It’s Valentine’s Day, and two large sheets of paper rustle on the clothesline. These are my daughter’s paintings — wet swirls of yellow, green and blue. Beneath the clothesline is her small easel, upon which she begins her third. Admiring my blue spiral, she cheerfully requests more in the other colours.
It’s day two of our “short, sharp” lockdown, and was to be the day of her second birthday party. She’s happily oblivious to the cancellation, but more mindful of her grandparents’ premature return to South Australia. The suspension of her party is one of the more trivial casualties of our pandemic, but the suspensions and cancellations are accumulating for us: her West Australian grandparents haven’t seen her in a year; her uncle’s recent flight here was cancelled. Many other birthdays, funerals, and weddings have been scrapped, limited or jeopardised; last year, friends mourned a child inside a bubble.
But the playgrounds are open this time, and this morning I wheel my daughter to the cafe, where the barista and I conspire to make her morning: she hands her a single, long-stemmed red rose; I buy her a cup of chocolate mousse. Both delight her. With a smeared mouth, she clutches the rose on the stroll home as if it were a prestigious trophy.
Five days is nothing. But having recently experienced one of the world’s longest lockdowns, Melburnians have a pronounced sensitivity to their prospect — and a suspicion of their alleged length. “Short and sharp” isn’t terribly comforting, given our history of interminably extended restrictions. (The psychic weight here isn’t found in the five days — it’s in wondering if that’s all there’ll be.)
That’s about as much as I can say about a collective feeling. There’s a temptation here for the writer to absurdly cast themselves as some supernatural diviner of public feeling — as if there was a uniform sentiment to divine, anyway.
The sum of loss is ungraspable. After the previous lockdown, I returned to a favoured pub and asked the manager about the health of an elderly barfly I’ll call Jack. Jack lived alone in a small, rent-controlled apartment nearby, a small vestige of Fitzroy that has defied the suburb’s gentrification. You could predictably find Jack early on Saturday arvos, propped on the same stool at the bar, his Akubra placed beside a pot of Carlton Draught, a cryptic crossword and a library book.
I used to bring him a copy of the newspaper I worked for, which had its own cryptic crossword and which he gently admonished for being too easy. Sometimes he read to me from Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples — no one wrote like him anymore, he said — and he once told me that he had accompanied Samuel Beckett to a Test match at Lord’s while he was employed by Penguin. Beckett, he said, was the only Nobel laureate to have played first-class cricket.
Jack was dead, the manager told me. He’d died during lockdown, though not of the virus. His body, he’d heard, was still in the morgue — a search was continuing for a next of kin who could release it. In his final months, he was estranged from his rituals and community.
The uncertainty, disruption and estrangement of the past year has created a sense that’s almost dream-like in its loss of narrative coherence — like a mosaic that’s missing pieces. Nor is it relatable to anyone else in the country. It has been easier speaking with friends in more wickedly ravaged places, like London and Los Angeles.
For now, we return to our anxious rituals: waiting for the new daily count, the updated list of exposure sites. We wonder if we’re still shit at this, or just unlucky, and we wonder precisely how “short and sharp” this lockdown will be. We have our expectations managed by strategic leaks to the media, and remain gently resigned to the erasure of our calendars — embarrassed whenever there’s a small eruption of self-pity.
Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter