse for my quest.
And in the farmacia, I became close to the girls who were worked there, Paula, Patricia and Margerita. For the next couple of months, I was a regular in both places, my daily paseo, constrained and circumscribed by a range of 300 metres. Like Oscar Wilde at Reading Gaol, this gave me possibly 30 minutes of exercise per day, before returning to my flat to pace up and down, getting drunk, video-calling my mum and dad, crying, listening to music, inviting Facebook friends to compile Top Five lists on everything under the sun (Top Five German films was a personal highlight), crying, drinking vodka, talking to my mum and dad on FaceTime (did I already say that?) and also crying. Oh! Did I already mention the crying?
I had a nervous breakdown. Again. All my really close friends from the UK that I had cultivated over decades and who would do anything – anything! – for me were chiefly notable for the same thing. Their complete and utter absence. “We are born in the pain of others but we die in our own.” But die I would not. Though I won’t deny that there were times when I stood on one of my balconies idly toying with the idea of tossing myself off. (Yeah. It’s a gag. Well spotted.)
In fact, people got in touch who I never expected to. People I would have sworn would have got in touch didn’t. As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” It’s a lot easier to say that once you have survived than when you are in the eye of the nihilistic storm with no idea as to when or how it might end.
How did I cope? I don’t know, really. Janneh, my cleaner, came once a week and rang me every day. Another friend would come over occasionally and stay the night. Paula and Margerita might have been surprised by the number of condoms I was buying at that weird time, but were too kind to say anything. It’s a weird thing, but the French call orgasms le petit mort, and when your overriding primal urge is to die, sex is a compulsion. Whatever gets you through, really.
I coped. But I was spiralling out of control. All I had was the kindness of strangers. I was feeling pretty rough. I developed a cold, flu-like. I went to see Paula and Margerita. I explained my symptoms, while picking up another duo-pack of 24 condoms. They listened sympathetically. Then said, “Eugenio, you don’t have Coronavirus.” I feigned shock, and said, “Then I have something far worse.” They said, “What?”, looking alarmed. I said, “Something for which there can be no cure.” Above their masks, their eyes widened. “What is it, Eugenio?”
I said, “Something terrible. Hypochondria.”
How we chortled. A note about Paula and Margerita. Both beautiful girls, and I mean souls as well as looks. A number of times I began to cry in the farmacia, trying to explain my life and situation. They could not have been kinder. The security guard at Mercadona who was there to make sure you put on hand-gel and disposable gloves became a friend, as did many of the cashiers. Back home, friends from Cuba, despite being in conditions of near-starvation, rang me every day to check in on me, worried about me. Friends who had not been my closest friends did the same.
In lockdown, I was amazed by those who reached out to me. It was my birthday in the middle of all of this. John Wellington, the managing editor of the Mail on Sunday, whom I had got to know some years ago when he had been tasked with the process of sacking me, has become a good pal (at the time, Wellie came to my leaving drinks and wrote me a card that said, “One of my most pleasant sackings ever”, and still sends me a Christmas message every year). "The nicest man in journalism", as I have dubbed him. Not up against stiff competition, though, it's fair to say. Though that Nick Craven's all right. An' Mark Wareham an' all.
He offered to host a Zoom Party for the occasion. A beautiful folla-amiga (in English, we say “fuck-buddy" but that sounds so ghastly) came over for the night and helped fix me drinks during the Zoom Party. A couple of beautiful butterflies “came” to my party and wrote in lipstick on their chests “Happy birthday, Eugene.” My daughter – reluctantly – joined us. John was the perfect host and his ex-PA Trish Ellis was a star.
