October 2021

Vox

by Helen Garner

Helen Garner’s lockdown diaries, 2021

Notes from Melbourne as the pandemic persists

At dinner we talked about dreaming. “Just at the moment in a dream when you’re about to grasp the meaning of life,” I said, “you wake up and, boom, it’s gone.” “Maybe,” said the 17-year-old in a low, ironical tone, “the cynicism of waking up is the meaning of life.”

*

New cases in the northern suburbs. The guy who runs the cafe said we’d be locked down again by the weekend. He was right. It starts in an hour. I heard a man on the radio say that the Delta variant is “a thousand times more infectious than the original one”. A thousand? Why aren’t we all already dead?

*

Masks again indoors, gatherings limited – boy, are we sick of this, and yet domestic life lurches on. We are ­citizens. We are determined not to whinge. If it weren’t for the chooks and my duty to them, I would lose all sense of the passing of time. I wouldn’t even notice sunset or dawn.

*

What would we do without footy? The love of it opens up our cramped pandemic world into a higher one of heroism and beauty and nobility and grace. Since the waves of lockdown have rolled over us, our family loyalty to the Western Bulldogs has become an unabashed obsession. Are we projecting it, or can we really see the affection flash and flow between them on the field? Are they really the handsomest and least violent, the most skilled and the least up-itself team in the AFL? With the most flattering-coloured jumper?

*

Workers in aged care are still not routinely vaccinated. They can only get their jab at work if there’s some left over. They have to “make their own arrangements”. Jesus wept.

*

My physical life has shrunk in these repeated lockdowns. I crouch in my house and, bit by bit, forget the landscape around it. I’m becoming a troglodyte – fearful, lazy and dull – like my old German neighbours, on the evening years ago when I suggested we drive home from the local Indian restaurant by way of the river: “There is a river, here?” They’d lived barely a mile east of it for 50 years.

*

I drag myself out at sunrise for the permitted hour of exercise. I sorely miss our heeler, buried now under the crepe myrtle near the chook pen. The Maribyrnong River today was a millpond. I could follow a waterbird’s progress under the surface by the chain of tiny bubbles it emitted as it swam. Very cold and clear. I never took my gloves off. I made myself walk fast. Whenever someone approached I pulled my mask up, but for long stretches I was alone. The rush of cold air when you drop your mask: it scours out your stupid brain. I sang to myself, old stuff like “Rock the Casbah”. I think I talked out loud, too, but nobody would know. They’ve all got buds in their ears.

*

Whole days in lockdown fail to register on my memory. What did I do? What used up the time? Oldness seems to be creeping up on me, in longer than usual steps. It takes me all day to finish the quick crossword. I have to walk around the house for five hours till the word “tabernacle” floats up from the murk.

*

Janet Malcolm has died. I learnt so much from her, I can hardly count the ways.

*

Drove to Kensington as night fell to pick up the 14-year-old from footy training. Waited in a row behind the goalposts with the other masked adults. In the black sky above the shouting, panting boys, a cold full moon was rising.

*

I was dopey all day, sweating, a bit of a cough. I masked up and drove to the Showgrounds for a test. A vast marquee or circus tent. The light in there was pale and calm. Hardly even a queue. The woman in her PPE and apron looked at my date of birth, then at me, then back at her iPad, then with a frown threw me a challenging question: “How old are you?” “Seventy-eight.” “You don’t look it.” “Ha ha,” I said, whisking off my mask, “look at the rest of my face.” She laughed, twirled her swabs down my throat and up my nostrils, and sent me on my way. I love this unshowy Australian efficiency, this kindness to strangers. I drove home, proudly reciting “I love a sunburnt country”. Now to isolate for 24 hours. What could be more delightful than to lie on my bed all day virtuously reading a Hungarian novel?

*

(Negative.)

*

On TV I saw the collapsed apartment block in Miami demolished by explosives. It crumpled like paper and went down in thick clouds of grey-white dust. Horribly thrilling. Everyone must think so – I wanted to watch it again and again, and the channel obliged, showing it from three different angles, in shocking clarity.

*

Half of COVID-19’s second year has passed. Today I get my second AstraZeneca shot. The woman who developed that vaccine got a standing ovation at Wimbledon, for god’s sake. Like pretty much everything these days, especially crowds behaving decently, it made me cry.

