October 2020

Essays

Helen Garner

The lockdown diaries

Photography by Sarah Contos

Melbourne in the time of pandemic

My teenage grandson is on the phone, planning Dungeons & Dragons with his friend. “Do you want me to give you a run-down? Right. You’re in a post-apocalyptic city.”

*

In the toilet paper aisle at Coles you can see right through the banks of bare wire to the freezer cabinets beyond. No flour either. Or Panadol. I say to my son-in-law, “Do they know something we don’t?” “They’re nuts!” he cries. “It’s panic-buying!” On TV a young housewife shows her laundry packed to the ceiling with survival stores. Glamorously smiling, she holds up five little packets of vegetable seeds that she’ll plant if she runs out of bought food. Doesn’t she know how long things take to grow?

*

My ancient German neighbours have stopped fighting their fate: they are going into aged care tomorrow. I pay my last visit to them in their own home. The old lady is in bed upstairs, not receiving. The professor, well advanced in dementia, speaks to me in the front hall about Wagner: “Tristan und Isolde. It is love, what they do. And then, they die. And to tell the truth, I do not miss it.” Later their daughter tells me she cried in the street and didn’t care who saw her. Tomorrow we’ll tackle the freezer.

*

A quarter of Italy’s population has been put into quarantine.

*

Slowly it dawns: things are breaking down. Hospitals will overflow; people will besiege them, wanting to get tested, treated, healed. But the weather is warm, a lovely autumn, soft skies, full moon, balmy evenings.

*

Where’s the line between hoarding and ordinary household provisioning? They’re clawing at each other in the big-name supermarkets, but at Conga Foods in Bell Street a few calm customers move freely in the aisles and the shelves are arrayed as usual. We buy what we normally would, but slightly more of it: pasta, beans, chickpeas, canned tuna and tomatoes, parmesan, a can of oil.

*

Grand Prix cancelled, as if I cared. Gatherings of more than 500 forbidden. The chemist says not to stockpile my cholesterol medication. A bowl of soup in an Ascot Vale cafe with my neighbour. Later her mother calls her to say someone with the virus ate at that cafe last week.

*

Emails flash between the members of our Metamorphoses reading group. Is it alarmist to cancel our monthly meeting? If everything goes to shit the two oldest of us are squarely in the most vulnerable cohort. We agree to cancel. “We may have to move Ovid to Skype.” Skype? No fucking way.

*

A strange mood in the streets. Low traffic noise. The air’s not moving, the sun shines gently, doves call. It’s paralysis. We don’t know what we’re waiting for or how long it’s going to go on.

*

My niece knows a theatre nurse in regional Victoria who says that their allocation of masks and hand sanitiser has been stolen from the hospital. Interesting how during the terrible fires people behaved splendidly (except for the odd case of looting), but now it’s every man for himself and devil take the hindmost. I’m actually quite scared. But also going calmly about my business in the house. Never in my life have I washed up so often.

*

At 4pm I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d gone for a walk this morning. Painstakingly I worked my way back through the day and finally eliminated all doubt: yes, I had. Is this cognitive decline? Or is the lockdown blurring time for everybody, squeezing and stretching it like a concertina?

*

A lot of people in isolation confess guiltily to being happy. Resting, cleaning, reading, putting their house in order. I plant lettuces and beetroot. The kids dress up as “people from the ’50s”, bouffe up their hair, roll back the rug and teach themselves to dance from YouTube. “Take out the papers and the trash / Or you don’t get no spending cash…”

*

I can’t visit the old professor and his wife in their new Camberwell fastness, so every week I make them a special postcard. My granddaughter watches me crouched over the coffee table busily tearing and glueing, and beams on me a smile of benign approval. I buy express envelopes in bulk: you can’t trust bloody Australia Post with an ordinary letter.

*

We’re supposed to observe physical distancing. Everyone is to have an area of 4 square metres. “These are not suggestions,” says the chief medical officer. “These are civic duties.” The phrase “civic duty” thrills me. People in shrieking embraces at airports and lounging on Bondi Beach seem to think their youth will protect them. Those insolent French girls. I could slap them.

