In March 2020, the city of Melbourne, Australia entered lockdown. Its residents would go on to endure more days locked down, in the strictest of conditions, than anywhere else in the world. The pandemic has profoundly changed the city – as a community, and as individuals. This was written as the storm was bearing down on us.
The fever clinic is sparse and disorienting, overhead fluoros at once too bright and too dim. It’s a warm April evening and the clinic doors are open to the shabby side street where the ambulances idle. Out on the footpath a plexiglass shelter stretches in both directions; black Xs mark the pavement at evenly spaced intervals. But I’m the only one here, aside from three young nurses who look as dazed as I feel. Flying ants litter the floor of the triage area and flit low through the space, following us into the hallway that leads to the examination room.
On my walk to the clinic I saw stars, for the first time in ages. I don’t know why I’ve never noticed them from my balcony. I don’t know why I never go out onto my balcony when it’s dark. I don’t go for evening walks, either — even on perfect nights like this.
But tonight I am walking, and the back streets are so quiet. Yet even now, so alive. A breeze in the gum trees, rattling. Some unknown neighbour cooking dinner on his barbecue. Two cyclists whirring past at the cross street, in mellow conversation. With the main roads empty there is so much more to hear.
I walk slowly, the warm breeze delicious on my skin, and I feel as if I’m trying to stay afloat without kicking. To hold this delicate thread so gently that it doesn’t snap, yet keep it within my careful grasp. What am I trying to hold on to?
Everything. I might only be stuck inside for two weeks if I test positive, and at least I have my balcony. I can see the stars from there if I just remember to look. But what about that man in China who’s been testing positive for more than two months now, who hasn’t been allowed outside? What about the people who go from fine to dead within a week, and were completely healthy before? I was not Healthy Before; I pick up germs like a lint roller. Witness me here now, walking to the fever clinic with a sore throat and a temperature in the middle of a lockdown. I live alone; I’ve been working from home for more than five weeks; I barely leave the house and when I do I open all the outside doors with elbows; I wash my hands and sing happy birthday twice as soon as I get home. Wipe down everything with sanitiser and soak my keys in alcohol. And yet, and yet. I have managed to get sick, and I am walking to the fever clinic.
I bought a reusable mask on eBay during the bushfires, but it didn’t arrive until the fires were mostly out and the air was mostly fine. I figured it was still worth having because I might need it next summer, or the one after that, which was depressing enough to contemplate. Now I wear it on my walk to the clinic, as I’ve worn it to the supermarket and to Bunnings — where I’ve shamefully gone three times in the past month to buy gardening supplies. The houseplants that I panic-bought just before lockdown have infested my apartment with fungus gnats, which are starting to give me actual nightmares. And my dreams are already strange enough these days. But still, the neem oil and the bags of sand and the fresh potting soil seem so non-essential, even as I eye the contents of other people’s shopping trolleys and silently judge.
Come back. Pay attention to the breeze, and the stars. To the feeling of your feet, comfortable in your shoes, making contact with the solid ground. Walking through the quiet streets of your neighbourhood, on your way to the fever clinic. To the bright lights and the dazed nurses and the skittering ants. Everything is hanging by a thread. Hold it gently.