I mean, I won’t lie. It was chaos. Zoom Parties are a bit like going to a pub where everyone has ingested a gargantuan amount of cocaine and are all talking at the same time. Nonetheless, as the News of the World used to say, “All human life is here”. Plus I had a beautiful girl looking after me. To the horror of one particular friend who a few days later said, “Pretty shocking, considering your daughter was there.” I said, “I really, really don’t think that my daughter would be shocked to know that I have sex. In fact, I think she would be shocked if the reverse were true.” She didn’t feel the same way. To quote Matthew Arnold, we were “on that darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Anyway, back to my theme. The kindness of strangers. A few days after Hypochondria-gate, my symptoms worsened. I went back to see Paula and Margerita. I was running a temperature by now, and had fever-like symptoms. They were immediately concerned and wrote down a couple of numbers for me, special Coronavirus helplines, and told me to go back home and self-isolate. Not a huge problem, since that was chiefly what I was doing in any case (apart from the above-mentioned exceptions).
I did so and used my functional Spanish to discuss my symptoms. The lady on the helpline told me to stay home (like I had any choice) and to wait for an ambulance. It arrived at midnight or so. Four storeys up, I came down and the ambulance driver was about 20 metres up the street, speaking to me through a sort of personal Tannoy and wearing a Hazmat suit. He told me to approach the ambulance and get in. He opened the back door with a remote-control. I got in and he shut the door with the same device. I was in a hermetically sealed rear compartment lit by violet UV light. He got in the driver’s compartment, sealed off by a glass screen and off we went.
We arrived 20 minutes later at a side entrance to Hospital Universitario Doctor Peset. Juan Peset was a left-wing doctor and lawyer, and during the Spanish Civil War Valencia became the de facto capital for the anti-fascist forces. Peset was captured by the Francoistas in 1939, spent two years in a concentration camp and was executed by the despicable tools of fascism in 1941. A true hero. So, I thought to myself, at least if I am to die it will be in a shrine to someone with whose views I am proud to associate myself.
The driver pulled up and told me to stay where I was until he had retreated another 20 metres. I felt like a cross between a panda being transported to another zoo for a breeding programme and ET when he is believed to be on the point of death, and the FBI send their medical experts to transport his body. It was not good.
I entered the hospital and was told to stand 10 metres from reception. The masked personnel began to ask me for my NIE number. I replied that I didn’t have one because government offices had been closed down during El Encierro (lockdown). They instead asked for my passport number. I said, “Hang on, does this mean I am going to get a huge bill?” And then I lost it.
I began to cry. I said, “I didn’t fucking ask to be taken here, I rang the fucking number I was told to fucking ring, this is completely fucking unfair, I am trapped here, my parents and daughter are in London and I am fucking sick of this fucking shit.”
The woman behind the desk said, “Tranquilo tu, señor, relájate.” Basically, calm the fuck down and chill out, son. She said, "Look, I will create a temporary registration for you, it’s not your fault you are in this nightmare, just relax, you won’t have to pay anything.” And that is precisely what happened.
I was led through the bowels of the hospital by masked nurses to a room that is ordinarily a wheelchair store. I was told to sit and wait. By now it was about 1am. A few minutes later, a pretty doctor of about 30 came and took me to her consulting room. After a quick chat, she sent me off for X-rays (done immediately) and then to the blood lab where they did five different tests before sending me to wait in a socially distanced waiting area.
It was a frightening, disorientating experience.
At 3:30am, the pretty doctor reappeared. She said, “Ven, Eugenio.” (Eugene, follow me.)
I followed her back to her consulting room.
She sat down.
Though she was wearing a mask, her eyes were lit up, and I could see that she was smiling. She said, playfully, “Eugenio. Tengo buenas noticias.” (Eugene, I have good news.)
Then, “Eugenio, tú tienes bronquitis.” (Eugene, you have bronchitis.)
I had tested negative for Covid.
I got home about 5am and poured myself a stiff drink. I was full of gratitude for what my adopted country had done for me.
The next day, I went to see Paula and Margerita and told them what had happened. They were overjoyed.
“I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” (Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, 1947)
People are essentially good. It’s only when our lives are intertwined and relationally complicated that people become motivated by self-interest. It is for this reason that I am instinctively a socialist.
Thank you, Spain. You looked after me so well during one of my darkest hours. I shall never forget, and I have a huge debt towards you.
Hasta la victoria siempre.