For Amber McAuley, life in Salisbury – a picturesque cathedral town best known as the gateway to Stonehenge – has become surreal ever since the town became the scene of a spy drama worthy of John le Carre.
The 20-year-old film student became a bit player in the story when she went to the Mill pub on March 4, only to learn the next day that a former Russian spy and his daughter might have been poisoned there a few hours earlier.
“It all just kind of feels a bit surreal,” she said after serving customers at a coffee shop in Salisbury. “It’s just so strange, going on your phone and seeing where you live (in the news), when it is such a quaint, quiet city. … I can’t quite believe it.”
McAuley spent Sunday scrubbing herself in the shower and repeatedly washing her clothes after public health officials said traces of a nerve agent had been found in the pub and a nearby pizzeria. Most other residents, however, are taking events in stride, even as chemical weapons experts and international news crews descended on this city of 40,000, some 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of London. They are following things closely, but going about their daily routines as much as possible.
Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday applauded the “fortitude and calmness” of the people of Salisbury as she told the House of Commons that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were targeted with a military-grade nerve agent developed by Russia. It is “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the attack, she added. The Skripals are still in critical condition at a local hospital.
Police investigating the suspected assassination attempt have set up a series of cordons around sites linked to the attack, including the pub and Zizzi, a chain pizzeria. Public health officials have said there is little danger to the general public, though they advised anyone who visited either restaurant on March 4 or 5 to wash the clothes they were wearing, as well as phones, jewelry and other accessories.
Jeff Timmins’ barbershop, with a traditional blue-and-red striped barber pole out front, sits across the street from the pizzeria. Police stand guard on the corner, and TV reporters do stand-up reports meters (yards) from his front door.
It’s all extraordinary, but Timmins isn’t getting too excited.
“The fact that anyone is carrying nerve agents is a little bit unnerving,” he said. “But it’s being dealt with properly.”
Part of that attitude has to do with the character of the town and its links to the military. The Ministry of Defense owns large swathes of Salisbury Plain, which has been the site of army exercises for more than a century. Samples from the Salisbury attack are being tested at the nearby Defense Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down.
Many of those who served in the military have had chemical weapons training, and accept the expert assessment that only those who had direct contact with the nerve agent are in danger, Timmins said. Even the fact that it took authorities more than a week to advise people to take extra precautions isn’t really causing much alarm.
“We’re just keeping calm and carrying on,” he said with typical English understatement.
Part of that nonchalance may disappear now that the government has linked the attack to Russia. Speculation about Russian involvement began almost immediately because of the 2006 killing of another former spy, Alexander Litivinenko, who died after drinking tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.
His widow, Marina, fought for a public inquiry into the case, keeping it in the public eye for a decade. The inquiry found that the Kremlin was involved and that Putin “probably” approved the attack.
Russian involvement makes it bigger than “one man and attempted murder,” said Diane Hampstead of Foxtrot Vintage, a clothing store in Salisbury. “It makes it an international incident.”
Nicola Hardingham, who runs a cookery store, says she can’t escape the fallout from the attack.
Walking home from work now means dodging the police cordons. Casual conversations gravitate toward Cold War politics. Her grandmother is afraid to come into the town center.
“It’s just the weirdest thing,” said Hardingham, 23. “It’s one thing to hear about (spies). To have it so close is another matter. It’s just surreal. I don’t feel as if I’m in danger, but you do sort of stop to think.”