*

I can’t line up the peace of our household with the chaos and suffering we see on TV, people on their backs gasping for breath through ventilators. I hope if I catch it, I’ll be able to close my eyes and slip away before they push one of those horrible things down my neck.

*

They’ve closed Bondi Beach. People have to be forced to leave.

*

Where do the days go? They are endless. I work steadily for seven hours at a stretch, and yet when night falls I feel as if I’ve only just got up and must sit down to work at once.

*

Nothing is spoken of on the news but the coronavirus. The queue outside Centrelink goes on and on, round the corner, right around the block – people whose jobs ended with a crash in a day. Everybody’s bewildered, in a stupor, trying to grasp the facts and act on them. When they start talking about the Amazon Basin I turn the TV off and sit there desolated in the dark.

*

At sunrise I walk fast through Travancore. Strangers give each other a wide berth. Two old Italian women are so busy talking that when I come pacing up behind them they jump apart and burst into cascades of jolly laughter.

*

“I don’t know if you want to hear this,” says my GP neighbour, “but I’ve had an email saying that when the virus really hits, our ICU units will be overwhelmed in 10 days.” We are silent. “And what’ll happen then?” “Then they’ll have to impose the sort of triage they’re using in Italy.”

*

I can’t eat with the family anymore. Every evening, one of the kids comes in with a plate for me. I eat in front of the news, which would fill me with horror except that I seem to be floating in some dream-world of gratitude and genial thoughts.

*

I slide into the post office to send my regular postcard to Camberwell. The young server peeps out from the back room, her arms folded across her chest. I imagine her terror that some dickhead will barge in shouting and waving his arms and shedding virus all over the shop, but lo!, ’tis only Mrs Garner in her straw hat and white cotton gloves, holding out an express envelope by its very most extreme pointy tip.

*

How on earth can a person not touch their face? Is it dangerous to rub it with the sleeve of my jumper?

*

I saw on TV one of the “mass palliative centres” the Americans are setting up for people too sick and old and battered to make the cut: a huge warehouse, or maybe it’s a tent, military-style, with neat rows of stretcher-like beds. I’m secretly attracted to the idea of going out that way, if I have to. Nobly I fantasise taking a bullet for my grandchildren.

*

These mornings, down near the hockey field, I often see a young woman skipping like a boxer at the open door of a garage. She works fast and steady, spine erect, elbows straight, feet barely leaving the ground, the whirring rope invisible.

*

Stage 3 lockdown. People over 70 are ordered to stay home for three months. A stab of stir-craziness, then, again, the stoical feeling.

*

I keep sending the old Germans their weekly postcard. They never reply, they’re beyond it now, but I keep it up so they won’t forget that they once knew someone, and that someone knew them, or tried to.

*

The High Court frees George Pell. He has taken refuge in a Carmelite monastery in Kew. Just inside the locked gate a tiny nun in veil and long habit crouches awkwardly on the drive, struggling to pick up in both arms an enormous cardboard carton of what looks like wine. Isn’t someone in there going to give her a hand?

*

Cadavers encased in white plastic are trolleyed out of New York hospitals and trucked in refrigerated vans to mass graves. Are they old people? Rash people who kept going to clubs? People with delivery jobs or “co-morbidities”? Who are the unlucky ones? Why are they dead, and we’re not? Is there a reason? Will we ever understand what’s happening to us?

*

At dawn I go to let the chooks out. Someone’s left the gate open and the pen is full of doves. They explode up from the muddy ground and batter themselves against the fences in a storm of pop eyes and tiny beaks. I rear back with my arms around my head just as a little brown hawk plunges out of the sky and whacks into the wire roof. A stunned moment, a fluster, and it’s gone.

*

“What happens today? Does anything happen?” “No. It’s Easter Saturday. Jesus is dead.” “And he’s in his little … cave?” “He’s in his tomb. Waiting to be resurrected.” “You should tell us the story. It doesn’t seem right that we’re stuffing ourselves with hot cross buns when we’ve got no idea what it’s about. It’s like going to the footy just for the pies.”

