We moved into our new house the week after Australia joined the Pandemic Panic. For days leading up to it, my own sense of panic arose, not from the fear of an invisible, insidious virus, but from the fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to move; that the Australian government, like so many of those in Europe, would clamp down and demand total isolation; that we would be held captive in our temporary townhouse, our life already in boxes, lined up in the garage for ease of loading into the removal truck.
Day by day, the rules changed. Gatherings of twenty… gatherings of ten… immediate family… two. Loo roll had disappeared from every supermarket (some cretinous, selfish, chancers had been hoarding – one individual had secreted 5,400 toilet rolls and 150 bottles of hand sanitiser and attempted to sell them online. No luck there, so he went back to the supermarket and tried to return them for cash. Go Directly To Jail. Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect £200.)
I felt as if I had been holding my breath for days when Cliff finally showed up with his van and cheerfully started to load our belongings. As we jumped in the car to follow the truck south, the conveyancer rang, and my heart leaped into my throat. Something had gone wrong at the bank. The money had not been transferred. We had no new house.
‘Congratulations. All’s clear. You are now the proud owners of a new home.’ I didn’t know whether I wanted to slug her for frightening me half to death or hug her tightly and cover her with kisses. Of course, I could do neither. Social distancing and all that. So, I just shrieked into the phone. I guess her eardrums are still ringing, so job done. Revenge taken.
Since then, we have passed two months in self-inflicted social isolation. Well, government inflicted, but it seemed only sensible. So, we have stayed away. Mostly. Living an hour south of the city makes that easier. Occasional family sightings prevent total madness. And we are used to communicating by phone after years abroad. I considered taking up letter writing again.
Months of urgency to get our lives in order have settled into monochrome days of tea-and-coffee-lunch-walk-dinner-movie. We vary it with painting a wall, hanging a picture, setting up a compost bin, planting some lavender. None of it is urgent and only habit gets us out of bed in the morning. Who would care if we stayed put? Had our breakfast in bed? Whiled away the day immersed in a pile of books, a sandwich beneath the covers, an afternoon nap? We could be like Charlie Bucket’s grandparents, Grandpa Jo and Grandma Josephine.
I watch the news, but irregularly. Death rates rise, whether I follow the figures or not. Yet they don’t seem nearly as high as many predicted, so perhaps we are doing the right thing. And there is loo roll in the supermarket again.
Our kids are fine, I think. We get regular updates by text or phone and the odd appearance. The streets are quiet but we smile and wave to people on the beach, admire their dogs, grab a pie from the bakery. I chat to every magpie we pass, nod to the kangaroos. The One & Only is trying to keep the pigeons away, showing a marked preference for the cockatoos. Our vision has narrowed, but in an unexpectedly good way. There could be worse places to live out this weird new war.
Meanwhile, I am in contact with a million long-lost friends quarantined around the globe. I text Melbourne. Call London. Skype Manila. Send a Facebook message to Luxembourg. Sometimes it feels as if this suspension of time will go on forever. Then I must stop thinking too much or the panic starts to rise again.
And yet, things are loosening up already. There hasn’t been a new dose of corona virus in three weeks, and the state government has decided its fine to travel regionally now. The numbers on the beach have doubled, there are queues at the local diner – admittedly well spaced – for take-aways. This morning, there were even two indoor tables set for customers. Cellar doors are open even if they can’t let us taste the wine, but word is out that this will change soon, too. Life is returning to normal. Whatever normal is. Fingers crossed it lasts.