Maddison Hull (2020)

TVNZ: Coronavirus lockdown (26/3/2020)


We still greet each other in the morning, ask what we’re watching or reading today, but it’s not like the first week.

Then we sat in the lounge, drinking cider and laughing at some blockbuster comedy, hiding the uncertainty we all felt but never said. We crammed together on the second-hand couch and covered ourselves with knitted blankets passed down from one sibling to another.

Anyone would be able to tell it was a student flat. The old mismatched furniture, takeaway containers stacked in the recycling box, the hand-made sign for a past birthday that has yet to be taken down. With everyone writing assignments or studying for an exam, nights when we can all spend time together were rare, we took advantage of the new normal to watch the movies we were too busy to see when they came out.

By the second week, we ran out of movies and we were back to our tiny rooms, re-watching old shows or finally picking up a book. The days merged into one, the dust began to settle on our shoes, and the chalk board used for notes had tally marks and a bad drawing of a volleyball with a red handprint.

At the end of the third week, we stopped watching the news. We knew the drill, instead we would just look at the number on our phone and shout it down the hallway.

In the fourth week, some of us were able to go back to work. The feeling of excitement was soon replaced with anxiety, it wasn’t totally safe. It felt new again. Walking up to the bus, wondering if it was the right one. If I was sitting in the right seat, if I was displaying the proper public-transport etiquette.

The bus from Albany into the city is usually packed with students or commuters. But this time I was one of two passengers, we sat on opposite sides and far away from the driver who was fenced in by yellow caution tape.

We passed abandoned construction sites where tools had been laid down by people who didn’t know they wouldn’t be back to pick them up. Red graffiti covered the walls since no-one is able to come clean the words off. I would pass the girls high school and remember when it was me in a plaid skirt, lying on the grass trying to tan my legs. The field was empty and there were padlocks on the gates.

Usually the bus takes 30 minutes, slowing to a crawl when the five lanes merge to three, and at least one ambulance or police car has to try thread their way through. Within 15 minutes we were on the Harbor Bridge, and already two ambulances had sped past under the flags at half-mast.

The sky was clear and water was calm but the sailing boats were anchored in place. We continued towards the city centre, advertisements that were no longer relevant hung in the sky and we waited at the red light as the crosswalk counted down for no one.

I thanked the driver as I stepped off, the feeling of guilt heavy in my stomach. I was putting his life at risk all for $18.90 an hour.

I usually enjoy the walk down Federal Lane towards the bar. I look right to the grand hotel, over the line of expensive sport cars to try and spot which important person is staying there, then left to the Sky Tower to watch the crowded tour groups look up in awe.

But the hotel entrance was being guarded by security in bright colored vests and the driveway was empty. The only person under the sky tower was the man on a bench, a dirty blanket around his shoulders and an empty coffee cup in his hand. The sounds of cars honking, families shouting, cameras flashing, and the scream of a daredevil had been replaced by the odd siren.

Another girl was working at the same time. Even though we had masks and gloves and there was a line of masking tape on the ground that we couldn’t cross, it felt unlawful, like forbidden lovers hiding from their morality.

We pulled dusty wine bottles of the shelves and poured the rancid liquid down the sink. A colony of fruit flies that had taken advantage of the empty space circled around the recycling box, eager to find their sour love.

I watered dead plants, changed broken lightbulbs and scrubbed the mold that had started grow up the walls. We wiped every table and counter and beam until the stench of rotten fruit was eventually covered by the smell of bleach.

Our masks kept us from choking on the air, but our eyes stung, tears fell with every blink.

The bar was never this clean; we wiped down tables with old cloths and clean up spills with a broken mop. But there’s always a sticky spot of liquor, or a little plastic bag left on a table. Drunk people are frequently messy.

We gathered the rubbish at the end of the day, and I mentally apologized to the surrounding apartments as I threw the tub of bottles into the bin. The loud shatter of 30 bottles at once broke the silent pause over the city.

When we were little, we used to carve our names into secluded spots as an illegitimate mark of territory. Now, instead, we legally scribble our names down so they can trace us and track us.