*

Turns out there’s this thing called Zoom, for the reading group. You can press a button to improve your appearance. It doesn’t work on me. We go back to the start of Metamorphoses. In the months since we last met, I’ve forgotten all of it, except the guy who decorates his head “with any available foliage”. I love seeing the others again, some subtly lit, some shadowy, and hearing their dear, familiar voices tackling the tales of wild gods and helpless mortals.

*

On TV a battered old Aussie bloke from Queensland, suffering and grieving, stammers out his love for his wife, who has caught COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess and died: “She was the best wife a bloke could ever have. We never had a single fight, not a single one. She wouldn’t fight. She refused to fight.”

*

The devoted, long-suffering son of the old Germans tells me they are arcing up, demanding to be taken home, though the professor is not at all sure what country they’re in. His wife threatens to take a cab back to their house and break down the door. Since she can hardly stumble across a room on two sticks, this seems unlikely. But it excites me to think of her swinging a sledgehammer.

*

Anzac Day. No march, no dawn service. They want us to stand at our front gates at 5am holding candles. I intend to comply but wake too late.

*

Half-stunned all day. Heavy and stupid. I read but my eyes skim the page, absorbing nothing. Am I sick? Have I caught the bloody thing?

*

People say the virus is making everyone nicer in the streets. My friend and I have doubts. In our separate suburbs we count our early morning snubs and call each other to compete. Today I offer my face to a dozen approaching walkers. Not one acknowledges me. A hundred per cent. Cool. I will win. Hang on, here comes an Asian girl. She’ll break my perfect score. Yes, eye contact, a courteous nod. My heart faintly aches, a lot of the time. I may have reached the bottom of my introversion bag.

*

This is the first day I haven’t left the house, except for the chooks, and it was sparkly, too, a lovely day. I didn’t walk, I didn’t wash, I didn’t get dressed, I stayed all day in what I’d slept in plus my Ugg boots. And I didn’t give a shit. I worked on my book, that’s all I did, and it was enough.

*

The 13-year-old makes me watch The Blues Brothers. We’ve never seen it before. I’m not keen. But when the car drives straight through the mall and the angry girl lays about her with a flamethrower and the phone boxes blow up and hundreds of police cars sail off a freeway and the neo-Nazis’ car plummets endlessly from the sky we writhe on the couch in an ecstasy of laughter.

*

The old professor calls, his voice very close and loud. “We are here, where we are, I don’t know where we are but we’re here, we were coming, but my wife is not, she is not well, so we will not be coming, you are the first person I have been able to – ah – I want to tell you we will be coming, ah, tomorrow. And thank you for taking the call.” Nothing I say can get past his formal manners, his panting anxiety.

*

Today is my granddaughter’s 20th birthday. These have been the 20 happiest years of my life.

*

What did I do all day? I can’t even remember. Everything I think of is forbidden. A haircut, a decent espresso. Each simple longing hits a brick wall and dies. If I were serious, I’d clean the house. It’s quite nice in my kitchen, though. While I wait for the kettle I do a little dance in my woollen socks, pointing my toes and stepping lightly.

*

My granddaughter goes, despite government advice, to the Black Lives Matter march. I’m proud of her for going. She is desperate to stand up and act, in the face of the disgraces and horrors of the world that she’s inherited. “It sucks,” she says, “to be alive now.”

*

The old professor calls. He talks for a good 20 minutes, he can’t stop, he is flustered, agitated, distressed, veering among the wrecked shards of his mind. His sentences have no content but they are so perfectly jointed and polished that they make me dizzy with admiration. When at last he begins to peter out (“I am surrounded by people who … I have lost my … I do not know whether … I know I am stammering…”), I produce from behind my back the syringe of praise and give him a huge shot: “Your English is admirable and beautiful. Your syntax is faultless.” He becomes relaxed and sunny, like someone who’s had a hit of Valium: “I am a man. I am vain. You have entered my soul.”

*

After my eye appointment, still blurry from the drops, I walk down Collins Street. The cafes offer only takeaway, the street has no colour, I don’t like it, I feel confused and frightened. I go into Officeworks. In lockdown I’ve forgotten how to enter and leave a shop, and what to do while I’m in one. I stand inside the door blinking to left and right, like a mouse.

*

Bright morning on the almost empty 59 tram. A racing cop-car changes lanes with sirens, an ambulance screams past us heading north. Tram pauses, then rolls on. Underneath everything now, even a simple sunny morning, runs a silent stream of existential fear. Things I look at don’t have the resonance of meaning (or do I mean the sense of a future?) that they once had. I don’t know how the kids are bearing this.

*

Numbers of new cases rise and rise. Hotspots here and there. The big flats shut down. Quarantine hotels. A new lockdown, from midnight. People are refusing to be tested. How can people refuse? The world I’ve spent my life in is coming to an end. I keep myself half turned away, my eyes narrowed. On some deep level I’m terrified.

*

We’re allowed out for an hour a day. Okay, I’ve got my shopping list and my mask. As everybody knows, there’s no yellow box outside our post office; to express my card to Camberwell I’ll have to go inside and hand it over. I scan the queue on the footpath: maybe 10 people, correctly spaced. If I get in line, I’ll be here for half an hour. Clearly displaying my red and yellow envelope I bound up the steps and dart into the building. The server nods, I lay the envelope beside her and run back onto the street. Fifteen seconds, max. As I walk past the queue, a small masked woman in a dark coat calls out sarcastically, “That wasn’t very nice.” I stop. “Pardon?” “You ran straight in. You didn’t respect all the people waiting.” I say, in a very quiet, polite voice that probably sounds menacing, since I am controlling an urge to punch her lights out, “Would you like me to tell you what I did in there?” She holds up one flat palm like a wall right in front of my eyes and turns her head away in a contemptuous movement. I head back to my car at a run, shouting nastily over my shoulder, “Stay well. Stay well.

*

Back home, sprawled on my unmade bed, I wish I lived in the world of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where at a moment of unbearable tension a person can be transformed by a god into a seagull, a limpid pool, a windflower “flimsy and loose on its stem”. And I wish that I had been transformed, outside the post office, into something better and more benevolent – maybe “an ilex tree”, whatever the hell that is, or an island, or a warm spring breeze, faintly perfumed with pittosporum.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow Notebook and One Day I’ll Remember This.

October 2020

From the front page

Image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with screenshots from #IStandWithDan

Hopelessly devoted to Dan

The government is your servant, not your friend

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan author returns to characters driven by compulsions and tensions of class

Image of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr

Labor and the Greens

In NZ and the ACT, the two parties have shown they can work together

Images of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese

Bury the lead

Newspoll delivers an unwanted result for the Murdoch media


In This Issue

The announcement artist

Scott Morrison is good at promising but not at delivering

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

The Neapolitan author returns to characters driven by compulsions and tensions of class

Lost for words

Bryan Dawe on life without John Clarke

Listening to Roberta Flack

‘First Take’, released 50 years ago, still echoes through the present


More in The Monthly Essays

The second wave

Case studies of systemic failure in Victoria’s fight against coronavirus

Shattered

A NSW community questions whether last summer’s catastrophic bushfire was inevitable

Fear of spending

So what is MMT and why should you care?

Soul music: Kev Carmody

The life of a great Australian songwriter


Read on

Image of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews with screenshots from #IStandWithDan

Hopelessly devoted to Dan

The government is your servant, not your friend

Images of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese

Bury the lead

Newspoll delivers an unwanted result for the Murdoch media

Image of author Craig Silvey

Character study: Craig Silvey on ‘Honeybee’

The author’s first novel since ‘Jasper Jones’ raises questions about who should tell contemporary trans stories

Image of Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks

Cocktail hour: ‘On the Rocks’

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones are a formidable duo in Sofia Coppola’s new film


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