Around the start of The Great Unpleasantness I got a call from an agency. Would I be interested in helping out at one of these Covid testing centres the army were setting up around the country? I thought this might get me off the sofa for a few weeks, and so I duly responded, and a couple of days later found myself standing outside a portacabin on the newly deconsecrated Park n’ Ride somewhere near Copdock.
Little did I know that twenty months later, I’d still be reporting for duty, albeit without the cheery farewell to the family which for some time consisted of the mantra “Cheerio, Daddy’s just off to collect phlegm in a bucket!” before the morning meeting in which we might be informed that (for instance) if we saw any drones overhead we should get under cover in case of a remotely-launched acid attack.
Over time the job evolved into something pitched as a hybrid somewhere between Big Brother and Love Island. The first wave led to a firm and lasting bond between the brotherhood of the Exit Bays - me, Craig, Callum and Tom - one of the driest and funniest people I’ve ever met - and our honorary fifth wheel, Sarah - My Lil’ Princess, for whom we had to bring in the kids’ version of the Trivial Pursuit questions and who would, if she didn’t know the answer to a geography question, answer ‘Australia’.*
There were a lot of nicknames around site - That Crazy Russian, The Duchess, Sexy Harry (and of course Non-Sexy Harry), Young Blud, Thing One and Thing Two, Surallan, The Doc and - possibly my favourite - My Sex Dwarf. Someone would bring in a tray of cupcakes. I would arrange the sandwich deliveries in order of palatability. There were quizzes. At one point a Backgammon school was established.
Once the first few of a bewildering number of revolving door-style management changes put in place their squad rotation policy, the old gang broke up and we moved into a new era. Admittedly this allowed for making new acquaintances since I was no longer in an isolated outpost at the end of the car park, and from these conversations in shared adversity new friendships and bonds were formed. The long winter days just flew by.
By the time we celebrated my birthday with a themed quiz we knew each other so well that over seventy per cent of the respondents answered the question “Who would Shane like to see wrestle in jelly?” correctly and most of them also got the bonus answer to “What flavour?”.
We toyed with the idea of making our daily lives into a sitcom, but reasoned that many of the sits would be too far-fetched to be acceptable as ‘com’. The morning brief where we were informed that we needed to wash our hands more but use fewer paper towels overall and the Afghanistan-based rant by one particularly unhinged boss were merely two such examples. One of the guys and I wrote a song about it.
Time moved inexorably on and folk started returning to their roles in the real world. Students, bankers, chefs, airline pilots even. All with the tell-tale bikini-strap marks of a Summer spent wearing a mask outdoors. I got a job running one of the mobile units we operate out of the site, which meant I got to travel the length and breadth of the county and beyond. “Standing at the dock in Harwich” hasn’t got half the resonance as an opening line to ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ as it might have.
Anyway, today I picked up my Employee of the Month certificate, and had cause to think back on all of those people I’ve shared a birthday cake, a portaloo or a game of On Site Bingo with and who, for better or worse, have helped to make me the person I am today. I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.
*You should have seen her face that time the answer was actually ‘Australia’.