*

To dinner in North Carlton. The hosts, two musicians, talked about the way live music is changing: duos, trios, smaller quieter bands, more melodious, not for dancing but for spaces where people want to talk to each other and musicians find it relaxing to be ignored. They say they don’t want to play “aggressively” any more: the trumpeter has switched to valve trombone, the saxophonist to the flute. They also told me about the sorts of house renovations that are being conducted in their suburb, involving colossal excavations that make the whole neighbourhood tremble. One is reputed to be on four levels, the bottom one an indoor soccer field, the next one up a swimming pool with a glass floor so you can watch the football while you swim. On my way home I wondered if they’d been pulling my leg. You can get out of touch, living west of the freeway.

*

Some insect or creature has nipped off at ground level my 12 new broad-bean shoots. Came out this morning and they’d vanished. The helpless rage of the gardener. Is it possums, is it snails? How can I murder them? I picked up the eggs from the laying box and put them carefully into the pockets of my old brown coat. By the time I’d reached the back door one of them had smashed. I chucked the messy handful back into the chicken run and they fell upon it.

*

A weekend at Point Lonsdale with four women friends. We sat quietly knitting and stitching together, making a rug. After dinner a loud argument broke out between two of them. They went for each other as only old friends dare. Shouting, doors slamming. Two of us pretended to be going to the toilet and sneaked away to our room. We lay side by side in our little twin beds. My friend said in a timid voice, “I feel as if I’ve done something wrong.” “Me too.” I was awake half the night. We crept out in the morning and found that one of the fighters had served the other a cup of tea in bed and all was well. One by one, at breakfast, each of us, even the onlookers, confessed that she felt herself responsible for the mysterious fight. “It was me.” “No! It was my fault.” It was nobody’s fault. It was a pandemic explosion. We have forgotten how to be with people other than our families; we’re socially out of practice, irritable in company, full of unspoken dread about the future.

*

The 14-year-old’s footy team got thrashed, and copped such a blast from their coach that they emerged from the change room shaking and holding back tears. Apparently he called them bastards and tore strips off them. After training tonight our boy reported that the coach had taken him aside and told him that the insulting things he’d said to the players were not about them personally but about the way they’d played. He praised the boy’s character but told him he must learn to handball off the ground.

*

My house is full of dust. Great skeins of fluff under the bed. I shrug and walk away. As for ironing, which I have always loved, I can’t be bothered. My friend in France tells me that Fabulon over there lacks some essential ingredient: “It doesn’t starch in the same way. It just puffs out a watery fragrance.” This seems an outrage, for 10 seconds.

*

A young plumber came at last to fix my heating. He was jubilant: he and his wife had just had their first child. “I can’t believe,” he said, writing out my invoice, “how I can be so much in love with this little thing that’s only six weeks old! People come over to see us – they walk towards her, and my wife and I rush across the room shouting ‘DON’T TOUCH THE BABY!’” He mimicked their stampede with bulging eyes and outstretched arms. He was lit up with pride, eager to rejoice with any stranger.

*

I flatter myself that I’m patient in lockdown, but like everyone I’m on a hair-trigger. In his news piece about that mouthy British slag Katie Hopkins who was turfed out of the country, The Age journalist wrote “flaunted” instead of “flouted”. I rapped out an insulting email: “Don’t you know about dictionaries? That fuckwit Hopkins may even be educated enough to sneer at your mistake.” I hit send, reread it, and saw with mortification that the educated slag who sneered at his mistake was me. The message bounced back. I had got the address wrong. There is a god.

*

I cheated, in the crossword. I looked up clues in my Shorter Oxford, a heavy old book I keep on the kitchen table because I love its examples from literature. Mend. “As they were in the shyppe mendynge their nettes” (Mark 1:19). “She wold come, and mende al that was mis” (Chaucer). I follow the trail to mis, miss, amiss. “What is amisse? You are, and doe not know’t” (Shakespeare, Macbeth).

*

Last night my grandson shone his torch on one of the chooks, in the dark corner of the run where she was crouched: her feathers were a dusty pale gold. “Come on, m’lady,” he said, and lifted her into the roosting box. Tonight I felt evening coming on and went out to shut them in. There she lay in a melodramatic death-pose, her head hanging out the door of the laying box as if to say, “I died in the line of duty.” Her face no longer looked like a face. How slender and frail a chicken is, when you pick her up! Feathers and beaks are all bluff. The boys’ father dug a hole and tipped her in: “Any last words?” “God bless you, girlfriend. You worked hard.” The guys went inside. In the twilight I scooped up handfuls of star-shaped, half-rotted red leaves and sprinkled them over her grave.

*

The 14-year-old and his father argued to shouting point about whether the Western Bulldogs’ Cody Weightman had shaved the sides of his thick blond hair above the ears. The boy insisted that he had. We yelled at him: “He has not! Cody wouldn’t do that!” He sat there smiling smugly. A few minutes later Weightman dashed past the camera clearly visible in profile and we saw that the boy was right. I tried to make excuses: “It’s probably so his hair won’t blow into his eyes. Or maybe he’s got a girlfriend who loves grooming him and it was her idea.” But the father stood up from the couch and said, man to man in the famous Bulldog spirit of decency, “You were right, son, and I was wrong. I apologise.”

*

On the news, an ICU bed with a human figure on it. All I could see through the pale fabric that the body was wrapped in was the movement of its shallow gasping.

*

A companionable afternoon with a bunch of nonfiction writers, each of us mid project. How can we keep going? We sat in a warm kitchen eating scones with jam and cream, and confessed our fear, self-sabotage, despair. I pedalled home in sunshine, and while I barrowed chicken shit to the compost, I noticed how light my mood was – as if it had been low so long that I’d forgotten what light spirits are. The afternoon drained and cooled. I worked on, filthy-gloved in filthy overalls, and when I was almost done I looked up and saw, high above the yard in a pure sky, what must have been the evening star.

*

Football on TV, a match before empty stands. In that solemn silence you can hear the players shouting to each other, the deep, satisfying thud of boot into ball. It’s a purer version of the game, and we watch it rapt, as if all the troubles in the world were being boiled down and redeemed by these complex patterns, these arcane rules and classic postures of dejection and triumph. “A good, clean, running game of footy,” say the earnest commentators at half-time. “They’ve gotta steel themselves in front of the big sticks.” A long-retired player in a tight suit praises a mud-smeared, laughing young warrior for his splendid debut: “Thank you, for the joy you gave us.” Virgil and Homer would recognise these hulking airborne men: not just their wildness – a madman in a four-horse chariot – but also their manly tenderness to the wounded – Bracing the captain, arm around his waist / he helped him towards his shelter.

*

A young man dies in Sydney, sick and isolating at home. He “suddenly got worse”, and then he died. The Delta variant has got away. I heard that people have turned up at Emergency with dead bodies in their cars.

*

As the world closes in on itself, the simplest acts grow mythic. A woman reports shifting a tree in her garden that was not thriving: “I used a mattock. I lifted it above my head. The dirt fell all over me.” A nurse in ICU sets up a laptop for a woman to hear her grandchildren singing to her while she dies. An Olympic diver on the high platform turns her back on the abyss, places her palms beside her feet, and unfolds with terrifying slowness into a perfect, motionless handstand.

*

“She wold come, and mende al that was mis.”

*

Who is she, and where is she, and when is she coming?

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is is a novelist and nonfiction writer. Her most recent books are Stories and True Stories, and her diaries Yellow NotebookOne Day I’ll Remember This and the upcoming How To End a Story.

Photography by Sarah Contos

Cover of The Monthly, October 2021
View Edition

From the front page

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

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In This Issue

A spiral galaxy in the Coma Berenices constellation. Photographed at Lick Observatory, California, in the late 1800s.

The search for extraterrestrial minds

That we understand the nature of the cosmos has profound implications in the search for life

Photo: “Breakfast at Heide” (from left: Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday Reed and John Reed), circa 1945

Artful lodgers: The Heide Museum of Modern Art

The story of John and Sunday Reed’s influence on Sidney Nolan and other live-in protégés

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The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

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An eye on the outlier: ‘Nitram’

Justin Kurzel’s biopic of the Port Arthur killer is a warning on suburban neglect and gun control


Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?