Bearing plague from south of Manchester

We booked a holiday cottage near the boundary between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. But with lockdown only just loosening, will the locals be happy to see us?

July 17, 2020 10:51

Hurrah! We’re escaping from lockdown to go on holiday — no, no, not abroad, we’re not crazy: those airport security trays harbour more viruses than public loos — and that’s pre-Covid-19. We had booked a holiday cottage many months ago, near the boundary between Cumbria and North Yorkshire. But I am worried: with lockdown only just loosening, will the locals be happy to see us?

“What if they don’t want tourists?” I say to my husband, Larry. “The Lake District urged visitors to stay away.”

“We’re not going to the lakes. It’ll be fine,” he says (which is his answer to everything, especially any sentence of mine that begins: “But what if…?”)

“But what if they shout at us?”

This happened to his friend, Simon. At the start of lockdown, he decamped to his second home in Suffolk and, while out running, he was shouted at by a complete stranger, bellowing: “We don’t want you here! We know where you’re from!”

“But how did she know?” I asked. Simon was wearing a bright pink Lycra top and snug running shorts. Possibly a style statement in West Hampstead. Not in Orford. He might as well have been wearing a sandwich board proclaiming: “Metro-sexual from The Big Smoke”.

We let ourselves into the cottage using the key in the key safe. In the kitchen, there are multiple rodent traps set out on the floor. How welcoming. Personally, I’d favour a tray with tea and scones — call me conventional. The fridge is off, its door wide open, and the place smells musty.

“We’re obviously the first people here for ages,” Larry says, annoyingly positive as ever. “Good. No risk.” He phones the owner to ask about the mouse traps, and she says, “But you’re not coming!”

“Well, we are — we’re already here.”

“But everybody cancelled.”

He reminds her of their email exchange last week and the fact that we’d confirmed.

“Oh,” she says. “That’s right — you did. I’m afraid I got muddled with so many people cancelling.”

It is an unbroken rule of all our holidays that Larry must take us on a walk that turns out to be too far/too steep/too wet/too boggy and leaves me hating him. The trick is to anticipate which walk it will be and then get out of it. I have partial knee replacements, so struggle with steep gradients or too many steps. Larry suggests a walk he’s read about alongside a river with a series of waterfalls.

On arrival, a sign proclaims that, due to Covid-19, the walk is one-way only, so you won’t meet anyone coming the other way with no room to step aside. “But that means I can’t turn back if it’s too much for me,” I point out. “It’ll be fine,” he says.

The trail alternates between rocky paths, mostly fairly easy, and steps, not at all easy for me. Intriguingly, but also annoyingly, there are steps up, then steps down, then steps up again. Steps. More steps. The waterfalls are impressive but by halfway, I have ceased to be in awe because I can’t think about anything other than the fact I am exhausted and my knees are thrumming with pain. I feel I am trapped in that M. C. Escher print of the endless steps — going up and down for all eternity.

“You didn’t even mention steps!” I wail. “We’re nearly at the end,” he says. There is no evidence for this and indeed it turns out not to be true. Never marry an optimist.

Back at the house, I lie on the sofa with ice-packs on my knees and contemplate divorce. I Google the walk and find it has 1,000 steps, three times more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

We hear a pub nearby is open and you can drink outside. Larry has missed having a pint, so we go. It doesn’t actually have a garden, so we stand, spaced from other drinkers, in the town car park alongside, which seems ridiculous when we are in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Larry emerges with our drinks and starts chatting to a woman nearby.

“I gather this pub didn’t shut at all during lockdown?” he says. As with the pink Lycra running top, this clearly indicates we are not locals, as 
everyone for miles around must know about the pub that stayed open.

“You’re not local then?” she asks.

There are no trees around but plenty of lampposts from which they could string us up. They’ll think of us like the tailor from London who spread the plague to Eyam in Derbyshire and half the village died. In the 14th century, Jews were frequently blamed for the Black Death. On February 14, 1349, 2,000 Jews were burnt alive in the Strasbourg Massacre. I take a step back. I don’t want us to be statistics of the Kirkby Lonsdale Car-Park Massacre of 2020.

“Er…no,” I say.

“Where are you from then?”

“Er…south of here,” I say vaguely, waving an arm as if it might be just down the road.


“Bit south of that.” I look into my drink. She’s going to activate the mob any moment now. Like Simon’s pink top, maybe our clothes and demeanour mark us out as Londoners. Does my frizzy hair scream “Jewish”? She nods. “Oh, raighht. South of Manchester.” She gives us a look that says she knows we are evil super-spreaders from plague-ravaged London.

“Well, nice to meet you,” I say, as all three of us knock back the rest of our drinks and turn, as one, for the car.

Claire Calman’s latest novel, Growing Up for Beginners, is out now. @clairecalman

July 17, 2020 10:51

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive