It was now the 100th day of the ordinance of lockdown and Zarathustra, that renowned prophet of postmodernism, was engaged, as was his wont, in deep consideration of the resolution of a troublesome dilemma: whether the demands of the day merited rising from his bed and changing out of his pyjamas. Unable to summon the clarity of thought required for such a potentially significant decision, he decided to resolve the matter by switching on the BBC News channel and adjusted his pillow to a suitable angle so that he could recline and watch the TV screen at the same time.
He was gratified to learn that the main story of the day was (as always) the Covid-19 pandemic and in particular how singularly useless the government were in coming up with any coherent response to the challenges it raised. The official policy on work was it seemed changing from avoiding the office if you can to returning there if you can; and the policy on pubs from avoiding them to frequenting them. The second suggestion seemed to be the more relevant to his circumstances and indeed lent some weight to the argument in favour of getting himself into daytime apparel for the day ahead.
But the next story up piqued his interest even more: it seemed that the churches whose doors had been closed to congregants for the preceding three months were set to reopen that weekend. At this he immediately felt the hackles on the back of his neck standing on end. These purveyors of heresy were about to become active again spreading their pernicious doctrines and reintroducing the people to the idolatrous practices of communal worship and divinely sanctioned sacraments! Urgent preventive action was clearly called for lest all the good he had done during lockdown in awakening the people to their false consciousness be undone.
To be fair, this might be considered by some an over-reaction insofar as he had not left his hotel room since Easter out of respect for government guidelines (as he interpreted them). But that fact in no way lessened the passion he felt, to the extent that he barely remembered to switch off the TV as he headed promptly down to his car; not of course before finishing up watching the news review and a very interesting piece which had happened to follow it detailing evidence of unconscious bias in the news media against Harry and Megan whereby they were being accused of double standards in relation to their looking to leverage the royal brand while at the same time trashing it; in reality the enmity was exposed as having been driven by prejudice against Harry’s red hair and jealousy of Kate over… well he couldn’t quite remember what the cause of the jealousy was, but the evidence was certainly compelling. He couldn’t quite remember either what the other important stories had been which followed and had kept him riveted to the screen for another couple of hours. But they were suitably critical of the government and of all their core policies from public health to Brexit to education to the renewal of the contract of Larry the chief mouser to the cabinet office in the face of mounting evidence of his having been “asleep on the job” on numerous occasions.
So it was he arrived at his favourite village square just in time for tea and it was with gratification he noticed that The Tea Shop had reopened and was offering a Covid-friendly cream tea at a freshly sanitised antisocially-distanced table so he availed himself of the facility as he took stock of the situation and planned his strategy. He waited patiently for a good fifteen minutes for the waitress to appear and was starting to feel a gnawing sense of impatience when he noticed the sign at the edge of the table: “To maintain social distancing, we regret that food and drinks will until further notice be available only on a take-away basis.”
Disgruntled but unable to formulate his discontent in the form of any specific complaint, he wandered over to the shop, there to place his order. Not ten minutes later he emerged complete with freshly-baked scone, Cornish clotted cream and a steaming pot of Ceylon tea. The thought had crossed his mind that his enjoyment of luxuries from such exotic far-away places as Cornwall and Sri Lanka might open him up to accusations of cultural appropriation, such an allegation made against him by his (otherwise) good friend Ziggy the previous month having caused him at the time a deeply pained conscience for a good few minutes. But he had been more conflicted today over whether the perpetuation of colonial-era oppression through mislabelling Sri Lanka as “Ceylon” could be deemed acceptable in this more culturally enlightened era. His conscience on this at least was clear as he had made a point of asking for tea which was of Sri Lankan provenance. He wasn’t to be faulted unduly, therefore, when the lady serving challenged him as to whether he had a problem with her being Indian and he had quickly had to clarify his meaning by reverting to the colonial terminology.
He had almost recovered his calm when he emerged and noticed that the table at which he had been sitting was now occupied by a gentleman of middle-eastern extraction smoking a hookah pipe. At his side was what the prophet took to be his wife who sported a fetching burkah featuring some ornate embroidery, the beauty of which appeared not to be appreciated by the prophet, perhaps because like the burkah it was entirely black. It took him some effort to control his anger at this latest turn of events. “I… I…” he stammered pointing to the table. “Oh, no need to apologise young man if it was you who left the newspapers on the table here. We got one of our servant girls to dispose of them safely in the bin over there.” The prophet looked to the receptacle indicated, where he could see still protruding the banners of his copies of The Guardian and New Statesman. “And no need to look concerned. We had the table sanitised again before we sat down.”
Looking around at the other tables, the prophet noticed they were all now occupied by other women with burkahs surrounded by various numbers of offspring sitting, standing or reclining on the seats. Noting the look of consternation on his face, the middle-eastern gentleman continued: “Yes, you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to manage in these lockdown conditions with four wives all constituting separate households.”
At this point he noticed that the prophet was holding a tray bedecked with china and cutlery which he now had nowhere to put down and changed his tone to a more sympathetic one. “Oh dear, did the staff not think to give you a take-away cup and plate? Let me ask one of my servant girls to go and rectify that for you. Really, it is not a problem for her. You know, my friend, it is so difficult to find adequate service in this day and age. What ever are we coming to?”
Zarathustra found himself struggling to decide whether he was more angry about having had his much looked-forward-to cream tea ruined by this impertinent stranger’s untimely arrival, or by the latter’s unashamedly colonial attitudes. But he could not but be reminded from his deeply imbibed ideological predisposition that he as a British citizen was the coloniser and therefore had no basis on which he could pass judgement on the fellow. Nonetheless little solace was to be had taking out his anger on a china teapot, so his anger against the disturber of his tranquillity continued to mount unabated.
Perhaps cognisant of the prophet’s increasing discomfiture, his tormentor continued in a conciliatory tone: “But excuse me. I did not properly introduce myself. I am known by renown as Mohammed bin Abdullah. And you…?” If the intention here was to help in bringing the prophet to a more even temperament it was misjudged. But the question did at least have the effect of putting him off his guard for a moment so that habit kicked in. “Eh, well, people usually just refer to me as the pro…” At this point he managed to stop himself, having had the foresight to realise the terrible potential for initiation of cultural conflict in the direction the dialogue was taking.
So, in mortal fear of the prospect that in attempting to continue the dialogue he might be totally undone, the prophet that instant turned on his heel and marched promptly back to his car without another word, stopping only to place the tray and its contents noisily into the receptacle alongside his newspaper for the staff to deal with in due course.
Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.