2020-05-23 Back home in Oxford - for good now

The last few days

We have arrived in Oxford. There’s a great sense of pleasure and achievement. In the end, it was a safe and trouble-free journey. This first week back home has been sublime – sunshine and blue skies the entire time.

The previous few weeks were persistently anxious: first, waiting for the result of Raymond’s visa application; then, home flights booked, several postponed or cancelled by the airlines; the imminent expiry of Raymond’s entry clearance for the UK; the expiry of our Thai residence visas during the next couple of months, if we were unable to leave the country; clearing the house and packing the shipment of goods to send home. So, with visa granted, flights eventually confirmed, the shipment despatched, we made it back to welcoming and sunny Oxford; the clouds lifted.

Using an agent in the UK, I had arranged for the consignment of our Thai goods to be collected on 28 April, just before we were first supposed to have been traveling. The date was moved to 8 May after flights were cancelled. They didn’t turn up – no notification and no explanation - and we were cross about having needlessly sweated to get everything ready. It was another week before the impressive Thai relocation company arrived and took the shipment. It’s going by sea and will take up to a couple of months to arrive.

The Air Asia flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok (one of the very few domestic flights operating), was well organized and reassuring. We had our temperatures checked on arrival at the airport. Check-in was simple and straightforward. Next to us, waiting for a flight to China with another airline, several passengers were in full, hooded, top-to-toe hazmat protective gear. We were wearing masks and latex gloves and had sanitizer in our pockets. Boarding was by lateral location, with window seats on a limited number of rows boarding first, followed by aisle seats for the same zone. Disembarkation was on the same principle: isle seats permitted to rise first (Cs then Ds) allowing easy removal of items from overhead lockers and rapid, uncluttered, physically-distanced exit from the plane.

Everywhere there were organized queues and lines, all with distancing markers on the floor.

We were staying at the enormous Novotel at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. There were few guests and no-one other than staff in the vast entrance hangar. We were due to meet old friends Dr Pravich and Bui in the evening and were advised that outsiders could not eat in the restaurant, but could go to our room, after signing a waiver, where we could order room-service food.

We had several rounds of gin and tonic and some good food. Bui had ordered a big bunch of white flowers which were delivered to the room while he was there. Pravich and I have been friends since 1995; Bui and I since around 2007 (when his mother persuaded me to teach him English). They have both been best friends of mine for all those years (though Pravich and I had one or two rough patches). It was a sad farewell.

Next morning, 9am, we took the hotel shuttle for the short trip to the terminal, where we were screened by a thermal camera as we entered, and, in the huge building, passengers for our EVA Air flight to London and the check-in staff appeared to be the only people alive. In the gigantic, empty space, usually thronged with thousands of people, it was eerie. Without queues, we sailed through check-in, security and immigration in minutes.

In our 64-seat premium economy cabin, there were nine of us, spaced far apart, pretty much invisible to each other. Raymond and I sat together. Cabin crew were all wearing masks, goggles, gloves and lightweight coveralls over their clothes. We had excellent food, good films, and some sleep. It was very relaxed and agreeable.

In Heathrow Terminal 2, there appeared to be no-one but passengers from our flight. We waited a couple of minutes at Immigration, were asked for sight of our civil partnership certificate and sailed through with evident official goodwill. Luggage came in no time at all, we met our Oxford cab driver and were home in less than an hour. It was such a relaxed, trouble-free end to months of uncertainty.

Back home, we knew that some food and drinks from Ian and Pippa were waiting for us in the shed. This turned out to be a vast, comprehensive Waitrose shop in four large cool-bags, enough to set us up for the week. They had remembered lots of our favourites and it was all topped off with a lovely bunch of tulips.

The first week

It’s been delightful all round. The house is as welcoming and lovely as ever. The garden was a bit wild, as Sandy, our personal horticulturalist, had been stranded in the US after visiting her daughter, and hadn’t been able to do the usual spring planting and tidy-up. That was soon taken in hand, now she’s back, and the first geraniums and marigolds are potted and flourishing. We also have two rather splendid potted specimens from the garden of our friend Pat up the road. She has taken a job in Sheffield and wanted her prize medlar and myrtle to be taken care of while she rented out her house. The myrtle is looking very sorry for itself after several weeks of neglect, but there are signs of new buds, so we are hoping it will recover; the medlar is bursting with life.

Having been partly a staging-post for the past six years, the house needs sorting out. I’ve started by chucking out unloved and unworn clothes and trying to bring some order into the multiple boxes and piles that dot the house and the garage. Apart from anything else, we have to make room for the influx of goods that our shipment will bring, probably sometime in July. Where another few hundred books are going to be shelved is, presently, a complete mystery.

Yesterday I had the house windows cleaned after six years of neglect. I’m very pleased with the increase in bright, clean light in the house. I called the company at 9am and they were here at 11.30am, much to my amazement. They can’t have much work on. It prompted me to think of the old days, when Fred and his bucket and ladder tramped the streets every week cleaning windows for what, I assume, were mere pennies, given how many customers there were and how often he came. His machine-based, power-driven successors do a fine job, but at their prices they won’t be frequent visitors, that’s for sure.

Strange times

Thailand has escaped the worst impact of the pandemic – a few thousand infections with deaths in only double figures, according to official reports. A pretty draconian lockdown and sealed borders to foreign arrivals probably had a big effect, along with high profile police presence and penalties for non-compliance. The banning of alcohol sales for a few weeks was one among rather inexplicable measures, but it was eventually lifted, after shelves nationwide had been stripped of liquor in the few hours before the ban was imposed.

Raymond and I had a couple of days in Bangkok before the strict lockdown was imposed. The city was deserted, clean and peaceful; quite extraordinary.

Out in Oxford the other day, there was just a handful of people on the streets and almost no traffic on the roads. We shopped at M&S and Boots, among the very few shops open.

It’s not a good time for job-hunting, and Raymond’s plans for a blitz of applications is on hold, though there are one or two specific opportunities he’s pursuing.

I’ve been busy with lots of domestic administration, primarily letters and emails to the Pensions Service and other key providers to let them know that I’m back in the UK for good.

Work for UMC has almost dried up, except for editorial support for a full-length book about the history of UMC and Ralph Edwards as its director for nineteen years. Ian, my friend in Oxford, is the author and we’ve had a great partnership taking the project forward. I’ve had a personal invitation from the Saudi drugs regulatory authority to provide them with advice about risk and crisis communication. It follows a successful visit last year when I discovered that, amongst many other resources, they were using my book Expecting the Worst in their crisis training and management.

A new era and a new future; it will take time to settle into this fresh and luxurious life of freedom and companionship. We’ve already established a daily routine of great dinners. We eat really only once a day (occasional snacks, granted), so the evening meal has become a key event in our days. It’s just beginning, but I am optimistic and content.

I hope friends and visitors to this site are all keeping safe and well and that good prospects for the future have not been damaged. One day we are going to emerge into a new, maybe reformed kind of world – at least, that is what we must hope for.