I had an appointment for a swab at the Walk-in Covid Testing Station at the local park. I’d developed a cough, and although I had no other symptoms and felt quite well, still, I needed to have confirmation I wasn’t infected.
It was around five o’clock. Temporary floodlights brutally illuminated a series of chain link safety fences; two walkways of interlinked boards that led into a gap marked ENTRANCE and then out of one marked EXIT; a white portakabin,and then the big, white marquee beyond. It looked like some kind of festival, except – a particularly bleak and sinister one, held at night, where you’re the only guest. There was a Covid marshall in a visor and surgical mask, hi-vis tabard, beanie hat and boots, stamping and rocking from side to side, blowing into his cupped hands.
‘Alright?’ I said as I approached.
‘Blinding!’ he said.
He made a gesture with his right hand, the cliche kind of thing you see in spy films when the tough border guard demands to see your papers. I showed him my phone, and the thing I’d downloaded from the government site. He scanned it.
‘Go on, then,’ he said. ‘Knock yourself out.’ Then holstered his scanner, and carried on stamping.
I followed the walkway through the fence and the rolled-back flaps of the marquee. There was a test official waiting for me by a camping table laid out with sealed packets and things. He was friendlier than the door guy, but I thought that was only because he was standing by a patio heater.
‘Hello!’ he said, beaming behind his visor. ‘Can I see your appointment code again, please?’
I showed him the phone.
‘That’s great!’ he said. ‘Lovely!’ And handed me a pack.
‘Just find yourself a cubicle and follow the instructions,’ he said. ‘I’ll pop in and see you’ve got everything you need and know what to do. Okay? Great!’
The marquee had been divided into thirds by two huge sections of canvas running the length of the space. The middle third was left clear – just a stretch of grass and the metal walkway down the centre; the remaining thirds were subdivided horizontally into cubicles by smaller canvases. There was clear plastic at the entrance to each, like windows. I went into the nearest empty cubicle, although – to be fair – I could’ve used any of them, because the place seemed pretty empty.
I sat down at the camping table they’d set up for the test, put my pack in front of me, and started to read the instructions. The test official hooked back the flap of my cubicle and looked in.
‘Alright?’ he said. ‘Got everything you need?’
‘Yep. It all seems pretty straighforward. Anyway – I’ve done it before.’
‘Oh?’ he said. ‘Experienced!’
‘Yeah. A drive-in place.’
‘Really?’ he said – but that’s as far as it went. There didn’t seem an awful more to say about it. To fill the dead air, I suppose, I said the first thing that came to mind.
‘I wasn’t sure about the app,’ I said.
‘When I used the Q Code it took me to a strange place.’
‘What strange place?’
‘Oh – some website. I don’t know what it was. Lots of links and things.’
He widened his eyes above his mask.
‘Mmm!’ he said. ‘Where do you think THEY led to?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Somewhere amazing, probably.’
‘Well!’ said the official. ‘Maybe next time you should click.’
‘Maybe I should.’
He stayed there a second more, kind of swinging on the flap. Then he straightened up and pointed at me.
‘Shout if you need anything!’
‘Will do!’ I said, trying to match his energy but blushing instead.
I opened the packet and lay out the kit, cleaned my hands with the alcohol gel, and got ready to swab my throat and nose. There was a little round hand mirror on the table, so I used that.
In my own defence, I think the cough had sensitised my throat. I mean – last time I did the swab I retched a little. It’s not a great feeling at the best of time, paddling a giant cotton bud around at the back of your throat. Today, though, was especially difficult.
I made such a fuss about it the guy came back.
‘What on EARTH is going on?’ he said, swinging on the flap again. ‘We’ve had some gaggers in today but you’re the absolute WORST!’
‘Sorry!’ I gasped. ‘I’m finding it hard today.’
‘You certainly are!’ he said. ‘You sound like a cat with a hairball. You sure you’re okay?’
‘Yeah. I’ll be fine.’
‘Well – alright then. But you be careful what you put down there. And see me when you’re done.’
The nose was easy after the throat. I shoved the business end of the swab into the phial of liquid, snapped it off, screwed on the lid, put one thing inside another in the way the instructions directed, then cleared up my station and left the cubicle.
The test official was there, waiting.
‘This way!’ he said, and I followed him down the bouncing metal walkway to another long camping table, this one set up in front of a larger cubicle with a clear plastic hatch.
‘Another customer for you, Malcolm!’ he said, leaning on the table. Malcolm didn’t seem enthusiastic, though. He was waiting just the other side of the hatch, so motionless he could’ve been a mannequin dressed in PPE, there to make the place look busier. But then he moved, and asked me in a bored voice to hold up my pack so he could scan it. After the beep he pushed open the flap for me to drop the pack into the bin the other side. I wondered whether they swapped jobs from time to time, just to liven things up, but I didn’t feel able to ask.
‘Thanks so much!’ I said, as if they’d just treated me to an amazing dinner.
‘You’re VERY welcome!’ said the test official. ‘And DON’T go following any strange numbers!’
I left the marquee, following the boards, eventually leaving parallel to the ones I’d used to enter the place. The marshall was still there, doing his wintery, side-to-side shuffle. He was right under the halogen scene lights, picked out like an actor on stage. It would’ve been great to see him launch into a Kung Fu routine. But he didn’t.
I waved to him; he nodded back.
‘Have a good night!’ I said.
‘You’re kidding, right?’ he said.
I shrugged, shoved my hands my hands deep in my pockets, headed for the car.