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Nine months after Sergei and Yulia Skripal fell sick from a Soviet-era nerve agent, their community is trying to heal – but closed businesses, police cordons and a tourism slump are making it difficult

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Christmas lights adorn the city centre of Salisbury, England, a community of 40,000 people where a former KGB double agent and his daughter were poisoned in March, allegedly by two Russian nationals who have since returned to Russia. The Cold War-era poison used, Novichok, would later kill a resident of the town.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

The scene in Guildhall Square one recent evening was Salisbury as it should be: The town centre lit up with Christmas lights, as a band played carols and shoppers wandered a small maze of wooden cottages that sold locally made cheeses, gins and holiday decorations.

Standing on the square, watching Salisbury’s children wobble their way around an ice rink at the centre of the Christmas market, it was almost possible to forget that this small English city of 40,000 people had an unimaginably difficult year – one that saw its name connected to Cold War-style intrigue, including spies, chemical weapons and an attempted assassination.

It’s a new and unfortunate reputation for a city that was previously associated with its signature medieval cathedral, which has the tallest spire in England, and the nearby prehistoric wonder of Stonehenge. Salisbury’s battered tourist sector is desperately hoping for a strong holiday season to allow it to begin the coming year on a more positive note.

“The mood is much improved, I would say,” said Pauline Church, the local council member responsible for economic development and recovery. “Salisbury doesn’t want to be known for Novichok. We have plenty of reasons why [tourists] would want to come here.”

But despite the holiday optimism, things aren’t back to normal yet. The town’s annus horribilis left scars that will take longer to heal.

“If you wrote a fiction story about how a town could be destroyed, you would never write one like this,” said Jason Regent, the owner of a high-end tailoring shop near the famed cathedral. “The world just dropped out of Salisbury. Customers were cancelling appointments. People, including my children, were anxious, not knowing what’s happening.”

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Salisbury's Christmas market in the town centre.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

It’s only a few minutes walk from Guildhall Square to the scaffolding that still surrounds the Mill, the downtown pub where Sergei and Yulia Skripal – father and daughter – stopped for a drink on March 4, shortly before they fell critically ill from contact with a Soviet-produced nerve agent known as Novichok. Nine months later, the Mill has yet to reopen; its empty riverside beer garden casts a pall over the town’s attempts to move on from the dramatic events of 2018.

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A Christmas nutcracker figure stands outside the Mill pub, which is still closed.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

Further away from the centre, the home of Mr. Skripal – a former KGB agent who had flipped to working for British intelligence – remains behind a police cordon. Police determined that the Novichok was administered to Mr. Skripal’s doorknob in an assassination attempt that very nearly succeeded. (Mr. and Ms. Skripal have both since recovered from severe Novichok-induced sickness and remain under police protection.)

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A police officer patrols the cordoned-off house where Russian expatriate Sergei Skripal lived in Salisbury.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

Salisbury’s other wounds are less obvious, but just as real. Some businesses in the tourism-focused town said they took a 30-per-cent or 40-per-cent hit in the first weeks after the attack on the Skripals. Then, just as that episode started to fade from memory – and tourists began to trickle back – Salisbury was struck by more bad news: Two more people fell ill on June 30 after coming into contact with Novichok when they picked up a perfume bottle they found in a local park.

One of the two, Dawn Burgess, a 44-year-old mother of three, later died.

Though police fingertip-searched the Queen Elizabeth Gardens, where the couple found the perfume bottle, and declared the park and city safe, business in Salisbury plunged a second time. Almost six months after the death of Ms. Burgess, and nine months after the initial attack, the number of visitors to Salisbury is down 12 per cent compared with last December. Even the Christmas market is a shrunken version of its usual self: There are 44 stalls this year, down from last year’s 70, as the town struggled to attract merchants.

Locals say the second Novichok incident – which sparked panicked rumours about other locations that might be contaminated – hit even harder than the first.

The British government has accused two men that it says are Russian agents of carrying out the attack on the Skripals using Novichok that was transported in a perfume bottle and then disposed of haphazardly, leading to the death of Ms. Burgess. The two suspects, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – names that are believed to be aliases – have returned to Russia.

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Photos released by Britain's Metropolitan Police Service show the two suspects in the Skripal attack, identified as Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov.HO/AFP/Getty Images

In a September interview with the Kremlin-run RT television station, the two suspects admitted that they had visited Salisbury on March 3 and again on March 4, but said they only came to see the famous cathedral.

Western governments responded to the affair by expelling more than 150 Russian diplomats, including four who were forced to leave the Russian embassy in Ottawa. The Kremlin, which has denied involvement in the attack, expelled an equal number of Moscow-based diplomats on a tit-for-tat basis.

The international drama matters little on the streets of Salisbury, where most say they’d just like to forget about the episode and recapture some of the momentum the town had back in 2014, when it was ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the world’s top-10 must-see cities.

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Visitors sample the wares at a cheese stall in Salisbury's Christmas market.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

Simon Hughes, owner of the Milford Hall Hotel, near the town centre, said his business was hit by a spate of cancellations immediately after the March attack, as package tours that usually included Salisbury in their itinerary gave it a pass. While Milford Hall didn’t suffer too badly in the short run – many of the empty rooms were snatched up by journalists arriving to report on the Novichok attack – a key test will be whether the package tours return in 2019.

“We need to get the word out that it’s not dangerous to come here, and there are all these great things you can do here. That we have Stonehenge on our doorstep, and the beach is only 45 minutes down the road,” Mr. Hughes said.

Canon Robert Titley, the treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral – which will celebrate its 800th anniversary next year – said the city only has to look to its most famous structure to realize that life will return to normal and even the terrible events of 2018 will eventually fade.

“An 800-year-old building is a good place to keep a sense of perspective,” he said, sitting in a café beneath the stretching spire.

“The Cathedral Close was up and running at the time of the Black Death. There are chunks out of the wall where Roundheads did target practice with their artillery during the English Civil War. This is a place that has seen a bit of stuff over the years – which is helpful when you’re talking about resilience.”

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Eight-hundred-year-old Salisbury Cathedral.Justin Griffiths-Williams/The Globe and Mail

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