Usually when we finish work, we change into short dresses and choose our drinks. We flirt with customers to get more, and once we get bored, we walk down the street to repeat the process. We fight off the guys with wandering hands, and dance badly to music we won’t like in the morning.

Instead we waved from the other ends of the corridor and walked alone to our bus stops. I followed the footpath across from the supermarket. A line had formed out the door around the building. A security guard was at the front, telling people when they could enter.

Each person was two meters apart, some with medical masks, some with painting masks, and some with bandanas. I’ve never liked masks. A mask means someone’s hiding from something, then I feel like I need to hide too. Now everyone’s hiding from something they can’t even see.

After four weeks one would think I would be used to it, but the feeling of uneasiness lays in my chest when I try to see all their features, at least with these ones I can see their eyes, some of them have fear, others are tired. Some are panicked, some are bored.

I walked past another street and saw a group of people smoking together. The non-believers are the worst ones. Thinking everyone’s over reacting, that the government is making it up. They’re Winston Smith and we are the sheep being herded by Big Brother.

Maybe they’re just scared, trying to live in their blissful ignorance as they look away from the mountain of corpses being packed into freezers and getting driven to graves dug in football fields. They laughed together in their little posse, not even 30 centimeters apart.

I wanted to go up to them, yell, hit, scream at them. Tell them they’re idiots, that they’re greedy, that they’re killing people. They would laugh, think I’m crazy, tell me to calm down.

I just walked past them, let the anger stew inside and reminded myself it’s not my responsibility, even though the weight of the world was crushing my lungs and I could no longer breathe. My throat was tight as I gasped for air, my heart was beating faster as my surroundings blurred. I squeezed my hands into fists, my nails cutting into my palms.

Once I was at the bus stop, I began to calm down. I sanitized my hands. The sting in the cuts almost brought me pleasure, like it was confirmation that it was working. I breathed in the smell of disinfectant; something that would have usually reminded me of hospitals now brings me the feeling of safety.

The few passengers on the way home keep their distance, all staring out the window for entertainment. But the autumn evening brought dusk over the city, leaving us with a navy sky and golden windows. The Sky Tower was lit up in white; there isn’t a colour fit for the situation.

The amber streetlights guided us over the bridge, where the suburban clarity is separated from the city haze.

I miss people-watching on the bus, like the young girls on their way to a concert, who were singing together and thought they were smart hiding vodka in their water bottle. Or the old man in a suit holding a bouquet of flowers. I was hoping he would get off near the hospital, instead it was the graveyard. I hope he’s still alive.

I recognised the uniform on one of the passengers, a shelf stocker at the supermarket. He most likely spent his day getting yelled at by middle aged women because the country has run out of flour. It seems like a lot of people don’t have perspective, but that’s how it often starts.

We read stories about this: when the world stood still, when people started dying and everything normal suddenly vanished.

There would always be a hero, someone selfless and brave saving the ones they love. I wish I was that person, but everyone I love already has their person. I don’t have mine, and I think wishing I did means I’m selfish and cowardly.

Most of us are, and we have been long before this. We sat and did nothing while the world slowly died. We watched the ads of starving children and animals in cages and we would drop a $2 coin into the collection buckets. The roads would flood and forests would burn and we shared a picture of a homeless bear.

And this isn’t the end, because we will never learn. Once we are allowed, we will back getting drunk on freedom and privilege and forgetting the fear we felt. Then the waves will come and the ground will shake and the wind will ruin all we have left. We will realise we can’t fight the planet so we will fight each other.

Books will go up in flames, igniting the hatred for certain people because they are different. Ropes will hang from dead branches and bullets will lie astray in the streets, and we will still be livestreaming the final days on Earth.

But for now, we don’t think of the future. We continue re-watching old shows, picking up books, adding another line to the tally, shouting the number down the hallway, and wishing we could get drunk on freedom and privilege.

Nicholas Agar: Let's not end lockdown early (10/4/2020)

© Maddison Hull

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